Does the exhibition season really matter?

August 15, 2010 |

I know that the NFL cringes at the term exhibition game, hence the idea of preseason. Nevertheless, every sport except college football plays some sort of exhibition schedule whereby the teams actually suit up to play a game (or games) that doesn’t count towards the season schedule. (For what it’s worth, MLB and the NFL probably have the most celebrated or organized exhibition seasons.) Regardless of who wins or how well/poorly you play, there’s always the disclaimer of it’s only preseason/spring training thrown in. The Ravens showed a little bit of rust on Thursday night against the Carolina Panthers…but it’s only preseason. In turn, I attended the Washington Redskins vs. Buffalo Bills game on Friday at FedEx Field, and the Redskins looked pretty good in beating the Bills 42-17…but it’s only preseason.

Certainly it’s fair to point that out, especially seeing that in a lot of these games we only see the starting team for a limited amount of time. (In the NFL of course the game to which you really want to pay attention is week three of the preseason, which is when the starters play the majority of the game.) However, do these games truly not ean anything at all? Using the Orioles as an example, they finished 12-17 in Spring Training this season. I remember telling a lot of people not to worry, as it was only spring training and the games don’t necessarily mean anything. However that foreshadowed what happened on the field in the regular season. Furthermore, go figure that Brian Roberts was injured for much of spring training, as he was during the regular season. So perhaps there is something to be said for at the very least playing well in these games. In the Orioles’ case, spring training even included a five-game losing streak at the beginning; sound familiar?

While you can’t play exhibition games like game seven of the world series, the onus should still be on winning. Again using the O’s as an example, Dave Trembley used all of the games during spring training as a chance to evaluate talent. Personally, I believe that’s exactly what you’re supposed to do in spring training or preseason. However there are also teams such as the Yankees and Red Sox that manage these games to win them. (This is not to say that the O’s didn’t try to win the games, but the onus was more on fundamentals than strategy.) That kind of attitude over time also translates into wins come the regular season. Personally I’ve always believed that it’s certainly fair for a team to go all out while the regulars are in the game, however once they’re gone the onus should be more on evaluating talent as well as trying to win the game.

Right or wrong, I think that we’re starting to get to the point where teams are going to start treating exhibition games more seriously if for no other reason than the fact that even spring training/preseason has become commercialized. MLB Network showed at least one spring training game per day back in March, and NFL Network is showing all 65 NFL preseason games (some live, and some on tape delay). To my knowledge, all NFL teams now require their season ticket holders to purchase preseason tickets. (When I was a kid the Redskins gave ticket holders the option of buying them, or not.) So the leagues are marketing the heck out of these games that don’t even count towards the season standings; that being the case, people are going to expect to see games that at least resemble something meaningful. You can generally tell if a team is taking a game seriously; the Buffalo Bills appeared to care less the other night. I think that the Ravens probably took their game against Carolina fairly seriously last week, however once the foul weather set in I think John Harbaugh started playing things much more “vanilla” so as not to get anyone hurt. (And ultimately, regardless of who wins these games in any sport injuries are the last thing anyone wants in an exhibition game.)

Be it spring training or NFL preseason, I have no problems with paying some money to see the games. I love baseball and I love football; I love going out to the stadiums and being at the games, so I just see these games as bonuses in that I get to start earlier than people who only pay attention to the regular season. Ultimately, there’s no question that teams cannot treat exhibition games as a regular season contest. However perhaps there is something to be said for at the very least taking the games seriously. If nothing else, you can form a team bond in March or August that might well propel you to greatness in the doldrums of the season. While the Ravens played a fairly lackluster game last week, there was still the euphoria of victory afterward…but it’s only preseason.