Lewis: Friday brings actual Saints football ... kind of

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Up here this week, the inevitable first question to Saints coach Sean Payton has been about Drew Brees’ availability for Friday’s exhibition opener at St. Louis.

And the inevitable answer is, “He’s day-to-day.”

And my inevitable reaction is, “What difference does it make?”

Unless No. 9 has the worst strained oblique in history, a month from today he’ll be ready to go for the opener at Atlanta.

Playing for a quarter or so in a meaningless glorified scrimmage that the NFL passes off as a “preseason game” is not something that will prepare Brees for his 14th season — especially with the threat of Bountygate co-conspirator Gregg Williams, now defensive coordinator for the Rams, likely unleashing one of his blitz packages like he did against San Francisco in the 2011 exhibition opener.

Brees shouldn’t even suit up Friday. Williams might have an “incentive program” for accidental sideline collisions.

For that matter, St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford, still recovering from a knee injury suffered last season, isn’t playing Friday either.

In general, exhibition games are not for starters — at least not for more time than coaches feel they reach the risk/reward line demarcating getting them some live action and chancing injury.

They’re for the players competing to fill those final 10 or so roster spots, mainly through what they can do on special teams along with their backup roles.

That’s why Saints special team coordinator Greg McMahon likes having four exhibition opportunities as opposed to reducing the number, as many favor, or adding scrimmages vs. other teams.

“In my opinion, we’ve got to get as many (games) as we can get,” he said. “We have so much less time in the offseason, there’s so much you have to teach these guys, so in my opinion it’s huge for their development. Our offense and defense can be pretty set, but we need to see these guys in special teams situations with live hitting.”

Sometimes big exhibition performances pay off.

In 2012, undrafted rookie Travaris Cadet led the league in preseason receiving yards. He has had only seven catches for 49 yards in the two seasons since, but those 2012 performances earned him a roster spot.

McMahon would have loved the old days, when teams played six exhibition games.

In 1967, the Saints’ debut season, the team’s rookies reported July 1, practiced for a month before the first exhibition game (against the Rams, by the way) and didn’t start the regular season until Sept. 17.

Whew! That was a lot of practice time. Small wonder that team went 5-1 in the preseason and then lost its first eight real games, finishing 3-11. The number of exhibitions wasn’t reduced to the current four until 1978.

On Wednesday, Payton sounded like he could live with three games, taking the final week off to prepare for the opener.

“There’s always going to be a player or two who stands out on Friday night,” he said. “Usually the best opportunity is in the kicking game. But by the final preseason game, you’re very mindful of injuries. Right now, I think what we’re doing works pretty well, though.”

It’s an important time for backup quarterbacks as well.

Luke McCown ruefully acknowledges that, in his 11-year career, he has seen far more time in preseason games than in regular-season ones (nine starts, four of them as a rookie in 2004). So the exhibitions are his time to shine.

“They’re extremely valuable,” he said. “Most backups only get to play in them, so this is where we sharpen ourselves. We may not see the field again for maybe 12 weeks, and then all of a sudden you’ve got to be ready to play. It’s an opportunity to put yourself in position to play.”

That’s nice.

But fans aren’t thrilled about having to pay to watch Luke McCown vs. Shaun Hill, who will be replacing Bradford.

Even potentially attractive matchups such as the Saints at New England in 2012 can result in a 7-6 snoozer.

The NFL has an answer for that, though. The league looks on the exhibitions not as part of a per-game entity but as an overall package in which some games are admittedly worth more than others. And because player salaries don’t kick in until the regular season, the team doesn’t have to share the revenue of those games.

So it’s a win-win for the owners. Not so, obviously for the fans who come grudgingly to the games mainly because they feel like they don’t want to waste their money.

Want proof of how little interest there is in exhibitions?

In 2000, after a preseason game between the Saints and Indianapolis fell though, the game was shifted to Purdue’s Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, Indiana. Since it technically was a Saints home game, it was not on the Colts’ season-ticket package.

The result: Only 20,105 showed up.

But the owners know they have a good thing going, so they’re not going to cut the number of exhibitions.

Neither are the players going to go along with Commissioner Roger Goodell’s proposal to increase the number of regular-season games from 16 to 18 with just two exhibitions. The injury rate in the league is alarming enough as it is without two more games where the hitting is real.

And the league certainly isn’t going to follow the suggestion of CBS Sports’ Pete Prisco, who recommended either greatly discounting exhibition tickets (although the cost of season-ticket packages wouldn’t decrease as a result) or give plenty of tickets away to underprivileged kids.

But, considering the quality of play we’ll be seeing Friday night, haven’t they already suffered enough?