The 2012 NFL preseason is in the books (thank God), and we can now officially celebrate the fact that we won't have to witness football this bad again until the Miami Dolphins play the Arizona Cardinals in Week 4 of the regular season!
If you've been following along, you know that the preseason has had more than its fair share of lowlights. And instead of simply focusing on preseason Week 4—the most meaningless week of the most meaningless part of the football season—I thought we would instead focus on the entire preseason and call out the worst of the worst.
So brace yourselves, football fans. It's about to get ugly.
Like, New York Jets offense ugly.
1. The New York Jets Offense
Good Lord, was there anything in the 2012 NFL preseason worse than the Jets offense? This isn't even a platform for your average Tim Tebow rant. It wasn't just Tebow. It wasn't just Mark Sanchez. It was the offensive collective—emphasis on offensive.
The quarterbacks. The line (particularly Wayne Hunter). Stephen Hill. Patrick Turner. Ryan Baker. Shonn Greene. At some point, it's a struggle to identify a single player who looked like he had ever been on a football field before.
Tony Sparano's offensive display did its best to defy the very aesthetic of football itself, turning X's and O's into gridiron Cubism. Even John Waters would express disgust with the sights sullying his flat screen.
Eventually, you run out of appropriate, kid-friendly words to describe just how bad the Jets offense was/is and just resort to the good old-fashioned Nickelodeon guffaw reel. Because if there was one thing those 11 men were good for this preseason, it was ample fodder for guffaws.
Now, I'm sure Jets fans will counter with "OMG dude, it's just the preseason" or "hating Tebow is a one-way ticket to hell!", some silly assertions that what we saw on tape somehow didn't matter, that all will be cured with the incentive of regular season win-loss records and some slight adjustment here or there.
But I really don't think these fans understand the depth of ineptitude on display. Much will be made about the Jets' inability to find paydirt on the preseason, and, yeah, that essentially bottom-lines it. The real story, though, goes beyond that nifty little trivia fact. It's really a story about why the Jets couldn't manage a single touchdown.
Interceptions by Sanchez. Wild overthrows and underthrows by Tebow. An offensive line seemingly incapable of blocking anyone in the run or pass games. Receivers who couldn't catch, runners who didn't run.
A measly 3.4 yards per play. You should theoretically be able to simply hand the ball off to your third-string RB every snap and manage something more impressive than that. Hell, if you just handed the ball to Dwight Howard and told him to fall forward with his arms extended, you could manage more than 3.4 yards per play.
The numbers get worse, though, when held in context with the rest of the league.
Consider this: The team that could most identify with the Jets' offensive hijinks this preseason was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Yes, the same Buccaneers that are quarterbacked by Josh Freeman and possess roughly six players on the roster you've vaguely heard of at some point whilst digging deep on the fantasy football waiver wire.
The Buccaneers managed to score nearly twice as many points per game (15, as compared to New York's 7.8) as the Jets, finishing with 60 points on the preseason to New York's 31. That's right—even a Jets quarterback show that featured two players that figure to be featured prominently in Sanchez and Tebow couldn't out-duel the rotation of Freeman and Dan Orlovsky. Yes, that Dan Orlovsky.
All is not lost in New York, of course. There is still time to get things figured out or modify the offense based on findings in the exhibition season. And lest we forget, the Jets defense (especially the starters) looked pretty damn impressive in the preseason, finishing in the top 10 in most categories of note.
(And hey, if Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson can ride defensive coattails all the way to the Lombardi Trophy, there's no conceivable reason why Sanchez and Tebow couldn't do the same—it's at least within the realm of possibility.)
But from the putrid sneak peek we had over the month of August, it's evident that the offense still has a lot of work to do. And Rex Ryan will have to figure it out quickly if he wants to keep the Captain Jets of the world in their seats this season.
2. Cincinnati Bengals Defensive Backs
What the hell was it with Bengals defensive backs this preseason? Something ingested from the Ohio? A bad Skyline dog at a Reds game?
Cincinnati's DBs were reckless to an extent that would make a 50-car interstate pileup look like a mere fender-bender by comparison. If it wasn't Taylor Mays assassinating his own teammates, it was every other guy playing the position as if the sole purpose was to inherit manslaughter charges.
Let's review last Thursday's matchup between the Bengals and Indianapolis Colts, where two Bengals DBs joined Mays on the list of clueless Kamikaze pilots hellbent on showing up on tape in the worst kind of way.
This would-have-been touchdown toss from Colts rookie QB Chandler Harnish to WR Kris Adams was a particularly egregious example:
I mean, what the hell, George Iloka? Seriously, what the hell? You're late to the ball. You're out of position. You have no real opportunity to make a play on the pass itself. So you target the head? Guide yourself toward the receiver's facemask, attempting to make no play on the ball or point of reception itself?
Well, if the aim was to impress Gregg Williams, then job well done! If the aim was to play this game like a man instead of throwing out some pathetic cheap shot, then I'm not sure the final week of the exhibition season evidenced a much bigger loser.
We'll discuss more about head shots and NFL reaction later, but for now, just focus on how insanely dangerous, cheap and ill-advised this pass break-up is. Iloka, a rookie safety who opened some eyes in camp, made absolutely zero attempt to break up the pass. Rather, he made every attempt to break through Kris Adams' facemask.
This goes against everything Roger Goodell has been touting over the last year-and-change. It's inexcusable, malicious and cowardly, the last resort of a man who knows he screwed up and just wants to extend his shelf life another snap before the inevitable six points are added to the scoreboard.
These kinds of hits should not be applauded, and more people should be calling Iloka out. Sure, I'm sure he received an "atta boy" from the Bengals coaching staff for keeping their futile defensive stand alive for another snap, but at what long-term expense, when this kind of hit is just accepted?
Turns out, the Bengals weren't done making a mockery of the DB position on the night. Cornerback T.J. Heath made sure to have his say as well.
On this simple fourth-quarter slant from Harnish to Colts rookie WR LaVon Brazill, Heath put himself in great position to tackle Brazill shortly after the reception. Unfortunately for Heath, his follow-through was terrible, and he adjusted by reaching for Brazill's facemask and whipping him to the turf in a desperate move to finish the tackle.
This is just dumb secondary play. Even if you miss the tackle, you likely slow down Brazill enough for a safety or linebacker to finish him off short of the first-down marker, minimizing his yards after catch. When you make that conscious decision to reach for and yank the facemask—especially to the blatantly obvious extent Heath did—you beg for a flag and openly invite the offense to move forward 15 yards (to the six or seven you might have allowed otherwise). Math apparently must not be Heath's strong suit.
Heath wasn't done looking like a total clown on the night, though. In the same quarter, he received payback for his cheap facemask courtesy of a stiff arm from Colts rookie tight end Dominique Jones:
You know that moment where you just know a player cut himself and everyone knows it? Where Marvin Lewis crossed off the name on his roster and the player walked back to the sideline with plans for packing order on his mind? That was that moment.
The Bengals have a lot of cleaning up to do in the secondary, most of it fueled by a rash of unfortunate injuries. Still, the play exhibited by those guys was far too sloppy, and you can already see that coming back to bite them in the regular season, if allowed to remain unchecked.
3. Roger Goodell
I'm just going to say it up front, where it can't be buried under anything else here: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is a complete and total coward.
He may feign interest in player safety initiatives and put the NFL PR machine to extensive work in getting the messaging out that concussions are dangerous, that we must act before we create a new generation of men who spend the remainder of their post-football lives struggling with crippling pain, depression, sleep loss and suicidal tendencies.
But he doesn't care. Not really. Not to the extent he isn't expected to care.
You see, here's the dangerous truth about Goodell and the NFL: They only care to the extent they're pressured to care. If the media makes a big production about helmet-to-helmet contact and head injuries, Goodell will act. If ESPN continues to highlight the dangers of spearing, launching and headhunting in their video packaging, Goodell will act.
If something goes relatively unnoted in the context of a game and the media prioritizes interest elsewhere, Goodell will not act.
Case in point: Austin Collie's concussion suffered against the Pittsburgh Steelers this preseason. The fourth of his career.
(And if you think this is just about making the Colts out to be "victims" of headhunting this preseason—stop it. This is bigger than that, much bigger. And if this had happened to anyone else, I would be highlighting that. But this is the most particularly compelling case of league-office negligence in the books, so this is the one we'll focus on.)
To review, in a preseason Week 2 Sunday Night Football matchup between the Colts and Steelers, Andrew Luck fired a first-quarter pass toward Collie. The oft-concussed receiver initially made the grab, but he dropped the ball when Steelers linebacker Larry Foote came in late with a forearm shiver delivered directly to the helmet.
Look again closely. Collie had both knees down as Foote came flying in for the kill. Foote made zero attempt to actually make a tackle or play the ball. Rather, he just extended his forearm and made a play for Collie's helmet.
That is the definition of headhunting, of a malicious hit intended to injure another player. And it's even more disturbing when you consider Collie's concussion history. Was Foote actively trying to target Collie's head with that history in mind?
I know Steelers homers will only see what they want to see there, and that's fine. Hey, Foote is your guy. You're going to defend him for anything short of genocide.
And really, this isn't even about Foote. Was it a lowly, piece-of-crap move on his part? Absolutely. Is he representative of a major issue in the NFL? Sure. But he's hardly alone, and he's hardly the focus of the bigger picture here. Punishing him and calling it a day would not solve the problem, wrapping it up in some neat little bow.
The bigger issue here—the core issue—is that nobody seemed to care that this happened.
Certainly, the media didn't seem to care. Sure, much was made about Collie's fantasy football stock, or whether or not he would retire. But no one actually paid attention to the hit itself. No one dared call attention to the fact that Foote delivered an intentional, well-aimed forearm blow to Collie's helmet. No one had the gumption to call this hit exactly what it was: a headhunting cheap shot.
And because the media didn't care, Goodell didn't care either. There was no fine for Foote. No accountability, no harsh words, no warnings. Nothing. Just silence—Goodell either basking in his willful ignorance or sweating out every second news desks around the country convened to identify the biggest stories coming out of preseason Week 2.
This, folks, is a shame. It's a damn shame, and there's no other way to really put it. The NFL's concern with player safety exists solely on a surface level. Anything deeper—any real change, any real desire to identify what needs fixed, which specific actions need punished, corrected and made an example of—just isn't there.
Unless the media wants it to be there. Make no mistake, Goodell doesn't care about Collie, just as he doesn't care about the legion of other players with head and/or brain injuries. The commissioner cares about running a business and appeasing those who scrutinize it so that it may look clean upon first glance.
For anyone bothering to lift up the rug, though, it's obvious that there's an ugly truth underneath, hidden under the highlight package the NFL hopes you would rather watch.
4. Replacement Refs, the NFL and the NFL Referees Association
Hey, you know what else the NFL doesn't care about? Getting a deal done with competent officials. Or at least, the most competent permutation of officials. The "old" ones were hardly infallible.
I've called out the replacement refs twice already this preseason, and at some point, it would just seem a gratuitous trend. But it's really not. They really deserve to be called out. And if we're reviewing the worst of the entire preseason, they really, really deserve to be called out.
CBS Sports' NFL Insider Mike Freeman clearly gets it and hit the nail on the head in his observation of preseason officiating:
Replacement refs have CLEARLY been afraid to call penalties. This can lead to more aggressive, borderline illegal play. Thus more injuries.— mike freeman (@realfreemancbs) September 1, 2012
For the most part, replacement officials have looked like a 16-year-old boy showing up for his first day on the job in the middle of a dinner rush, nerve-cracked voices and all. We already covered a few of their lowlights, but there have been plenty more since.
The crux of the problem, as Freeman notes, is that these replacements are entirely aware that they are operating under the world's biggest microscope. They know everyone is waiting for them to screw up, to make the "Not Top 10" and incite message-board users everywhere. So they go with the safe calls. Or better yet, no calls, swallowing their whistles in the process.
Replacement refs are afraid to make mistakes. They don't want to be cold-cocked outside of an Arby's on their lunch hour because they didn't call pass interference on that one play. Hell, I don't blame them. I wouldn't want to be at Arby's on my lunch hour either.
Now, it has been announced that the NFL will be using replacement refs to begin the regular season. You don't need a booth review to know that the negotiation process has been fumbled big time here. (Hey, wasn't that clever?)
It takes two to tango, and clearly, both the NFL and NFLRA are unwilling to make the necessary concessions on their end of the negotiating table. Even if the specifics can be a bit muddled, the gist of the holdup is not: Officials want this, NFL won't concede that, and in the end, it's always the fans who pay the price for everyone else's greed.
But is there any reason that dance need last past midnight, when reality comes crashing back? That's my primary gripe here. I get that the NFL is a business. I get that negotiations are a part of any business.
I don't get the lack of urgency in these negotiations, though, or the league's larger attitude toward its product. It would appear, from this tedious process, that the general assumption is, fans will pay regardless. The NFL must not feel monetarily threatened by putting a weaker product out on the field, and let's face it, that's exactly what a league with replacement officials is, a diluted product.
Based on preseason ticket sales, it's probably not a bad bet, but still, fans should find it a bit insulting. It's like your favorite burger joint going down a meat grade and charging you the same price for your combo meal.
But can the NFL really be so comfortable putting a lesser product on the field? I guess so, but their televised apathy toward the situation just feels odd, seems dismissive of the larger problems related and possibly naive in regard to the effect this will have on team performance, standings and results in 2012.
On the same hand, it's hard to sympathize much with the officials either. The league deserves its blame definitely, but to say the NFLRA isn't overreaching is a bit naive. According to Darren Rovell, NFL officials were paid an average of $149,000 each last year. Under the current deal, that average could skyrocket to $189,000 by 2018.
Now, I understand why players should fight for every last dime. I get their argument and last year's staredown between the NFL and the NFL Players Association. Players have shelf lives. Little is guaranteed in terms of roster status or health. A player could sign a $3 million contract, get hurt in the preseason and only see a minimal amount of that deal.
Hey, I get that. And I supported the players as a result. But these officials are seriously asking me to sympathize with their triple-digit earnings for six months' worth of work? You've got to be kidding me.
NFL referees don't assume the same health risks as players. They don't assume the same status uncertainty. They're inked! The only way in which they can jeopardize their earnings is through workplace incompetence—in which case, again, sorry, you'll find no sympathy card originating from my mailbox.
At what point are these part-time lawyer, part-time zebra types just asking for too much? I would argue that they are past it, wherever "it" is or was.
5. Madden 13 and EA Sports
It may not technically be a part of the NFL's calendar, but I consider the annual Madden release to be just as much a part of the preseason as the games themselves. (Also, probably a more relevant event than preseason Week 4.)
Normally, I don't have any complaints about Madden. Sure, I maintain that NFL 2K5 was the greatest football game ever made. I think the gridiron video-game market would be in much better shape if 2K Sports still had a say in things and EA Sports didn't have exclusive NFL rights.
But all that said, I'll still buy Madden every year. So obviously, my conviction isn't too strong. This is the first year, though, where I've ever actually been pissed about buying Madden.
I suppose this story actually starts with NCAA Football 13 and the birth of a trend that was subtly noticeable a few years ago but has been magnified tenfold with recent EA Sports releases. You see, one of the main reasons I buy the annual NCAA title—and nerd-bashers, bash away—is for the ability to develop a draft class and transfer that over to Madden.
That feature was gone this year. It didn't make any sense to me at the time. It wasn't some new feature or something that required additional coding. It was already there. People already used it. It was already a part of the formula. But they took it away.
So naturally, I was a bit irked but willing to let it slide because the gameplay was still fun. And really, my main concern was just having an awesome Madden title, so one missing element from NCAA Football 13 wasn't a deal-breaker.
I should have seen the writing on the wall. For some inexplicable reason, EA Sports decided to remove the "edit player" feature from franchise mode (or this year's iteration of it) just a year after deciding it was a desired feature and deciding to include it after it has been held out the past few titles.
So basically, EA Sports listened to their customers when they collectively expressed interest in a certain feature and added that feature. Then, a year later, they stripped that feature again, with no explanation for doing so.
Explain to me how that makes any sense. Hey, EA Sports, I'm your target audience. I'm a male in my mid-20s more than willing to shell out 60 bucks for your annual roster upgrade. I know that it's just a roster upgrade, and I'm willing to pay anyway!
So why mess with a good thing? Why continue to piss off your intended demographic? Why continue to strip away good features? If the answer is "to add new ones," stop right now. Forcing me to play NFL.com fantasy football is not adding a new feature. Allowing me to import my face into the game is a gimmick; not a feature. You are not adding new features—you are adding digital glitter.
This needs to stop. I remember it starting when they temporarily removed the ability to create your own stadium, which was boasted as a huge add when originally introduced. Now, it's extended to the point where you can't create your own team, can't use created players in franchise mode, can't edit players or draft classes in franchise mode, etc.
I'm not going to play the "2K Sports had this figured out in 2004" card when I willingly gave that up by continuing to purchase, but I am going to call EA Sports out for having zero apparent direction with their Madden franchise. They can't decide which features they want to include and when, and the decision to add or subtract them seems entirely arbitrary and too often unexplained.
Hey, Madden is a cash grab. I get that. It's the video-game version of a Saw movie. You know your target audience is going to come flocking regardless, so there is little incentive to pay attention to minor details, to really deliver a polished product.
But why continue to subtract working parts? It makes no sense to me. Again, it's already there. Why get rid of it? My main criticism is not aimed at the quality of Madden. Say what you want about EA Sports, but year in and year out, gameplay is pretty fun, and there are few better titles to throw in your Playstation/X-Box when you're hanging out with your buddies and want a quick, agreeable game to play.
Instead, my righteous indignation is aimed at the direction—or lack thereof—of the franchise and the related lack of communication to its fanbase.
Come on, EA Sports. Figure out what you want to do, stick to it and do right by your fans. Don't become the Arizona Cardinals of the video-game industry. Do right by your fans and plot out your long-term product vision. Is that really too much to ask for?
Collin McCollough is Bleacher Report's Senior NFL Editor. Look for this weekly feature to run throughout the 2012-13 NFL season.