NFL Team Report Card Grades Heading into Week 1
The preseason is absolute garbage—that's the adage, and it's mostly true. How the NFL gets away with charging real cash money for a bunch of hopeless cases—who, after the preseason is over, will be driving ice cream trucks—is one of the great travesties of capitalism. 'Merica.
Now, real football is just hours away. The angels are singing. The trumpets are blaring.
Stop your grinnin' and drop your linen; football is here.
The preseason means nothing, except in some cases it yields small clues as to what we're going to see in Week 1. Clues of the chaos to come. Or the greatness to emerge. Or something in between. You can even gauge just how much depth a franchise will have for this first week and beyond.
In New York, will Rex Ryan still stink at managing an offense?
In San Francisco, will the 49ers team that showed almost no flaws in preseason continue that trend?
In Chicago, Jay Cutler is still a knucklehead; the Cardinals are alive again, thanks to Carson Palmer; and the Raiders still stink.
Grading teams' preseasons is a little like watching modern art. One man's squiggly line is another man's meaning of life.
And these grades are the "Mona Lisa" of evaluations.
Just to be clear: They are preseason grades, often reflecting particular aspects of teams that should be making fans feel good, bad or in between. They are not intended to always line up with the teams' chances of overall success over the next five months.
So, let's look back, sideways and mostly forward, to real football.
Week 1 is here.
This offseason, all I've heard from Arizona defensive players was how the team finally has a real quarterback. The last time the Cardinals had someone good under center, they went to a Super Bowl. That's the hope now, and while I've never been a huge Carson Palmer fan, what you saw in preseason was Palmer getting quickly acclimated to the offense.
Palmer to Larry Fitzgerald could be pretty damn good.
You saw Arizona's defense on display—it could end up being a top-five group. The Cardinals also worked defensive back Patrick Peterson into an offense whose package has gone from 15 plays to 60.
The biggest preseason takeaway was Palmer. The team has a real quarterback now.
We know what the Falcons can do, and despite some issues with the offensive line, not much happened in the preseason to dissuade us from the fact that Atlanta will be a threat to reach the Super Bowl.
Quarterback Matt Ryan is still sneakily deadly, the passing attack can at times be overwhelming, and the addition of Steven Jackson was one of the best moves of the offseason. Their grades are all solid across the board.
So that's all fine, except that we knew what the situation would be with the Falcons. We know what their bottom line is: They have to make the Super Bowl, or it's a lost season. That's cruel. That's brutal. But that's life at the top of the NFL food chain.
The Falcons simply can't choke away another title game, or they won't be taken seriously. And they shouldn't be if that happens again.
At a recent Ravens camp practice, some of the faces were the same. There was the coach, John Harbaugh. There was the eternally underappreciated Joe Flacco. The redoubtable Ray Rice. After that, a bunch of new faces. Gone were two of the most important: Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.
It was a strange scene, but not an unusual one. Super Bowl champions often lose chunks of their teams, and the same had happened to the Ravens. The difference with this team is that the Ravens are commanded by Ozzie Newsome, the best general manager in football right now.
We won't know if the young players Newsome brought in will work, but we do know that not trusting Newsome is folly.
This is almost blasphemy. You don't say a team has a franchise quarterback based on a few quarters played in preseason. EJ Manuel is so good that he might violate that rule. It was against the Vikings that he threw just one touchdown, but in the process, he looked like he'd been playing in the big-boy league for five years.
The NFL is riddled with preseason Pro Bowlers who later morph into turd-tastic players like Ryan Leaf. The preseason can be The Great Deceiver. Yet something about Manuel looks amazingly promising.
Manuel has something that's hard to teach young players. That's maturity, and while he might miss the first game, what the preseason demonstrated is that this season could be a hugely fun one for the Bills.
There was once a man named Cam, and he used to be one of the hot QBs everyone talked about. Then Newton practically fell off the map.
This offseason was different. Newton quietly studied hard and worked hard. It showed in the preseason, and he has emerged, if you believe several of his teammates, as a new quarterback. A new man.
I think they're right.
The Bears switched to a zone-blocking scheme this offseason, and the beneficiary isn't Jay Cutler or his fancy, weaponized wide receiver Brandon Marshall.
It's Matt Forte.
The Bears played the Raiders in Week 3 of the preseason, and Forte looked like Eric Dickerson—cutting and scampering and bouncing. Sure, it was the Raiders, but Forte looked different. I've never seen him look this light and fast. He's lost weight (I'd estimate five to 10 pounds), and he looks immensely dangerous.
The Bengals are said to have maybe the most talented roster in football. I think that distinction belongs to the San Francisco 49ers, but there is little question that the Bengals are stacked.
This offseason they added two critical pieces, both rookies, in running back Giovani Bernard and tight end Tyler Eifert. Adding more weapons will force teams to relent sextuple-teaming A.J. Green.
And that Bengals defense is deep and athletic.
The problem with Cincinnati is maturity. Do the Bengals have the inner resolve and mentality to move from being satisfied with making the playoffs to wanting to make a deep run?
There is a great deal of optimism in Cleveland. The team has a good offensive line, a quarterback who is getting better and a defense that could be pretty good.
There's just one problem: The Browns have no idea what they're going to get from Trent Richardson.
He's spent a good deal of this offseason healthy, and Richardson did play in 15 games last season, but he's spent most of his career banged up. Will we see a healthy and powerful Richardson? Or will we see him fighting more injuries?
Maybe the most important person in the Dallas Cowboys organization now isn't Jerrah. Or even Tony Romo. It's Bill Callahan.
Callahan was named the team's play-caller this offseason, and in many ways it was one of the most critical moves any franchise made. Callahan wasn't a good head coach, but he's a solid assistant, and what you'll see him do is run a more balanced offense so Romo feels less pressure. That's the theory, at least.
What often happens, and has happened with Romo, is that the play-callers fall in love with Romo and start leaning on him too much. That leads to Romo carrying too much weight, and his shoulders aren't built for pressure.
Callahan can fix that.
Recently, I stated during a Bleacher Report video that the loss of pass-rusher Von Miller for six games meant that the Denver Broncos would fail to make the Super Bowl. After that, Broncos fans swamped my Twitter page with a cascade of smart-ass-ness and armor-plated indignation.
My point was that the loss of Miller will have season-long ramifications, because I don't think Miller will be Miller upon his return. He didn't fail a drug test, but as I've reported, the NFL became concerned that his urine contained excessive water. ESPN's Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter, among others, said that the testing situation also involved a spilled sample.
If these reports are true, what was Miller trying to cover up? If he was indeed on something, at some point, he probably wouldn't take it again. If he doesn't take it again, he may lose some of what makes him special.
I just don't think Miller will be the same, and as a result the Broncos won't be either.
The Lions could potentially have 12 new starters on opening day this season.
That's a lot of turnover.
There is one guy we will watch, and he's been a mainstay. He's also been a hothead, a bruiser and a dirty player. But maybe no more.
Ndamukong Suh has been more punk than brilliant, but that might change. This offseason he's focused more on technique. Not just bull-rushing, not solely using brute strength. He wants to use smarts and savvy. Imagine that.
Seriously, imagine a guy as strong as Suh actually using technique in addition to his strength. That would be one scary dude.
The Lions also had maybe the best free-agent pickup this offseason in Reggie Bush. He'll take pressure off Megatron, who is septuple-teamed on every play.
Green Bay Packers
I know the Packers have the great Clay Matthews. I know the Packers made some changes to their defense, added some bodies and made some good draft picks. (Under this current general manager, they always make solid draft picks.) They've done some good things—and, oh yeah, they have Aaron Rodgers.
The problem is, they didn't do enough.
The Packers still have a bulkier, slower defense. If they face a standard pass-centered offense, they'll be okay. If they faced the 49ers tomorrow, they'd be dead. They're not yet equipped to compete against the read-option. Not yet.
One of the more underrated aspects of Arian Foster's game is his toughness. I've seen him take some brutal shots, get back up and literally laugh. Foster can take a hit, and many times he can fight through pain.
Which is what makes his absence from practically all of training camp due to back and lower-leg injuries so worrisome.
There's no question that, as a veteran, Foster surely didn't miss the battering of camp, but when you pair "back injury" with "runner," usually "disaster" strikes. Maybe not immediately, but back injuries in a running back almost always catch up with the player.
If Foster is limited for any significant time, the Texans are dead. That's right. Dead.
Do you hear that? Listen closely. Closer. It's silence.
That's what's emerging mostly from Indianapolis. And it's glorious.
Specifically, quarterback Andrew Luck has been extremely quiet. That doesn't mean that he hasn't been working hard, nor does it mean that he's been in the Bahamas the entire offseason. He's been Andrew Luck. He's been busting his tail, because that's what he does.
He's the anti-RG3. He lies low. Stays out of the spotlight. His ego isn't fed by Twitter mentions.
Luck has done interviews, just not a lot of them. This is a good thing. This is why he will probably have an even better season than the one he had last year.
The Jaguars are a franchise on the correct path. Good ownership, solid general manager, skilled head coach. But it will be a while before they can be playoff contenders.
This is the good news: Maurice Jones-Drew is back.
It looks like he's healthy and prospering, recovering from a Lisfranc injury. For the Jaguars, that's the best news of the offseason. That's the best news of any season.
Kansas City Chiefs
Bringing Alex Smith to Kansas City was obviously a good move. He was instantly better than the dregs of the position who played there last year. But the real catch for the Chiefs was Andy Reid.
Reid needed a change, and so did Philadelphia. He was tired of Philly, and Philly was tired of him.
Reid made some seriously crappy draft picks, but overall there is no one in football today who can take a pile of dog poop and turn that into something nice to look at. He'll do just that in Kansas City. Not right away, but quicker than most people think.
So many continue to think Ryan Tannehill isn't good enough, primarily because he doesn't throw with enough accuracy. I continue to say that those people are wrong.
Tannehill wasn't spectacular in the preseason, but that's because the Dolphins barely ran anything beyond the most basic offensive strategies.
I know from speaking to a Dolphins player that the team feels no player on the team pushed himself harder than Tannehill during the offseason and preseason. I think that work will show once the season begins.
The last time I spoke to quarterback Christian Ponder, it was training camp of last year. He was irritated at the media portraying him as the weak link of the offense. Then last season arrived, and Ponder was...the weak link of the offense.
There's been little indication from the offseason that much has changed. Ponder is smart and athletic, but has he overcome his tendency to lose composure under pressure?
It doesn't seem that way, which means that the Vikings will once again rely heavily on a certain badass running back.
New England Patriots
Every year, Tom Brady loses a receiver...or two or three. This offseason, it happened again, as the Patriots allowed Wes Welker to go to Denver.
It's the New England two-step. Receivers and running backs disappear, and Brady goes to the playoffs.
One tight end this offseason had 78 surgeries, and Brady will go to the playoffs.
Another tight end sits in jail, and Brady will go to the playoffs.
Nothing happened this offseason or during the preseason to change any of that. Nothing.
More receivers lost. Two or three or 10. It doesn't matter. Because Brady will still go to the playoffs.
New Orleans Saints
On the first day of training camp, Sean Payton ran a brutal conditioning test. That's how it was described by linebacker Will Smith.
Payton didn't want details of the test discussed with the media, but it sounded like what would happen if boxfit made love to boot camp. Players were exhausted afterward, but they all passed.
Payton had made his point. The Saints were going to be tough again.
New York Giants
There are legitimate reasons why the Giants should be worried.
They leave the preseason and enter the regular one a very banged-up team. They just lost backup runner Andre Brown to a broken leg. The team also has a number of key starters fighting injuries.
Yes, the Giants are a little worried, and they should be.
One player they aren't concerned about is running back David Wilson. Wilson is going to be a true star.
In fact, by the end of the season, Wilson will be mentioned in the same sentence with some of the great runners playing today. You read that right. He's as fast and devastating as almost any player in football. You read that right, too.
The Giants get a lower grade here solely because of the injuries, but as they get healthier and Wilson starts to click with the offensive line, the Giants will be a solid threat.
New York Jets
The Jets are a dumpster fire. That's known. Not breaking news. Rex Ryan's total screwup of the quarterback situation in their third preseason game is documented and problematic.
There is one thing that can save the Jets offense, and that's their defense. It's actually pretty good and could keep the Jets in most of their games until Mark Sanchez throws a pick-six.
The Oakland Raiders reshuffled their offensive line several times in the preseason. Oakland's defense isn't great. Its offense isn't either. The Raiders have possibly the least amount of pure talent in the NFL. There is no optimism. There is no rainbow. The silver lining quit and went home.
Good luck this year, Raiders. Godspeed.
There was a time when it seemed Chip Kelly's super-duper, hyperdrive starship of an offense was one big scam waiting to be blown apart by the NFL.
Then came the game against Carolina in the preseason.
Some of the Panthers players were clearly gassed trying to keep up with Kelly's offense. The fast pace was working. While it was only preseason, there are certainly elements of Kelly's offense that seem like they can fit into the NFL.
There is also the fact that Michael Vick has been the most accurate anyone has ever seen him since he arrived into pro football. The combination of Vick and Kelly could prove fascinating.
The offensive line is young. The team is injured. It lost a solid deep threat in Mike Wallace to free agency.
The Steelers are coming off a mediocre season. Some see them again not making the playoffs. I see them in the Super Bowl.
The reason is Ben Roethlisberger. He's due. It's pretty much that simple.
Roethlisberger has been solid in recent years, but he hasn't been the spectacular player we've become accustomed to. He will be this year, and that offensive line won't be nearly as bad as some predict. The Steelers will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
San Diego Chargers
Dwight Freeney and I spoke this offseason, and Freeney was convinced that he still had a lot left in the tank. I believe him. He will make that team better.
The problem is, he can't play quarterback.
Something has happened to Philip Rivers. He says he doesn't need to be fixed, but he's become a turnover machine. When you watch him in the pocket, he looks nervous. His accuracy is off. There's definitely something not right.
I don't think the Chargers will figure it out, either.
San Francisco 49ers
Colin Kaepernick has mostly kept a low profile, but as is his persona, he's been busting his butt. I've been told that he's been working so hard that the 49ers coaching staff has told him not to be so maniacal. But that's what he is—a driven person. The great ones always are. This is what they do.
Kaepernick will be even better than he was last year. I can see a 49ers-Washington Redskins title game or the 49ers steamrolling through their schedule.
They're stacked, and they're seasoned—just like their quarterback.
The hip injury to Percy Harvin will keep him out until at least Thanksgiving. And that stinks for Seattle.
It's true that Harvin could provide a spark late in the year. It's also true the Seahawks advanced far in the postseason last year without him.
The problem is that Harvin was just the edge the Seahawks needed to make the Super Bowl. Remember, Seattle is in the toughest division in football. Every game will count. You can't expect them to just plug in a player coming off serious surgery and for him to be as devastating as he was before he was injured.
The loss of Harvin for such an extended period of time is one of the more significant pieces of offseason news. It will hamper the Seahawks well into the year and keep them out of the Super Bowl.
St. Louis Rams
The St. Louis Rams are a major sleeper pick. But why?
There's no way you can know what the Rams will do until you decipher Sam Bradford, and so far he's been indecipherable.
Sometimes he's good. Sometimes he's terrible. Mostly he's average. On occasion, he will make a stunning throw. You just don't know, and you still don't know.
Until you know what Bradford is going to be, you can't predict anything for the Rams.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers are one of the harder teams to figure out.
I've heard some players are already tiring of Greg Schiano's college style of rah-rah coaching. Other players greatly respect him. It's hard to determine what Schiano is and will become.
The same goes for quarterback Josh Freeman. He's an even bigger mystery.
The analysis here is that Tampa did little to help itself this offseason, aside from some defensive additions. And though most Freemans are spectacular, the Bucs' Freeman will be average.
The Titans will be in the middle of the road. Again, one of the better backs in football will see another season wasted.
Chris Johnson reminds me of Maurice Jones-Drew—a gifted player in an organization that hasn't figured out how to surround him with players near his caliber.
That will again be the case in Tennessee.
Robert Griffin III can be thin-skinned and uber egotistical. The world is tired of hearing about his knee or his wedding or his knee or his damn knee. There's one non-annoying, undeniable fact about him: He's outstanding.
It's not his athleticism that makes him outstanding. It's his throwing accuracy, and that accuracy will help him recover faster than people think and push Washington to the Super Bowl.
The team is deeper than people think, and that defense will be better than people know.
Most of all, Griffin will be back, annoying us all, en route to the Super Bowl.