This game is the turning point of the preseason for several reasons. First, this is one of the most important decisions a head coach will make in preparing his team for the regular season. Each organization’s philosophy is different once you arrive at the threshold of the third preseason game. The fourth game is mainly for the veteran players that are on the bubble and those rookies and street free agents that are still trying to catch the eye of the coaching staff. Several coaches are not concerned with winning, and instead use these games for evaluation purposes; where the goal is to build the back end of the roster. A few coaches work their starters in the third game of the preseason to gain cohesiveness while continuing to build team chemistry. Some want to build momentum going into the regular season, with the goal of winning all preseason games, developing that thirst for winning, and wanting the players to love that taste, as they proceed into the regular season. Establishing a winning atmosphere is the goal for all, especially those organizations coming off losing seasons or integrating new head coaches and staff.
Secondly, other coaches, who don’t care about winning the preseason contests. They care more about coming away healthy on both sides of the ball. Most head coaches follow a formula that they learned from former head coaches they worked under as assistants and feel good about executing themselves. Every NFL coach has a philosophy or predetermined schedule based on their gut feeling on their team’s overall game-time conditioning, and if they need more work. Targeting the number of plays or series the starters will participate in in the final game – or if they will play at all – because of the fear of injury is always in the back of their minds. We see it every year; an overzealous late-round draft pick or non-drafted player working hard to make a big play and hurts a front-line player, putting him out for several weeks or perhaps even the entire season.
The third game is generally used by the teams as the dress rehearsal for opening day, with the starters playing at least three quarters. It is about conditioning the body and the mind. It is very important to establish a routine that the team will go through at halftime and have them, as a team, prepare for the second half battle. While several professional football players have been trained since high school to flip the switch at halftime and regenerate second half energy, it takes a while for a team to forge that concept as a unit. This is why you see some teams misfiring in the start of the second half.
As a former personnel man, I always encouraged the head coach to use the fourth game as an opportunity to evaluate bubble players and aging veterans looking to make the 53-man roster. Keep in mind, this is also where teams hide players by not playing rookies with upside, keeping them off film in order to slide them through NFL waivers and onto their practice squad.
Knowing how hard it is to find players who fit your scheme and understand the terminology on both sides of the ball is one of the toughest jobs a personnel man has during this tight window between the third game and opening day. With a keen eye on production, positional attributes and skill set, all personnel men hold their breath that everybody gets through this game injury-free and healthy.