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Is there anything to be learned from preseason football?

Posted Aug 15, 2016

I listened to Philip Rivers talking about pre-season this week and could not help but think of Wembley Stadium 1993.

The San Diego Chargers quarterback is entering his 13th season in the pros in a career that seems to have flown by since that Draft Day in 2004 when the Chargers and the New York Giants tried to out-stare each other over Rivers and Eli Manning.

The Chargers had the first pick and the Giants the fourth. The Chargers wanted Manning but he wanted to go to New York and said he would refuse to sign for San Diego if they drafted him. They went ahead and picked him anyway, Manning carried out his threat, the Giants picked Rivers and eventually, after a lot of harsh words, they effectively swapped the two passers, with the Giants sweetening the deal with three draft picks.

Giants fans will claim they got the better end of that deal when you consider that they have won the Super Bowl twice under Manning while Rivers has not managed to lead the Chargers to a single Super Bowl appearance. However, you could argue all night about the possibility that Rivers would have won the Super Bowl with that Giants team and whether or not Manning would have been able to get the Chargers over the line.

Both are now savvy veterans of the pro game and still at the same clubs they joined in 2004. They are also experienced enough to know that the rejoicing by some fans at the sight of football being played again after the long, dry spring and summer months is a false dawn as far as most players are concerned.

“To me,” said Rivers, “the pre-season is the most over-analysed 10 plays, or whatever it is – ever.

“If these plays are really good that doesn’t mean we’re an awesome team yet. If they’re terrible, that doesn’t mean we’re not going to be awesome.”

For veteran players, pre-season has long been a necessary evil in which they are required to participate. It is a dangerous world that has to be negotiated without injury in an environment where you want to avoid keen young bucks who are not guaranteed of a place on the regular season roster but who want to show off a little to get noticed and make the grade.

Veteran quarterbacks, or players at any position for that matter, who know they will be in the squad simply want to get in and out of a pre-season game as quickly as possible and without any damage.

That, of course, was what killed exhibition games in London. The eight-season run that began with a whole lot of hoopla for the Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys in 1986, died with a whimper when those same Cowboys returned in 1993 to take on the Detroit Lions in front of tens of thousands of empty seats at Wembley. A mere 43,522 showed up.

British fans had spoken with their feet and the league decided to move the pre-season international games to other parts of the world that would appreciate it more.

Supporters in the UK however, had simply voiced the same opinion as Rivers did this week. They understood just how meaningless a pre-season encounter was. They grew tired of months of building up names like Dan Marino, Joe Montana, John Elway, Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith and many more only to catch the faintest glimpse of them on the field before they gave way to rookie hopefuls who wanted to beat out 10 others for one spot that was available for a third-string cornerback who would see more action on a punting team than anywhere else. And even then, only if he were lucky.

The sight of Marino playing two short series and then being huddled on the bench under a large sideline coat before the first quarter was even in the book was too much for many British fans and they began to stay away.

The contrast between that and the atmosphere at Wembley games since 2007 is palpable, with the NFL fraternity on these shore going nuts for the regular season action they are paying to watch – real, honest-to-goodness football that counts, with every star name desperate to stay on the field for every play and give every drop of effort to go home with a win. These are not games of which fans grow tired and weary.

It made for a great contrast at the weekend in Los Angeles where the Rams have returned 21 years after walking out of the City of Angels. The entertainment capital that managed to lose the Rams to St. Louis for the 1995 season and the Raiders to Oakland at the same time, has had more than two decades to consider why they have had no football team to support.

There is a discussion to be had about stadium facilities back then and offers that were being made by other cities to entice the teams to move but lack of support from fans was as good a reason as any. The Raiders played in far too big a stadium while the Rams were not particularly fashionable or sexy in a town that loves to get noticed.

Fast forward from then to now and the Rams first pre-season game, played in the Raiders old home, the Olympic Coliseum. Lo and behold, a crowd of 89,140 turned up to welcome home their former team. The atmosphere was rowdy, boisterous, celebratory. It felt like a night to remember for fans in Los Angeles.

It felt like a wrong had been righted. The stadium that hosted the first Super Bowl in 1967 had finally welcomed back professional football, albeit of the pre-season variety.

The fear with Los Angeles has long been that it will not support a team through thick and thin, that it will take a successful team on the field to keep the fans coming back for more. But perhaps it will be the bitter sting of not having had a team for so long that will make people appreciate it more this time round and encourage them to be true fans, not fairweather ones, driven by fashion rather than football fanaticism.

The pre-season has no great meaning for any veteran and usually for precious few fans but in Los Angeles this season, it probably means more to their reborn fans than to most others. All they have to do now is keep coming back.

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