This is one of the most important decisions a head coach will make in preparing his team for the regular season: the philosophy of the fourth and final preseason game. Some coaches are not concerned with winning, and instead use these games for evaluation purposes, to build the back end of the roster and gather players to develop on the practice squad. Others work 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. Establishing a winning atmosphere is the goal for all, especially those organizations coming off losing seasons or integrating new head coaches and staff.
Then there are other coaches, who don’t care about winning the preseason contests. They care more about coming away healthy while gaining continuity 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 felt good about executing themselves.
One phase of the preseason that nobody really mentions, but is vital to the regular season and very important to the preseason games and cuts to 53, is the pro scouting department’s function. During these four weeks, scouts use preseason games to evaluate talent, along with grabbing as much information on upcoming preseason and regular season games as possible. The types of information they gather: offensive cadence, snap count, protection hard counts, formations and defensive personnel groupings, tendencies, schemes and hand signals, just to name a few.
Most NFL coaches have 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 coaches’ minds. We see it every year: an overzealous late-round draft pick or non-drafted player, working hard to make a big play, hurts a front-line player, putting him out for several weeks or perhaps even the entire season.
The third game is generally used by most NFL teams as the dress rehearsal for opening day, with the starters playing into the third quarter. Backups fight for playing time in the fourth quarter, depending on what the head coach feels is necessary in order to further evaluate his depth.
As a former personnel man, I always encouraged the head coach to use this last game as an opportunity to evaluate bubble players and aging veterans looking to make the 53-man roster. Keep in mind that this is also where teams hide players in order to slide them through NFL waivers and onto their individual practice squad.
In regards to most head coaches with whom I worked, they remained focused on the task at hand: on their opening-day opponent and preparing the team, playing the starters a series or two to set the tone. With the lockout delaying development and team progress this past offseason, look for that to be the universal thought among coaches entering their fourth preseason game of 2011.
Knowing how hard it is to find players who fit your scheme, understanding the terminology on both sides of the ball is one of the toughest jobs for a personnel man during this tight window between the fourth game and opening day. With a keen eye on health and stamina, all personnel men hold their breath that everybody gets through injury-free for the real action to begin.