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What is the point of preseason games?

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If winning isn’t important, what is? We look at some possible goals for Chip Kelly and the 49ers.

We all know that winning preseason games doesn’t matter. Chip Kelly’s Eagles went 3-1 last year, right before a crummy season that got him fired. Beating Denver last week did not prove the San Francisco 49ers are better than the world champions, just as losing to Green Bay did not prove they’re bad. (Even though they probably will be this year.)

So what is the point of pre-season games that justifies the risk of injury, Tony Romo might be asking himself right about now? (Besides forcing season ticket holders to pay full price for four games they don’t even want to go to.)

It seems to me there are at least four important goals for the Niners, this year anyway, which are somewhat contradictory.

  1. Deciding the roster.
  2. Getting used to new schemes and plays (given the coaching change).
  3. Practicing the tempo.
  4. Avoiding major injuries.

Roster evaluation

NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks, Arik Armstead, Antoine Bethea and Nick Bellore are five guys wisely kept out of game three. They have nothing more to establish. That may sound funny for special teams specialist Bellore, who would undoubtedly enjoy more time as a depth linebacker. But Chip Kelly values STs highly; he acquired two players in Philadelphia (Chris Maragos and Bryan Braman) just for that role. There’s nothing marginal about a key teams player on one of his squads.

But what about all-important QB competition?

It’s clear that the coaches did everything possible to give an evenly matched competition between the Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick. Coach Kelly rejected one reporter’s suggestion that they should have given Kaepernick more time to make up for his mixed games.

I suspect that one reason is to have, as much as possible, an apples-to-apples comparison. Results against different teams aren’t necessarily equivalent. Chip also noted that they made sure each QB had the same offensive lines and skills players.

We wanted to keep our ones in for both of those guys, so we just felt like how many snaps we were going to get in the second quarter. We were trying to balance it out if we could with [QB] Colin [Kaepernick] and him to see that they both had the same guys to play with, so that you can make some evaluations based upon that the only thing that changed was the quarterback.

The results, as you know, were not good news for Kaepernick. Was he rusty against Green Bay, as a result of his late return to playing status? Or is he just not the quarterback he used to be, for whatever reason? (Leading candidates for such a reason might include injuries, pyschological damage from those injuries, or a limited skillset that the NFL has figured out and schemed against.)

We don’t really have enough data to answer that question, but if the coaches can’t tell the difference, then it doesn’t matter. They can’t responsibly make him their starter without any positive plays in this system. As Chip has said before, “You can’t make the club in a tub.”

That doesn’t rule Kap out for the season, of course. Michael Vick clearly beat out Nick Foles in Chip’s last quarterback competition, back in 2013, but Foles watched and learned for a few weeks. When Vick got injured, Foles seized his chance and never let go of the starting job.

For other players with set roles, however, keeping them out of games is just smart. Torrey Smith will be the team’s #1 wide receiver, so I’m not concerned that they’re not targeting him this preseason. (Having him run routes is good to get him into the offense and pick up the rhythm, though.)

New plays and schemes

Carlos Hyde would seem to be a similar case to Torrey Smith, especially after his concussion in game 3. His roster spot is also solid, but there’s a difference.

The zone-read is a crucial bread-and-butter play in Chip’s system, and it all depends on how well you execute the mesh — the part where the QB sticks the ball in the running back’s guy and either leaves it there, or pulls it back out.

The Niners had a damaging fumble at the 2-yard line on a failed mesh between Thad Lewis and DuJuan Harris in the first game against Houston. Presumably the coaching staff wanted to make sure they had that motion down pat before a game that counts. They paid a steep price for that experience though with Carlos Hyde’s concussion Thursday.

Other than the mesh, though, the coaches are keeping the offense pretty vanilla (as all teams do) and most of the really new stuff will probably be saved for games that count.

Tempo

The tempo is another story. Like the zone-read, everyone knows it’s coming and execution is essential. There is simply no substitute for doing it, over and over including game situations. In fact, that is the whole reason it is supposed to give you an advantage over other teams, because they won’t have faced it in real games and you will.

The interesting twist Thursday was that Green Bay ran some no huddle back at the Niners, and even caught them unprepared on a quick snap with 12 men on the field for a penalty. Hopefully they learned their lesson when it didn’t matter.

Avoiding injuries

This runs neck and neck with roster evaluation for the most important goal of preseason games, and the team took precautions beyond sitting those five veterans. When a reporter asked the coach if he had considered giving Kap more snaps in the third quarter for evaluation purposes, Chip answered:

No, just because of what we were doing up front and not having [left tackle] Joe [Staley] and that group in there protecting him, I thought it would be a little bit different.

“Different,” in this case, clearly means dangerous.

Even so, Thursday didn’t work out very well for the Niners health-wise. Besides Hyde’s concussion, there were injuries of undetermined severity to Bruce Ellington, Quinton Dial, and Eric Reid.

Of course, San Francisco is not the only team taking damage. Dallas will be without Tony Romo for 6-10 games, including October 2nd against San Francisco.

The carnage is getting bad enough that there is serious talk about reducing the number of preseason games, or eliminating them altogether. Shortly after Romo’s injury was announced, Seth Wickersham of ESPN The Magazine tweeted:

It’s not clear exactly what that would look like. If preseason games don’t end, you can expect to see more and more veterans sitting them out.