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Are NFL preseason games meaningless? Depends on the role one plays

Updated August 11, 2017 - 5:21 pm

GLENDALE, Ariz.

Meaningless is a relative term when it comes to this stuff.

I’m thinking guys such as Raiders middle linebacker Marquel Lee have a different point of view than most.

NFL preseason games have been defined as a pointless racket for years now, condemned for charging regular-season prices for a less than genuine article.

The tickets and beer and parking cost the same as when things are for real, a crime to many considering how few starters and stars either don’t play or make brief appearances before the regular season kicks off.

In other words, folks are asked to throw down a lot of cheese to watch Tom Brady wear a baseball cap.

That’s NFL owners for you, unrepentant and greedy until the final penny is counted.

The Raiders and all their lofty goals and preseason hype begin this four-game stretch of glorified scrimmages against the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday night at University of Phoenix Stadium, where you would think many of the skill players on the visiting side who will form one of the league’s most explosive offenses will be mere spectators.

You could take months to produce a sensible reason for the likes of quarterback Derek Carr and running back Marshawn Lynch to play and yet never feel comfortable uttering one.

But that doesn’t mean the Raiders lack for long looks on Saturday at incredibly important roles, beginning at the spot that Lee as a fifth-round draft pick seems to be the leading contender to start as a rookie when the season opens at Tennessee on Sept. 10.

He’s the other side of preseason games, the counter to gripes about an overpriced product lacking star power.

Middle linebacker isn’t a team’s most important position, but it’s in the neighborhood, especially for a side whose defense is thought the one area that could severely derail what are believed to be legitimate Super Bowl hopes.

“Gotta love it, we’re through the first days of camp, getting the preseason games started,” Oakland coach Jack Del Rio said. “Looking forward to playing a good football team at their place. It will be good for us to see where we are after a couple weeks at camp. (Lee) is doing well. He’s growing, working hard. He has some natural kind of leadership traits. He has a presence in front of the huddle. I think he’s doing a pretty solid job right now.”

If there is anything the league should change for its preseason offerings — other than lowering the ridiculous price tag for fans — it’s the number of watered down games.

It’s true guys need to hit and be active beyond basic camp drills before the grind of 16 meaningful games commence, but any true competition for any open roster spots could absolutely be waged in half the number of games.

Most college basketball teams in recent years have chosen to begin a season by playing one live exhibition in front of fans and another in a closed-door setting, the latter of which allows for a more controlled atmosphere and ability for action to be manipulated.

And while countless NFL coaches agree to such tactics in the preseason — which coverages to run, how much or little a quarterback will be pressured, what types of plays and packages not to show — you would think all necessary goals could be met over two weeks instead of four.

That would mean whole lot of revenue lost for owners, and it’s doubtful jersey sales could increase to the level of making up such an annual shakedown.

And, still, a silver lining just might be slowly emerging.

“When I go around to fans, that’s maybe the No. 1 thing I hear,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told Newsday in regard to eliminating some preseason games. “The NFL should do things to the highest possible standards. Preseason games are not that.

“There’s value to them, building a team, evaluating players, but there are other ways of doing that. I think we could do it in three (games). Almost every coach has agreed we could get done what we need to in three games.”

Here’s thinking they would prefer two, but just the fact Goodell is talking about reducing the preseason at all is a momentous shift in the right direction.

For now, however, stars will play as little as possible and players such as Lee will use preseason games to prove they belong. They will compete each snap as if their lives depended on it, an exercise in survival while trying to make the cut.

Everyone arrives to these things with a different level of motivation.

In this sense, depending on your place in the pecking order of an NFL roster, meaningless really is a relative term.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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