John Steigerwald: NFL preseason games give empty feeling to many | TribLIVE.com
Steelers/NFL

John Steigerwald: NFL preseason games give empty feeling to many

John Steigerwald
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CHAZ PALLA | TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Steelers quarterback Devlin Hodges looks to throw agains the Buccaneers in the third quarter Friday, Aug. 9, 2019 at Heinz Field.

Exhibition games used to be for the fans.

Now they’re for the coaches, and they’re tough to watch.

Unless you’re watching them like a coach, purely as a way to evaluate players.

And they were called exhibition games before they were called preseason games. Somewhere along the line, somebody at the NFL office decided calling them exhibitions diminished their importance. Preseason was meant for “almost a regular-season game.”

And, for a while, they were.

Now the preseason games are actually exhibitions and have no resemblance to an NFL regular-season game, and the fans know they’re not for them.

That’s why Heinz Field is half empty and why the “noise” on TV sounds like a golf match.

Fans literally can’t give tickets away, but still the games go on.

There was a time when the Steelers’ first exhibition game looked like a real game. First stringers against first stringers. The starting quarterbacks for both teams started the game against the opposing team’s starting defense.

Seems like it was some time around the middle of the Bill Cowher era when the Steelers’ starters would be in for just a possession or two before giving way to players who needed to be evaluated.

Multiple starters showing up in street clothes, as they did Friday night, is a relatively new thing.

Starting players are paid a lot more than they were when they were called exhibition games, but a starting quarterback was every bit as valuable and important to the team’s success then as it is now.

So, the fear of injury hasn’t changed.

And what about those player evaluations?

The coaches know what to look for, but they would probably prefer to evaluate their young players during practice when they’re matched up against the regulars.

Fans and media see Josh Dobbs or Mason Rudolph put together an impressive series of plays at quarterback and they’ll say they did it against guys who will be driving trucks in September.

For some reason they seem to forget that many of the guys in the huddle with them will also be gear jamming soon.

NFL preseason games still serve a purpose. There just isn’t any need to put them in stadiums anymore. How many empty seats will it take to put an end to the misery?

• Of course, there were plenty of impressive performances by players playing against players they won’t see if they’re playing in September.

First-round pick Devin Bush delivered on the promised speed at inside linebacker and looks like a guy ready to play on opening day.

James Washington had a big night at wide receiver, but he did that last summer and then averaged one catch per game in the regular season.

The guy whose slack he’s supposed to pick up averaged about seven times as many. That’s a lot of ground to make up, and nothing he does in the preseason will guarantee that he will come close to doing it.

• The Pirates have successfully established over at least the last 20 years that they are a major league team in name only. Their three-year window of appearing as a real one is long gone.

They’re proving it again right now. A real major league team, no matter what the expectations were before the season, would not lose 23 out of 27 games after the All-Star break and not be angry or embarrassed enough to fire the manager and/or the general manager or both. It also wouldn’t have the arrogance and/or stupidity to believe it could get away with it with its fans.

John Steigerwald is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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