Thanks to the NFL lockout pro football teams were not able to take part in minicamps and organized team activities (OTA's). They will have to prepare for the upcoming season in training camp and with preseason games. It's been a while since the days when NFL preseason counted.
Until 1978, the NFL used to play a six preseason and 14 regular season game schedule. Teams did not get together for practices or workouts of any kind from the end of their season to the beginning of training camp. So training camp and preseason was when teams were built.
Even when the league began playing four preseason and 16 regular season games in 1978 the exhibitions were played hard. Teams did not rest starters like they do today. Fans could count on the veterans playing at least one half during the first two or three games and the entire game in the finale. Play was ragged from time to time, but at least the paying customers and television audience were seeing who they wanted to see.
Because of this fans were willing to pay the same price for tickets to preseason games as they would for the regular season. And teams did not include preseason games in their season ticket packages so fans who may not normally get a chance to attend an NFL game could. Though sometimes the home team did not sell out, it was a win-win situation for everyone involved. Except the players who did not get paid until the first game.
And the season used to get off with a bang when the College All-Stars played the defending NFL champions in their annual charity game. This game was played at Soldier Field in Chicago and pitted the top seniors coming out of college against the winner of the Super Bowl. The pros won most of the time, but sometimes the collegians would sneak up and get them. The game was discontinued after 1976 as the NFL began to take it more seriously and dominate. The Pittsburgh Steelers won the last game which was called due to a thunderstorm 24-0.
The annual pro football hall of fame game was a serious affair too. Teams really did not like to play in it, because it was scheduled so early in training camp. But when they got out there they competed. This season the hall of fame game was canceled due to the lockout.
The Cleveland Browns used to stage preseason doubleheader in old Municipal Stadium. Fans would get two games for the price of one and every year it was a sellout with 80,000 people jamming the old horseshoe.
Teams would go to towns and cities without NFL franchises and play preseason games. Many of those cities have NFL teams today as Jacksonville and Tampa, FL., Nashville, Tenn. and the Carolinas were common preseason stops.
The Dallas Cowboys and Houston Oilers used to take their annual preseason finale so seriously that they played for the 'Governor's Cup.' The winner was considered the best team in the state and given the trophy. Dallas has picked up this tradition with Houston's new team, the Texans, but their battles will never match that of the Cowboys and Oilers.
If two teams from the same state or region are not in the same conference they usually played each other in the preseason. When the NFL preseason mattered these games were some of the best of the year. They included the Baltimore Colts-Washington Redskins, Oakland Raiders-San Francisco 49ers, Kansas City Chiefs-St. Louis Cardinals, New York Giants-New York Jets and Los Angeles Rams-San Diego Chargers.
And the best of the best were targets in the preseason just as they are in the regular season today. There was a preseason game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots on August 28, 1977 that went to overtime and both teams starters played throughout. The Steelers wanted revenge for losing to the Patriots in the 1976 regular season and New England wanted to show that win was not a fluke.
The Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos played a preseason game in 1978 that was billed as a rematch of the Super Bowl they had played in the season before. Bronco fans took the game very seriously and were disappointed when their team lost to Dallas again.
That's how the preseason was back then. Players played all out. Jobs were on the line and this was the only time veterans and rookies had to show that they deserved a roster spot.The play was a little ragged at the beginning, but rounded into shape as the preseason unfolded.
This is the way it might be this year with teams having just one month to get their teams ready for opening day. Starters may have to play more and rookies will be trying extra hard to prove themselves knowing that their opportunities are limited.
And for one season at least, the game will return to a time when NFL preseason mattered.