December 18, 2017

In Praise of the Preseason

When does a 6-yard catch late in the fourth quarter of a 41-7 game by an undrafted receiver out of Huey Gablooey State College make a difference?

When it’s August.

The NFL preseason, often called the exhibition season, or “fake football,” and sometimes even “Roger Goodell’s foot bath,” is a period that many sad, grumpy Americans believe is just a waste, a pigskin folly that does nothing but eat up two game’s worth of season ticket holders’ dollars and gets Chad Greenway hurt.

But the more enlightened among us see the NFL’s four-game August lineup for what it really is: something pure, sanguine and happy because it gives hundreds of men a brief opportunity to put on an NFL uniform, soak up the lights and get their photo taken with Ed Hochuli.

And preseason honestly is quite dramatic.  In the regular season a touchdown goes toward determining the outcome of a game.  In the preseason every touchdown, every tackle, every missed tackle, goes on the coach’s report card and could mean that a kid spends one year with an NFL team, pocketing $420,000 and being able to forever say he was a bona fide NFL player, even if it was just for one year.  Even if it was in Jacksonville.

Or, it could mean that he goes back to Huey Gablooey State College and collects cans.

Sure, as the years go by he’ll say he lasted more than just a few exhibition games and if you don’t believe him look at this photo he just happens to have on his phone of him getting kicked by Ndamukong Suh. But then you’ll check Pro Football Reference and see that, no, September began without him.

And you’ll buy him another Fresca then sneak away when he’s crying in the bathroom.

Like a short story as compared to a novel, the preseason has the wit and flair of brevity that the 16-game slog of the regular season does not. Four August nights have the charm of the ephemeral, like a firefly that glides by proudly before drowning in your cousin’s Leinenkugel.

When the exhibition lights go bright we know summer is coming to an end and for many guys who have played football their whole life, the dream is reaching the end of the tunnel as well.

Training camps end and dorms will give way to college students. Instead of football four or five nights a week, in September it will only be on three or four.

Embrace the preseason.  Enjoy the moments when NFL sidelines have more men in uniform than the Swiss Army.  Relish seeing linebackers with jersey numbers in the 60s and running backs from BYU.

They say there is no trophy for the preseason, that the only winners are those who emerge healthy. They say a lot of things.  Maybe they should just shut up for a while.


Broncos Stun Lions in First Preseason Game Between AFL-NFL Teams (1967)

The merger between the NFL and AFL, that was agreed to in 1966, was implemented in phases. In the first phase, following the ’66 season, a game was played between the champions of the two leagues (now known as Super Bowl I). For 1967, there was a common draft of college talent between the two leagues, and while they would still play separate schedules until 1970, interleague preseason games could be scheduled. While at one level the contests were mere exhibition games that counted for nothing in the standings, to the participants they meant a great deal. In particular, the AFL players were determined to prove their mettle against the clubs from the older NFL.

Such was the case as the AFL’s Denver Broncos hosted the NFL’s Detroit Lions at University of Denver Stadium on August 5, 1967. The Broncos, a club that had never produced a record above .500 in any season and had gone 4-10 in ’66, hardly seemed likely to fare well against any NFL team. Under new Head Coach Lou Saban, who had led Buffalo to back-to-back championships in 1964 and 1965 before coaching for a year at the University of Maryland, the team was in the process of being revamped. Gone were key veterans that Saban deemed unfit for taking part in a rebuilding effort like split end Lionel Taylor, safety Goose Gonsoulin, and guard Jerry Sturm. Most notable among the newcomers was the rookie first draft choice out of Syracuse, halfback Floyd Little. Denver had lost its first preseason game against the second-year Miami Dolphins by a score of 19-2.

The Lions also had a new head coach in Joe Schmidt, at age 35 and only two years removed from his Hall of Fame career as a linebacker. Detroit had gone 4-9-1 in 1966 and was also in transition. Defense had long been the team’s strong suit, and they still had a strong veteran core of defensive tackles Roger Brown and Alex Karras, linebackers Mike Lucci and Wayne Walker, and safety Dick LeBeau. Veteran QB Milt Plum was recovered after missing half of the season due to injury and was being challenged by Karl Sweetan, who had performed creditably as a rookie in his absence. Their top three picks in the draft had added HB Mel Farr from UCLA, CB Lem Barney of Jackson State, and Tennessee LB Paul Naumoff.

There were 21,288 fans in attendance for the Saturday evening contest. Neither team was able to mount much offense in the first half. Playing inspired football, the Broncos defense kept the Lions offense out of the end zone; the closest Detroit penetrated was to the Denver 36 yard line. Safety Lonnie Wright made two big plays, intercepting a Sweetan pass at his own 20 and then batting down a long Detroit pass in the end zone to stop another drive.

Following a 56-yard pass play from QB Scotty Glacken to flanker Al Denson, Errol Mann kicked a 35-yard field goal that staked the Broncos to a 3-0 lead (while Mann failed to make it to the regular season with Denver, ironically, he eventually ended up kicking for the Lions for 7 ½ years).

The key play of the game occurred on a 4th and 11 situation at the Detroit 44 in the third quarter. Denver punter Bob Scarpitto ran instead of kicking and picked up 28 yards and a first down at the Lions 16 yard line. Six plays later, FB Cookie Gilchrist bulled into the end zone from a yard out and the Broncos led by 10-0.

Detroit finally scored in the fourth quarter as Plum threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to WR Bill Malinchak. That was it for the Lions, and Mann’s second field goal of the game from 32 yards out capped the scoring at 13-7 in favor of Denver.

On the bus after the game, Roger Brown of the Lions moaned “The Denver Broncos…it didn’t happen!” But Coach Schmidt summed up by saying, “I want to pay tribute to the Denver team. And, if the other AFL teams show as much desire, there will be many other surprises in the preseason inter-league competition.”

While the Broncos went on to defeat the Vikings, 14-9, and the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs thrashed the Chicago Bears by an astounding score of 66-24, the NFL teams won the remaining contests and had an overall record of 13-3 in the 1967 interleague preseason games.

For all of the excitement and heightened expectations, the Broncos still ended up at the bottom of the AFL’s Western Division with a 3-11 record. Detroit finished the ’67 regular season with a 5-7-2 tally that ranked third in the Central Division of the NFL’s Western Conference.


Keith Yowell runs the blog Today in Pro Football History where this article was originally published on August 5, 2010.