Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Plot of "A Chorus Line" With Added Knee Injuries

Preseason NFL football is when Vince Lombardi is wrong. Winning isn't everything. It isn't even in second place behind nobody on your team getting hurt. Among the less imaginative fans and media types, this leads to terrible confusion. They can't cope with moving out of football's usual zero-sum universe.

This leads to one of two false reactions to August football. A big win or bad loss, as the Patriots-Bucs game was last Thursday night depending on your point of view, is seen in one of two ways. The most unsophisticated observers declare it an inevitable foreshadowing of triumph or disaster in the regular season. The guys just wise enough to be really foolish deride all preseason games as meaningless.

Exhibition games are NOT meaningless. Their scores are, but they're not. They are the four most important practices any pro team has all season long. For players ranked from 30-90 on the preseason roster, they are the most crucial nights of their careers, many of which just started in late July. Screw up in front of Don Criqui and Randy Cross, and said career might well be over. Some careers will be over even if the player in question doesn't screw up, as the cruel arithmetic of the roster rules kicks in.

For those guys, preseason games mean more than the Super Bowl. They're playing for big paychecks, not some hideous ring. In terms of technical virtuosity and tradecraft, the fourth quarters of most August games resemble the First Battle of Bull Run. The confusion shouldn't hide the desperation of the participants. If one likes to see athletes compete for high stakes, and I do, then it's when the scrubs come in that exhibition games become most fascinating. The part when the starters play is the dull predictable section. I mean, it's nice to see that Tom Brady can still play football, but I didn't really fear he'd forgotten how since January.

Practice, however desperate, however important, is still just practice. It is has limited to no predictive value. If the Bucs' offensive line continues to play as if on an Oxy binge the way it did against New England, Tampa Bay not only will go 0-16, it'll go through 23 quarterbacks doing so. That's not gonna happen. Chalk it up to a bad, bad practice.

On the other hand, the Patriots have been magnificent in their two preseason wins. Anyone would say they appear to be a team that must be considered one of the favorites to reach the Super Bowl.

No kidding. That's also what anyone would have said before training camp began. That's what the Patriots ARE. They were 14-2 last year, and that team's only real problem was that the Jets played magnificently against them in their playoff game. That's not an issue practice can remedy. The dilemma confronting the Pats is that they've got to wait until January before they can. Having "something to prove in the playoffs" incrementally hampers the focus needed to win regular season road games in outposts of the damned like Buffalo and Washington. Pro football is a game of increments, a/k/a inches.

In August, the above two sentences are nothing more than a passing cloud on the sunny, warm, no humidity summer which the Pats are enjoying (by December, they could become a nasty front, but maybe not, too). Success, even successful practices, is hard to achieve in pro football. It should be enjoyed for what it is -- in New England's case, it's the absence of any horrible surprises. Pats fans should feel as this Phillies fan did in April, 2010. "Oh, so that Halliday is going to keep on being a good pitcher." Fandom and paranoia are inseparable. It's always a welcome moment when facts rout fear.

So for the next Patriots' exhibition game, as it's on a Saturday night, and all of us can stay can up late to watch, let me propose the following TV schedule. First, watch for as long as the starters play, hoping with all one's heart they all leave the field by coach's decision and under their own power. Then turn off the set or switch to the Red Sox or some other game and grab a beer and a snack.

Return to the broadcast for the fourth quarter. That's when the true drama will be in full swing.


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