Yes, former Vikings owner Red McCombs was stuffed full of enough hot air to fill a carnival barker back when he was spending his summers declaring preseason games to be “one of the greatest dramas in all of sports.”
On the flip side, preseason games aren’t as devoid of purpose as most fans have griped about as they’ve nodded off long before a bunch of no-names started mopping things up in the second half.
Just ask some of those former no-names who needed those games to turn heads, make rosters and forge NFL identities.
“I’ve thought a lot about that with all that’s going on with coronavirus and there being no preseason games,” said Audie Cole, a perennial bubble-guy linebacker who played for the Vikings from 2012 to ’16.
“And it’s not just guys like me. Look at Adam Thielen. He’s a star player who needed those extra games, those extra reps. There’s definitely guys who are going to get missed and fall through the cracks this year because of the lack of exposure with no preseason games.”
Sunday night would have concluded the first full week of NFL preseason games. Instead, all but the Chiefs and Texans won’t have their first padded practice until Monday.
Teams have until Sept. 5 to trim their 80-man rosters to 53. And they have only 14 padded practices to evaluate players between Monday and Sept. 6.
“We’re losing opportunities for the young kids who have to build a résumé,” Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “Those preseason games are where they’re putting tape out there, not only for us as the Minnesota Vikings to watch but the other 31 teams. That’s who I feel bad for.”
Here are four stories from players, from the Vikings’ past and present, who would agree.
Sage Rosenfels ‘greatest preseason quarterback’
Sage Rosenfels found the sweet spots to quarterbacking NFL preseasons — maximizing throws as a backup by replacing the starter before the pre-halftime hurry-up drill and, quietly, hoping for poor defense, because “there’s nothing worse than being up by 14 points” and the coach calls run plays.
Rosenfels was so good in the preseason that despite having just 12 starts, his career lasted 12 NFL seasons for five teams, including the Vikings. He was tabbed last year as the “Tom Brady of the NFL preseason” by FiveThirtyEight.com, which determined Rosenfels’ 3,804 yards and 30 touchdowns in exhibitions added the most value of any preseason passer since 2000.
“You know, everyone has their thing,” Rosenfels said in a phone interview. “On my deathbed, it sounds like I may be the greatest preseason quarterback of all time.”
Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman noticed early. Spielman, then the vice president of football operations for the Dolphins, traded for Rosenfels — a 2001 fourth-round pick by Washington — after he led a comeback preseason win with three fourth-quarter touchdown passes in 2002.
With Spielman in the front office, the Vikings acquired Rosenfels in 2009 and 2011.
“I had proved I could play in the league,” Rosenfels said. “I ended up getting traded because of it.”
Preseason play was “monumental,” he added, because backup quarterbacks typically don’t even get practice reps during the regular season, when time is reserved for starters. Practices also can’t replicate all the circumstances, such as throwing under a real threat of getting hit, that passers need to prove themselves.
“When you’re the No. 2 or No. 3 quarterback, you get up for [preseason games] like it’s the Super Bowl,” Rosenfels said. “They’re huge.”
Audie Cole ‘always a bubble guy’
In five years as a Viking, Cole said he spent “every day feeling like tomorrow could be the day I got cut.”
So, yeah, as a rookie, he said, “all those preseason snaps mattered because unless you’re a fifth-round pick or higher, I feel like you’re not safe. And I was a seventh-rounder.”
Two preseason snaps in particular helped Cole back on Aug. 17, 2012.
It was Week 2 of the preseason. The Vikings were leading by one score in the closing minutes at the Metrodome when Cole returned two interceptions for touchdowns. On back-to-back plays against Tyler Thigpen and Brad Smith.
Asked after the game how many pick-sixes he’d had in his life, Cole said, “Counting tonight? Two.”
“I would like to think I would have made the team without a preseason, but who knows?” said Cole, who lives in Nashville, where he works as a clinical specialist for Game Ready, which produces injury recovery technology.
“I do know they kept seven linebackers that year. That’s a lot. And they kept eight the next year, which is unheard of.”
Cole played 57 games and started seven, including the last five in place of Erin Henderson in 2013.
“I was always a bubble guy who needed the preseason,” he said. “I mean, I got released in [Week 10] of 2013 for a backup offensive tackle [Kevin Murphy] who never played. And two weeks later, I’m starting against the Packers at Lambeau Field.”
He led the Vikings in tackles that day with 13. And notched the only sack of his career in a 26-26 tie.
“I do wonder what might have happened without preseason games,” Cole said. “Neither one of those interceptions came on great throws. The first one, I undercut the No. 3 receiver. The second one, honestly, the guy threw it right to me. Right place, right time. But putting that on tape definitely helps.”
Justin Trattou ‘You can’t replace it’
Former Vikings defensive end Justin Trattou can still see the Christian Ponder pass he nearly intercepted during the 2015 preseason, and the sack of Ponder — then an Oakland Raiders quarterback — two plays later that nudged the Vikings front office into keeping Trattou as a fifth defensive end.
“I vividly remember that one,” Trattou recalled recently in a phone interview. “I’m not going to give you any great one-liners, but it’s like every preseason and every play — you had to win.”
The scores didn’t matter, but plays often did for Trattou. He credited big preseason moments for lifting him out of NFL obscurity, as an undrafted free agent from Florida, and into a seven-year career with the Giants, Vikings and Buccaneers.
He made the Vikings roster three times after strong exhibition slates, including leading the 2016 preseason with 4.5 sacks, and appeared in 26 regular-season games.
“You do that, and you’re not guaranteed to make the team you’re on, but you’re nearly guaranteed to get signed by somebody,” said Trattou, who is now a North Jersey real estate developer and working on a master’s degree at NYU. “Without that, I wouldn’t have been able to play in that league for more than a year.”
Without preseason games, “careers will basically not take off,” Trattou said, adding practices are open to only one set of evaluators — not all 32 teams — limiting player exposure. To evaluate a young roster, Vikings practices will include live tackling and extended game simulations, according to head coach Mike Zimmer.
“That’s all well and good,” Trattou said. “I’m not saying you’re not going to get better doing it, but when there are 60,000 in the stands and you’re live on TV, and the real pressure is on, it’s a completely different dynamic than going to practice and having live tackling. It’s not the same. You can’t replace it.”
Adam Thielen ‘You’ve got to step it up’
Adam Thielen’s first training camp with the Vikings in 2013 impressed enough people to land him a spot on the practice squad, and his second helped him build on the case he should make the Vikings’ roster.
But with nothing guaranteed during the 2014 preseason, Thielen knew a few standout moments in games could put him over the top — especially after a coach told him as much.
“Obviously when you’re able to go make plays and prove that what you’re doing in practice can be translated to the field, I think that’s important,” Thielen said. “I do remember a time where a coach said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to step it up and start making plays, or you’re not going to make this team.’ ” Thielen said the comments functioned as motivation, though he didn’t think one specific moment helped him clinch a spot on the roster.
He stood out on special teams particularly, returning three punts for 52 yards in the Vikings’ first exhibition game against the Raiders and taking a punt back 75 yards in the third game against the Chiefs.
Thielen was the Vikings’ leading receiver in the team’s second preseason game and caught a 3-yard touchdown pass from Teddy Bridgewater in the fourth one.
He’s well aware how difficult it would be in 2020 for a player in his situation to make the same kind of impression without a normal camp and preseason.
“If this was the year that I came out, I wouldn’t even be here. I’d have no chance — I wouldn’t have even had an opportunity,” he said. “But at the end of the day, these guys that are in here right now, these rookies that are maybe drafted late or drafted early, they just have to take advantage of what’s given to them.”