If you're thinking to yourself, "Hooray, football is back!" and are expecting an enjoyable evening of entertaining football when the Cowboys take on the Chargers on Thursday night in the preseason opener, you're probably in for a big disappointment. Why?
Because contrary to what the teams selling tickets and the networks selling advertising minutes would like to have you believe, you won't be seeing any real football on Thursday. More specifically, you won't be seeing the kind of football you expect during the regular season.
Mike Tanier of Sports on Earth summarizes what he thinks preseason should be about:
Preseason should be about quarterback controversies, teams with a dozen new starters, coaches sneak-peeking the latest strategic fads like J.J. Abrams Instagramming an X-wing fighter and third-string longshots with collegiate stardom and name recognition. Preseason is for hardcore junkies and early adopters who want a long look at Devonta Freeman or Bishop Sankey before adding them to their "fantasy sleeper" lists.
Tanier is mostly wrong of course, which is why it doesn't surprise that in his wachability ranking of preseason games the Cowboys game gets an "F" because, "Two words: Brandon Weeden." It's the same mistake many football observers make: By focusing on quarterbacks and running backs, they're concentrating on watching the ball during the preseason games. Why is that a mistake?
Because the TV Networks have conditioned us to watch the football when we watch a broadcast of a football game. The cameras follow the football; we get super-slow-motion replays of the ball lazily rotating through the air; we get 17 replays from every conceivable angle to see whether a receiver "maintained control in the act of catching the pass;" we get diagrams and schematics of where a running back found a hole to run through; in short: our eyes track the ball almost automatically.
And that's okay when you watch a normal regular season game, because what happens to the ball is pretty important for the outcome of a game. But if the outcome of the game, like in the preseason, isn't important, then watching the ball can't really be that important either.
Preseason games, especially the first and the last games of the preseason, are essentially extended tryouts for fringe players and rookies in real game situations. We know that the game on Thursday will feature a lot of players who will not be playing for the Cowboys in the regular season. We know that the final score doesn't matter. We know that preseason team performance is not predictive of regular season performance in any way, shape, or form. So what's the point of watching a preseason game, and how can you get any enjoyment from it?
Simple. Don't watch the football.
What you want to do instead is focus on individual players and their performance, because that's what this game is all about. Can the second-string defensive linemen like Davon Coleman and Ken Bishop get any push? Can somebody, anybody, rush the passer? How badly do the backup linebackers bite on play-action fakes? How good are Joseph Randle, Ryan Williams and Ben Malena as pass protectors? Are they playing with two-deep safeties or with a single-high safety? Where is Gavin Escobar lining up? Can the safeties run fast, and more importantly, can they run fast in the right direction? How's the communication from the sidelines working with the new play-caller? The Chargers cheerleaders may be the cutest girls in the world, but can they knock you out with the way they talk?
Focus on an individual player and you'll probably be able to answer most of those questions. Unfortunately, because of our conditioning to watch the pigskin, concentrating on individual players is actually much harder than it sounds, especially if you've never tried it before. Think of the game as an extended training camp practice session. Just because some dude is throwing around the ball somewhere doesn't mean you automatically stop watching what the rest of the team is doing.
Try not watching the football, and I promise that you'll find the game much more enjoyable and rewarding to watch, regardless of whether the Cowboys win or lose. Pick a player or a unit, watch them for a couple of snaps or a drive and you'll learn a lot more than you ever could from scoreboard watching.
Don't watch the football tomorrow. After the game you'll be surprised by how much you'll understand where the Cowboys have issues and where they don't. And then when you read up on the game summaries the next day, you'll understand exactly who was watching the ball, and who was watching the game.