Saturday, August 23, 1997
Spare us the pain
of meaningless preseason games


BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The pro football powers should do us all a favor. They need to take the preseason away from the coaches and turn it over to the people in promotions. They need to bring more meaning or greater glitz to these tedious exhibition exercises.

The National Football League has been ahead of the curve in most things marketable, but its preseason remains a terrible product. It is ridiculously overpriced and thoroughly underwhelming, a series of glorified scrimmages played primarily by unglorified second-stringers.

Starting quarterback Jeff Blake took eight snaps in the Bengals' 31-28 loss to Seattle Friday night, and he completed only one pass. Carl Pickens and Darnay Scott, the Bengals' wondrous wideouts, never touched the ball.

Before the time the game was six minutes old, Blake and running back Ki-Jana Carter were finished for the night. Boomer Esiason, the renowned backup quarterback, sat out the entire game with a stiff neck. Dan Wilkinson and John Copeland, the defensive ends, showed up for the second half sans shoulder pads.

Games painful for fans

You want to know what I think of the Bengals a week before the regular season? I think I need to see the films. Next Sunday's.

Lasting impressions are few in the preseason, and lasting conclusions are folly. Teams reveal only a small portion of their playbooks in these games, and far too much of their personnel. Perhaps the clipboard battle between Eric Kresser and Erik Wilhelm has kept you on the edge of your seat. Me, I'd rather watch Good Burger in Greek.,P. Protecting key players is standard procedure during the preseason, where preventing injury is considered a higher priority than thrilling spectators. Until the regular season starts, the typical NFL star sees about as much action as did Ensign Pulver in Mister Roberts.

"When I tell Jeff Blake three days ago that he's going to play the first two series," Bengals coach Bruce Coslet said, "he's not going to get fired up for the game."

Yet the yellow seats still sold for $43 at Cinergy Field Friday night, and the worst view in the house cost $31. The Bengals charged premium prices for an event whose crowd was drawn almost entirely from people with prepaid season-ticket packages. They announced that 43,637 tickets were distributed. They did not announce the number of no-shows.

These are the tickets big shots typically bestow on their secretaries as proof of their benevolence. These are the tickets secretaries, in turn, share with neighbors as proof of their pull.

Easy money hard to give up

The Bengals are no greedier than other NFL teams. Every pro football town must endure these exhibition games, and this gouging. Still, you have to wonder if there's not a better way.

What ought to whet the public's appetite for pro football serves instead to stoke indifference. What ought to serve as a preview of coming attractions is instead a documentary for dullness. Surely, there must be some means to make the games more meaningful and - or less plentiful.

Perhaps preseason performance could count in some small way - maybe as the playoff tie-breaker right before "Coin toss." Perhaps these games should afford teams the opportunity to improve their draft position. Perhaps those teams that win all of their preseason games could be exempted from postseason road trips to Green Bay and Buffalo.

Four preseason games are at least two too many. Even Paul Tagliabue, the NFL's Pollyanna Commissioner, says he would be happier with three. The difficulty in shortening the preseason schedule is that the owners have come to rely on these revenues, and lack an alternative income source that would be palatable to the Players Association.

"It seems," Ki-Jana Carter said, "that it's getting into a money thing."

It's always been about money. The owners can't extend the regular season without negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement. They can't trim the preseason without cutting into their cash flow. And they can't make exhibition games more interesting without exposing their best players to the risk of reconstructive surgery.

Preseason is the price fans pay for real football.

Happily, it is over.

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