Remember when August mattered in the NFL?
Once upon a time NFL training camps were a time for players to get into shape and prepare themselves for a season.
Lee Roy Jordan recalled reporting to the Dallas Cowboys’ training camp in Thousand Oaks, Calif., four weeks before the first exhibition game. Then the Cowboys would play six preseason games. That’s 10 weeks the Cowboys spent together every summer under Hall of Fame coach Tom Landry before playing a meaningful snap.
The 2018 Cowboys reported for training camp 14 days before their first preseason game, then will play four of them. But the word “play” is an overstatement. A year ago, in the four Dallas preseason games, quarterback Dak Prescott played only three of a possible 16 quarters, throwing just 22 passes.
With the salary cap, there’s such a fear of injuries that NFL teams only play their starters enough in August to get a whiff of contact. That wasn’t the type of summer Jordan recalls during his days as the middle linebacker of the Cowboys in the 1960s and 1970s.
“We went full speed in drills every day against each other,” Jordan said. “We practiced and played those exhibition games like they were important. The starters played quite a bit. We played at least a half in every game and in the last preseason game we normally played the whole way. The final preseason game was sort of a dress rehearsal for the (season) kickoff the next week.”
Not any more. Most teams sit their starters that final preseason game. The third game is the important one. Teams will go with their first units for a half and occasionally let them play a series or two into the third quarter, then shut the starting unit down the fourth and final week of the preseason.
And contact is rare on today’s practice fields. Teams are allowed to have contact once a day in training camp, then only 15 padded practices during the course of the regular season.
That wasn’t the type of summer Hall of Fame defensive tackle Curley Culp recalls with the Kansas City Chiefs in the late 1960s under Hall of Fame coach Hank Stram.
“We had three a practices – one in the morning with pads, one in the afternoon in shorts and helmets and then an evening practice in pads,” Culp said. “We had pads on almost every day. We live scrimmaged all the time. We had live drills throughout the practices. There was always a little contact going on. This was football. It’s a physical sport.”
NFL teams took those preseason games a bit more seriously then than they do today. In 1969, the Chiefs traveled the country in the preseason, playing games in Alabama, Mississippi and California in addition to their home state of Missouri. Kansas City went 6-0 that preseason, setting the tone for an 11-3 campaign that produced the franchise’s only Super Bowl championship.
“Hank wanted to win,” Culp said. “We wanted to win. You want to get that consistency built up. You feel better when you win, whether it’s the preseason or regular season. Like Al Davis said, `Just win baby.’”
Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi believed winning can become a habit. So can losing. So he played to win every time his Green Bay Packers took the field. During his nine seasons in Green Bay, Lombardi posted a 42-8 record during the exhibition season. His Packers went 6-0 three times in the preseason and reached the NFL championship game each time.
Stram went 40-11 in his 10 preseasons with the Chiefs. Kansas City was unbeaten in the preseason in both years the Chiefs reached the Super Bowl. The Cowboys went 6-0 in the 1971 preseason on the way to their first Lombardi Trophy and the Pittsburgh Steelers also went 6-0 in the 1974 season on the way to their first Lombardi Trophy. But that was then.
The Philadelphia Eagles went 2-2 in the 2018 preseason on the way to their first Lombardi Trophy. Their Super Bowl opponent, the New England Patriots, went 1-3 that preseason. In fact, only one of the last 14 NFL champions went undefeated in the preseason. That was the 2013 Seattle Seahawks, who started quarterback Russell Wilson all four games that August.
Once upon a time the preseason could give us a reading on the best teams in football. Not any more. The 2018 preseason starts with a full slate this weekend. Too bad we can’t fast forward football to September.