Should August matter in the NFL?

Rick Gosselin

(Sean Payton photo courtesy of the New Orleans Saints)

(Vince Lombardi photo courtesy of the Green Bay Packers)

By Rick Gosselin

Talk of Fame Network

Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi would not have been a fan of Sean Payton.

Lombardi always played to win, whether the games were in August, November or January. He believed winning becomes a habit. And he had that particular habit down pat.

Lombardi’s winning percentage of 73.9 in the regular season is second best of all-time. His winning percentage of 90.0 in the post-season is the best of all time. Exhibition games may not matter – but they mattered to Lombardi. He won 42 of the 50 preseason games he coached in Green Bay, a winning percentage of 84 percent. His Packers once compiled a 19-game winning streak in the preseason.

Which brings us back to Payton. He coaches the New Orleans Saints and has a Super Bowl ring on his hand. So he obviously cares when his Saints play games that matter. Not so in the games that don’t matter.

Payton’s Saints have lost their last seven preseason games, the longest such drought in the NFL. New Orleans lost its preseason finale in 2014, all four games in 2015 and are now 0-2 this August. In Payton’s 10-year head-coaching career, he won 60.4 percent of his regular-season games. But his Saints are four games under .500 in preseasons during that stretch.

Payton isn’t the only coach who plays it safe in August, opting for good health rather than good results. That’s the trend in today’s salary cap-driven NFL. Don’t risk your starters in the exhibition games. Last weekend, in the second full weekend of preseason play, starting quarterbacks Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco, Kirk Cousins, Philip Rivers and Teddy Bridgewater were all held out.

There have been preseasons when Brady, a two-time NFL MVP, didn’t take a snap. Hall-of-Fame hopeful LaDainian Tomlinson once went two consecutive preseasons without playing a down. Coaches don’t get fired for losing in the preseason, so winning is not a priority in August.

But you have to go all the way back to 1982 to find a team that went winless in the preseason, then rebounded to win an NFL championship. That was the Washington Redskins, who were 0-4 that preseason, then posted an NFL-best 8-1 record in the strike-shortened regular season on the way to the first Lombardi Trophy for Hall-of-Fame coach Joe Gibbs. Those Redskins are the only team in the Super Bowl era to rally from a winless preseason to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

(Joe Gibbs photo courtesy of the Washington Redskins)

In fact, only seven of the last 33 Super Bowl champions endured losing preseasons on the way to claiming a Lombardi Trophy. Maybe Vince Lombardi was on to something. Maybe the winning should start in August, especially for teams that have never won before.

So pay attention Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons, Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Minnesota Vikings, Philadelphia Eagles, San Diego Chargers and Tennessee Titans.

The Baltimore Ravens went 4-0 in the preseason on the way to their first Lombardi Trophy in 2000. So did the Seattle Seahawks on the way to their first Lombardi in 2013. The 2001 New England Patriots, 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers and 2009 Saints all went 3-1 in the preseason on the way to their first Lombardi Trophies.

Just as winning can become a habit, so can losing. New Orleans suffered losing records each of the last two seasons and missed out on the playoffs. The 3-1 preseason in 2009 that set the stage for the lone Super Bowl championship by the Saints was one of only three winning preseasons of the Payton era.

The Saints are a team that needs to get the winning culture back. August might be a good place to start.


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