Coach Bisaccia Dispels the Lament that “Preseason Games Don’t Matter”
For every football fan that laments “preseason games don’t matter”, Cowboys special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia has a message for you. “Everything matters in football,” insists Bisaccia. “The reality is every play is important.”
While it’s true that final scores of preseason games don’t count in the standings, the games themselves are critical for evaluating whether or not players can contribute on special teams.
“Part of our meeting this morning was ‘everything matters’, so it’s interesting you bring up this topic,” says Bisaccia. “Really, in life, everything matters. It matters if I’m driving a car and if I decide to text. For these players, regardless of whether they played special teams in college, or whether they played first-team offense or first-team defense, if they get a rep to play on a kickoff team or a kickoff return team, it certainly matters to them.
“If anybody paid attention to anything in last week’s Hall of Fame ceremonies, Terrell Davis (former Broncos RB, Hall of Fame Class of 2017) is famous for one play in preseason that gave him a shot. He made a big play on a kickoff in Tokyo. He didn’t get any reps in the first game of preseason, now it’s the second game. He didn’t think he was going to get in that game either, eating a bunch of hot dogs. He gets in, makes a big tackle on the kickoff team. After that play, the head coach puts him in the game at running back. That year he becomes the starting running back as a rookie. To think that play in preseason on kickoff team didn’t matter, it certainly matters.”
This is Bisaccia’s 19th season as an NFL coach, his fifth as the Cowboys special teams coordinator. He’s also the Cowboys’ assistant head coach. His current core group of special teamers is littered with players of various pedigrees. Some entered the NFL as top draft picks (Byron Jones, Darren McFadden), some were mid-round draft picks (Kyle Wilber, Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson), and others were unknown rookie free agents (Dan Bailey, Chris Jones, Jeff Heath, Keith Smith).
Whether they were first-rounders like Byron Jones, or undrafted guys like Jeff Heath from tiny Saginaw Valley State, each had to prove himself to Bisaccia on the practice field before receiving an opportunity to play in a preseason game. It’s not just every play of every preseason game that matters, it’s every snap of every training camp practice that makes the difference between a spot on an NFL roster or an airline ticket home to your couch.
And it’s particularly hard to prove yourself in practice because there are so few special teams drills that can be replicated at full game-speed.
“During practice, the one thing we get to do in full-speed in pads is punt,” notes Bisaccia. “Punt and punt return is always full-speed. Kickoff and kickoff return is a glide-and-stride period. By the end of it, it has a lot of tempo to it, but it’s still not full-speed tackling to the ground and those things. So the best chance you have as a player for it to matter to you, is the preseason game.”
As fans, when we watch these so-called “meaningless” preseason games, let’s remember that each player running downfield in kick coverage, or each player blocking on a punt return, has earned the right to play in preseason because of what happened on the practice field in Oxnard.
The players’ names will be unfamiliar. Let’s be honest, we’ve never heard of most of the rookies or first/second year guys, especially if they weren’t drafted. Nobody knew of Dan Bailey or Jeff Heath or Anthony Hitchens when they were rookies. Now the fans chant their names at training camp, begging for autographs.
And nobody heard of Miles Austin back in the summer of 2006…until he made a splash as a kickoff returner later that season. And nobody had heard of Cliff Harris from Ouchita Baptist back in 1970…until he started crashing into every opponent, eventually becoming a Cowboys’ Ring of Honor member.
Preseason matters. It matters a lot. Don’t watch preseason games and get caught up in the scoreboard. Watch the games and get caught up in the young guys flying around the field, trying to catch the coach’s eye, fighting for a spot on the final 53-man roster. For the lesser-known players, special teams are their best opportunity to make their NFL dreams a reality.