We have all, at some point or another, probably bemoaned the four (or five, in the case of HOF game participants) preseason games as excessive and pointless. Nick Canepa of the San Diego Union Tribune writes,
They charge real money to watch these phony exhibition games, and Saturday night they couldn’t find enough free-spending Cowboys fans to sell out the joint. So the game was blacked out locally. The nerve of the NFL, the cheek, blacking out this glorified practice. Big deal. It was shown on tape delay as soon as it ended. Did you really need to know the score (Hint: 28-20, Chargers)?
Who can blame him? It’s a refrain that’s heard time and again. It immediately comes up when the league tries to talk about expanding the schedule to 18 regular season games. The usual suggestion is that two of the preseason contests would be changed to regular season affairs.
Season-ticket holders often are the most insulted (assaulted) by the process. They pay good money to hold their seats, with a waiting list of thousands who would instantly grab at the chance to obtain those spots. At the same time, a lot of fans don’t even attend those games, and many who do, leave early. It seems like a massive waste of time and money.
Except when you’re in the position of the Denver Broncos.
The Broncos are putting into place a new offense, one that blends the approach Peyton Manning developed in Indianapolis with the running game and pass patterns that Denver has used successfully in the recent past. It’s the third system they’ll have installed in just over one year, which is pretty tough on both coaches and players. They need all the simulated game time that these contests provide, even though many teams really don’t need more than two games. This is one time that a team does.
Peyton Manning is rightfully a perfectionist, making his living by knowing more about the game than his opponents (and even some coaches), as well as by placing the ball very precisely in the hands of his receivers. To accomplish the development of that skill, he needs as many reps as is rational over the course of the full preseason. Contrary to the way that most of us have some degree of belief that his incredible skill level will give him all the things he needs to be successful in the 2012 season ( I find myself equally guilty at times), Manning is coming off a full year off from the game, changing teams and altering his system of play. It’s not an easy task for anyone - not even someone as naturally talented as Peyton.
In the final games of preseason, the Broncos will pretty much have nailed down what direction they’re going to be taking with regard to Manning and his chosen receivers. It’s likely that they know most of the choices right now. Now he needs to develop the connection between himself and all of those receivers, and that means even more reps under the closest thing to regular season games that he can get - preseason games.
He’s likely to play most of Sunday's game against San Francisco. He needs the reps under game conditions to focus his own rehabilitation and to develop the necessary connection with his receivers; getting down the understanding and timing that cannot be established between them without time, repetition and experience. The timing patterns, in particular, require a tremendous rapport between QB and receivers. The change in the OTAs also works against Denver here, limiting the time that Manning has been permitted to work with his guys. Bill Walsh said that his QBs and receivers used to get together outside of camp and in violation of the league rules even back then, and work incessantly on timing routes.
The situation is the same for the defensive players. Rookies like Derek Wolfe, Malik Jackson, and Danny Trevathan have the physical skills to contribute quickly, but need the experiences of the games they have or will be in to increase the odds that they’ll be used effectively in the regular season. The 2011 rookies are also getting the benefit of a complete offseason program for the first time, and with a sense of the modern game already with them, now they can learn the much deeper aspects of the Broncos’ systems.
Walsh again said that it takes one year to learn the system and one to learn how to play the system. Manning’s a quicker study than most, but it’s still a big task.
So, when the subject of an 18-game season is broached, in addition to the potential injury problems that are rightfully brought up, you might also consider that the preseason system as it stands provides a helpful, even important, and perhaps essential option for teams that are installing new systems, commonly with new coordinators and/or coaches. When it was lacking last season, it affected the careers of talented rookies, players that have benefited from the system in 2012.
Given the importance of depth for Denver to potentially make some noise in the playoffs this season, this is also the first year in many that I've watched every snap and kept an eye out to see who was faltering, who had their hands on their knees, and were blowing hard, shy of the level of conditioning that’s needed for this game and for those like Danny Trevathan and, last year, Chris Harris: late-round or undrafted guys who didn’t find the game too big for them and look like they’ll be able to contribute right away.
This year, the four-game preseason setup benefits the Broncos greatly. Each year, you can find teams in the same dilemma. Maintaining the four-game approach will help them to achieve one of the goals of the league’s front office - parity. From a fan’s standpoint, it’s a chance to see the development (or lack thereof) of a lot of players that you probably won’t be able to see in the regular season. They didn’t show it well against Seattle, but there’s a lot of talent in the second and third units this year.