Vince Lombardi once said, “Winning is not a sometime thing. It’s an all-the-time thing.”
The Hall of Fame coach practiced what he preached. He won 73.9 percent of his career games to rank second all-time. He also won 90 percent of his playoff games (9-1), an NFL record. He took the Packers to six NFL championship games and won five of them, all in the 1960s.
Lombardi believed the winning begins in August, not September. In addition to his success in the games that counted, he enjoyed ridiculous success in the games that didn’t count. Lombardi’s Packers posted a 42-8 record in preseason games, easily an NFL record. From 1959 through 1962, his Packers won 19 consecutive exhibition games, another NFL record.
Hank Stram was Lombardi’s Hall of Fame counterpart in the AFL in the 1960s. He also believed the winning starts in August. His Kansas City Chiefs posted a 40-11 record in the preseason, including a 6-0 mark on the way to their only Super Bowl championship in 1969.
The Packers, by the way, were the NFL's winningest team in the 1960s and the Chiefs the AFL's winningest team.
But in today’s NFL, the premium is no longer on winning in the summer. In a salary-cap world, the premium is on keeping your players healthy in these meaningless games. Drew Brees threw only six passes this preseason. Christian McCaffery ran the ball only three times and Super Bowl hero Julian Edelman caught only one pass.
What happens in August has no consequence in how a season plays out. The Detroit Lions went 4-0 in the preseason in 2008 – then became the first NFL to go 0-16 when the games counted. The Indianapolis Colts went 0-5 in 2005, then won 13 consecutive games on the way to a 14-2 record and the top seed in the AFC.
But John Harbaugh, the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, is old school. He subscribes to the Lombardi philosophy of winning being an all-the time thing.
His Ravens were one of three teams to finish the 2019 preseason with a perfect 4-0 record along with the Buffalo Bills and the New York Giants. His Ravens also finished unbeaten in the 2018 preseason…and the 2017 preseason…and the 2016 preseason. Baltimore has now won 17 consecutive preseason games, the NFL’s second longest such streak behind Lombardi’s Packers.
“It’s good to develop the mentality of playing ‘winning football’ and understanding what that requires,” Harbaugh said. “I’m very proud of our players.”
Harbaugh has used the preseason as a springboard to team success. He has managed six perfect preseasons in his 12 years as head coach the Ravens and has won 75.5 percent of those “meaningless” August games. That summer success has provided the thrust for three division titles, seven playoff appearances and a Lombardi Trophy in the Harbaugh era.
Maybe NFL preseason games are meaningless. But they weren’t to Vince Lombardi. And they aren’t to John Harbaugh.