September 3, 2021 | SPORTS | By Michael Braithwaite | Photo by Daniel de Koning
The 2021 National Football League season begins on Thursday, Sept. 9 when the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers host the Dallas Cowboys. While this will be the first official game of the season, it will not be the first game that either team has played this year.
Before every NFL season begins, each team plays three to four preseason games to get the players, coaches, referees, and announcers warmed up and ready to go for the start of the regular season. These games do not influence a team’s record, do not affect a team’s draft position, and ultimately do not mean anything in the long run – so should they matter to us NFL fans?
To many casual NFL fans, such as Ian Johnson ’24, the answer is, for the most part, no. NFL teams are not actively trying to win preseason games, rather they use them to better evaluate the talent that they have on their rosters.
Since wins and losses are completely meaningless in the preseason, these games can be a bit boring to fans. Furthermore, they feature reserve players who can be unfamiliar to fans, as teams tend to rest most of their starters for some or all of the preseason.
Johnson shared this sentiment as he noted the fact that he was much more interested in the various storylines that come out of the training camp/preseason events than the preseason games themselves.
“[The preseason] is definitely something that [I like] as the narrative but it isn’t something that I actively seek out,” Johnson said. For him, social media accounts such as BrGridiron generate more anticipation than watching the preseason games or highlights.
Most of the narratives that generate within NFL preseason football training camp come as a byproduct of the rules surrounding how rosters are constructed. NFL rosters are allowed to have up to 90 players at the beginning of the preseason but must be cut down to 53 players by the start of the regular season.
These rules mean that for the month of preseason football (as well as the preceding training camp), an NFL team can bring on 37 extra players to see what they bring to the table and if their performance merits a spot on the permanent roster.
It is within these extra roster spots where many players get a shot to play football at the NFL level who may not have been able to do so otherwise, and in some cases these players do play well enough to earn themselves a permanent roster spot.
These players — the ones on the fringe of the roster fighting to keep their careers afloat — are what fascinate Colorado College’s Assistant Director of Admission Dylan Sanchez the most. They’re the main reason why he always watches his team, the Denver Broncos, play in the preseason.
“For a lot of people, this is their last chance to try to stick around in this league, so it’s really exciting to watch on that side,” Sanchez said.
For Sanchez, the NFL preseason is football reality TV. There are unknown players doing their best to impress teams and achieve their lifelong goal of making an NFL roster. For most of them that dream never gets fulfilled.
“These people are human and really a lot of them are really young and this is their entire life.” Sanchez said. “But there’s only so many [roster] slots that [teams] can take and it’s really unfortunate sometimes [who gets cut].”
The NFL is an incredibly cutthroat league. We hear all the time about amazing players signing massive, long-term contracts, but those headlines undermine the fact that the average NFL career is only about three years long and the median annual salary is around $860,000.
The reality of sports leagues, including the NFL, is that most of the players who try and make a name for themselves end up unsuccessful. Some players training to play since high school will never make the cut, and will have to find other ways to make a living outside of football.
It is out of these statistics and anecdotes that fans can truly find something to watch for in the NFL preseason — the underdog, no-name, longshot players who are being paid the bare minimum proving to the league why they belong on a roster.
Let’s flashback for a moment to July 31, 2000 in Canton, Ohio. It is the annual Hall of Fame Game, the first preseason game of every NFL season. With 9:36 remaining in the final quarter, the New England Patriots bring in a new quarterback to finish out the game.
As a late-round pick out of Michigan, at the bottom the depth chart, his chances of appearing in a regular season game are very slim.
The fans who were watching the game probably didn’t see anything special about the skinny beanpole of a quarterback who took the field that evening, but now surely remember watching the one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time take his very first NFL snaps — the debut of Tom Brady.
For nothing else, the preseason gives us fans a chance to observe the future of the NFL and see a player potentially start a lengthy and fantastic career in the league. In a league where team popularity is driven by individual stars, it can be incredibly satisfying as a fan to see those stars blossom from relative obscurity into fame.
The gameplay of the NFL preseason can be incredibly dull to watch. But nestled between those unscripted play calls, there may just be a star in the making, or a story worth remembering.