So after being subjected to the NFL's televised preseason dog(s)-and-pony show for six weeks—after seeing fourth-string quarterbacks direct fourth-quarter scoring drives over human speed bumps and listening to future fast-food chefs posing as pro linemen describe the sense of history they felt warming up in Berlin Stadium—I'm thinking: All right! The Vikings against the Jets in the Super Bowl! Like millions of Americans, I find myself wanting to believe that the payoff for having absorbed all this preseason swill is that I know which two teams are the best in the NFL: the 4-0 Minnesota Vikings and the 5-0 New York Jets. Right?
O.K., the San Francisco 49ers also went undefeated through August, but they didn't display enough of those French things favored by true champs—esprit de corps, joie de vivre, sangfroid. The Jets, on the other hand, looked like a flying wedge of brotherhood while crushing their opponents. And the Vikings were so full of unified cold-bloodedness that they outscored the opposition 140-6 in the preseason. Moreover, they spanked the defending Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins 30-0. At RFK Stadium. Minnesota kicker Fuad Reveiz, a frail, unassuming man, even picked up a penalty for delivering a late hit. We're talking about a rookie coach, the Vikings' Dennis Green, whipping together the greatest team in the history of the game. Don't you think?
Or have we been suckered one more time into this con game known as the NFL preseason, wherein a bunch of nobodies run around creating misleading stats, coaches "experiment" with dangerous things like huddle alignment, and stars: 1) hold out; 2) play as little as possible and try not to get injured; 3) play a lot so their coaches can revel in victory; while trying not to get injured; or 4) get injured. And none of it means anything—except the injuries, which, by their steady occurrence, show that the owners still don't understand the simplest of business maxims: Take care of your product.
Maybe the Vikings and the Jets aren't the best teams after all. Last year the Phoenix Cardinals were 4-0 in the preseason; when the games counted, they went 4-12. The Tampa Bay Bucs had the best preseason record (3-1) among NFC Central teams in 1991, and then they walked the plank to a 3-13 finish. The trend has been around for years, which seems to make one thing clear: Coaches with lousy teams can crank it up and win preseason games by playing starters longer, but in so doing they only delay the inevitable. Still, nervous coaches—guys on the contract bubble, first-year saviors—are clearly terrified of losing, even when it doesn't matter. It takes a secure man, like Redskin coach Joe Gibbs, to lose without fretting. It's no accident that rock-solid Washington had a 1-3 record in last year's preseason before going 17-2 during the real deal.
So why have a preseason at all? Tradition says it's to get veterans in shape, check out the newcomers and teach the latest football arcana. But these days vets come to camp in shape, rookies have been scrutinized aplenty in minicamps, and the teaching could have been taken care of in classrooms and walk-throughs.
If the players don't need the preseason, the public surely doesn't need to be tortured with daily reports on the contractual status of stars who are holding out—players who don't want to be in camp anyway. These guys don't sign because they realize it's only the stupid, meaningless preseason. And the general managers don't pursue them for the same reason. Jerry Rice makes a deal and joins the 49ers at his leisure. Jim Lachey does the same thing with the Redskins. Are they damaged by missing camp? Hell, no, they're healthy. Erik Howard of the New York Giants missed most of training camp before signing a new contract. In response to a reporter's question about whether he would have trouble picking up the new defensive system, Howard recited a trenchant football axiom: "Nosetackle is still nosetackle."
The real reason for the preseason is greed. The owners force season-ticket holders to buy preseason tickets—you folks should have revolted when you had the chance—and collect TV revenue, but the owners pay the players only a fraction of their regular-season salary. Maybe the owners are being penny-wise and pound-foolish. When Detroit Lion safety Bennie Blades ended his holdout one day after camp broke, he sounded almost radiant when he said that missing the preseason "probably added another year to my career."
How dumb is it to jeopardize your stars' health in preseason games? Very dumb. Ask the San Diego Chargers, who lost starting quarterback John Friesz for the season with a knee injury in the first preseason game this year. Or the Giants, who lost quarterback Jeff Hostetler for a couple of weeks with a back injury. Or the Indianapolis Colts, who lost quarterback Jeff George for four weeks with a stretched thumb ligament.
I have a suggestion: No preseason games. Players report a week or two before the season starts, sign contracts, work out, butt heads, even scrimmage—as long as nothing called a "game" is foisted on the public. If I were running a team, my guys wouldn't have contact with anything but inanimate objects until the opener. A human body has only so many collisions in it; I would save them for important events.
Oh, and before that first game, the short-order cooks and truck drivers trying to make the team would have long since been ushered back into the anonymity whence they came. They would have tried and failed and left. Quietly. Before the action began. Before I turned on my TV.