While we could fill pages with what is different about the NFL today compared to 40 years ago, during this time of the year one noticeable difference is how preseason games are handled by the teams and viewed by fans and the media.
Exhibition games have been part of football history since the very beginning of the NFL. For many years, some of the NFL teams would play exhibition games against non-league teams. From the 1930s through the mid-1970s, the NL Champion played an annual exhibition game against a team of college all-stars who were beginning their rookie season.
Preseason exhibition games amongst league teams became more standard in the 1950s and have continued in similar fashion for the last 60+ years.
Because low player salaries meant that many players had offseason jobs, for many years the preseason schedule was seen as crucial to helping players get in shape and prepare for the upcoming season.
It was not uncommon for starters to play a majority of the time during preseason and often how a team performed during the preseason was seen as a precursor towards whether they would be successful in the regular season.
In some cases, the preseason also served as an opportunity for teams to exact revenge for previous results.
After the Kansas City Chiefs lost the first Super Bowl to the Green Bay Packers and Green Bay Coach Vince Lombardi commented that the Chiefs would be an average team in the NFL, Chiefs coach Hank Stram used the next preseason as an opportunity to exact some frustration and send a message to the NFL.
Because the NFL-AFL merger called for exhibition games between the two leagues, the Chiefs treated their 1967 exhibition game against the Chicago Bears like an act of war. The Chiefs pummeled the Bears 66-24 to let the NFL know that the AFL was filled with more than just second tier teams.
For most of the 1960s there was a four game preseason schedule, but in 1970 the NFL received a Sherman Anti-Trust exemption which led to an expanded preseason schedule and a requirement for season ticket holders to purchase preseason tickets as part of their practice. The requirement has been unsuccessfully challenged in court several times and still exists.
The current standard of four exhibition games has been in place since the NFL regular season was expanded to 16 games in 1978. On occasion teams will play an additional game, including the Hall of Fame Game and from 1986-2005 overseas exhibition contests.
How coaches utilize players during the preseason has evolved over the years. Many will argue that the number one purpose of preseason games today is to increase the financial balance sheet for league owners as players are not paid a full game check for preseason play and fans are forced to purchase full tickets.
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It was common as recently as the mid-1990s for starters to play at least some throughout the exhibition season, building to play most of the game in either their third or fourth preseason game of the year.
However, in recent years the fear of unnecessary injury and player safety has led to the starters seeing very limited regular season action.
On occasion, that has helped give young players a chance to shine and earn a spot on the roster. However, it also has created a fair number of “preseason stars” who look like superstars when facing other end of the roster players, but never live up to the promise when facing NFL starters.
Again this season, there is surely to be players who earn a roster spot based on their preseason performance, but until the games become real it will be hard to know which young players are future stars and which are simply stars of the preseason.