In 1985, the Chicago Bears seemed in trouble. They struggled through a 1-3 pre-season -- the NFL gets mad if you call them what they are, exhibition games -- and appeared headed for a long regular season campaign.
Instead, Mike Ditka's troops ran roughshod over the league when the "real" games began, putting together a 13-game winning streak to start the season enroute to a 15-1 season. They demolished three post-season foes to win the franchise's lone Super Bowl.
So much for pre-season records.
As the NFL begins its first full week of pre-season, aw, let's call them exhibitions and see if the NFL gets mad, games collectors, fans and pundits alike will make much of the results. If a team goes 4-0 in the pre-season, maybe they are headed toward a berth in the Super Bowl. If they fall and go, say 0-4, well then, put them in the trash basket, fire the coach and make some last minute waiver deals. Fortunately the NFL dispensed with the six-game exhibition season when they went to a 16-game schedule in the 1980s. Four exhibitions are bad, six were just awful.
Exhibition games in the NFL are a joke. Most NFL coaches will claim privately that two would be enough. (How much better it would be for the league if they expanded the schedule to 18 and had just two warmup games). The pattern developed by NFL coaches toward the contests has become nearly computerized. The first game, the regulars who will actually be the ones who will carry the load during the regular season may play a quarter, if that. The second game the coaches may elect to play the regulars one quarter and a half, the third game a half and the final game, a half to three quarters.
Some coaches look toward the pre-season as a necessary evil; they want to weed out low round draft picks and free agents, take a look at some unusual formations and give their players a break from busting each other's necks during in-week practice. No coach is going to show off any real formation or tendencies during the exhibition season that other coaches can review on tape or on film to use defensively during the regular season. They also won't do much razzle-dazzle and get a star running back or wide receiver hurt. The game is tough enough as it is -- and enough key players do get hurt anyway -- without adding to the possibility of a critical injury.
The only reason coaches will even risk injury to a high-priced starter is to please owners who have included the two (or sometimes three) NFL exhibitions as part of the regular season ticket plan. If you want to own a ticket at Mile High Stadium or the Meadowlands to watch the games that count, you have to shell out the same amount of money for the games that are meaningless.
The other pro sports aren't much better, but the NBA often takes a road show around the country displaying their teams in cities that won't get to see a regular season NBA game. So what if the folks in Fort Wayne (which real collectors will know was the original home for the Pistons) or New Orleans want to shell out big bucks for an exhibition NBA game, that is their only chance to see a real-life NBA game. The NHL follows a similar policy and Major League Baseball plays all of its exhibitions in Florida and Arizona and charges much less to watch minor leaguers vying for major league spots.
But the NFL not only charges full price but has the nerve to, in some cases, televise these exhibition games nationally and have breathless network commentators say how important these games really are. Now in some cases where a team like Arizona has traditionally been a bust during the regular season and they are trying to sell tickets for the regular season, the games might carry a little more weight than say, Green Bay, where the defending NFC champs don't need to sell tickets and still just need to settle on a few spots before they begin the regular season in September.
How seriously does the NFL take the pre-season outside of financially? Well, in their 475- page plus NFL Record and Fact Book there is not one page devoted to teams' yearly record in the pre-season. They will tell you how many yards Warren Moon threw against the Oakland Raiders in his career and how many receptions Jerry Rice has against the Colts but they don't list the results of exhibition games where fans are paying full price.
The history of exhibition games in the NFL is cluttered with flash-in-the-pan quarterbacks who ring up impressive numbers against other teams' scrubs, running backs who reel off 80 yard gallops that make the ESPN highlight reel and Pro Bowl wannabe defensive tackles who dance for the camera after they sack a quarterback who played for Missouri A&T College. It is usually forgotten by the next week, certainly by the start of the NFL season.
So while the matchups may look intriguing and results cause collectors to look toward some rookie card or veteran's line of merchandise with increased interest over the next month, caveat emptor -- let the buyer beware. The exhibitions are meaningless except for the treasuries of the 30 NFL clubs.