The NFL Preseason and Its Impact on the Regular Season

I was fairly happy to see that the Jacksonville Jaguars went 3-1 in the preseason this year.  Blaine Gabbert did not look scared; the team proved it might be able to survive without MJD.  All looked well.

But preseason is one big shitbag.  Sure, the team looks like it is on fire during the preseason, but once you stomp on it a little bit, you realize that it is just a bag of burning shit.

By all of this, I mean that every team resets to 0-0 beginning with the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants game this evening.  And, after the dress rehearsal and allowing the “Rudys” of the world their chance to play a down or two before cutting them or banishing them to the practice squad, it is time to break out the big guns and go to war.  Let’s play some football!

But is the preseason really just a showcase of nothing?  Is it just a way to get fans hype about football again…and to line the pockets of the owners due to full-priced tickets for half-assed games?  Or, do the results of the preseason actually help predict regular season results?

Well, looking at the last five years of preseason and regular season results, I wanted to examine how winless preseason teams fared in the regular season, and how undefeated preseason teams did.  Here are the numbers:

WINLESS PRESEASON TEAMS

  • 2011: 3 teams (0.521 winning percentage)
  • 2010: 2 teams (0.656 winning percentage)
  • 2009: 3 teams (0.459 winning percentage)
  • 2008: 2 teams (0.469 winning percentage)
  • 20072 teams (0.375 winning percentage)
  • FIVE-YEAR TOTAL: 12 teams; 95 wins (0.495 winning percentage)

While there have been a couple of winless teams recently experience some success (Atlanta in 2011 had 10 wins; Chicago and Indianapolis in 2010 had 11 wins), many winless teams struggle.  In fact, according to Football Geography, only one winless preseason team has ever won the Super Bowl (the 1982 Washington Redskins in the strike-shortened season).  All told, in the Super Bowl era only ten teams (out of 77 winless preseason teams) made the playoffs, with three reaching the Super Bowl (Redskins winning it, and the 2000 Giants and 1990 Buffalo Bills losing it).

So, perhaps there is something in losing in the preseason.  The best way to check that is to compare losers to winners…how do undefeated preseason teams fare in the regular season?

UNDEFEATED PRESEASON TEAMS

  • 2011: 2 teams (0.375 winning percentage)
  • 2010: 1 teams (0.375 winning percentage)
  • 2009: 3 teams (0.438 winning percentage)
  • 2008: 1 teams (0.000 winning percentage)
  • 20070 teams (n/a)
  • FOUR-YEAR TOTAL: 7 teams; 39 wins (0.348 winning percentage)

Obviously, because there were no undefeated teams in 2007, I took the four-year total.  Nevertheless…wow!  Undefeated regular season teams actual perform worse in the regular season that their winless comrades.  Of course, this number is brought down by the woeful Detroit Lions of 2008, which went 0-16.  But, even removing that team from the equation yields a lower winning percentage (0.406) than winless teams.

However, while the recent trend may produce a lower comparative winning percentage, in general more undefeated preseason teams make the playoffs.  Again, using data from Football Geography, of the 78 undefeated preseason teams in the Super Bowl era, 43 have made the playoffs.  Six of those have won the Super Bowl (1967 Green Bay Packers; 1971 Cowboys; 1974 Pittsburgh Steelers; 1990 Giants; 2000 Baltimore Ravens; 2003 New England Patriots), with the latter three coming under the current 4-16 format for preseason and regular season games.  Four more of those 43 lost in the Super Bowl, including the Carolina Panthers in 2003 — the only Super Bowl to feature two undefeated preseason teams.  Super Bowl XXXV was the only Super Bowl to feature a winless preseason team (Giants) and an undefeated preseason team (Ravens).

Given the information above, it is difficult to draw any true parallels between preseason success (or failure) and regular season success (or failure).  Certainly, it appears that preseason success does give way to at least a playoff appearance.

However, it is also worth noting that 11 of the 35 undefeated teams not to make the playoffs have occurred since the 2001 season.  And, half of the undefeated teams to make the Super Bowl occurred within the first nine years of the championship game’s existence.  And, let’s not forget the dreadful 2008 Lions (though, they did make up for it last season).

I guess the best explanation is that while the long-term trend has been for winless preseason teams to struggle in the regular season while undefeated preseason teams motor ahead towards glory, the recent trend is one of indifference.  With teams more inclined to work out the kinks in terms of schemes and plays, give new guys and benchwarmers a chance, and rest the vets for the games that matter, preseason teams have begun to function as a shell of the “real” teams.  The nonchalant, testing-ground approach to the preseason has yielded parity in a league already ripe with it.

So maybe the preseason is exactly what many of us think it is — just a burning bag of shit!  So, let’s get on with the “real” season!

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