Meaningless Struggle: The Preseason OpenerS

Why do you watch preseason football? To prepare for hosting duties, I sat down last night to watch three of my least favorite things: 1. the Baltimore Ravens, 2. the Washington team, 3. an exhibition game.

On the radio the other day, some guy was declaring that if you love football, you have to be excited about preseason games. Why? If you love movies, do you have to watch footage of the actors' stand-ins holding their marks while somebody meters the light? Or listen in while the writers talk about how to revise the third draft of the script?

By the time I tuned in, the guys who are going to make any difference in NFL games this year were already gone. Troy Murphy was carving up what remained of the Washington defense for a quick touchdown before halftime.

One afternoon this past February, I listened to Baltimore sports-talk radio in amazement as the hosts and callers spent something like 40 solid minutes arguing about whether the Ravens should keep Matt Stover as their short-range place-kicker, or whether they should cut him, use the long-distance kicker for all their field goals, and save the very last spot on their roster for someone else. Stover is so accurate, and so clutch in close! But this other guy is young and needs a shot! But Stover has such a history with this team! Over and over, back and forth, on and on.

Then, when training camp started, the Ravens dumped Matt Stover. They probably spent 1/20 as much time thinking it over as sports radio had.

Is it really so tough to wait and see what actually happens, when things count? The Arizona Cardinals went to the Super Bowl last year and nearly won it. Who had that one in the preseason?

One thing the exhibition game does is show, once you get deep down to the bottom of the training-camp roster, how very hard it is to play in the NFL. By the fourth quarter, panicky guys were staggering and flopping all over the field. They were all no doubt great athletes, with lots of excellent college football experience, but getting out there 11-on-11 at something like pro game speed was too much for them.

The fourth quarter was very important, the announcers said, to these young men out there in the helmets, and to their families. So are their birthday parties, which don't get televised. No. 85 for Washington, running up the middle of the field, made the beginning of a spectacular one-handed catch in stride, then pulled the ball toward his body too sharply and lost it. A quarterback short-armed a fourth-down pass as he rolled out to the left. A quarterback got swiped at by a lineman and fell down at the thought of it.

A little mite of a receiver for Baltimore caught a pass, found a seam, and sprinted 63 yards, till the last man who could catch him caught him. Someone had showed somebody something, there, for sure.

The players who won't play for Baltimore pounded the tar out of the players who won't play for Washington. It wasn't close. With a 23-0 lead and 2 seconds left, the Ravens called time out, so one of their prospective field-goal kickers could try a field goal. The announcers pondered whether this was sportsmanlike or not. Well, they needed to get the guy a kick. Certainly nobody thought the coach would do this in the regular season.

The guy doinked the kick off the upright as time expired. Bad snap, the announcers said. Not his fault.

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