Friday, August 11, 2006

How to Watch the First Exhibition Game of the Season.

Idly. Paying only occasional attention. With one hand on the remote clicking back and forth from the Red Sox game. No matter how much one loves the Patriots or any other NFL franchise, more intense concentration on the proceedings will be a waste of energy.

This advice can best be illustrated by listing the exceptions to the rule.

In August 1995, Curtis Martin ran for a touchdown in New England's opening drive of the opening exhibition game at Foxboro Stadium. Two Herald columnists (neither me, I'd 'fess up if guilty) desperate for any angle, spent the rest of the game in a ferocious argument over who'd get to write about Martin's debut. From that day forth, "I'm doing Curtis Martin" has been a stock punchline whenever Herald sportswriters divvy up assignments at a live event.

In August 1999, Michael Bishop (remember him?) was leading the Patriots' 4th stringers in a gallant but ultimately futile comeback against the Redskins' 4th stringers, passing for two late touchdowns and starting another drive as time ran out.

As was the custom at the old dump, especially for night games, reporters were clustered on the end zone runway outside the visitor's locker room, craning over the parked ambulance to keep an eye on the action.

My eyes were focused on a man standing just outside the writer's scrum. He was short, not quite middle-aged, and expensively dressed. Each time Bishop and the Pats got another first down, he'd bounce on the toes of his $500 shoes, sputtering in incoherent rage.

"Who's that lunatic?" I asked a Washington writer.

"The new owner," he answered.

Curtis Martin was the goods all right. And Daniel Snyder's tenure as Redsklns' owner has been just as turbulent and unhappy as I guessed it might be that August night. That's it. No other opening preseason games I've experienced (which is going on for 50 of 'em) have offered the slightest hint of foreshadowing about the season to come.

We might have had the third last night. The Colts began their opening preseason tilt with an onsides kick by Adam Vinatieri. That bodes very, very very ill for them. A sense of urgency is a useful, at times essential thing for a pro football team to have. A sense of frantic desperation is not.

Tony Dungy's decision, then, would seem to have used up all the significance the first week of August can possess. Taking a gamble, I will predict that when the contest against the Falcons is blessedly over tonight, Bill Belichick will say "I saw some good things and some bad things out there." He'll say that because that's all there is to be said.

Belichick's dispassionate follow-the-evidence approach to building a team makes him the Gil Grissom of the NFL. In the first exhibition game, the CSI in a hoodie is searching for clues, not solutions. He's just looking for things he might want to look at some more as the preseason progresses.

That's after looking at game films. Watching on TV, odds are a fan, no matter how studious, won't learn a damn thing. It's OK to be glad pro football's back. Just remember that in August it's only sort of back.


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