Hall of Fame coaches Vince Lombardi and Hank Stram believed the winning starts in August.
So does head coach John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens.
Preseason games don’t count. The wins and loss of August are inconsequential. The league schedules those games to prepare its teams for the regular season. September is when the NFL starts keeping track of the W’s and L’s. But that’s not how Lombardi viewed it.
Lombardi won 74.5 percent of the games that counted during his nine regular seasons as a head coach of the Green Bay Packers, including five NFL championships. But Lombardi was even better at the games that didn’t matter, winning 84 percent of his career exhibition games (42-8). In three of the championship seasons, Lombardi’s Packers posted perfect preseasons – 5-0 in 1961, 6-0 in 1962 and 6-0 in 1967.
Lombardi was the best coach in the NFL in the 1960s and Stram the best coach in the AFL, winning 61.4 percent of the games that counted for his Kansas City Chiefs, including three championships. Like Lombardi, Stram was even better at the games that didn’t matter, winning 78.4 percent of his exhibition games that decade (40-11). In two of the championship seasons, Stram’s Chiefs posted perfect preseasons, 4-0 in 1966 and 6-0 in 1969.
At one point, Lombardi’s Packers won 19 consecutive exhibition games from 1959 through 1962. Green Bay went to three NFL title games during that stretch. Lombardi’s winning streak came to an end in a bitter fashion in 1963 with a 20-17 loss to the College All Stars. Packers at the time said Lombardi was as angry with that loss as they’d ever seen him. Green Bay went on to win the final five games of that preseason, outscoring the opposition 136-58.
No coach or team has ever come close to that 19-game winning streak by Lombardi. Until now.
Harbaugh’s Ravens have won 17 consecutive preseasons games since a 20-19 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sept. 3, 2015. Baltimore went 4-0 in both 2016 and 2017, 5-0 in 2018 and 4-0 in 2019. The pandemic wiped out the NFL’s preseason in 2020. The Ravens will attempt to push that winning streak to 18 games Saturday night with their preseason opener at home against the New Orleans Saints.
Harbaugh has won 62.5 percent of his games in his 14 seasons as coach of the Ravens, including one championship. But like Lombardi and Stram, Harbaugh has been even better at the games that didn’t count, winning 75.5 percent of his preseason games.
“We use every available tool to develop our players into a team,” Harbaugh said. “In pro football, preseason games have been a valuable tool to teach, develop and evaluate. I appreciate them.”
There have been 61 NFL champions since 1960. Thirty-six of them posted winning records in the preseason and 11 more finished at .500. Nine of the champions posted perfect preseasons records, the most recent being the 2013 Seattle Seahawks at 4-0.
Only one team since 1960 finished winless in the preseason but still went on to win an NFL championship – the 1982 Washington Football Team, then known as the Redskins. They finished 0-4 that summer before delivering Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs the first of his three NFL championships.