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Last year at this time, I wrote an award-winning article about how the Packers’ past preseason records have been a strong indicator of how well they will do during the regular season. That held true in 2014, as the Packers sprinted to a 3-1 record in the summer session and maintained that pace exactly in the regular season, finishing 12-4. I concluded that study by proposing that a team’s preseason record is a good indication of their overall talent.
With preseason upon us once more, I am again noticing the overall disregard for the meaning of preseason among fans and sportswriters. While some do acknowledge that individual performance matters in the preseason for young talent, almost no one believes that team performance is an indicator of future success. It’s almost like no one read my article…
While I stand by my conclusions in regards to the Packers, it was a small sample. It got me wondering if their strong link between preseason and regular season wins holds true for all teams in the league. Last year, I did have a small recent stat about the rest of the league, but I did not go in-depth because “even with the modern internet to use as research, the preseason games are difficult to find information on.” Well where there’s a will, there’s a way.
I went and sought out every preseason record for every NFL team since the league went to its current scheduling format in 1978. As a side note, I found out firsthand how little anyone cares about the preseason. With all the hundreds of detailed football statistics websites available, I found just one that referenced preseason games before 2002. And that one (footballdb.com) only listed those games at the bottom of each team’s season schedule, not in any kind of standings format. So I rummaged through old newspaper archives that I found online and tracked down every preseason game played in the last 35 years. (Yes, I do have a job and a girlfriend.)
Like I did last year, I analyzed the teams by the total number of wins. In a small sample of four or five games, I felt this was the fairest way to compare teams without producing data that was too difficult to understand. So for this study, a team that went 4-1 gets grouped with teams that went 4-0 or 5-0, a team that goes 2-3 goes with teams that went 2-2, and so on.
With all that said, does a team’s preseason record correlate with their regular season schedule?…
At first glance, not really. It looks like any team that can win at least one game should expect a clean slate when the season starts. However, that picture changes when you look deeper. The average number of regular season wins is being pulled down slightly by the truly awful teams (like the 0-16 Lions; 4-0 in the preseason and exhibit A for those who want to discredit the preseason). If you think about it, it makes sense. The average number of wins between a 4-12 team and a 9-7 playoff team is just 6.5 wins. Once we look at it in terms of what each team accomplished in the regular season, such as playoff appearances, and Super Bowls, the picture becomes somewhat clearer…
Now that shows a consistent curve, but there is still some uncertainty in the higher win categories. This time, let’s just look at the odds of having a winning or losing regular season based on the number of preseason wins (this omits 8-8 teams)...

Now that is almost crystal clear. Teams that win preseason games consistently perform well in the regular season. Last year, we saw this was true in the case of 34 Packer teams. This year, we see that it’s true with 1,105 teams league-wide! (I seriously do have other hobbies, you know.)
Lastly, I found some interesting outliers that I wanted to share (If you read this far you have to be a stat nerd like me anyway)
All stats since 1978:
  • Only 11 teams have made the playoffs with a winless preseason record
  • 76.7% of playoff teams have won at least 2 preseason games
  • 39.4% of playoff teams have won at least 3 preseason games
  • 4 teams have won the Super Bowl after going undefeated in the preseason (1990 Giants, 2000 Ravens, 2003 Patriots, 2013 Seahawks)
  • 79% of Super Bowl winners and 77.8% of Super Bowl participants have won at least 2 preseason games
  • 47.8% of Super Bowl winners and 47.4% of Super Bowl participants won at least 3 preseason games
  • Only the 1982 Redskins (0-4) won a Super Bowl after not winning in the preseason
  • Just 3 teams who went winless in the preseason have appeared in a Super Bowl (1982 Redskins, 1990 Bills, 2000 Giants)
I know I dropped a lot of data on you here and if that is not your thing, here is your takeaway: regardless of what you hear, THE PRESEASON MATTERS…at least historically. Again, the preseason is a good gauge of the depth of your overall roster. If a team is good, they will usually find a way to win half of their preseason games. However, I don’t think fans have to panic about their specific team getting whooped around in the second half of preseason games. But remember, every team gets injuries. Every team has players who fail to play up to offseason expectations. And when those occur, those guys you see battling in the 3rd and 4th quarters of preseason games are going to take their places. If they’re going to be of any use to your team and take the team where they want to go, it will show itself one very prominent place during preseason: the scoreboard.
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