The second wave of the first week of NFL preseason games crashed against the shore Friday night, and a lot of the league's best and brightest teams took the field for the first time in 2012. A lot of the team's dullest and, er, least-best teams of 2011 also played their first competitive snaps on a clean slate.
Which players took a big step forward? Which players don't look any different at all? How have teams' offenses and defenses changed with new players, or new coordinators? Which teams look like they're ready to take the next step, and which teams look like they're rocking back on their heels?
We can't find any of these answers in training camp. No practice, no drill, no scrimmage can possibly replicate the intensity of "live bullets": when the bright lights go on and the cameras roll and guys wearing different-colored jerseys take the field.
Preseason isn't the real deal, no—but it's a new level of competition, a welcome change from red jerseys and no-contact rules and the first time some of these players have played a professional down in anger.
Can we take away any real, lasting lessons from Friday's slate of games? Yes! Here are 25 of them.
Between saying the names of teams that aren't playing, missing blatant calls or seeing things that weren't there, the first night of replacement refs was just this side of disastrous. The second night wasn't much better, with every game having at least an odd call or two.
It may sound like a "well, duh" moment, but line judge Shannon Eastin became the first female NFL official, even if she had to cross the picket line to do it.
She and the rest of the crew she belonged to performed at least as well as any other replacement refs.
Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez completed a decent percentage of his attempts (4-of-6) for not very many yards per attempt (3.5) and not very many interceptions (zero) but also not very many touchdowns (zero). Also, he got sacked twice.
Thus, these two preseason possessions were a perfect microcosm of Mark Sanchez's NFL career.
Jets quarterback Tim Tebow completed half as many passes as he attempted (4-of-8) for not very many yards per attempt (3.38). He threw no touchdowns but was intercepted once. He ran for 34 yards, seven more than he passed for.
Again, this game was a perfect microcosm of his NFL career.
After being dogged by rumors that he'd been disappointing the coaching staff and being removed from the first-team defense, Quinton Coples showed up in a big way.
With five solo tackles, a sack and a forced fumble, Coples proved he can have a big immediate impact, even if he's not on the field every down.
Vontaze Burfict, former top recruit and 2010 All-American, had been assumed to be a future first-round pick throughout his college career. An underwhelming junior season and poor showings through the draft cycle had him go completely undrafted.
But in his first NFL preseason game, Burfict had two solo tackles, four assists and a key interception of Tim Tebow in the Bengals' win over the Jets.
Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden is exactly that—a rookie. Despite his first-round draft status, and despite being named the starter, Weeden proved he's got a lot to learn before he can be successful against NFL first-stringers.
Against the Detroit Lions' porous pass defense, Weeden was just 3-of-9 for 62 yards, no touchdowns and an interception.
The Browns struggled to throw the ball effectively in the first half and defensively struggled to get off the field. Once the Lions got out to a lead, carries for Richardson's replacement, Montario Hardesty, were tough to come by.
If the Browns have to abandon the run and play catch-up every time their quarterbacks turn the ball over, they're going to be in a world of hurt.
With Jahvid Best still not ready to play after last season's concussion and Mikel Leshoure out due to a hamstring, who could the Lions turn to at running back?
First, they turned to Kevin Smith, who gained a very solid 28 yards on five carries. After that, Keiland Williams, Joique Bell and Stefan Logan combined to rack up 28 carries for 170 yards (6.07 YPC) and a touchdown.
Of course, it's just the preseason, but it looks like the Lions will be able to do just fine with a makeshift tailback corps.
Kellen Moore is the winningest quarterback in NCAA D-I history, but he's just not cut out for the NFL.
After he'd completed just four of 13 attempts for 40 yards, the Lions' seven-game preseason win streak was snapped when Moore's deep attempt to get into field-goal range was intercepted.
Moore just doesn't have the arm it takes to win in the pros.
After the Giants finally let inconsistent tailback Brandon Jacobs go, an awfully big burden was placed on Ahmad Bradshaw's shoulders.
But first-round rookie David Wilson had a big first night, picking up 43 yards on seven carries. Even so, Wilson may be looking up at D.J. Ware, who had five carries for 30 yards and a touchdown.
New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning established himself as a superstar in 2011. Backup David Carr has proven himself capable whenever he gets an opportunity—as he did against the Jaguars, completing six of 10 passes for 48 yards and two touchdowns.
But third-stringer Ryan Perrilloux made a great case for himself, too, completing six of seven passes for 59 yards and a touchdown even as the pass protection fell apart around him.
Will the Giants keep all three on the roster?
Much-maligned Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert took the field for the first preseason game of his sophomore campaign, and all he did was play quite well.
Gabbert completed five of 10 passes for 62 yards and a touchdown, and he looked confident and relaxed while doing so.
When the Cincinnati Bengals signed former Arena League quarterback Jordan Palmer, younger brother of their then-starting quarterback Carson Palmer, it seemed like a courtesy gesture.
Palmer's statistics with the Bengals seemed to back that up: In three years, Palmer went 10-of-15 for for 59 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions and four sacks.
But Palmer completed nine passes out of 13 attempts against the back half of the Giants' deep defensive depth chart for a total of 110 yards. He's earned a shot at more preseason reps.
The Tampa Bay Bucs offense looked more balanced and potent than it has in years. Quarterback Josh Freeman turned in a poised, effective performance, and his backups Brett Ratliff and Dan Orlovsky did too; the Bucs combined to go 18-of-24 for 183 yards.
The primary running backs, LeGarrette Blount and rookie Doug Martin, each had seven carries; Blount gained 30 yards and a touchdown, Martin 21 and a score of his own. All told, the Bucs put up 20 points against a Miami Dolphins team that could only muster seven.
Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill didn't have the kind of college tape, tools or resume you'd expect of a No. 8 overall pick, but that didn't stop him from coming in and completing 14 of 21 passes for 167 yards and a score against the Buccaneers.
Whether he earns the Week 1 starting job remains to be seen—Tannehill was only 3-of-7 in the first half—but he not only didn't take a pratfall, he was pleasantly capable. Great news for the Dolphins.
Former undrafted free agent wide receiver Roberto Wallace has the physical tools to be a weapon in the NFL.
Standing 6'4" and weighing 222 pounds, Wallace underlined a strong camp with four receptions and a team-leading 71 yards against Tampa Bay.
With the receiver depth chart murky at best, Wallace has a chance to shine.
Arizona Cardinals fans must have been hoping that their $65 million quarterback would emerge from his offseason cocoon a whole new player, but no: Kevin Kolb completed one pass on five attempts and did not look good doing it.
Arizona Cardinals fans must have been hoping that their plucky small-school fifth-round underdog would take a giant leap forward and develop into the Tom Brady he'd secretly been all along, but...no.
Skelton was 3-of-6 for 35 yards and an interception.
In 2011, the Kansas City Chiefs finished 27th in the NFL in sacks. Against the Cardinals on Friday night, however, they racked up a whopping seven sacks for minus-43 yards. Amazingly, it was a true team performance: Each sack came from a different player.
Sure, it was only three carries and a reception, but those carries went for 12 yards and that reception went for 11.
Jamaal Charles took some real NFL hits tonight and bounced right back to gain yards, and that's the best news Chiefs fans could have gotten.
Chiefs fans got more good news about the running back position: Sixth-round draft pick Cyrus Gray turned in an impressive performance. With a solid 65 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries, Gray looked like he'll be ready to contribute soon.
Free-agent signee Peyton Hillis added 41 yards on four carries and a touchdown on an 11-yard pass reception.
Alex Smith and the 49ers more or less had their way with the first-string Vikings defense.
True, first-stringers like defensive end Jared Allen, defensive tackle Kevin Williams and cornerback Antoine Winfield weren't playing, but neither was 49ers running back Frank Gore.
The 49ers scored a touchdown on each of their first two drives and ultimately piled up 412 total yards (260 rushing) in a suffocating 17-6 win.
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder opened his first game of 2011 by unleashing a 52-yard bomb.
He didn't do a whole lot more, finishing 4-of-9 for 80 yards, but it was a great statement play to reestablish Ponder as the Vikings' quarterback of the present and future.
The 49ers put on a show against the short-handed Vikings defense. Alex Smith quickly went 3-of-3 for 16 yards and a touchdown on their first drive and then took a seat.
The rest of the 49ers quarterbacks—Colin Kaepernick, Scott Tolzien and Josh Johnson—combined to go 17-of-26 for 170 yards and a rushing touchdown.
Oh, and with Frank Gore sitting on the bench, the 49ers piled up almost 200 yards rushing in the first half alone and finished with 260 yards rushing.