Available on Ye Olde Internet is an offering typed by these fallible fingers in which the Falcons are projected to go 11-5. But now, with these Falcons having just completed a preseason that saw them go 0-4 by the aggregate score of 96-27, I’m wondering if I overshot. I’m wondering if 5-11 mightn’t be the more sagacious forecast.
Yes, I’m lying.
Every year about this time, it’s incumbent on everyone who tracks sports for a living to offer this nugget of semi-wisdom: Games that don’t count DO NOT COUNT. (There. I’ve met my quota for 2018.)
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Apologies for sounding pedantic, but I know some folks despair over their team losing anything. I once flew into a rage when the Pittsburgh Steelers, then my team, lost an exhibition against Dallas on a last-second field goal. In my defense, that was 40-some years ago, and I was in college. And those Steelers were in their team-of-the-decade run. But I was a fan, and I was greedy.
I now get paid not to be a fan, and I’ve seen the error of my much-younger ways. I’ve even developed a little system for weighing exhibition games, which are mostly weightless: The only score I note is the one when the first starting quarterback is pulled. To wit: Technically the Falcons lost 28-14 to Kansas City two weeks ago, but they led 7-3 when Matt Schaub took over for Matt Ryan. Victory!
Preseasons used to be different, and by “different” we mean “sillier.” Ken Anderson, Cincinnati’s All-Pro quarterback, got hurt in the final exhibition in 1978 – there were then six, as opposed to the four of today – essentially ending the Bengals’ actual season before it began. Cincinnati started 0-4 without Anderson, soon to become 1-12. By then the Bengals had fired its head coach, Bill Johnson, replacing him with offensive coordinator Homer Rice, who would in 1980 become Georgia Tech’s athletic director.
Injuries like Anderson’s – and not just Anderson’s; Joe Namath once wrecked an already-bad knee in an exhibition while trying to tackle Mike Lucci, who’d intercepted a deflected pass – forced NFL teams to rethink. There was no chance of Ryan getting hurt in his team’s final exhibition game unless he tripped over the yardage chain while watching from the sideline. August has become so scripted (meaning limited) as to render it even more meaningless, if that’s possible, than before.
Week 1: Starters play a series, if that.
Week 2: Starters play a quarter.
Week 3: This is the one where teams try to simulate, just for the heck of it, an actual game; starters play a half.
Week 4: Starters sit.
Even on that limited regimen, stuff can happen. The Falcons saw Michael Vick lost to a broken ankle in Week 3 of the 2003 preseason. He wouldn’t return until three days after Thanksgiving, by which time his team was 2-9 and his coach, Dan Reeves, all but gone. New England receiver Julian Edelman tore his ACL in Exhibition No. 3 last year; Washington rookie back Derrius Guice tore his three weeks ago. And here’s where we offer the only preseason stat that matters:
Major injuries suffered by key players. The Falcons had none of those.
Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman didn’t play a preseason down. I’m reasonably certain they’ll figure in the for-real opener in Philadelphia. That’s not just discretion being the better part of valor; that’s clever trumping stupid.
Sometimes I hear fans say, “What you do in preseason sets a tone for the regular season.” To this, I say, “How long would that tone resonate if somebody important gets hurt in the attempt to win a game nobody will remember unless somebody gets hurt?”
Apologies again, but here’s my tried-and-true case study: The 1990 Falcons, in their first season under the gimmicky Jerry Glanville, went 4-0 in preseason and even staged a scrimmage in Macon against Buddy Ryan’s Eagles that degenerated into a series of fights. This served to get the populace excited – the Falcons hadn’t had a winning season since 1982 – but the faux momentum soon faded. Glanville’s team finished 5-11. It won almost as many games that didn’t count as games that did.
I’ve been known to be wrong about a prediction or two, but I feel secure in this one: These Falcons will absolutely, positively win more games in the regular season than they did in preseason. Heh, heh.