Another Friday night, another meaningless NFL exhibition football game.

There is no greater waste of time in sports than this vast conspiracy to fill the worst teams’ coffers before they become unwatchable.

There is no greater gamble associated with the games people play (Pete Rose and Tim Donaghy — allegedly — included) than coaches trotting out anyone on the first or second rung of the depth chart for more than a token series.

Someone along the way has been permitted to perpetuate the lie that this third full week of the preseason is steeped in significance, and a few of the guys wearing headsets even buy into it.

Starters play a full half, sometimes more. Fans fret if their team looks sluggish. What a crock.

New England travels to Carolina tonight (8 p.m., Channel 13 or your CBS affiliate of choice). It’s a stone-cold lock that some mousse-worshipping sports anchor in Greater Boston or Charlotte and surrounding suburbs will tease the highlights as a “Super Bowl XXXVIII rematch.”

OK, there’s my Personal Pet Peeve No. 9,562: It’s only a freaking rematch if two teams play again in the same season. Period. Exclamation points. Underlined. The Super Bowl in question happened almost four years ago. You might scrape up a dozen guys on each expanded roster who are still with the Patriots and Panthers today, if you’re lucky. But I digress.

It wouldn’t matter if the Patriots were playing the Chargers, Colts, Jets or Steelers. This game is apropos of nothing.

Star players shouldn’t need a hot ex-girlfriend and a newborn baby to beg out. Both teams would’ve been better off holding an open tryout this week and sending a team of replacements.

Seasons have been lost, careers ruined, lives destroyed in preseason games. Football is simply too complex, tough and dangerous a game for the diversity of motivations that are represented on the field in an exhibition.

Most front-liners are notoriously half-stepping it. And when do football players get hurt? When they’re lollygagging and going through the motions.

Then you have the gym class hero phenomenon (forever immortalized by Jack Tatum). Some genius is out there running around like a Tasmanian Devil in these games as if his Hall of Fame candidacy depends on it. We all know how that turns out. Rest in peace, Darryl.

Oh, but we need to see how those three dozen other dudes competing for five spots handle “the situation.” What situation? Catching passes from Matt Cassel in a four-fifths-empty stadium? Yeah, that’s a real indicator of how they’ll perform in January.

And here’s the real kick in the pants: Coaches already know who they’re going to keep. This entire process is more fraudulent than the average Little League tryout. If you think Joe Lunchbucket ever made the Jacksonville Jaguars at the expense of Vinnie Veteran on the basis of their performance in the final two preseason games, you’re either smoking reefer or drinking the NFL’s Kool-Aid.

If the NFL must play 20 or 21 games per season, it makes zero sense that as many as five of them don’t count for squat. I’m sure this is a function of some collective bargaining agreement. Sixteen regular-season games have only been the rule since 1978, but that number is treated as if it were etched on the tablets Moses brought down from the mountain.

What you might be desperate enough to watch this evening could have been settled in split-squad games at some random Division III practice field without a camera in sight. And the league and its teams know it.



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