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The NFL Hall of Fame Game is technically football — just don’t expect to watch many stars

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The Hall of Fame Game is more dirty puddle than football oasis.

NFL: AUG 02 Hall of Fame Game - Bears v Ravens Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The NFL preseason is dumb.

It’s less dumb for rookies and borderline players looking to win over coaches and make their first NFL roster. For the most part, however, it’s a month of half-formed exhibition games that offer little insight about a team’s actual prowess while affording very real opportunities for season-changing injuries.

The players who matter most — the ones who swing meaningful games with their very presence — play very little or not at all.

It is a sawdust-filled burger patty in the opulent buffet of NFL options, an entree starving fans put on their plates because it was the first thing they could find. No game is more endemic of bland filler than the one that kicks off the preseason each year: the Hall of Fame Game.

For established starters, this early August road trip is an excuse to investigate the bronze busts of the game’s best players and little else. It’s the rest of the roster — the undrafted free agents, last-shot veterans, and special teams hopefuls — that winds up getting the most snaps in Canton.

(If anyone does at all. The 2016 edition of the game was cancelled after high temperatures melted field paint into the turf and made conditions unplayable for the Packers and Colts.)

The Hall of Fame Game traditionally features few regular-season starters

The two teams tagged for the Hall of Fame Game aren’t only burdened with a fifth exhibition game, but they also have to suit up for a televised contest less than two weeks after opening training camp. That means the quality of play falls significantly lower than the game’s title would suggest. With blocking schemes still developing and unbalanced levels of offensive line performance up front, most teams opt to rest their starting quarterbacks entirely rather than risk injury in even a single series.

Last summer, that meant a Bears-Ravens showdown featured zero snaps for either Joe Flacco or Mitchell Trubisky. Then-rookie and eventual Baltimore starter Lamar Jackson didn’t take the field until the second quarter and only played 32 downs. Any Ravens fan arriving in Ohio early for Ray Lewis’ Hall induction was instead treated to a steady diet of Orlando Brown Jr., Gus Edwards, and Hayden Hurst.

The Bears countered with heaping helpings of Tyler Bray (in relief of Chase Daniel), Javon Wims, and Rashaad Coward, who somehow was one of two players to play every snap that evening.

While Baltimore threw a handful of future impact players into the mix, Chicago rested nearly every skill player who’d make a difference in its run to the 2018 NFC North title. Trubisky sat, as did tailbacks Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen, wide receivers Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel, and tight end Trey Burton.

This is pretty common.

You’re not going to see many — if any — current stars play in the first preseason game of the year. The biggest indication fans are in for a long night of low-significance football begins behind center. Here are the quarterbacks who’ve started the last five Hall of Fame Games, excluding 2016’s nonexistent entry.

Quarterbacks at the Hall of Fame Game, 2013-2018

Year Team Regular season starting QB HOF game starting QB Series played Passes Thrown
Year Team Regular season starting QB HOF game starting QB Series played Passes Thrown
2018 Bears Mitchell Trubisky Chase Daniel 7 16
Ravens Joe Flacco, Lamar Jackson Robert Griffin 5 11
2017 Cardinals Carson Palmer Blaine Gabbert 5 14
Cowboys Dak Prescott Kellen Moore 4 17
2015 Steelers Ben Roethlisberger Landry Jones 11 32
Vikings Teddy Bridgewater Teddy Bridgewater 1 6
2014 Giants Eli Manning Eli Manning 3 7
Bills Kyle Orton, EJ Manuel EJ Manuel 2 7
2013 Dolphins Ryan Tannehill Ryan Tannehill 3 5
Cowboys Tony Romo Kyle Orton 1 3

Only four players who entered the regular season as their team’s prospective starting quarterbacks were thrust into action in the game. Eli Manning got the start for a 2014 Giants team doing its best to showcase the dysfunction that would follow over the next five seasons. He played three series, got rocked by a strip sack on the second, and then spent the rest of the game duct taped to the New York bench. None of his passes traveled more than 10 yards downfield.

In the 2015 game, second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater got the chance to start for the Vikings. He put together one solid drive before retiring for the evening in favor of Mike Kafka. In order to properly punish the local crowd for seeing an actual starting quarterback throw six passes, the Steelers left Landry Jones in the game for all four quarters. He threw for a robust 4.0 yards per attempt and led his team to three points.

Otherwise, the only other regular starters in the preseason’s first game, Ryan Tannehill and EJ Manuel, combined to throw 12 passes. They completed four of them.

The Hall of Fame Game is bad.


The Falcons and Broncos are set to carry on this strong tradition in 2019. Joe Flacco will have the night off for the second straight year when scuttled Browns project Kevin Hogan makes the start for Denver, followed by Drew Lock and Brett Rypien. Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn will counter by sitting Julio Jones (until the season opener) and using the game to evaluate young players currently looking for their spot on his depth chart.

Even without stellar (or in some cases, replacement-level) quarterbacking, there’s still room for big performances from current or future stars. In 2014, Robert Woods had four receptions for 49 yards and a touchdown while catching passes from Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel. Shamar Stephen’s first NFL sack came in the 2015 edition of the game. Rico Gathers’ three-catch, 59-yard night in 2017 has given the Cowboys hope he’ll transition from power forward to legitimate tight end for the past two years.

But there have been far more forgettable moments tied to players like Bray and Coward than highlights. With unrefined offenses and scout players earning snaps, it’s been more than a decade since any team scored more than 24 points in the preseason opener.

The year’s first exhibition gives undeveloped pros a chance to shine on national TV, but mostly the Hall of Fame Game is a service to Canton and the fans who made the trip to Ohio to watch their favorite players join the ranks of NFL immortals. It’s a stage show at an amusement park, a vague appropriation of an actual performance.

Still, it’s NFL football in August. Even a puddle can be an oasis in the right desert.