Let's warm up with a Preseason Quarterback Prospect Pessimism Index. The scale goes from 0 to 5, with 0 representing a complete lack of pessimism, which happier and more fulfilled people call "optimism." Five represents a feeling akin to endorsing Blaine Gabbert for Secretary of State. Negativity sells on the Internet!
Blake Bortles: 1. Bortles looks comfortable and is doing a lot of things right. Chad Henne looks the same way. The whole Jaguars offense appears to be more settled than last year, when they sometimes played like they just met for the first time in the parking lot and were working from an old copy of Offensive Football Strategies. The Jaguars should use the early season as an opportunity for Henne to provide stability to the young receivers and linemen, but the Jaguars have an organizational habit of doing insane things with their quarterbacks at the end of August.
Teddy Bridgewater: 1.25. A pair of late-game scoring drives on Saturday took away the sting of a shabby preseason debut. That said, they were late-game scoring drives in August. Bridgewater is doing all of the developmental things a young quarterback should do and needs the time to keep doing them. That means lots of preseason snaps, but the least amount of pressure to start the opener.
Ryan Tannehill: 1.75. The top two young quarterbacks giving off a David Carr vibe right now: 2) Derek Carr; and 1) Tannehill, who sometimes looks like he has taken too many hits to really understand what can be done during that second second in the pocket. Tannehill had a great preseason opener, a so-so follow up and a camp that changes complexion depending on who you talk to. This list is not about buying or praising anyone, but it's getting harder to lump him with the Russell Wilson crowd and easier to lump him with the next two guys on this list.
Sam Bradford: 2. Bradford looks sharper on short passes and more in tune with his receivers. Maybe if he had to run sprints every time he threw a deep pass nine yards out of bounds …
Jake Locker: 2.5. Locker rebounded from his football-in-a-car-wash performance in the preseason opener to lead a few productive drives against the Saints starters. Some crisp passes aside, Locker is starting to look a little too much like Bradford: effective when throwing short between the numbers, unpredictable in every other situation. That was essentially the Mark Sanchez scouting report, and we are talking about three high draft picks who received multiple opportunities to hold onto their starting jobs. That said, there are plenty of quarterbacks lower on this list.
Geno Smith: 3. Geno looks better than November 2013 Geno but nothing like September 2012 Geno. Too many passes still look like they were fired from a slingshot.
EJ Manuel: 4.75. After watching three preseason games and two days of practices with the Steelers, I am running out of benefit of the doubt for Manuel. His ball placement, even on the simplest throws, is horrendous. This was supposed to be a major growth offseason for him, but even in practice he is spraying and bouncing passes.
Johnny Manziel: Grade Incomplete. The Browns play on Monday. The decision comes on Tuesday. Overreaction comes Wednesday. Regrets begin on Thursday. Happy hour is on Friday. Guess who's buying?
Get Your Story Straight
The end of training camp marks the official start of overblown storyline season. But like Christmas displays on Labor Day, overblown storylines no longer wait until we are ready for them. The new models have been on showroom floors for weeks; in the upcoming weeks of preseason hoopla, they will gather energy like a hurricane in the Caribbean, then sweep across the football mindscape.
Don't be caught unprepared! When someone tries to steamroll you with the latest broad NFL talking point at the water cooler, your fantasy draft or during hour three of the midday show, make sure you are armed with both facts and a deep understanding of the issues. You may not win any arguments -- it may not be advisable to even try -- but there's satisfaction in being the one person in a conversation who actually knows what he or she is talking about.
Here are some of the broad storylines that already have their own barometric pressure, the history behind them and the information you need to keep them from ravaging the countryside. Warning: not all overblown storylines are as overblown as they seem. Sometimes, the weather girl calls for eight inches of snow and you get a foot. Plus several defensive holding penalties.
Defensive penalties will cause the downfalls of first the Seahawks, then western civilization. Richard Sherman will choke on a yellow flag and die this year. He will jam a receiver, just like he has hundreds of times during his rise to stardom in the last two years, and an avalanche of penalty flags will bury him. One flag will lodge in his esophagus and he will flail like a seagull caught in a six-pack ring tab before collapsing to the turf.
While that particular scenario has not yet been posited, just about every variation on the defensive penalties bring chaos storyline has. On one extreme, the Seahawks fall out of the playoff chase (because they, like all successful teams of the past 20 years, are a bunch of dirty cheaters), offenses enjoy first down after first down thanks to cheap penalties and the quarterback who gains the most ticky-tack flags through a mixture of reputation and incessant complaints wins. (Hooray, Tom Brady!) On the other extreme, nothing noteworthy will happen at all; numerous coaches have mumbled bland "We will all adjust almost immediately" statements, which start to sound believable after you have been brainwashed by dozens of preseason press conferences.
Here is some data on defensive penalties through two preseason games this year and in 2013. Keep in mind that three games are missing from this year's data (Sunday's and Monday's) and that the league warned coaches that it would "rain flags" in the preseason to force everyone to start adapting to the newly-reinterpreted contact fouls:
Umm … HOLY FREAKIN' COW.
Let's just focus on defensive holds for a moment. There were 218 of them called last year during the regular season, including declined penalties. That comes out to 13.6 per week of real football, or just about one per game. So far in the preseason, there will have been over 50 holds per week once Sunday and Monday's games are included, or more than three per game. Factor in a tenfold increase in the number of illegal contact fouls and … yikes.
Yes, referees are emphasizing the new rule interpretation, so there will be some settling in the data. We are talking about a 500 percent increase in penalties that generally turn incomplete passes or interceptions into offensive first downs, so even if the penalty rate is cut in half, we are still in the stratosphere.
Bottom line: No one can look at the table above and assume that business will return to usual in three weeks. That's not "adjustment" data, it's "massive course change" data.
We are likely to see "ruined" games early in the season as overzealous flagging bogs the action down and judgment-call fouls have too great an impact on the final score. We will probably see a scoring increase, as well as a smaller increase in passing totals. Different officiating crews will call penalties at different rates; smart analysts and handicappers will track the crews to get an edge. The NFL will claim that nothing is wrong, no games are being marred by dubious calls and that everyone is much happier now that defenders essentially have to avoid receivers like they were playing freeze tag.
It's all speculation, except for that last bit. The numbers in the table above are so extreme that we should expect the unexpected. The table shows "cloning dinosaurs from DNA found in mosquitos trapped in amber" data. It can topple all of our analytical models.
One thing I do not expect is a Seahawks-localized collapse. If anything, a team with top secondary talent, top defensive coaching and a deep/diverse pass rush is better equipped to survive a new flag-heavy reality than a team dependent on ordinary defenders. The Seahawks lost a defensive touchdown to a penalty this weekend, but they have not been unduly penalized during their brief sample size. They will be adjusting like everyone else, but they are more adjustable than their "maul the receiver" reputation suggests.
The great completion percentage straw man argument. When Giants offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo announced that he set a goal for Eli Manning to complete 70 percent of his passes, he not only put pressure on Eli but placed a bounty on the completion percentage statistic as well. You don't have to live close to New York to hear the chatter. Oh great, so now instead of trying to throw downfield and win games, Eli is going to dink-and-dunk to the running backs to make his stats look good. He'll throw three passes for six yards, his coach will be happy and the Giants will punt.
Only four quarterbacks have completed over 70 percent of their passes in a full season: Drew Brees twice (2009 and 2011), Ken Anderson (strike shortened 1982), Steve Young (1994) and Joe Montana (1989). Three of those seasons ended with a Super Bowl victory. Brees' 2011 ended with a crazy playoff loss to the 49ers, while Anderson's 1982 season ended during a weird post-strike playoff tournament. The 70 percent seasons are all both great quarterback seasons and great team seasons.
The image of a quarterback "dink and dunking" his way to an incredibly high completion rate is largely a fiction. There are examples of ordinary quarterbacks having ordinary years whose completion percentages approached 70: Brian Griese in 2004 (69.3 percent for the Buccaneers), David Carr in 2006 (68.3 for the Texans). But most of the names on the all-time completion rate leaderboard are Brees, Peyton Manning, Young and Kurt Warner, plus lesser quarterbacks known for their efficiency, like Rich Gannon and Chad Pennington.
There's a reason mediocre quarterbacks have trouble approaching a 70 percent completion rate, even as the league average creeps into the low-60s and screen passes become an increasing component of offensive strategy. A quarterback who tries to "game the system" by checking down and throwing tons of screens and dump-offs is likely to fall behind in the game. He will then be expected to throw deeper and take more risks, which will lower his completion rates. So there's a cause-and-effect synergy at work in the statistics of a player like Brees. His high-percentage passing capability gives him the lead in games, allowing him to continue to throw high-percentage passes. Brees' rate dropped to 63.0 percent during the 2012 Bountygate season, then bounced back to 68.6 percent last year. The absence of Sean Payton and other variables impacted the drop, but simple situational forces were also in play when Brees was going 35-of-54 for three touchdowns in losing efforts.
(You may think that a quarterback who is always hopelessly behind gains a completion rate advantage, but the impact of garbage-time production is not as great as you might think. Remember that if a quarterback goes 7-of-11 in garbage time, that only gets him to 64 percent, and he probably did some naughty things to reach garbage time in the first place.)
So McAdoo is setting a lofty standard for Eli. Setting a statistical benchmark for a player is not unusual at all, though publicizing it is. Coaches set all manner of benchmarks for players, units and teams, but they don't tell us about them for a variety of good and bad reasons. (They don't want to hear about it when they fall short, they are secretive by nature, they hold us in contempt, etc.) Some of the goals are vague and a little silly, like the mission statement of an ambitious company as rewritten by someone who drank too many energy shakes and glued down his caps-lock button.
WE WILL ALLOW ZERO POINTS PER GAME THROUGHOUT THE SEASON AND POSTSEASON AND BOW OUR HEADS IN SHAME IF WE ACHIEVE ANYTHING LESS.
WE WILL BE EXCELLENT WHEN RUNNING THE BALL AND EVEN EXCELLENTER WHEN PASSING THE BALL.
Slogans like those are common on the front pages of playbooks. But game plans and seasonal goals often include lofty-but-actually-attainable goals: cut interception rate in half, hold opponent to a field goal or less on every red zone trip and so on. These attainable goals help shape practice schedules, inform study sessions and more. Telling Eli Manning to "get better at everything" sounds great until he has to decide what weights to lift, passes to throw, game film to watch or techniques to refine. Telling him to up his completion rate significantly gives Eli (and McAdoo and the assistants) some direction.
So Manning is shooting for a completion rate seven points higher than his career best. He is doing it in an offense that includes more (sigh) dink-and-dunk passes than Kevin Gilbride's more vertical system. Did you know that 64 percent of NFL passes travel 10 yards or less downfield in the air? Forty-four percent of passes travel five or fewer yards downfield. It's a dink-and-dunk world we live in. Get used to it.
The Giants' completion rate after three games is just 59.6 percent; Eli has thrown just 16 passes, so pointing out his 43.8 percent rate would be both mean and statistically invalid. The bottom line is that if Eli approaches a 70 percent completion rate, he and the Giants offense will have a great season and if the Giants offense has a great season, it will help fluff up that completion rate. It's not the number that matters. It's the goal and the expectations and preparation that spring from that goal.
Without a receiver who "lifts the lid," your offense is a wet bathmat. This is the Meme That Consumed Philadelphia in the spring of 2013. Forget talk radio hosts and Twitter followers: Men and women on the street asked me over and over again in recent months whether the Eagles will be able to move the ball at all without DeSean Jackson and the coverage he attracts.
Clearly, Jackson has this effect on opposing offenses:
It's not just Jackson. Josh Gordon remains under the Sword of Goodellocles, and the Browns' season rests on whether Goodell's tabby cat ultimately decides to tear its Gordon-shaped chew-toy apart (one-year suspension) or gets bored and sleeps in a sunny spot (scot-free; if it tears up the curtains instead, that's eight games, but heaven help Jim Irsay). If Gordon is available, Jordan Cameron will be open on every single pass play, because the safeties will be wading in Lake Erie. Without him, you will be watching the Dayton Triangles of 1925. (They scored three points in eight games. True story.)
The "lift the lid" concept is a great example of overemphasis of a fundamentally true strategic concept. When an offense has an outstanding deep passing game, safeties are more likely to play deeper, opponents are more likely to call two-deep and three-deep zones than Man-Zero (one-on-one coverage with nobody deep, which is pretty rare anyway in conventional down-and-distance situations) or Man-Free (one-on-one, one deep safety). There are bracket coverages, rolling coverages and other tactics that can be used to provide deep support for anyone lined up against DeSean, Gordon, Dez Bryant or any other troublesome receiver.
But there are lots of receivers around the NFL who attract such attention. And these coverages are situational, anyway: When the Browns lined up with two backs, two tight ends and Gordon last year, opponents did not respond with a three-deep zone shaded to Gordon's side, but with something like Man-Free. Any receiver with decent speed will take the free safety with him when running a deep post route. Even Stephen Hill! A fast tight end can "lift the lid" by running a seam route. Any three pro receivers or tight ends running three-vert concepts -- like it sounds, three-vert means three guys running downfield routes -- should create space underneath for some Darren Sproles or Nate Burleson-type to find a crease.
And of course, NFL wide receivers are paid to win one-on-one matchups against NFL cornerbacks. They don't need a teammate playing Follow the Leader with the safeties in the parking lot to make it happen.
There are obviously extremes. The Chiefs, who have some kind of fast-receiver allergy, labor harder to generate a downfield game than, say, the Steelers. Last year's Vikings had some great receivers but their quarterbacks had no downfield range; opponents let their safeties crowd the box to stop Adrian Peterson, with predictable results. This year's Lions have so many downfield weapons that defenses will be constantly pressured: rolling coverage toward Calvin Johnson will stretch resources for stopping Golden Tate and Eric Ebron thin. If the Eagles take the field in September without Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper, the loss of Jackson will feel particularly acute.
But we are talking now about rosters, quarterbacks and passing games, not individual receivers. Great deep burners like DeSean and Gordon make an impact, but that impact has become overstated, in part because it's easy to create a GIF or clip of a receiver drawing "double coverage" to justify his contribution in a game where he has one catch for six yards.
Desean-types make their greatest impact not by attracting defensive attention, but by CATCHING LONG PASSES THEMSELVES AND SCORING TOUCHDOWNS. Replacing DeSean's 1,332 yards will take some work, because 1,332 yards do not grow on trees. But Cooper's 835 yards and the Eagles tight ends' 971 yards won't evaporate because they just cannot shake those pesky defenders all by themselves.
Let's inspect that package. It was only a matter of time before we started analyzing Johnny Manziel's package. We've been examining Michael Vick's package for years. It eventually stops getting creepy.
The Jets are considering some kind of Wildcat package for Vick. The Jets consider a lot of terrible things. Television analyst Donovan McNabb hates the idea, which is not a good enough reason to embrace it. Swirling within the tornado of Manziel hyperventilation is the rumor that Manziel may also be granted some suspicious "package" role if he does not earn the starting job by the season opener, which he won't.
Rule of thumb: If you're mobile and highly touted and your backup is not, there will always be "package" talk. If you're mobile and highly touted and your backup is Geno Smith, there will always be "package" talk.
Manziel is an unlikely candidate for a Wildcat role (it's either misuse that label or keep saying "package" until we're all self-conscious). Two of the biggest knocks against him after a month of full-squad work are his decision making and his recklessness. Manziel is not sure what he is doing, but his default mode is to do it head first. Send him into a game ice cold in the second quarter to execute an intricate option and he may misread the defense, fumble, injure himself or go for the trifecta.
Manziel has been working on option-tinged plays in Browns practices and preseason games. So has Brian Hoyer. The Browns playbook looks very similar to what Kyle Shanahan used in Washington the last two years. As Nick Foles taught us last year, the speed of the quarterback in such a system is just one of the variables that lead to success. If Shanahan inserts Manziel simply because he wants a faster quarterback in the game, that tips his hand, doesn't it? He could do it as a decoy, but that takes us quickly into Vizzini the Sicilian logic. They think Manziel will run an option, so we will really just have him hand off, but they will be waiting for that, so … NFL coaches sometimes do trap themselves in such conundrums, but they should never be encouraged to do so.
Vick is a big-armed scrambler who would replace a big-armed scrambler in any specialized Wildcat role. If he were an acceptable option quarterback at this point in his career, he would probably still be in Philadelphia. Marty Mornhinweg tinkered with Vick packages when the two were paired in Philly, and Mornhinweg has developed an obsession with wacky substitution packages. The man who gave direct snaps to Bilal Powell and Joe McKnight and ran Antonio Cromartie onto the field at the strangest times imaginable will have no qualms about asking a veteran quarterback to hustle on the field for an isolated play. Mornhinweg is reluctant to use Wildcatish wrinkles on two successive plays, which guarantees that the plays confuse the Jets as much as they surprise opponents.
The lone example of a "package quarterback" successfully diversifying an offense and developing a young quarterback is Colin Kaepernick in 2012. In terms of quarterback production, here is what Kaepernick offered in the days of the WildKaep: 5-of-9 passing for 89 yards, 13 carries for 111 yards and two touchdowns across five games. Two of the games were blowouts by the Niners; Kaepernick's contributions to 34-0 and 45-3 wins were significant (he made some non-garbage-time big plays) but the 49ers would have coasted without him. The experience was helpful when Alex Smith got hurt a few weeks later, but really, did nine passes and 40 yards of offense per game for a month turn Kaepernick into who he is today? More accurately, Kaepernick was turning into who he is today so rapidly that Jim Harbaugh felt compelled to give him nine passes and 13 rushes.
So there's our one unequivocal success in the 30 years since Buddy Ryan tried to make Randall Cunningham a "third-down specialist" for the Eagles. (The result was a then-record 72 sacks.) My guess is that Manziel will start when he is good enough to play. If Vick starts wandering into huddles regularly, it will spell disaster for both him and Geno.
And all of the package talk, like most preseason package talk, will remain talk.