Every summer the griping about preseason football seems to get louder.
With each passing August, pundits in the press double down on their portray of preseason football as something to be endured, rather than enjoyed.
Enjoy the preseason?
Yes, I went there.
Having lived outside the US for more than ten years, I can say with a straight face, "I miss preseason football."
Honestly, I don't understand the resistance. Season ticket holders absolutely have a legitimate complaint, but I'll simply acknowledge that while I make the case for preseason football.
A Great Chance to "Evaluate" Young Talent
Fans get their only real chance to "evaluate" young talent during preseason.
The internet has brought fans closer to training camp. But unless you're lucky enough to make it to Latrobe, the preseason is your only chance to make your own judgments about young players.
No need to question Gerry Dulac or Ed Bouchette's in a chat about "who looks good and who doesn't." Watch the games and make up your own mind.
I saw most of the Steelers preseason games during the later half of the 1990's.
So, when Donnell Wolford was stinking up the joint in 1997, I remembered enough of what I'd seen of Lee Flowers from his preseason outings to suggest to my buddies that the Steelers would be fine if they moved Carnell Lake to corner and started Flowers at safety.
This option was debated at Baltimore's Purple Goose Saloon long before the idea started getting thrown around by the professional press.
Similarly, my instincts told me during preseason and events later confirmed that Jahine Arnold (WR, 4b. '96) and George Jones (RB, 5b. '97) weren't worthy replacements for Ernie Mills and Erric Pegram.
Fan evaluations of course count for little - but we might as well form educated opinions to debate during commercial breaks....
Good Time to Evaluate Units
Preseason wins and losses mean nothing. "Our starters vs. their starters" comparisons are tenuous at best.
But preseason is frequently, although not always, a good time to gauge individual unit performance.
My father took me to the Steelers-Redskins 1990 preseason game at RFK. Now my father is Pittsburgh bred and born, but to him "shotgun" is a weapon, "secondary" logically follows primary, and "safety" is avoiding injury.
That game marked the second "live fire drill" for Joe Walton's offense, and even my dad knew enough to say "these guys don't have any idea of what's going on." It was obvious then as it was for the next two years that Chuck Noll's decision to climb Walton's Mountain was perhaps The Emperor's gravest mistake.
Likewise the 1998 preseason revealed that the Steelers run blocking was below par, and that they'd miss John Jackson more than anyone anticipated.
Certainly, there are exceptions. Bill Cowher famously said in late August 2005, "Our passing game isn't where it needs to be," only to have Roethlisberger rip off a couple of near-perfect games to start the season.
Nonetheless, preseason gives fans their first glimpse as to what will work, and what will not in the season to come.
It is Fun to Watch the Scrubs Play
Seriously. When the starters and primary backup come out the talent does drop like a rock. But starters are for the most part getting their assignments and timing down and otherwise looking to avoid injury.
Its when the no-names play that things become interesting.
When I was a Boy Scout, my Asst. Scout Master quelled protests over going to a Hagerstown Suns minor league baseball game game by explaining, "These guys don't want to play here next year so they give it everything they've got."
The same applies to preseason.
Guys playing late in preseason games know this is their only shot. They're living out what everyone of us has dreamed of from the moment we first grabbed a Nerf and called out a meaningless snap count or argued over the merits of 3, 5, and 7 Mississippi rushes.
These guys may lack talent, but they never lack heart.
More importantly, the careers of the game's Merrill Hoges, Justin Strzelczyks, Darren Perrys, Nate Washingtons, James Harrisons, and Issac "Redzone" Redmans are born in the third and fourth quarters of preseason games.
No one of course "makes it" in the NFL by playing well in preseason, but watching young men take the first step toward transforming a dream into reality is enjoyable.
Preseason football will never be that blessed first breath of fresh football air that it was in the days before free agency and the internet made the NFL a year-round sport. Unnecessary injuries will always be a concern.
But, if taken in its proper context, there's a lot to enjoy in preseason. And you never know --the next Fast Willie Parker might be beginning his rise on your watch....