NFL preseason games are meaningless.
It doesn’t matter who wins or loses. What matters is keeping your players healthy for the start of the regular season. That’s why 2016 NFL MVP Matt Ryan threw only 20 passes this summer, and NFL rushing champion Ezekiel Elliott carried the ball just six times. You win championships in the fall, not the summer.
And that helps explain why the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons went winless this preseason at 0-4. And why the otherwise hapless Cleveland Browns were a perfect 4-0. Those records don’t matter. When the NFL starts playing for keeps, we’ll see the real Falcons and the real Browns.
But the records do matter. Surprisingly.
Vince Lombardi always believed the winning starts in August. So did Hank Stram. Both are Hall-of-Fame coaches. Lombardi set a coaching standard for the NFL in the 1960s, as did Stram in the AFL. Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers appeared in six NFL title games and won five of them. Stram’s Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs appeared in three AFL title games and won all of them. Lombardi won the first two Super Bowls, and Stram won the fourth one before the AFL and NFL merged in 1970.
From 1960 through his retirement after the 1967 season, Lombardi’s Packers posted a 38-6 preseason record. Green Bay went 6-0 in three preseasons and 5-0 in another. Lombardi once crafted a 19-game preseason winning streak.
Stram’s Chiefs posted a 40-11 record in their 10 preseasons of the 1960 decade. Kansas City went to the Super Bowl twice under Stram in 1966 and 1969. The Chiefs went 4-0 in the 1966 preseason and 6-0 in 1969.
Pete Carroll is old school. He clearly believes the winning starts in August because his Seattle Seahawks have been the NFL’s best August team since he took over in 2010. Carroll has posted a 22-10 preseason record with the Seahawks, including a 4-0 finish this summer. His Seahawks also finished 4-0 in 2012 and 2013.
Does the winning start in August? Carroll has guided the Seahawks to six playoff berths in his seven seasons, four NFC West titles, two NFC championships and one Lombardi Trophy. Carroll has established a mindset in Seattle that winning matters, whether it’s in August, October or February.
Since 1960, 35 of the 57 NFL champions posted winning records in the preseason. Only 11 of the NFL champs since then finished the preseason with losing records. And that’s bad news for the Falcons – and the Oakland Raiders, for that matter, who also went 0-4 this preseason. Only one team since 1960 went winless in the preseason and still won an NFL title – the 1982 Washington Redskins.
Nine teams have used perfect preseasons as a springboard for NFL championships, most recently the Seahawks in 2013. The Belichick Patriots, Noll Steelers and Landry Cowboys were among those teams that joined the Stram Chiefs and Lombardi Packers with championship that began with perfect preseasons.
The last two Super Bowl champions finished 3-1, the 2015 Denver Broncos and 2016 Patriots. And that’s good news for the Green Bay Packers, Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers. They were the only teams this preseason to finish 3-1.
Winning or losing in the preseason may not matter in today’s NFL – but if you fancy yourself a championship contender, it’s in your best interest to win more than you lose in August.