Perhaps you’ve noticed that the Falcons haven’t won an exhibition game since losing a 25-point lead in NRG Stadium on Feb. 5, 2017. Perhaps you’re wondering if this correspondent, who rarely misses a chance to ascribe any Falcons failing to that awful night, will write something like, “If you’re looking for a reason this franchise hasn’t gotten past 28-3, going 0-for-11 in exhibitions is a good place to start.”
So there. I just wrote it. Do believe it? No.
Hold on. There’s another shock coming. I believe Dan Quinn, whom I’ve tweaked a time or two, has a sensible attitude to preseason football. Mr. Happy Talk can get happy about almost anything — heck, he gets pumped for practice — but he’s almost low-key when it comes to games that don’t count. (Not that he has been on the winning side of any lately. The Falcons’ last won an exhibition on Sept. 1. 2016.) It’s an attitude the corporate NFL is coming to share.
As Packers general manager Mark Murphy told ESPN’s Kevin Seifert: “The quality is not good, and it's changing for the worse in terms of the quality of games. Even if you went to two (exhibitions per team), I still think with the salaries that we're paying that people will be reluctant to expose players to injuries. So you would have to figure out how much preseason you need to develop and evaluate young players. Veterans just don't need it.”
Teams play four exhibitions, or one-fourth of a regular season, unless they’re handed the, er, honor of participating in the Hall of Fame game, which the Falcons were. That means these Birds will play five games that don’t matter — 31 percent of a regular season — before they get around to one that does. Matt Ryan usually skips the first exhibition game. This year he skipped the first two, though field conditions in Miami had something to do with it. When Ryan finally saw faux action, he completed 10 of 14 passes last week against the Jets and was gone after four series.
In those four series, Ryan was sacked three times, and here we touch on the sum of all preseason fears — your quarterback getting hurt in what’s essentially a scrimmage. Nobody can win anything in preseason, but the team that gets it No. 1 quarterback hurt can kiss the season that matters goodbye. We reference Michael Vick and his broken leg against Baltimore in August 2003: A Falcons team considered a Super Bowl contender wound up 5-11, and Dan Reeves, the coach who then had taken this franchise to its only Super Bowl, was fired with three games remaining.
Me, I’d afford Ryan the Julio Jones treatment and let him sit until the real whistle blows Sept. 8. I understand that he’s the quarterback and the timing of the entire offense hinges on him, but still: The Falcons’ work-in-progress offensive line let the face of the franchise get sacked three times. Ryan is scheduled to work again Thursday against the Redskins, the next-to-last exhibition being the one NFL teams use for “game-planning” purposes, but still: This one doesn’t count, either. There’s almost no reward and a needless risk.
I know there are red-blooded types who harrumph that a team needs to win every time it plays to Set A Tone. Well, the last time the Falcons had a winning preseason, they did wind up in the Super Bowl. They went 3-1 in 2016, but it was a sluggish 3-1. They outscored opponents by eight points. They lost their game-planning game by 11 points to Miami. And then, coming off 3-1, they opened the regular season with a thudding home loss to Tampa Bay.
There are no tones set in exhibition games — maybe in practice, but never in games. Come October, your No. 3 quarterback won’t be leading any fourth-quarter drives with the score close. If he is, you’re in a world of hurt.
Even NFL types — the ones who’ve insisted that exhibitions count in the season-ticket package — agree that four exhibition games are too many. (Before the NFL moved from a 14-game regular season to 16 in 1978, teams played SIX preseason games, which was just nuts.) At issue is what would be the optimum amount. “I’d rather have zero than four,” Kyle Shanahan, the former Falcons’ offensive coordinator who coaches the 49ers, told Seifert. “Preferably, I'd like to have one to evaluate the people who are trying to make the team and just one to knock a little rust off.”
Could that much be accomplished as much in a couple of controlled scrimmages with another NFL team? Yeah, probably. But you know the NFL. It loves the bright lights, even if they’re shining on a half-empty stadium for a “game” that, come the second half, will include no player of whom you’ve heard. Still, two exhibitions would beat four. Anything would beat four.
Baseball teams play a month’s worth of exhibitions, but they’re treated so leisurely that players who aren’t in the lineup can do their running in the outfield while the game proceeds. NFL clubs have come to place similar importance on the winning of preseason games, meaning zero. (If winning in August mattered, wouldn’t you save your No. 1 QB for the fourth quarter?) The Falcons have lost 11 exhibitions in a row. I’m fine with that. I’m guessing Dan Quinn is, too.
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