Do Preseason Games Tell Us Anything?

“It’s only the preseason; it doesn’t count.”

The preceding quote was brought to you by any NFL player, coach, or executive over the last half-century. The league’s exhibition slate gets wiped clean after a month, and everyone starts 0-0, but the results of August often do have an effect on the final numbers posted in December.

An analysis of every team’s preseason record since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 shows that, indeed, teams that win in the preseason tend to win more during the regular season than teams that have losing exhibition records: 60% of winning preseason teams have winning records in the regular season (47% of ALL NFL teams had winning records from 1970-94), while only 36% of losing preseason teams finish the regular season over .500.

There were 688 “team seasons” in the study (25 for each of 26 teams, 19 each for Tampa Bay and Seattle, who entered the league in 1976): 253 had losing preseasons, 251 had winning preseasons (another 184 broke even). The 251 “winners” had a combined winning percentage that season of .554; the 253 “losers” won at a .448 clip during the regular season. The difference (.106) works out to 1.7 wins per team, per season—not earth-shattering, but nonetheless significant (the “break-even” teams’ won-lost percentage was .498).

Some other notes from the study:

  • Green Bay won 19 consecutive preseason games from 1959-1963, the all-time record. Vince Lombardi’s team lost to the College All-Stars to begin the 1963 preseason, then won their next 5, so they won 24 straight against NFL competition.
  • Boston owns the flip-side of that record: the Patriots lost 17 straight exhibition contests from 1962-1966.
  • The Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers won the first 14 preseason games of their AFL existence (the streak is tied for second place with Chicago’s 14 straight from 1957-1959).
  • Don Shula had an amazing 32-4-1 preseason record with Baltimore from 1963-1969 (.878), the highest winning percentage I could find for one coach with one team, even higher than Lombardi’s .840 (42-8 with Green Bay from 1959-1967).
  • Shula’s 108 preseason wins overall are 30 ahead of his closest competitor.

What does this mean for the Colts? Statistically, there’s a 60% chance they’ll have a winning season, based on the last 25 years of preseason games. That also means there is a 40% chance they WON’T have a winning season. Remember last year? The 1994 Colts went 4-0 in the preseason, and 8-8 during the regular season.

NOTE: In the table below, W-L-T percentage is calculated counting a tie as a half-win and a half-loss, even though for many years, the NFL discounted ties entirely when figuring winning percentage.

THE NUMBERS, 1970-1994

Preseason Record   #Tms       Record That Year    #WT
6-0-0   1.000        6         48- 32-4 .595       4
5-0-0   1.000        4         40- 22-0 .645       3
4-0-0   1.000       23        178-168-1 .514      13
ALL TMS 1.000	    33        266-222-5 .545      20
-- --------------------------------------------------
5-0-1    .916        1          4- 10-0 .286       0
4-0-1    .900        1         10-  6-0 .625       1
6-1-0    .857        1         10-  4-0 .714       1
5-1-0    .833       15        145- 66-2 .681      12
4-1-0    .800       24        223-152-2 .594      18
4-1-1    .750        5         45- 22-3 .664       4
3-0-3    .750        1          6-  8-0 .429       0
3-1-0    .750       91        752-674-3 .527      49
----------------------------------------------------
5-2-0    .714        3         27- 15-0 .643       3
----------------------------------------------------
4-2-0    .667       34        265-203-8 .565      20
3-1-2    .667        1          3- 11-0 .214       0
ALL TMS  .667       35        268-214-8 .555      20
----------------------------------------------------
4-2-1    .643        1         12-  2-0 .857       1
2-1-1    .625        3         14- 19-1 .426       1
3-2-0    .600       26        206-174-5 .542      14
3-2-1    .583        4         26- 27-3 .491       2
4-3-0    .571        7         52- 42-4 .551       5
ALL WINNING TEAMS  251     2063-1657-36 .554     151
----------------------------------------------------
2-2-0    .500      148      1142-1153-6 .498      69
3-3-0    .500       34       237- 233-6 .504      14
2-2-1    .500        1         4-   9-1 .321       0
2-2-2    .500        1         7-   7-0 .500       0
ALL .500 TEAMS     184     1390-1402-13 .498      83
----------------------------------------------------
3-4-0    .429        6        50- 34-0  .595       4
2-3-1    .417        8        68- 40-4  .625       7
2-3-0    .400        2       190-150-4  .558      14
1-2-1    .375        2        11- 21-0  .334       0
2-4-0    .333       33       179-276-7  .395       8
1-3-1    .300        2        23-  9-0  .719       2
----------------------------------------------------
1-3-0    .250      108       761-894-5  .460      41
1-4-1    .250        4        14- 40-2  .268       0
ALL TMS  .250      112       775-934-7  .454      41
----------------------------------------------------
1-5-1    .214        1         5-  9-0  .357       0
1-4-0    .200       13        90-107-3  .458       6
1-5-0    .167       17        84-149-5  .363       3
0-3-1    .125        1         2- 14-0  .125       0
0-4-1    .100        1         5- 10-1  .344       0
----------------------------------------------------
0-4-0    .000       26       151-253-1  .374       4
0-5-0    .000        2        10- 19-1  .350       0
0-6-0    .000        7        42- 54-2  .439       2
ALL TMS  .000       35       203-326-4  .385       6
----------------------------------------------------
ALL LOSING TEAMS   253    1685-2079-35  .448      91

ALL-TIME BEST COACHES’ RECORDS

Ranked by preseason victories

Rk.CoachTeam(s)Yrs.W-L-T Pct.
1Don ShulaBal,Mia33108-51-4 .675
2George HalasChi4078-44-2 .637
3Tom LandryDal2978-70-0 .527
4Hank StramKC,NO1767-30-1 .689
5Paul BrownCle,Cin2167-49-3 .576
6Chuck NollPit2366-43-1 .605
7Weeb EwbankBal,NYJ2158-49-5 .540
8Sid GillmanLA,SD,Hou1756-31-2 .640
9Bud GrantMin1856-35-1 .635
10Chuck KnoxLA,Buf,Sea2252-57-1 .477

2024 UPDATE: I haven’t updated this study in the nearly 30 years since originally doing it. Sorry if you’re looking for more recent data. I suspect coaches today are even less concerned with winning preseason games, and there are now only three of them for most teams. But someone has to win…unless there’s a tie.

Kenn Tomasch

Kenn Tomasch

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