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Masquerade Ball

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YOU CAN TELL the NFL preseason is ending by the flushing sound. Every summer, the NFL televises a series of pretend games featuring players who were signed off the checkout line at Home Depot, and I wonder, Who watches this dreck?

A lot of people, apparently. The "Hall of Fame" Game in Canton, between people wearing the uniforms of the Cardinals and the Cowboys, drew 7.8 million viewers, a near record for a costume show and a number in line with an average major league baseball playoff game.

The game meant nothing and featured just a handful of starters, of course, but this does not matter to Americans, who are so addicted to football that we insist the placebo pills make us feel better even when we are told they are placebos. NFL preseason games aren't really football, but they sort of look like football, and that's enough for us.

Ostensibly, we watch the preseason to get an idea of what might happen in the regular season. But that's like trying to figure out how good a restaurant is by reading the menu at the restaurant next door. The preseason is not remotely predictive.

In his last five preseasons before this one, Tom Brady threw just nine touchdown passes and was intercepted six times. Incredibly, he still kept his starting job with the Patriots. In 2007, Randy Moss missed every preseason game with New England, then set a regular-season record for touchdown catches.

Emmitt Smith held out for the entire 1993 Cowboys preseason, then proceeded to win NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP awards. And the 2008 Detroit Lions went undefeated in the preseason and then went winless in the regular season, the sporting equivalent of successfully climbing into a car and then backing it through the garage door.

Preseason practices matter. Preseason games tell us very little. NFL coaches see them as a way to judge the bottom half of the roster while keeping the players we have actually heard of on the bench. (Only five Dallas starters—and none of its stars--played in the Canton game.) They are wise to do this. The regular season provides enough brutality for any man. If you made your living by getting run over by a cement mixer 16 times a year, would you stand in front of one four more times just to get used to it?

Every pro sport has preseason games, but usually we understand they are just warmup sessions. Baseball teams use spring training games purely as a way to get into shape for games that actually matter, which is also how NBA teams approach regular-season games.

You might listen to a spring training game on the radio or catch a few minutes on TV, but you certainly would not pay regular-season prices to attend one. Yet NFL teams routinely charge real prices to attend the fake games, a policy that used to bother me until I realized nobody can force you to pay it. Sure, they can attach the bill to your season tickets, but nobody can make you buy those, either.

TV announcers used to call these exhibition games, but then the NFL put them all in a headlock until they passed out and forgot that term. The NFL wants the games wrapped in a serious package. It's good for business.

NFL preseason games do feature the most important aspect of any NFL game: point spreads. I'm certainly not going to judge the hopeless degenerates who bet on preseason games, but I do wonder how much time they spend scouting the fourth-team linemen who help determine the final score.

Wagering on the outcome of preseason football games is like betting on the flavor of gum you just stepped on: Even if you win, finding out was not worth it.

At the end of every preseason, no matter what happened, fans face this inexorable truth: The Patriots will be awesome. Fresh off its latest Super Bowl win, New England enters this upcoming season with the best coach in the league, the best roster and the two best quarterbacks in the entire AFC East. The only way they will fail to win that division is if the world ends, and even then, do not count out postapocalyptic Bill Belichick. He will destroy the parts of you that have not yet been destroyed. But at least then you won't be able to watch preseason football.

Watching an NFL preseason game to get an idea about the regular season is like trying to figure out how good a restaurant is by reading the menu at the restaurant next door.

Do you love preseason football?

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