(Last week's 25 Points about the Preseason was so popular that I am doing it again this week, with a special focus on quarterback controversies. This will be the last installment of 25 Points, as next week Mandatory Monday will shift into season preview mode, and only a madman could make 25 observations about the following week).
- Dear Colin Kaepernick, please don't ever run 30 yards downfield to block for Frank Gore on a breakaway run in a preseason game ever again. Ever, ever, ever again. Sincerely, football fans everywhere.
- Wes Welker sprained an ankle, Champ Bailey suffered some kind of foot injury, and Derek Wolfe (who must provide much of the pass rush if Von Miller is suspended) suffered a scary spine injury that turned out to not be too terrible; Wolfe was healthy enough to resume Tweeting by Sunday afternoon. It is almost impossible to write a more terrible preseason injury report for the Broncos without including the name "Peyton Manning."
Manning also took a pretty scary shot during the Seahawks game. I am looking forward to a lot of Zac Dysert in the next two weeks. Seriously. That's the kind of inveterate football junkie I am.
- On the television schedule, Jets-Jaguars looked like it would be as bad as Sharknado on Saturday night. It turned out to be as good as Sharknado: goofy and sloppy for the most part, but also fun and weirdly compelling. To extend the metaphor, Mark Sanchez was Tara Reid, while Blaine Gabbert was John Heard, the veteran character actor who delivered a delightful performance for the first quarter, then suddenly died. Quentin Coples was the sharknado.
- Michael Vick may be named the Eagles starting quarterback by the time you read this. Vick took all of the first-team reps in all 7-on-7 and full-squad practices on Saturday. It is only a matter of time.
Nick Foles had his moments in Thursday's preseason opener, but he also threw an interception in the end zone, fumbled a couple of shotgun snaps (one snap was terrible, the other manageable), and looked shaky at times. Foles' worst play, however, was not a play at all. He called a timeout on 1st down after the Eagles drove to the Panthers 15-yard line. There is nothing "up tempo" about a timeout, and while Chip Kelly would have forgiven Foles if the Panthers showed some exotic defense, they actually deployed a simple six-defender box. Kelly's scheme dictates that the offense should run the ball when the box is empty, and the quarterback almost always has the prerogative to call a running play at the line. Foles saw something he didn't like, when he should have seen something his coach loves. Two plays later, Foles threw an interception.
- If you are looking for a more technical breakdown of some of the tactics Kelly has revealed in the preseason, check this out.
- When you stop and think about the Eagles quarterback controversy, you realize, wait a minute, this was Michael Vick versus Nick Foles. In a system that prioritizes quarterback mobility. It's a wonder that it has taken this long to clear up.
- We often think of quarterback controversies as a 50-50 proposition. Some are, but many are a 60-40 or 70-30 competition in which one quarterback has a distinct advantage. This is not how coaching staffs think of their quarterback situations, but it's a great black box approach to take when trying to determine who is winning a preseason quarterback battle.
For example, Brock Osweiler has exactly zero chance to win a starting job in camp, all parties staying healthy. Osweiler could complete 80-of-80 passes for 1200 yards and 12 touchdowns in four preseason games, and it would not make him the Broncos starter. (It could make him the Jets starter through trade, but you get the idea.) Mike Glennon, on the other hand, is in more of a 25-75 situation; he could possibly unseat Josh Freeman, but Freeman is established enough and has been successful enough that Glennon needs to tip the scales pretty far to convince coaches to make a move.
- Glennon has done some scale-tipping. He makes a lot of mistakes, but he is further along in his progress than I thought he would be when he was drafted. That said, he has not done enough. Freeman has looked ordinary-to-awful when not getting driven to the turf in the preseason (the Bucs have serious injury problems on the interior line), but folks in Tampa say he has been outstanding in practice. Freeman will start Week 1; I won't make any predictions beyond that.
- A journeyman starter generally enters camp with about a 70-30 advantage over a rookie quarterback. The journeyman was signed or retained for the express purpose of soaking up starts until the rookie is ready, after all. The journeyman does not have to demonstrate brilliance, just a degree of competent professionalism.
This leads us naturally into the Kevin Kolb-Mark Sanchez section of our quarterback controversy tour. Kolb has professionalism down pat. In fact, it's about his only positive attribute at this point. As for competence, he looked so rickety against the Vikings that he all but handed E.J. Manuel the starting job with a gift receipt stapled to it. Kolb's stock has gone downhill since he injured himself walking to the practice field, which is the kind of thing that can erode an organization's confidence in you.
Manuel woke up on Saturday morning, after a somewhat emphatic preseason performance, with swelling in his knee. He will miss the rest of the preseason. Kolb will start the last two preseason games, and since his sole purpose in life is to keep unnecessary pressure off Manuel, it makes sense that he will start the season opener, too. It will mark the second straight season in which Kolb lost a starting job in camp, then earned some early-season starts due to injury. The good news for Bills fans is that Manuel looks nothing like John Skelton.
- Sanchez, like Kolb, entered camp with roughly a 70-30 advantage. While he looked better on Saturday than he did last week (toddlers throwing Frisbees on a windy beach look better than Sanchez looked last week), he still squandered two promising early drives by turning into a jittery mess in two different red zone drives. Like Kolb, Sanchez will probably win the Week 1 starting job by default. Geno Smith is nursing an ankle sprain, and a poor Wednesday practice has now taken on mythic proportions.
- Sharknado moment for the Jets on Saturday. The first-team offense is driving in the second quarter, thanks in part to three Jaguars penalties, and Sanchez is managing the offense well. A completion to Kellen Winslow puts the ball on the 16-yard line, and then … two Wildcat plays to Bilal Powell. Sanchez's rhythm and the offensive momentum are shot. Sanchez takes the field and suddenly looks lost, throwing an interception to Marcus Trufant, who was standing in Winslow's shoes when the ball was thrown. The Jets made this same offensive mistake last year, getting wildcat-cute just as Sanchez was having some success; it was as if Marty Mornhinweg was using Tony Sparano's playbook on Saturday. Sanchez's timing is an incredibly delicate thing, guys. Don't mess with it if you hope to rely on him as a starter.
- Brandon Weeden still has not been named the Browns starter, which is silly because he has taken all of the significant first-team reps since the start of camp, and his backup is Jason Campbell. Weeden probably entered camp in an 80-20 or 90-10 situation; if he had bumbled badly and Campbell or Brian Hoyer went Russell Wilson on him, coaches would have made the competition more intense. None of those things have happened. Weeden has looked very solid, which is good news to adherents of Weeden Theory.
- Weeden Theory was the hypothesis popular before the 2012 draft. It asserted that the then 28-year-old rookie would arrive in the NFL far more game-ready than most rookies, then enjoy a seven-year career as a productive starter before beginning to decline at age 35. The first dictate of Weeden Theory proved to be wrong: Weeden was as bad as the typical rookie, in a year when most rookies were far superior to the typical rookie. The final dictate is also demonstrably false, as quarterbacks do not start declining at age 35. Here are some quarterbacks who are 35 or younger: Joey Harrington, Byron Leftwich, J.P. Losman, Patrick Ramsey, Quincy Carter, Kyle Boller, Chris Simms, and so on. Even quarterbacks who have productive stints as starter, like Leftwich, are usually in decline by age 30, which Weeden turns on October 14th.
So we are left with the middle tenet of Weeden Theory, which states that he can be a productive starter for a few years. This preseason has provided evidence that this middle tenet is true. Weeden's arm has never been an issue, and he looks comfortable in the NorvChud system. Could he have held off someone like Manuel? We will not find out this year.
- Jordan Cameron caught two touchdowns from Weeden on Thursday night. He has four catches on the preseason. Cameron had a long, complicated road to the NFL. To oversimplify, he went from Brigham Young to USC, basketball to football, and wide receiver to tight end, but did them all haphazardly, so he was always in the limbo of transferring/switching sports/learning new positions. All of the baffling change-for-change's-sake was perfect training for a career with the Cleveland Browns.
Cameron had some highlight moments last year, but no one was watching the diesel pumps in Cleveland, so his 20 receptions were easy to overlook. He is an excellent size-speed specimen, and just the kind of tight end that needs two or three seasons to blossom. Cameron is poised to become Weeden's favorite possession target.
To talk fantasy football for a moment, in the old days Cameron would have been a good "sleeper" tight end. That was back when we got our information from Pro Football Weekly and The Sporting News, when out-of-town preseason games were not rerun four times during the week on NFL Network. Nowadays, with downloadable cheat sheets and up-to-the-minute information services, no projected starter who catches two touchdown passes in a preseason game can be considered a sleeper.
When your league drafts, somebody's brother-in-law -- not one of Tom Crean's brother-in-laws, either, but the dude in the office who uses the veggie cream cheese knife to spread the regular cream cheese's brother-in-law -- is likely to draft Cameron in a middle round, because the online service suggested it. Sigh. I remember when it was COOL to be all informed and insider-y. You kids get off my lawn.
- Blaine Gabbert entered camp with about a 70-30 or 80-20 edge over Chad Henne in the Jaguars quarterback controversy; everyone in the organization wanted Gabbert to step up and claim the job. He did that on Saturday night, then promptly injured his throwing thumb, which is just so Jaguars and so Gabbert.
Gabbert is a different quarterback when he is executing an up-tempo, rollout-based offense. Two passes from Saturday night stand out. One was a 3rd-and-9 completion to Allen Reisner in the face of an all-out Rex Ryan blitz. It was a smooth set, read and throw, the kind a quarterback executes when he is seeing the field clearly and controlling the tempo of the game. The second was a short out-route to Justin Blackmon for 10 yards on 3rd-and-7 a few plays later. Gabbert threw to a spot near the sideline before Blackmon made his cut, another quick read-set-throw predicated on timing and accuracy.
Of course, the problem with rollout passes is that they limit the quarterback's reads and targets to one side of the field, making adjustments easier for the defense. Ryan started sending Coples and other defenders charging from the backside on rollouts, and both Gabbert and Henne took hits as a result. Still, we got a sense of what Gabbert does well on Saturday night, until the thumb injury at least.
Reisner, by the way, has four catches in preseason and has been a camp standout. A sleeper like Cameron at tight end? Not really: he's the backup tight end for a team whose last-chance prospect quarterback just sprained his throwing thumb. I may draft him in one of my leagues just to intimidate other owners with my deep football knowledge. This is an awful, awful fantasy strategy.
- Jay Culter completed four passes on Thursday night, all to Brandon Marshall. His interception was intended for Marshall. On his touchdown pass, Cutler held the ball at his hip and waited for Marshall to get open. It was as if Mike Tice had hacked into the headsets and was still calling the plays. If I were Marc Trestman, I would not dress Marshall for the rest of the preseason. It's time for Cutler to ride his bike around the neighborhood and meet some new friends.
Many of the rookie offensive tackles struggled this weekend. Erik Fisher was very slow to react at times when trying to protect Alex Smith for the Chiefs. Luke Joeckel missed Sharknado with a hip injury, which does not look too serious. D.J. Fluker had a few "I'M JUGGERNAUT" smackdown blocks, but he also let Shea McClellin slip past him on the inside to deliver a pop to Phillip Rivers.
Rookie offensive tackles often look terrible early in the season, but the recent generation of top tackle prospects -- Jake Long, Joe Thomas, Matt Kalil and others -- stepped directly into the lineup at left tackle and suffered few growing pains. Most of this year's prospects are starting their careers on the right side, which should help them develop, though the whole right-left tackle thing is not as big a deal as it is often made out to be. Fisher is an exceptional athlete who will adjust to the speed of the game. Joeckel also faces an adjustment, in that Johnny Manziel did not spend much time in the pocket, so Joeckel did not have to sustain pocket-protection blocks very often. Fluker will always be a step slow working to his inside shoulder, and he'll make up for it by occasionally ingesting an entire outside linebacker. As of now, though, none of these guys is poised to become an instant Pro Bowler the way Long and others did.
- Broncos fans should be worried about injuries, but they should not be worried about the 40-10 final score of Saturday night's game. The Seahawks starters did outplay the Broncos starters, but not in the way the final score indicates. Kickoff and fumble returns totaling 213 yards can really skew results, and those two plays (Jermaine Kearse's 107-yard kickoff return; Brandon Browner's 106-yard fumble return) represent a virtual 21-point swing in the Seahawks direction: 14 points for the two touchdowns, plus seven more for the one where the Broncos were inches from scoring. A post-reception fumble (the kind of sloppy play that can be written off to the preseason) gave the Seahawks three more points.
It is not news to anyone that if the Broncos fumble a lot and make dumb special teams mistakes, they can lose to a team as good as the Seahawks. Conversely, it is old news that the Seahawks can clobber any team in the NFL given a break or two. Fumbles can be minimized, while injured veterans are what could cause a Broncos crisis this year, which is why encouraging news on Sunday about Bailey and Wolfe was so important.
- Dear Colin Kaepernick: if you want to see how to stay healthy during a breakaway play, watch Peyton Manning on Browner's fumble return. You must look to the far edge of the television screen. Manning pursues Browner, but he stays at least 30 yards away, with his back to the sideline so no defender can sneak up and cheap-shot him from behind, and he runs just fast enough to make it look like he is trying. Actually, John Fox should order Manning to step into a hyperbaric chamber on the sideline after any preseason interception or fumble. If it's a playoff game, Colin, chase that defender down, or throw that extra block. In August, learn to do the Manning Jog. Signed, all of us.
- The Chargers used a varying pace against the Bears, mixing no-huddle plays with huddles in the same drive, and not always huddling during natural breaks. (Some teams huddle when the clock is stopped but hurry to the line when it is moving; the Chargers were unpredictable). The Bills and Jaguars also used syncopated tactics. The Ravens tried it last year, but Cam Cameron kept dropping the beat, and other teams continue to use the no-huddle as more of a wrinkle than a texture.
Going no-huddle all the time presents one set of problems, but syncopating the rhythm creates another. The defense must game-plan for both, and the offense gets to dictate substitutions and such. Just about every element of football strategy has been rethought in the last six years or so, from who takes the snap to how long it takes to snap it. The constant innovation makes the NFL the most rewarding sport in the world to study closely.
- Saturday afternoon's matinee between the Cardinals and Cowboys provided the following sequence, which was the most preseason-iest thing to happen in this preseason:
- Drew Stanton drops to pass. Cowboys rookie linebacker DeVonte Holloman blitzes unblocked from the right side. The Cardinals have two tight ends on that side of the formation, and neither of them blocks or runs any kind of hot route, but whatever, it's preseason.
- Stanton releases the football with a face full of Holloman. The ball flutters about 15 feet into the air and six yards backward. Kyle Wilbur, a second-year lineman, jogs under the football as if the infield fly rule were in effect.
- Wilbur misjudges the trajectory of the wobbling shuttlecock. It lands near midfield, and Wilbur begins kicking the ball downfield while trying unsuccessfully to pick it up, like Buster Keaton trying to pick up a dropped hat. After seven yards and four unsuccessful efforts, Wilbur drops to the ground and swats the ball with both hands before he finally gathers it in. Cats look more dignified while chasing balls filled with catnip.
- Now, it was obvious even before the replay that Stanton's arm was moving forward. Still, the ruling on the field is a fumble, and Dave Pasch, the announcer for the Cardinals' local broadcast, said after a replay -- in which it was clear that the pass actually left Stanton's hand before Holloman deflected it -- that "it was the right call." Color commentator Ron Wolfley disagrees. Cut to two minutes of commercials.
- We're back from two minutes of commercials. The Cardinals broadcast shows two team executives staring blankly at the non-action on the field. No one mentions that the play is being reviewed. No one shows an extra replay of an absolutely hysterical play. Two more minutes elapse (Wolfley and Pasch discuss offseason transactions) before an "official review" graphic appears. It takes roughly another minute for the referees to confirm the obvious: it was an incomplete pass. Hey, it's preseason for the referees and announcers, too! (Though really, it is always preseason for regional NFL announcers. Just before the Wilbur steeplechase, Wolfley said that a Cardinals receiver leapt to snatch a football "like a falcon snatching a fish." That would be a low-flying falcon.)
- In summary: five minutes, eight yards of a lineman chasing a football like a live chicken, numerous players you have never heard of, a television crew with no idea how to fill time, and referees calling the game as if they were distracted by the cheerleaders. Hooray preseason! Please end soon!
- Tongue-tied, metaphor-mauling homer announcers are just one of the many great things about regional preseason broadcasts. Local sponsorships are among the best. During the regular season, the NFL is an advertising mountain that can only be scaled by the likes of Nike and Coors. But in the preseason, the local Subaru dealership has a chance to slap its logo across a sliver of the telecast. The Saints-Raiders preseason game was rather dreary -- making Drew Brees carve up the Raiders' glorified Triple A affiliate defense for an entire half was just excessive -- but at least a national cable audience got to see advertisement for "Slap Ya Mamma" Cajun food products. For some reason, gumbo mix and seasoning blends taste better when accompanied by the squicky image of a sexually adventurous parent. The NFL is also more fun when it is associated with the kind of business that dreams up its marketing campaign over a batch of hurricanes around a kitchen table.
- Circling back to Michael Vick: I have a feeling we will still be talking about him as an NFL quarterback five years from now. Read-option tactics arrived at just the right time to once again resuscitate his career. The Riley Cooper situation changed Vick's persona from a crisis creator to a crisis ameliorator; few athletes on earth have as much diverse damage-control experience. He handled the Foles controversy well after some initial, overdramatized rumblings.
A 30-something quarterback with plenty of talent, skills that match the strategies of the moment, and an emerging image as someone who has learned from several lifetimes of mistakes can have a long, late career of mentoring rookies, pushing flailing prospects, or providing bench insurance for playoff teams. Are you ready for the eighth, ninth, and tenth acts of the Michael Vick saga? It has been breathtaking, hilarious, horrifying, depressing, uplifting and confusing over the last decade, but it rarely has been boring.
- Tim Tebow completed one pass for a loss of one yard this weekend. Mike Kafka, whom the Patriots released when they signed Tebow, completed one pass for a loss of four yards. Finally, the answer to the "why the Patriots signed Tebow" question is answered: he was a legitimate upgrade!
- There were lots of scary injuries this weekend. Wolfe was taken from the Broncos-Seahawks game by ambulance. Barkevious Mingo of the Browns was hospitalized overnight after Thursday's game with a punctured lung. Eddie Royal left a Chargers practice via ambulance with what turned out to be a bruised lung and a concussion. There were also prosaic (though significant) injuries, like Dustin Keller's broken leg, but multiple hospitalizations are the kind of thing that grabs your attention.
Wolfe and Mingo do not appear to be as injured as initially feared, and Royal's prognosis is manageable. As we survey what appears to be an epidemic of freakish injuries, we should remember that (a) all NFL news is exponentially more reported now than it was even 10 years ago, (b) all NFL news is reported exponentially faster now than it was 10 years ago, and (c) better safeguards and procedures are in place now than they were 10 years ago.
A few years ago, Royal or Mingo might not have been hospitalized immediately. If they had been, the details of their hospitalization, complete with the ambulance drive, would not have been reported in real time. If they had been reported quickly, by local media in Cleveland and San Diego, those reports probably would not have been picked up nationally. So the same injuries might have occurred, but no one would be talking about them, and the quality of the medical response and treatment probably would have been worse. (Definitely, in the case of a concussion.)
We are always aiming at a fast-moving target when we try to make sense of news nowadays, whether it is football news or actual life-affecting news. It comes at us harder, louder, faster and from further afield than we are equipped to process it, and our standards are evolving so fast that we cannot keep up with our own changing attitudes. The "consensus" attitude on concussions has gone from -- "He was barely touched, that hit to the helmet was nothing like the last three, he must be goldbricking" -- to -- "the team claims the concussion test was negative, which means they are hiding something" -- in about 15 years. We've gone from waiting for tomorrow's paper or tonight's SportsCenter to minute-by-minute updates on Tom Brady's every training camp hobble. Sometimes we outkick our mental coverage, and we need to recognize that we are not reacting to what has changed in the world, but to the change itself.