There are many markers between NFL seasons. The Super Bowl is the culmination of the season previous, then the sport simmers until the other notable events occur — the draft, the start of minicamps, the beginning of training camp and then the first preseason game. Only then can the start of the regular season be close at hand.
The first preseason game can seem boring to many. As a former member of the media, I know how newspapers and television stations treat this first contest. Many still refer to them as “exhibitions”.
Here’s why they’re not. Eighty players are in every NFL team’s training camp. That number must be cut down to 53 before the start of the season. Many teams know who most of their starters will be. They also know who many of their second-stringers will be, based on their value on special teams and/or the multiple number of positions they play.
So there aren’t as many positions to be won as one might think. What that means in preseason games is that the part of the game the media and many fans finds boring (often most of the second half), can be where borderline players can make the team or face being cut. Literally, these preseason games can make or break careers for some.
For rookies who were high draft choices, these games are where players can get used to the speed and tempo of pro football. That’s where Seattle linebacker Aaron Curry fits in. Much heralded out of Wake Forest, where he won the Butkus Award for being the nation’s best linebacker, the game with San Diego was his first chance against pro competion.
Curry didn’t show signs of nervousness in the locker room before the game, alternately listening to music and chatting with teammates.
The first game of the preseason meant something else for veteran defensive lineman Cory Redding, who came to the Seahawks in an off-season trade. Redding, who suffered through a history-making 0-16 season with Detroit last year, is looking towards the future with a team sure to win some games. Right before taking the field, he asked team equipment manager Erik Kennedy to loosen him up with some mock body blows.
Safety Jamar Adams is fighting for a job in the defensive backfield. He headed out of the locker room ready to prove himself worthy of a roster spot.
The first-stringers usually only play a series or two in the first preseason game. This is to get them some live game experience while also trying to prevent needless injuries. Linebackers Leroy Hill and Lofa Tatupu got busy in the first quarter, sandwiching San Diego’s Antonio Gates.
As preseason games are extensions of the practice time that training camp affords, there is a lot of teaching by coaches on the sidelines. While every team wants to win each time they take the field, often teaching and talent evaluation are priorities during the preseason.
Head coach Jim Mora advises safety Jordan Babineaux while the offense is on the field.
Offensive line coach Mike Solari instructs his second unit using video stills taken from a high-angle camera.
The second half finds second and third unit players on the field, trying their best to impress the coaches. Receiver Mike Hass scored the team’s second touchdown of the game, and celebrated with teammates Justin Forsett and Andre Ramsey.
The game came down to the final minutes, as San Diego’s third string rallied, needing a touchdown to take the lead. Safeties Marquis Floyd and Kevin Greene combined to knock away a pass at the goal line intended for San Diego’s Legedu Naanee.
After the game, there was much attention on Aaron Curry, who had just completed his first taste of an NFL game. NFL Films was on hand to record his every moment, including a postgame conversation with Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman. Maybe just a little awestruck after the encounter, Curry turned to someone nearby and commented, “I didn’t think he’d even know who I was!”.
Curry dashed off a few autographs for fans before heading to the locker room. Long after other players had showered, dressed and headed for the buses, Curry was still answering media questions.
In the NFL preseason, it’s easy to argue that teams aren’t trying to win like they would during the regular season. But make no mistake — for the players there is competition every step of the way. Veterans want to get readjusted to hitting. Highly paid rookies want to know what to expect when it all begins “for real”. And for many others, the preseason is where they will make or break their dreams of playing in the NFL.