NFL teams have come to fear preseason games. They don’t matter in the standings and the risk of losing players in August in the salary-cap era is too great. So the starters play sparingly and teams make little effort to win these games.
But that wasn’t always the case. Once upon a time those games were competitive. And meaningful. No, not in the standings. But they were considered a part of the team-building process that sent a contender into a season with momentum.
In 1969, when Kansas City won the final AFL championship plus Super Bowl IV against the Minnesota Vikings, the Chiefs stormed into that season off a 6-0 preseason. In 1962, when Vince Lombardi fielded his finest team — a 13-1 NFL champion — the Green Bay Packers also bolted into that season off a 6-0 preseason.
They were called exhibition games back then. Now that they are attached to the season-ticket packages, the NFL has rebranded them as preseason games. And that’s the subject of our weekly Talk of Fame Network poll — what was the most memorable exhibition game of all time? We offer up six options:
Aug. 8, 1961 – The Hamilton Tiger-Cats whip the Buffalo Bills, 38-21. The Tiger-Cats were the pride of the Canadian Football League, appearing in seven Grey Cups in a span of eight seasons (1957-1965). The CFL had been playing preseason games with NFL teams throughout the 1950s without any success, going 0-8 with the Montreals, Ottawas and Torontos all taking their lumps. But this would be the first time a CFL team would play an AFL team. It’s also the last time a CFL team would play any AFL or NFL opponent. Using a combination of CFL and NFL rules, the Tiger-Cats prevailed before a crowd of 12,000 in Hamilton.
Aug 18, 1962 – Cleveland Browns stage the NFL’s first preseason doubleheader. Browns owner Art Modell scheduled two games at Municipal Stadium, the Browns against the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Detroit Lions against the Dallas Cowboys. The games dew 65,000 so the doubleheaders became an annual feature in the Cleveland exhibition schedule through 1971. What’s notable about the first one is that Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis, the first overall choice of the 1962 draft, was introduced on the field in street clothes at the game. But he never suited up to play a single down for the Browns. He was diagnosed with leukemia that summer and passed away the following May.
Aug. 2, 1963 – the College All Stars stun the Green Bay Packers, 20-17. The NFL staged this game annually from 1934 through 1973 pitting its defending champion against an all-star team of seniors from the previous college season. Lombardi’s Packers featured eight Hall of Famers but an all-star team featuring future Hall of Famers Bobby Bell, Buck Buchanan, John Mackey and Dave Robinson pulled off the upset. Game MVP Ron VanderKelen threw what turned out to be the game-winning 73-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to his Wisconsin college teammate Pat Richter. Lombardi was livid with his team after the game. It was one of only eight losses Lombardi suffered in 50 career exhibition games with the Packers.
Aug. 5, 1967 – the Denver Broncos shock the Detroit Lions, 13-7. The AFL and NFL agreed to a merger in 1966 and the two leagues started playing exhibition games against each other in 1967. The Lions were scheduled to play the first AFL team and their all-decade defensive tackle Alex Karras said he would walk home from the game if the Broncos won. Cookie Gilchrist rushed for a touchdown and Errol Mann kicked a pair of field goals to lift the Broncos to the victory. Karras didn’t bring his walking shoes. He flew home with his team after the loss.
Aug. 23, 1967 – the Kansas City Chiefs humiliate the Chicago Bears, 66-24. After Kansas City’s loss to the Green Bay Packers in the first Super Bowl, Lombardi said the AFL champion could not compete with the top shelf NFL teams. The Chiefs took it personal and vented their frustrations and fury the next time they saw an NFL team – the Bears the following preseason. Hank Stram blatantly ran the score up on his fellow Hall of Fame coach George Halas – even attempting a two-point conversion in the game’s final minute. That game remains the worst loss in Bears’ history.
Aug. 17, 1969 – The Jets dismantle the Giants, 37-14. This was the first meeting between New York City’s two pro football teams with two very passionate fan bases. Ironically, the game was played in Connecticut at the Yale Bowl, which at the time was the home of the Giants. The Jets were coming off their Super Bowl III victory over the Colts and were favored against the mediocre Giants. It was the second of five consecutive preseason losses for the Giants, who then fired coach Allie Sherman before the start of the season.
Aug. 28, 1999 — The Rams lose to the Chargers and also lose their quarterback. With coach Dick Vermeil in a win-or-else season in St. Louis, tragedy struck when the Rams lost starting quarterback Trent Green with a season-ending knee injury in the third preseason game against San Diego. The Rams lost, 24-21, but Kurt Warner stepped in and wound up quarterbacking St. Louis to a Super Bowl championship that season. He would twice be named the NFL MVP, twice take the Rams to the Super Bowl and this summer Warner received a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Aug. 25, 2016 — The Cowboys lose to the Seahawks and also lose their quarterback. The Cowboys brought Super Bowl aspirations to training camp with a healthy Tony Romo providing the arm and first-round draft pick Ezekiel Elliott the legs to what figured to be one of the NFL’s best offenses. But Romo suffered a fractured back on a hit from Cliff Avril in the third preseason game against Seattle, forcing rookie fourth-round draft pick Dak Prescott onto the field. Preswcott went on to steer the Cowboys to 13 victories and the top seed in the NFC playoff bracket. He was voted to the Pro Bowl and was named the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year.