By Peter Richmond
It was during a commercial break in fourth quarter of the Jets-Giants game on Saturday night when NBC weighed in with a pitch for its first Sunday night regular-season game: a deep voice laden with sinister, portentous overtones: "Say Goodbye to the Preseason" -- as if, at the time, I was watching a meaningless, worthless football game on a Saturday night when real people were out having real lives and I'd been reduced to ultimate geekery.
Meaningless? Meaningless? I'll tell you what a meaningless NFL game is: Game two of the regular season, when no matter what the outcome, your team is still in it. Or game 15 when your team is 3-11 and all that's at stake is who next year's head coach is (hopefully neither a former Belichick assistant or anyone named Ryan).
But a preseason game? When every play in the second half constitutes a life-determining drama for any of dozens of these guys? When if the walk-on from East Carolina makes a catch, turns upfield, jukes two guys and gains 32, even if he gets cut, another team picks him up, puts him on the practice squad, and he's in the NFL and living the dream? But if he drops it, even though it was right in the breadbasket, he's now looking at three years with the New Orleans VooDoo of the NET10 Wireless Arena Football League, if he's lucky, followed by hooking on as an assistant manager at a Foot Locker in Metairie?
Regular-season football? Increasingly slickly packaged entertainment. Playoff football? Panting network melodrama. Super Bowl? So neon-fireworked that the game often seems to recede into the shadows. (Quickie quiz: Who won three years ago? Time's up.)
Preseason? Football -- assuming we both see pro football as nothing less than gifted athletes playing a game of beautiful brutality. Now translate that physicality into the collision between two guys whose jobs are on the line. The seventh-round-pick running back trying to elude the free-agent safety doesn't care that there might be 2,613 people left in an 80,000-seat stadium. He's running for his life.
I can't get enough of preseason, not only because the third-team guys are playing all-in, but because the games can be legitimate barometers of what's to come -- not to be judged by score, but by energy. By how badly the new guys want it. Zero-and-4 is fine by me if the vibe is intense from the fringe guys dying for a practice-squad slot. I already know what the starters are capable (or incapable) of doing. And soon enough, they'll be letting me down. Right now, I'm rooting for the guys with numbers like 49 and 6.
This is how important preseason football is to me, not that you asked: I leave the sound on so I can find out who just fanned on that block, or made a nice read on a slant and broke up the pass. During the season, I mute the games because the men in the booth actually add nothing you haven't already immediately figured out by just watching the screen. (Plus, don't have to hear a Fox play-by-play man call Stephen Jackson "an articulate young man" [yes, he really did, opening day, 2011, you could look it up] or a former player go off on a safety for "being late" on getting over, ignoring the cornerback who whiffed on jamming the receiver and the quarterback had eight seconds in the pocket because the blitzing outside linebacker ran into the back of his own defensive end.)
Yes, local production values are a little shaky, like when the camera forgets to find the punt-returner on a punt, and the sideline interviewers include the local affiliate's sports guy, whose journalistic chops are as finely honed as a weather-person's. ("You're healthy. How important is that?" Bruce Beck of WNBC New York actually asked Prince Amukamara on Saturday night. To Prince's credit, he didn't say, "Doesn't make a difference at all. Why do you ask?" and just answered with a straight face.)
Jets-Giants is supposed to mean something extra, but it doesn't to fans of the respective teams, because it's just as easy to get an injury against the Jets as it is against the Jags (the Giants lost two DBs, the Jets lost Mark Sanchez because Ryan put him in in the fourth quarter. (And if you haven't YouTubed Rex's post-game meltdown, do so immediately).
Both sides' starters mailed it in; the news that Bob's Discount Furniture was donating 20 recliners to a charity was one of the highlights of the first quarter. It was in the second quarter when things grew interesting: 350-pound Shaun Rogers, in his 13th year, his career scraping bottom after a little too much time spent with lawyers, guns 'n money, was playing as aggressively as I'd seen in years. Is it possible that Shaun could be the Giants' X factor? Or will he Cheesecake-Factory himself back into oblivion? Free-agent Mike Patterson was making tackles in the backfield, too -- after brain surgery for an arteriovenous malformation. That'd be a cool acquisition.
As usual, things grew truly compelling in the second half. Who just ran down Geno Smith from behind? Trumaine McBride? Who's Trumaine McBride? Five teams in seven years; will this be the breakout year? Or will he have to take an assistant job back with the Clarksdale, Miss., Wildcats?) Who made that hard stop up the middle? Who's 48? Kyle Bosworth? The UCLA Kyle Bosworth? Cut by the Jaguars? Will it be the Meadowlands this year, or finally taking those acting classes from Uncle Brian?
And who was called for the drive-killing hold? Selvish Capers? Say it ain't so, Selvish. Good luck with that beignet franchise back in Kenner. But a tremendous hit by 46 on a receiver stepping out of bounds. David Caldwell of… Montclair, N.J.! A homey! So what if he was out of the league last year, unsigned. He's rested!
By the end, it wasn't all over but the shouting, because there wasn't much in stadium, until Tom Coughlin, the Giants coach and resident knucklehead, inexplicably decided to go for a field goal that sent it into overtime whereupon, on the ensuing kickoff, second-year CB Laron Scott, after a pretty decent return, was slow in getting up, and limped off the field. And I shouted.
Meaningless? Not to Laron Scott.
But this one was just the warm-up. The final preseason game against the Pats when the Giants rest their starters? That game will be played by nothing but no-name wannabes… and maybe one of them, maybe out of Georgia Southern, makes a diving interception, and then a touchdown-saving tackle, and turns out to... be.
He might even be the Bob's Discount Furniture Player of the Game.
And I'll have seen him coming. In the most meaningful football game of his life.
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Peter Richmond has written for five newspapers, been featured in 14 anthologies and spent 13 years on staff at GQ. He has written about everything from sports to murder to movie stars to vasectomies, and has published six books, one a New York Times bestseller. His most recent, "Badasses," a history of the Oakland Raiders of the 1970s, has been released in paperback.