The best regular-season matchups make the worst preseason matchups. Fans have known this for years. Television programmers are finally starting to figure it out.
Everything that makes a regular-season NFL game thrilling to watch -- established powerhouses, superstar players, stable coaching staffs with proven schemes -- makes preseason viewing a bore. The powerhouses have nothing to prove and no new strategies to test-drive. The superstars wear baseball caps after the first quarter. The unknowns on the field fight for toeholds at the bottom of depth charts, not chances to start and star. Worst of all, the commentators spend most of the game waxing poetic about the superstars congregated at the Gatorade cooler or musing about the (oh no oh no oh please no) controversies and scandals making news around the league.
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. Give the inveterate football addicts what we crave; let mainstream humans enjoy their karaoke talent shows.
The major networks and ESPN, which for years promoted Steelers-Giants preseason games with images of Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning, have dialed back on the playoff contenders this August. No one will have to pretend that the Patriots or Broncos will be putting on an exhibition in their exhibitions. The network matchups are quirkier. There are also fewer of them, with none during preseason Week 1 (all the fourth-stringers come out to play) or Week 4 (at some point, coaches are just going to take turns making the backup quarterback kneel for three hours). The NFL Network offers a wider menu of exhibition choices throughout the month, but that is what the NFL Network is for.
Fewer games and careful game selection should make this the best preseason viewing season ever. But that doesn't mean all preseason games meet the Sharknado 2 standard for acceptable late-summer entertainment (some laughs, lots of excused sloppiness, a Michael Strahan cameo). The following Watchability Guide will help you plan your summer viewing. A few of these games will be downright compelling, at least for a half. Several will be tolerable. The rest may leave you with that stale, unfulfilled feeling, but don't worry: I will watch them so you don't have to.
Preseason Week 2
Jaguars at Bears
Thursday, Aug. 14, 8 p.m., ESPN
A rebuilt defense can be more interesting to watch in the preseason than even a new quarterback or rookie running back. The Bears have lots of new faces on defense -- Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, rookies Kyle Fuller, Ego Ferguson, Will Sutton and Brock Vereen -- coupled with well-known returnees like Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman. There will be players of interest on the field well into the third quarter, and after a season during which the Bears run defense put up as much of a fight as dandelions against a weed whacker, every series will feel important.
The Jaguars offense represents a good first test for the Bears defense, and vice versa. This is your chance to watch Blake Bortles again for the first time. Sure, you have read and heard dozens of draftnik breakdowns of Bortles, including mine. You may even have a fully-formed opinion on Bortles. But have you ever sat and watched him play a live game? Maybe you're a Central Florida junkie. More likely, you will get your first real sense of him in the second quarter of this game, when he replaces Chad Henne to the delight of viewers everywhere. Watchability: B-plus.
Chiefs at Panthers
Sunday, Aug. 17, 8 p.m., Fox
If you subscribe to the theory that the Panthers are more interested in publically humiliating Cam Newton than winning a Super Bowl, here is another nugget of evidence. Newton gets to unveil his all-new receiving corps and offensive line on national television during the second full preseason week, when even a well-oiled Peyton Manning machine can look rusty. First-round receiver Kelvin Benjamin has gotten little practice since suffering a minor knee injury, so Newton may be throwing to Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery, neither of whom can get separation from a museum volunteer on a Segway at this point in his career. Meanwhile, a Panthers offensive lineman retires every three days or so. Newton is bound to look silly, and it is bound to be a talking point, but a quarterback running for his life and overthrowing receivers from the late-2000s does not make for great television.
The Chiefs' roster was gutted almost as badly as the Panthers roster, and Jamaal Charles will probably spend the whole evening in a pillow fort. This is exactly the kind of matchup that looks great to people who don't plan to watch preseason football: two winning teams (that will not be nearly as good this year) and two big-name stars (who will barely play), instead of interesting new faces, systems or camp battles. Watchability: D-minus.
Browns at Redskins
Monday, Aug. 18, 8 p.m., ESPN
Some preseason games are meant to be watched with the sound down. Whatever your opinion of the Robert Griffin saga, you have to be curious about what happens next. Jay Gruden is implementing a new offense, Kirk Cousins provides a competent backup to get you through the second and third quarters, Colt McCoy is kicking around and there are all manner of other preseason delights (kicker and punter battles!) to keep the Redskins entertaining.
Having spent two days at Browns camp, I can confirm that the Browns are interesting, even to those who pretend to not be interested in Johnny Manziel. Kyle Shanahan and Mike Pettine have all sorts of tactical goodies in the oven, there are lots of skill-position guys fighting for real roles and the secondary could be great.
But ugh, you can hear the broadcast commentary already. Endless recaps of the Griffin saga, with Griffin and Shanahan on split screen from the opposite sidelines. Manziel musings. The weird "Brian Hoyer as Tom Brady/Richard the Lionhearted" meme. A long, dark, fourth quarter of the soul discoursing on the ethics of saying the word "Redskins." All of this is made worse by the fact that ESPN is doing it. Hmm, there seems to be so much chatter about this young quarterback. And expectations were so high for that Griffin fellow. If only there was some way to pinpoint exactly WHO blows these things so far out of proportion, say with endless repetition of yammering daytime talk shows. It's simply an unsolvable mystery. Watchability: A-minus (sound off), D (sound on).
Preseason Week 3
Raiders at Packers
Friday, Aug. 22, 8 p.m., CBS
Part preseason game, part old-timers game. This is the nation's first chance to see the 2010 Dream Team the Raiders assembled: Justin Tuck, Maurice Jones-Drew, Matt Schaub, LaMarr Woodley and on and on. It may also be the last time you watch or even think about the Raiders all year.
Early reviews of Schaub have been mixed at best. Raiders camp runs later than most camps, so following live tweets from Napa became a fun drinking game while I was decompressing after Browns camp. There is nothing like kicking back with a draught and reading a steady stream of dispatches like this:
Schaub's pass is batted down at the line.
Schaub underthrows Juron Criner badly.
Schaub's pass is blown back into his face by a slight breeze.
Schaub sacked during a special teams installation.
After reading my timeline, Brian Hoyer started to look like Richard the Lionhearted.
This game gets by on its "dress rehearsal" value; it's a chance to see Aaron Rodgers and Eddie Lacy work for a half or so. By the fourth quarter, Scott Tolzien and Matt McGloin will take the stage, and we saw quite enough of them last year. Late-game babble may focus on a potential Raiders move to San Antonio, CBS turning a national broadcast into an infomercial for the misappropriation of taxpayer dollars. Watchability: C-minus.
Saints at Colts
Saturday, Aug. 23, 8 p.m., CBS
It's going to be a while before you can watch a Saints game without focusing on where Jimmy Graham lines up like some forensic scientist trying to crack a case the DA considers closed. Brace yourself for helpful graphics charting where Graham lines up on each play; meanwhile, Coby Fleener could play free safety without notice. Sean Payton isn't the spiteful type, but he could place Graham in the backfield a few times just to prove a point. HAHA, NOW YOU ARE A RUNNING BACK, JIMMY. YOU GET WORKED LIKE A STUMP GRINDER UNTIL YOUR ACL SNAPS, THEN GET THROWN ON THE SCRAP HEAP AT 27, JUST AFTER YOUR FIRST CONTRACT EXPIRES. PORNO STARLETS HAVE BETTER JOB SECURITY! YOUR EARNING POWER IS GONE! GONE!! MUAH-HA-HA-HA-HA.
Graham dissection and dress rehearsal for Drew Brees and Andrew Luck aside, this game is all about Trent Richardson rubbernecking. The Colts aren't going to risk giving backup Ahmad Bradshaw many preseason carries, so Richardson should get a ton of playing time. National preseason telecasts are sugar-high optimistic about slumping players. The commentators happily pass along the talking points coaches provided in prep interviews; it would be impolite to question Pep Hamilton's honesty when he called Richardson "a cross between Frank Gore, Jim Brown and Alexander the Great" in such a candid setting. So look for one yard runs followed by excuses: a good description of the Colts running game last year.
After Luck and Brees warm up, we get Matt Hasselbeck and \, 71 years of backup quarterbacking glory. In fairness, that means the late-game offenses should function properly. Watchability: C
Chargers at 49ers
Sunday, Aug. 24, 4 p.m., Fox
Few teams have second and third strings as deep or interesting as the 49ers. Blaine Gabbert and Jonathan Martin bring a curiosity factor to the second halves of preseason games, albeit a morbid one. Martin provides a preseason warm-up opportunity to gauge color commentator readiness for Michael Sam: if he gets through a fourth quarter of Martin without uttering a phrase like "limp wristed whiny-heiny," he may be ready to make off-the-cuff remarks about a gay player.
Brandon Lloyd is lurking on the depth chart, as is Stevie Johnson. Gabbert could have a better receiving corps in the third quarters of preseason games than he ever had in Jacksonville. Heck, judging by the names at the bottom of the depth chart -- Tank Carradine, Shayne Skov, LaMichael James -- the Niners team that finishes preseason games could probably go about 6-10 against a neutral schedule of NFL regulars.
This game also offers a chance to get familiar with the Chargers bench, which is not very helpful when you are barely familiar with their starters. Watchability: B-plus.
Bengals at Cardinals
Sunday, Aug. 24, 8 p.m., NBC
The Bengals are the worst possible preseason team. Their starting lineup does not provide enough sizzle to get out-of-town fans to tune in for the first quarter, but just about every starting position on the roster is set, so there is little drama. They made no free agent splashes, and their No. 1 pick is a cornerback, so there goes the "what's new" factor. Jason Campbell is Andy Dalton's backup, and he may be the last quarterback in the NFL you would voluntarily sit and watch: at least a seventh-round rookie from Prairie Dog State brings novelty. This broadcast could devolve into a 210-minute referendum on Andy Dalton. If Dalton were interesting enough to merit a 210-minute referendum, we would not need one.
Logan Thomas could get a long look in this game, which will be a little like watching someone's first skeet shooting lesson. The bottom of the Cardinals roster is more anonymous than the Bengals bench. These may be the NFL's two least-interesting winning teams when they have something to play for. As a preseason matchup for television, it looks like a computer malfunction. Watchability: D-minus.
NFL Network Games
49ers at Ravens, Thursday, Aug. 7, 7:30 p.m. Three-and-a-half hours of trying to tiptoe around the Ray Rice incident? What can possibly go wrong? Craft your indignant tweets and blog postings now, then just insert the exact quotes later: the news cycle is not over until your reaction to ESPN's reaction to Mike Mayock's reaction to the ovation Rice will inevitably receive from Ravens fans says it's over. Watchability: D.
Cowboys at Chargers, Thursday, Aug. 7, 10 p.m. Two words: Brandon Weeden. Watchability: F.
Saints at Rams, Friday, Aug. 8, 8 p.m. Michael Sam records his first preseason sack midway through the fourth quarter against Logan Kilgore. DON'T WORRY YOU WILL GET A CHANCE OR TWO TO SEE THE HIGHLIGHT. If you think Drew Brees will play more than one series against the defense that turned him into hash browns last year, you are crazy. Also, Gregg Williams faces the Saints, if you are straining for two-year-old storylines. If the Sam story is not your fourth-quarter bag, you can watch the Kenny Britt comeback unfold. It will end with a pass bouncing off his chest. Watchability: C-plus.
Browns at Lions, Saturday, Aug. 9, 7:30 p.m. Johnny Manziel, the new Lions offense, etc. If my Twitter feed is any indication, some fans are itching to see Kellen Moore and Connor Shaw duke it out in the battle of college quarterback heroes who are going to prove all of us scouts, coaches, writers, statisticians, analysts and people who observe carefully and objectively wrong by earning starting jobs by the sheer force of will. Because quarterbacks are Green Lanterns. Watchability: B.
Eagles at Patriots, Friday, Aug. 15, 7:30 p.m. According to legend, whenever DeSean Jackson went deep for the Eagles last year, he took seven defenders with him, leaving Riley Cooper and the others (who can be timed in the 40 with the Mayan Long Count) covered by nose tackles and coaching interns. Also, as soon as Jimmy Garoppolo completes two passes, the Patriots can safely trade Ryan Mallett to the Texans for a package of picks that makes the Herschel Walker deal look like a conditional sixth rounder. Eagles-Patriots preseason games are usually dreary, but the game within the game within the runaway imaginations of hometown fans is always fascinating. Watchability: D.
Chargers at Seahawks, Friday, Aug. 15, 10 p.m. Marshawn Lynch's return spares us hours of late-night speculation: trying to determine Lynch's motivations is like trying to figure out why the cat chases the laser pointer, but "make more money while you can" seems pretty straightforward. The Chargers are this preseason's designated undercard, the Unpredictable Johnny Rodz of late-night exhibition football. I am glad to have multiple opportunities to check out the rebuilt secondary and up-tempo offense, but then, I do this for a living. Watchability: C-minus.
Packers at Rams, Saturday, Aug. 16, 4 p.m. Your second gander at Michael Sam's attempt to make history. You will notice that the networks have shown Sam restraint: Rams games are relegated to NFL Network, and this one is buried at midday on a Saturday. You probably have friends beating the I AM SO SICK OF MICHAEL SAM COVERAGE drum, even though he has been nearly absent from the news cycle since the start of camp (the Dungy story blew through during the run-up). Some folks see Sam stories the way the rest of us see hornets at a picnic: one is more than they want, three is a weekend-ruining swarm. So watch this game, and think of all the people watching this game instead of watching baseball or barbecuing or going to the beach simply so they can be outraged by all the attention. Watchability: C.
Ravens at Cowboys, Saturday, Aug. 16, 7 p.m. The Cowboys printed playoff tickets and sent them to season ticket holders. There was also a printout of the team's salary cap spreadsheet with the word "Suggestions???" scrawled in thick red sharpie across the bottom. Come back in January, when Jerry Jones sends all season ticket holders an invoice for the duplication costs. Watchability: D.
Broncos at 49ers, Sunday, Aug. 17, 4 p.m. Proof positive that times have changed: none of the major networks are pretending that Peyton Manning is going to do anything in the preseason. This is the most likely Super Bowl preview on the preseason schedule, so take copious notes so you know how Brock Osweiler will attack a 49ers defense anchored by Corey Lemonier. Watchability: D.
Steelers at Eagles, Thursday, Aug. 21, 7:30 p.m. Tune in to determine the exact moment the Steelers abandon their offensive philosophy. Watchability: C-minus.
Bears at Seahawks, Friday, Aug. 22, 10 p.m. Terrelle Pryor could be on the Seahawks roster bubble for this game. Pryor is a welcome friend in the fourth quarters of preseason games: he scrambles for highlight-reel yardage, gets fans juiced, then loses his job because all it turns out all five receivers were open. Pryor has rushed for 252 yards and two touchdowns in the last two preseasons; it's not unusual for him to complete three or fewer passes yet still rush for 30-40 yards during his cameos. You take what you can get while announcers are fawning over Russell Wilson in a baseball cap and psychoanalyzing Marshawn Lynch. Watchability: C.
Buccaneers at Bills: Saturday, Aug. 23, 4:30 p.m. Forget Sharknado 2: this is the Casablanca of preseason games. The Bucs are this preseason's most interesting team. They have a new coaching staff, quarterback controversy, 20 or 30 talented young running backs competing for three jobs, Johnny Manziel's bestie at wide receiver and new faces just about everywhere. It's a travesty that they only appear on live television once, in Week 3, when the quarterback battle may be over. The Bills bring a wide-open, up-tempo offense to the party, plus some of the most exciting young receivers in the NFL. At least they might: all we saw in the Hall of Fame game were incomplete bombs and a bunch of passes batted at the line. It does not matter, because you know who the topic of conversation will be, right?
Either mute the sound or drink a shot whenever the Springsteen-turned-Ralph-Wilson wannabe is mentioned, and you will have a grand time.
Jets at Eagles, Thursday, Aug. 28, 7 p.m. It sure looks like NFL Network is saving some cash by driving the video crew over the Walt Whitman Bridge from Mount Laurel, N.J., doesn't it? The Mark Sanchez-Michael Vick prisoner exchange is scheduled for halftime. Watchability: F. (Week 4 preseason games are graded on a harsh curve.)
Seahawks at Raiders: Thursday, Aug. 28, 10 p.m. Texas A&M is playing South Carolina at 6 p.m., Boise State at Ole Miss at 8 p.m., Rutgers-Washington State at 10 p.m. You are welcome. Watchability: F.
Five Games That Should Have Been Broadcast:
Jets-Giants, Aug. 22, 7:30 p.m. Usually an ugly game, though a certain insurance company goes to great lengths to make it appear that the battle for a Snoopy statue is very, very important. That company just did not go to great enough lengths this year. We got our only look at the Giants in Sunday's Hall of Fame game. It was not pretty, but it will have to do.
Rams at Browns, Aug. 23, 8 p.m. Manziel and Sam? How did they miss this one?
Raiders at Vikings, Aug. 8, 8 p.m. The Raiders get a lot of television time this preseason, but the Vikings are shut out, despite a compelling quarterback situation, interesting new coaches, a pitched backup running back battle and the Kain Colter community interest angle. Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr provide two well-known rookie quarterbacks for the price of one, with Khalil Mack and Anthony Barr seeking to regain the spotlight by sacking them. This is preseason football for the connoisseur.
Dolphins at Buccaneers, Aug. 16, 7:30 p.m. As mentioned earlier, the Bucs are an awesome preseason team this year. The Dolphins aren't too shabby either: new offense, running back competition, a redemption angle to mercilessly flog. They were shut out of preseason telecasts. It's like the league is embarrassed by them for some reason.
Texans at Broncos, Aug. 23, 9 p.m. Who does Peyton Manning draw in the traditional dress rehearsal? Why, J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney, of course. The Texans were shut out of the preseason telecasts, so we don't get to determine Clowney's work ethic based on 20 snaps, we don't see Bill O'Brien's spin on the Baby Belichick routine, no Tom Savage, no speculation about what meaningless title Andre Johnson will inherit upon retirement, nuttin'. The Texans even have a kicker controversy, for heaven's sake. Nothing is cooler in August than a kicker controversy. C'mon guys, flex the schedule. Replace that Colts-Saints mess with this. I promise to watch and tweet like a one-man Sharknado 2.
And Finally: Are you cool enough to drink at a bar Johnny Manziel drinks at? I am. Let me tell you what it's like to sit on the still-warm barstool of America's favorite bon vivant, socialite and quarterback-about-town.