By 9 p.m. last Thursday, the tweets were already filling up my timeline. "Twelve takeaways from the first quarter of tonight's game." "Eleventeen rookies to keep an eye on in the second half." Our passion for football is insatiable, and the diligence of so many writers and bloggers is laudable, but there is such a thing as being overeager. Now that the dust has settled a tiny bit, it is time for me to weigh in with my own bullet point article!
Twenty-five conclusions drawn from the first week of the NFL preseason:
- It is foolish and crazy to draw conclusions from the first week of the preseason.
- That said, it is also contrarian to pretend that the first week of the preseason is meaningless, or that any observation is an overreaction. This weekend's games provided little nuggets of tangible evidence, data points that should be entered into our filing cabinets. Somewhere between pretending nothing happened this weekend and declaring Pat White a potential starter whom the Redskins could trade for seven first-round picks, there is wisdom to be gained.
- The results of preseason games are completely misleading, as everyone knows. The fourth quarters look like preschool recess after a week of rainy days. But the first quarters of the first preseason game can also be misleading, for reasons (no game-planning, teams ran vanilla systems, starters with hangnails were sidelined) fans already know but quickly forget when the starters look incredibly bad/good.
The Steelers first-team offense looked disorganized and sloppy. The Patriots first-team offense was brutally efficient. The Jets first-team offense looked very Jetsical. The Lions defense either looked great or had front-row seats for the latest Jets pratfall. Reading too much into two or three starters' series besides "Tom Brady is good" and "Mark Sanchez is not," can lead to a week of needless and baseless hand-wringing.
- That said, it is better for a team to look efficient than not in the first preseason game: better for the players, coaches, fans, and even the writers. The Browns first-team offense looked very solid, even without Trent Richardson. A little early success can only help Rob Chudzinski lay the groundwork for his administration, and while I don't think Brandon Weeden will be anything more than a journeyman quarterback, the NFL will be a more interesting place if he is playing well instead of the Browns delving into Quarterback Controversy XIV. On the flip side, the last thing the Jets needed was another blooper reel.
- Teams do not need to win preseason games, but they need to generate some kind of traction. The Eagles run defense looked like a warren of rabbits fleeing a riding mower against the Patriots, and the team goofed around with its fourth and fifth string quarterbacks in the second half. But Chip Kelly provided a sense of what his offense is setting out to do. The team did enough successful things offensively, with the starters and primary subs on the field, that it gave the coaches ample "this is what worked" film to review and players a sense of the results they can expect when the system is fully operational.
- Similarly, the Cardinals got some sense of what Bruce Arians' offense will look like with Carson Palmer at the helm. Palmer threw one touchdown after a Packers interception and led a couple of stalled drives, but at least he threw a few passes for first downs on those drives. His 17-yard pass from the one-yard line to Larry Fitzgerald contrasts the difference between having Palmer under center and a cast of dinner theater rejects at quarterback. Last year's Cardinals would have punted from the six-yard line, at best, if it got the ball on the one. Punting from the 23-yard line is progress. Progress is about the best thing a team can demonstrate in the first preseason game.
- Palmer gave way to Drew Stanton, a professional backup with the necessary competence to lead preseason drives. A "certified backup" can be a boon in the preseason. Certified backups can deliver the ball accurately to the rookie receivers and backups at other positions whom the coaches hope to evaluate in the second and third quarters. They perform the same services during training camp drills: it is easier to evaluate and develop the receivers OR the quarterback than the receivers AND the quarterback. Stanton moved the ball fairly well, so we got a little better sense of the Cardinals' skill position talent: Jaron Brown, an undrafted training camp and rookie camp star, caught five passes with the help of a quarterback good enough to get the ball in his general direction.
Not all certified backups look good in early preseason games -- David Carr and Bruce Gradkowski are two of the best in the business, but they puttered around on Saturday night. But a bad night of Carr is usually better than a good night of some unprepared long-range prospect like Ryan Nassib. Both are better than anything involving Curtis Painter, and none can hold a candle to Pat White, the biggest thing to hit the Redskins in early August since Colt Brennan.
- A random Giants thought, and I apologize if this observation has been made a thousand times before. If J.J. Watt's salute can be construed as taunting by the NFL Thought Police, why can't Victor Cruz's salsa dance? When Cruz faces the crowd, after all, he is essentially shaking his booty at his opponent, which has been the definition of a taunt since William Wallace's time. But I don't want to give the village of repressed Puritans that Roger Goodell turns to for sportsmanship advice any ideas: Cruz is a great player/great guy/fun dude to watch, and the last thing we need is Goodwife Proctor turning exciting plays like Saturday's touchdown into 15-yard penalties.
- The Bills look like the Eagles in reverse. The Eagles went from an ultra-conventional offense to Chip Kelly's up-tempo jamboree. You can read a breakdown of the types of plays they ran here. The Bills went from Chan Gailey's Dixieland Empty Backfield Wildcat Hoedown to vanilla coffee cake on Sunday afternoon.
New coach Doug Marrone did not want to show much of his offense or put too much pressure on rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel while Kevin Kolb nurses the injury he suffered as a result of being Kevin Kolb. So the Bills served the Colts some I-formation handoffs, a few rollout passes, a screen or two, and the occasional read-option, which no longer counts as a surprise. The Colts run defense got gouged by C.J. Spiller a few times, but again, that first drive or two can be misleading: Spiller will be pretty good, but there is no reason to worry that the reconfigured Colts run defense is terrible.
With Marrone showing so little of his offense, only one thing can be said of the Bills with any certainty: rookie Marquise Goodwin, who had a kickoff return touchdown and some other long returns, is fast. Really, really fast.
- It was great to see Manuel confidently lead a two-minute drill to end the first half after a rough start for the Bills. It was great to see Mike Glennon have some success against the Ravens; a close look at his performance shows happy feet and some near-miss turnovers, but he did a lot of things right. It is great to hear that Geno Smith is back at practice, because at some point it feels like fate and karma should be flagged for piling on against the Jets. But the best feeling of all is watching guys like Nassib and Landry Jones stumble about and know that those rookies are third string behind championship-caliber greatness and premium collision-and-comprehensive insurance. The best quarterback to watch in the preseason is the one you know you do not HAVE to watch. Or Pat White, member of the Redskins Preseason Ring of Honor (move over, Marcus Mason!).
- All you should really look for from non-quarterback rookies in the first preseason game are "flash plays." DeAndre Hopkins caught four passes for the Texans, but the leaping 34-yard touchdown grab is all we really needed to see. It showed that Hopkins is healthy, in shape, in the coaches' good graces, and capable of doing many of the things that made him a standout in college, even if he only does them once in a while at first.
Flash plays are especially important for high-round rookies on good teams like the Texans. Four catches like Friday's touchdown in a season, mixed with a smattering of ordinary catches, could mean the difference between a playoff game in Houston, or a playoff game in Foxboro. They could mean the difference between Arian Foster running into an eight-defender box and a seven-defender box during a postseason handoff. A flash play does not tell us what a player WILL do as a rookie, but it provides solid evidence of what he CAN do.
- Some rookie flash plays from this weekend were basically gifts. Jarvis Jones plopped on a Carr fumble that was just rolling around waiting for him. Lions pass rusher Ziggy Ansah scored a touchdown on a deadly-accurate screen pass thrown to him by Sanchez. These plays do not tell us much, but a little early success can only help a rookie, particularly on defense, where pass rushers often disappear until they learn how to attack NFL-caliber blocking.
Jones was having a so-so training camp for the Steelers. He looked slow to react during team drills, and the edge rusher who often came unblocked in Georgia's blitz packages was getting shut down by backup Steelers tight ends. A gift play or two can keep the confidence high, give the family something to send happy text messages about, and provide a little mental reinforcement that the hard work really will lead to something.
- Kenbrell Thompkins caught four short passes for the Patriots on Friday, all of them in the early part of the game. Thompkins was the star of the Eagles-Patriots joint practices (in the non-public contrition category, anyway), and the Patriots beat writers have been singing his praises since minicamps. Thompkins, an undrafted 25-year-old rookie whose high school years were checkered with issues, has a great size-speed profile and looks ready to step into a regular role. This is not "prospect crush" stuff, this is a youngster who is about to earn a regular role catching passes from a Hall of Famer.
- But speaking of prospect crushes: watch the replay of the Giants late-game fumble, when a snap flies over Nassib's head and into the end zone. Adrian Robinson recovered the fumble for the Steelers, but watch who applies pressure on the right side of the formation: Alan Baxter. Go get 'em, kid!
- NFL.com is doing a great job assembling deep highlight reels that provide insight into what both teams and "players of interest" did in the first preseason games. The NFL.com cut-ups highlight top draft picks and other newcomers, and they generally provide a balanced picture of how those players performed. A brief montage of Chance Warmack's performance for the Titans showed a blown block, followed by an example of proper pass protection and a crushing pull block to open a hole. Three isolation plays on a guard are not the stuff of scouting excellence, but they provide the evidence and data points we should be collecting in the early preseason. (I am not going to link to all of these videos. They are all on NFL.com, and there are plenty of others to peruse on your own.)
- An extended cut-up of Christine Michael's performance for the Seahawks on Thursday night was even more useful. Michael had 16 carries for 89 yards, and the NFL.com crew cut together seven or eight of those carries, including his 24-yarder and some mundane runs. Again, this is not a scouting tape, but it provides a first NFL look at Michael's cutback ability and willingness to deliver a blow at the ends of runs up the middle. Mix a flash play with a little bit of every-down production, and a picture of what a player is capable of begins to develop.
- These cutups are important because it is impossible to watch all 16 preseason games in a week. Sixteen games amount to over 48 hours of football, with the first round of games ending Thursday at around 10 p.m. Eastern. Mandatory Monday should be finished by 10 p.m. on Sunday when there is no regular season late game or breaking news to cope with, so I work with a 72-hour window. Allowing me a conservative 20 hours to sleep over three nights and providing six hours to write and edit a long, comprehensive feature, we are now at 74 hours of football to contend with in 72 hours, and I have not eaten, re-wound tape, written an article about the Eagles-Patriots game, or spoken to my children.
Fast-forwarding commercials on television broadcasts buys some time, but not enough time to do things like read out-of-town reports or actually form coherent observations. Chopping off fourth quarters takes away the joy of watching Pat White, so I would have no idea why Redskins fans are erecting a statue of him on the National Mall. That's one more reason why these bullet points are casual observations, not thunderbolts from the mountaintop of unquestionable football wisdom.
- Denard Robinson carried nine times for 32 yards in the Jaguars loss to the Dolphins. There was no NFL.com cutup of his runs, but he figured prominently in the highlight montage because, you know, it's the Jaguars. Robinson's position is listed as "offensive weapon" by the Jaguars, which suggests a Slashy McWildcat role, but most of his Friday carries came as a conventional running back.
The Jaguars are probably not turning a dynamic all-purpose college superstar into an ordinary backup for Maurice Jones-Drew, and they probably recognize that a 195-pound converted option quarterback is not the best choice as an interior runner. But it can be tricky to get "slash" players touches during the preseason. Do you unveil your direct snap package? Run a bunch of reverses and tunnel screens, even though you have other things to work on? Lining Robinson up at halfback allowed him to get used to taking handoffs, reading blocks, taking hits, and so on, and some Slash types do end up getting used as I-formation runners in certain packages (see Percy Harvin last year).
Anyway, Robinson is fun to watch, and it was cool to see him squirting through holes. Hopefully, the Jaguars have more in store for him than off-tackle runs.
- Chad Henne is a certified backup. The problem, of course, is that he could end up as the Jaguars starter. Everything he did against the Dolphins resembled what you would expect from a veteran No. 2 starter in the preseason: he delivered short passes, kept the game under control, and maintained competence and professionalism on a field full of rookies and backups. That's what Henne does. Matt Moore does exactly the same thing, but the Dolphins know who Moore is and why they have retained his services.
Blaine Gabbert had a rough outing, but it was exacerbated by dropped passes, tip-drill interceptions, and some bad blocking. I have not had a chance to get deep into the Dolphins-Jaguars tape yet, but watching Gabbert and Henne made me eager to get a long look at Matt Scott. I never want to see Mike Kafka play quarterback again, if that is okay with the NFL. And I don't feel worthy to again bask in the luminescence of Pat White.
- The new uniforms made Jaguars-Dolphins look like a Sun Belt Conference game. Really, Jaguars: the primer coat on the front of the helmets is completely set, and it is time to apply a coat or two of actual color. The new Dolphins uniforms look like the old Dolphins uniforms after someone poured too much bleach into the washer. Both uniforms will probably grow on me. Seeing both teams on the same field was just too much, too soon.
- The Raiders switched to a pistol offense when Terrelle Pryor entered the game. The Patriots ran all sorts of options with Tim Tebow in the game. The Ravens ran a lot of read-option when Tyrod Taylor entered the game last year, and they did a little of it against the Buccaneers on Thursday. It appears that many teams with pocket-bound starters and scrambling backups are tinkering with some option-flavored Plan B package for the backup. This tactic would have a few advantages if it sticks. The mobile backup gets reps in the package when he is pretending to be Russell Wilson or Robert Griffin during practice, so he enters the game with a handle on the system. Option wrinkles certainly play to a scrambling backup's strengths. Suddenly switching tactics in mid-game is a great way to get through a crisis after the starter is injured: instead of facing a watered-down version of the regular offense, the defense must cope with something it did not prepare for.
The problem, of course, is practicing and installing a package of plays that will rarely be used. But with "conventional" offenses starting to incorporate more and more wrinkles from option-heavy college offenses, the gap between a standard system and some deluxe "Pryor package" is not as extreme as you might think.
- The rise of read-option offenses has brought on a nomenclature problem. "Read option" refers to a specific series of plays in which a quarterback, usually in a shotgun or pistol formation, reads a defensive player's actions while initiating a handoff and either completes the handoff or pulls the ball away to run. But "read option" also refers broadly to a series of concepts built around that core play, from conventional handoffs that look similar to read-option plays to play-action passes built from the same chassis as a team's read-option series.
This is not a unique NFL naming problem: terms like "zone blitz" and "cover-2" mean different things when referring to an exact play and to a team's general defensive philosophy. But the terminology causes problems. There have been questions at Chip Kelly press conferences where it was clear that the coach and the questioner meant two different things by the term "read option:" the interrogator meant "one of those plays like you ran at Oregon," while Kelly meant "one of my inside or outside zone read options, as opposed to any midline, power, split, or other running plays in my system, even ones where the quarterback pretends to bootleg away with the ball."
Not to thumb my nose at the strategic grammar police, but I will continue to use "read option" in the more colloquial sense of shotgun/pistol rushing plays that appear to be designed to give the quarterback the chance to keep the football. When diagraming Eagles or Redskins plays, I will be more specific about what the offense is doing. But while canvassing the league for game previews, Mandatory Monday, or on Twitter, I am not going to worry about exact blocking schemes on every Griffin handoff.
I have plenty of Pistol playbooks and coaching guides at my disposal if I want to verify that some play was really Bunch Right 23 Zone, but false precision can set in quickly. I don't know what Greg Roman or Kyle Shanahan is installing in the playbook this morning, neither would tell me if I asked, and we would quickly get buried in jargon if I sought to learn and explain every variation of every play. We need to learn enough Spanish to get around Barcelona; not every verb needs to be properly conjugated.
- Rex Ryan admitted to not keeping track of one of his players' injuries last week, and to not watching much of the Jets offense during the Lions game on Friday. No one can blame anyone for not wanting to watch the Jets offense, but Ryan introduced us to a new figure on the sports landscape: the head coach who is less informed about what is happening on the field than someone following a Jets blogger on Twitter.
Ryan is not the first coach to miss an important play because he was dealing with some other sideline issue, but he is the first coach to admit it with a shoulder-shrug along the lines of "What? I'm supposed to focus on everything the Jets do?" I don't think there's a power struggle in New York; I think there is a head coach who has accepted that this is his final season and is starting to merrily tune out.
- The easiest positions on a roster to fill are probably the two guard spots. Guards are usually plentiful in the late rounds of the draft, and centers and tackles can usually slide easily over to the somewhat-easier guard spots, and so on. So it is unusual to hear things like "this team is having a crisis at guard." That makes what has been happening to the Cowboys over the last week so darn funny.
The Cowboys lost a few guards to injuries early in camp, so they tried to sign recently retired Brandon Moore, who became famous last year as the watermelon in Sanchez's Gallagher routine. But Moore stayed retired, so the team pursued Brian Waters. Waters was once great, but he is 36, and all of his former linemates are either in the Hall of Fame or on the finalist list. First-round pick Travis Frederick could slide from center to guard, as there are some experienced centers on the roster, but Jerry Jones and the other Cartwrights on the ponderosa are so invested in proving that Frederick was a worthwhile first round pick that they don't dare suggest that he is some kind of multi-position substitute. (This is not the official explanation, but you get the idea.)
When a team like the Packers gets thin on the offensive line, general manager Ted Thompson reaches into a thick pile of files on free agents the Packers have scouted, worked out, and kept tabs on. The Cowboys do this, too, but Stephen Jones' pile is not as thick or organized as most, and the team culture veers easily toward "get me that guy who blocked for Priest Holmes in 2003 at any price!"
Mackenzy Bernadeau and Ron Leary started for the Cowboys against the Raiders. Frederick slid over from center to join David Arkin as the backup guards. This was a thin unit, built from late round picks and undrafted free agents, before camp started. The Cowboys should have been looking for reinforcements starting around day three of the draft. They could have grabbed cheap stopgap starters at any time in the free agency process; recent starters like Matt Slauson and Leroy Harris were available for one-year contracts in the six-figure range. Now, the Cowboys will be picking from other teams' cuts. The Packers do that exceptionally well, because they diligently scout the bottoms of other teams' rosters. Betcha the Cowboys do not do it nearly as well.
- Just as the last player selected in the NFL draft is Mister Irrelevant, the most unlikely quarterback to play in the first preseason game should be granted the title of Mister Obscuro. This year's Mister Obscure is Caleb TerBush. TerBush was an on-and-off starter at Purdue in 2011 and 2012, splitting time with Robert Marve, who sounds like a genetically-engineered nightmare spawn of Marv Albert and Brett Favre. (Picture the personal life, but remember that you cannot unpicture it.)
TerBush's 2012 claim to fame was getting benched one hour before kickoff of Purdue's season opener in favor of Marve. TerBush got the start the following week against Notre Dame, got benched during the game, came back in when Marve got hurt, and led the Boilermakers to a game-tying score, only to watch the Irish win the game with a late field goal. His whole career was like that: yanked in and out of the lineup for a .500-caliber Big Ten also ran.
There may be quarterbacks more obscure than TerBush, but none have his William Faulkner novel first name and randomly capitalized last name. TerBush completed one of two passes for eight yards, so he did not even do enough to become one of those preseason heroes who cause fans to overreact and project fourth-quarter plays against other TerBush leaguers into a role with the first team offense.
But enough about Pat White, who may be the starting quarterback for the Jets by midseason, assuming Mike Shanahan is crazy enough to part with him.
(Sorry, Redskins fans, but admit it: you go overboard with enthusiasm about your third-string quarterbacks, even more so than most fan bases. If the Redskins ever acquire Josh Johnson, the capital may have to shut down for the month of August. In the meantime, just remember that your team now has a great STARTING quarterback, so there is no reason to go crazy ogling the guy scrambling around in the fourth quarter.)