Is Preseason Meaningless?


With the Bengals’ first preseason tilt against the Green Bay Packers just around the corner, it’s time once again to ask that perennial question, does preseason really mean anything? Does it give you any actual indication of how your team might do? Especially the first preseason game, in which the starters barely play? And the answer is: sometimes. Let’s roll the tape.

August 9, 2007: Detroit Lions 27, Cincinnati Bengals 26. The performance of the first-string offense in Detroit was a harbinger of things to come. After winning the coin toss and electing to receive, the Bengals got the ball on their own 24. They drove to the Detroit 5-yard line before stalling and settling for a Shayne Graham FG. On the second drive, the Bengals would go from their 20 to the Detroit 30 before running out of gas and kicking another three-pointer. After that, the starters were done for the day. Defensively, the Bengals held the Lions’ starting offense scoreless, but would lose the game in fourth-quarter garbage time. Worth noting: Rudi Johnson, not yet hurt, racked up 32 yards on 5 carries, 20 of them on a 20-yard scamper the first play of the game.

In the regular season, the Bengals accumulated a disappointing 7-9 record. The offense’s inability to punch the ball into the end zone in Detroit that day did, in fact, herald a season-long problem. The first-string defense’s performance suggested that it could hold mediocre offenses in check, but said nothing about its abilities when faced with good offenses — which later events would demonstrate it couldn’t handle.

August 13, 2006: Cincinnati Bengals 19, Washington Redskins 3. Carson Palmer, still coming back from the knee injury suffered in the 2005 playoff game against Pittsburgh, did not appear in this 2006 preseason snore-fest in D.C. Most of the action came in a span of about 2:30 near the end of the first quarter, when Redskins QB Todd Collins got called for intentional grounding in the end zone, resulting in a safety. After getting the ball at their 38 on the ensuing free kick, QB Anthony Wright took three plays to get the Bengals into the end zone. Once again, the Bengals starting offense would hold the Redskins’ starters scoreless.

The Bengals would go on to go .500 in 2006. The good showing by the defense in the preseason opener was actually not a mirage. The D would go on to hold opponents to 17 or fewer points eight times in 2006, 14 or fewer seven times, and 10 or fewer four times, including a 30-0 shutout of the Cleveland Browns. But the offense, with Carson Palmer still working to overcome getting Kimo’d in the playoff game the previous January, was inconsistent, putting up 30 points one week and 13 the next.

August 12, 2005: New England Patriots 23, Cincinnati Bengals 13. The Bengals won the toss, elected to receive, got set up on the 28 for their first drive. Palmer took the snap, dropped back, and fired a pass to…Patriots DB Asante Samuel. With Tom Brady not playing, New England pounded the ball with ex-Bengal Corey Dillon. They got stuffed on their first drive. The Bengals second drive consumed more than six minutes, went from their 17 to the Patriots 25, and resulted in a missed FG. A pick by Deltha O’Neal finally set up the game’s first successful FG. New England would kick its own three on their next drive, and the starters were done for the game.

The Bengals were ready for a dogfight in 2005, and this game indeed demonstrated that the brutal 2004 slugfest between the two teams was no fluke. Cincinnati could indeed (at least for the moment) hang with the big boys.

August 16, 2004: Tampa Bay Buccaneers 20, Cincinnati Bengals 6. In his first outing as the team’s designated starter, Palmer was an underwhelming 3 for 8 for 74 yards and a pick. Palmer and the first string would play well into the second quarter, at which point a slim 6-3 Tampa Bay lead would be broken up by a Chris Perry fumble that gave the Bucs the ball at the Cincinnati 19. Three plays later, it was 13-3 Bucs and the game was pretty much over from there.

The 8-8 2004 team bore some resemblance to the squad that took the field that day. For one thing, as a rookie QB Palmer was going to make mistakes, and he did, matching 18 TDs against 18 picks — numbers that would improve in ensuing years. The Bengals had only one blowout win that year, a 26-3 romp over the Cowboys (not counting the 38-10 victory in the final week against a playoff-bound Eagles team resting its starters). Most of their wins were nail-biters, including a pair of one-point squeakers over the Ravens and Giants. On the other hand, half their eight losses were by 11 or more points. Like the Tampa preseason game, when it started to go wrong in ’04, it often kept doing so.

August 10, 2003: New York Jets 28, Cincinnati Bengals 13. I was there, and the Meadowlands crowd that day featured a bumper crop of Bengals jerseys, ranging from my shiny new rookie Palmer duds to more classic Esiason, Anderson and Munoz jerseys. In Marvin’s first game as Bengals head coach, the Jets would get an early gift in the form of a fumbled snap by Jon Kitna, giving them the ball at the Cincinnati 39 three plays into the game. They would have surprisingly hard time scoring, taking nearly four minutes to cross the goal line. Those seven points, scored with 9:46 left in the 1st, would be the last points scored until early in the fourth quarter, when another Jets TD made it 14-zip. Palmer would then orchestrate an 80-yard, five-and-a-half minute scoring drive to pull the Bengals within 7. But after the defense held, Palmer would toss back-to-back pick-sixes to close out the game. I went home and cooked steaks anyway.

This game was certainly indicative of Kitna, who would go on to fumble nine times in the regular season, in addition to the 15 picks he threw. Against, it must be noted, 26 TDs. Inconsistency on offense would eventually be the team’s downfall, as it also fumbled away a shot at the playoffs with 10-27 and 14-22 losses to the Rams and Browns in the final two weeks of the season.