Backup Battles - By Viktor Figeczki

Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial

It's only September, but for many players in the NFL the season is already over. For some, this statement unfortunately also rings true when applied to their careers. Fractions of four games is their short time in the limelight before the starters fans know and love return to the field on a full-time basis, relegating the backups, rookie draftees and un-drafted free agents to the bench, practice squad or Wal-Mart.

The pre-season is widely regarded as nothing more than a hyped-up scrimmage, because the strength of a franchise cannot be measured during this time as coaches don't game plan, don't leave their first-stringers in the game and don't always make sound decisions in order to test their personnel in various adverse scenarios. In short, the pre-season is insignificant.

Just don't try to tell that to those pseudo-anonymous players desperately clinging to a roster-spot. To them, the pre-season is everything.

In light of this, it would be downright cruel to completely ignore these exhibitions games and the un-official glory harvested in them. Instead, let us view this four week span (five including the Hall of Fame Game) as a mini-season in its own right, a championship for the B-side of each franchise's vinyl record.

The premise is simple. We can, crudely, eliminate all starters from the event by only looking at a team's performance in the second half of each game, when the chances of spotting a starter on the field are roughly equal to hearing George Bush string a grammatically correct sentence together. The sample from which we draw our conclusions is small, but that doesn't mean we can't crown division champs and wild-card qualifiers by looking at each team's record, their points for and against, and if a tie-breakers is needed, strength of schedule.

Records and Results Compiled in Second-Half Play of 2006 Pre-Season (Note: In the final week, the results are taken from the last three quarters of play):

Cincinnati 4-0 vs. Wsh. 7-0, Buf. 17-14, G.B. 14-10, Ind. 13-3 51-27
Cleveland 2-2 vs. Phi. 7-17, Det. 10-6, Buf. 13-7, Chi. 7-10 37-40
Baltimore 1-2-1 vs. Giants 3-10, Phi. 17-0, Min. 7-20, Wsh. 10-10 37-40
Pittsburgh 0-3-1 vs. Ari. 7-7, Min. 3-7, Phi. 0-7, Car. 10-15 20-36
New England 3-1 vs. Atl. 17-13, Ari. 17-0, Wsh. 21-0, Giants 16-31 71-44
N.Y. Jets 3-1 vs. T.B. 0-13, Wsh. 10-7, Giants 7-6 , Phi. 20-17 37-43
Miami 2-2 vs. Jac. 16-21, T.B. 3-7, Car. 7-6, St.L. 29-3 55-37
Buffalo 1-2-1 vs. Car. 10-0, Cin. 14-17, Cle. 7-13, Det. 13-13 44-43
*Oakland 2-2-1 vs Phi. 9-0, Min. 3-3, S.F. 13-7, Det. 0-3, Sea. 0-23 25-36
San Diego 1-2-1 vs. G.B. 3-3, Chi. 0-10, Sea. 14-6, S.F. 7-23 24-42
Denver 0-2-2 vs. Det. 7-10, Ten. 7-7, Hou. 7-11, Ari. 20-20 41-48
Kansas City 1-3 vs. Hou. 7-10, Giants 0-3, St.L. 0-9, N.O. 10-9 17-31
Jacksonville 4-0 vs. Mia. 21-16, Car. 7-0, T.B. 29-7, Atl. 20-10 77-33
Houston 2-1-1 vs. K.C. 10-7, St.L. 17-17, Den. 11-7, T.B. 9-13 47-44
Indianapolis 1-2-1 vs. St.L. 7-0, Sea. 10-10, N.O. 10-14, Cin. 3-13 30-37
Tennessee 1-2-1 vs. N.O. 6-13, Den. 7-7, Atl. 0-3, G.B. 28-14 41-37
Minnesota 2-0-2 vs. Oak. 3-3, Pit. 7-3, Bal. 20-7, Dal. 10-10 40-23
Detroit 2-1-1 vs. Den. 10-7, Cle. 6-10, Oak. 3-0, Buf. 13-13 32-30
Chicago 2-2 vs. S.F. 7-11, S.D. 10-0, Ari. 10-13, Cle. 10-7 37-31
Green Bay 1-2-1 vs. S.D. 3-3, Atl. 14-0, Cin. 10-14, Ten. 14-28 27-23
Dallas 3-0-1 vs. Sea. 3-0, N.O. 13-7, S.F. 0-7, Min. 10-10 26-24
N.Y. Giants 3-1 vs. Bal. 10-3, K.C. 3-0, Jets 6-7, N.E. 31-16 50-26
*Philadelphia 2-3 vs. Oak. 0-9, Cle. 17-7, Bal. 0-17, Pit. 7-0, Jets 17-20 41-53
Washington 1-3 vs. Cin. 0-7, v Jets 7-10, v N.E. 0-21, v Bal. 10-10 17-48
San Francisco 3-1 vs. Chi. 11-7, Oak. 7-13, Dal. 7-0, S.D. 23-7 48-27
Arizona 1-1-2 vs. Pit. 7-7, N.E. 0-17, Chi. 13-10, Den. 20-20 40-54
Seattle 1-2-1 vs. Dal. 0-3, Ind. 10-10, S.D. 6-14, Oak. 23-0 39-27
St. Louis 1-2-1 vs. Ind. 0-7, Hou. 17-17, K.C. 9-0, Mia. 3-29 29-53
Tampa Bay 3-1 vs. Jets 13-0, Mia. 7-3, Jax. 7-29, Hou. 13-9 40-41
New Orleans 2-2 vs. Ten. 13-6, Dal. 7-13, Ind. 14-10, K.C. 9-10 43-39
Atlanta 1-3 vs. N.E. 13-17, G.B. 0-14, Ten. 3-0, Jax. 10-20 26-51
Carolina 1-3 vs. Buf. 0-10, v Jax. 0-7, v Mia. 6-7, v Pit. 15-10 21-34

* Played in Hall of Fame Game.

So what does this tell us?

The obvious answer would be that these second-half records show who drafted/signed undrafted free agents with the most adroitness. Of course, it's never quite that simple. Some of the most important draftpicks, such as New Orleans' Reggie Bush and Green Bay's A.J. Hawk for example, played alongside the first-stringers. Other rookies might be unpolished but have tremendous upside that won't translate into points scored/allowed for another year or two, which means their teams drafted well despite not having any palpable proof yet.

Basically, at first glance, the only thing that can be derived from these results is that if some mysterious strain of the bubonic plague struck all NFL starters - and only the starters - the pro football landscape would look mightily different than it does in reality.

Judging by the results of their backup battles, the NFL champions, Pittsburgh, are in fact 120 lb weaklings languishing at the bottom of their division. Fellow powerhouses Seattle, Carolina, Indianapolis and Denver appear no better.

On the other hand, the losers of last year's "Bush Bowl" (and by "losers" I mean winners, because winning meant missing out on the top overall pick of the 2006 draft), the San Francisco 49ers, rule their division with an iron fist, accumulating the only winning record in the NFC West. And which team is snapping at their heels? Everyone's favourite perennial losers, the lovable Cardinals of Arizona.

To sum up, folks, in the event that all NFL starters were struck down by T.O.-like hamstring injuries, up would be down, down would be up, and the apocalypse would be upon us.

Only three divisions would retain their champions from last year, the AFC East, AFC North and NFC South.

The Raiders would be blessed with a stingy 'D', while the Bears would be only slightly above average. And the Redskins' vaunted defense? It would leak more than a Cold War double-agent.

This reversal of fortune, however, would not be confined to the defensive side of the ball. Offensive juggernauts the Kansas City Chiefs and Indianapolis Colts would both be so limp they'd have trouble scoring on a guided tour of Hollywood Boulevard organized by the pimp Arch Bishop Don Magic Juan III.

Interestingly, the two teams that would retain the greatest semblance of their genuine identities would be the New England Patriots (who are famous for going far with rookies/ unknowns thrust into the fire, which, after all, is what the pre-season is all about) and the franchise formerly known as the Bungles, the All-American squad comprising of stars from such storied franchises as the San Quentin Fighting Fellons, Alcatraz Jailbirds and that place made famous by the 'Prison Break' documentary series.

Oh, and the Buffalo Bills. They, too, would remain true to their real-world mission plan. I suppose a losing just comes naturally to those guys, regardless of the level at which it happens.

Okay, but enough yak about why certain inferences cannot be arrived at by analyzing second-half pre-season results. I'm guessing everyone is getting just a tiny bit curious as to what can be concluded from these billed-as-meaningless records and scores. What obscure significance can we unearth from this heap of statistical debris? What do we know for sure?

The answer, my friends, is absolutely nothing.