The craze for the NFL lends itself to knee-jerk reactions, a tendency perhaps best exemplified by the preseason. Teams do not game-plan for their opponents, instead running vanilla offensive and defensive schemes, using the exhibition slate to assimilate their players to contact more than anything else.
Nevertheless, that does not stop fans and media from breathless reactions to a handful of snaps, often against inferior competition. This is not to suggest that the preseason is useless. Coaches do use the time for evaluation, after all, and the live game action is a good way to evaluate basic position-specific traits—hand and footwork for linemen, route-running skills for receivers, etc.
The pure statistics should be taken with heaping grains of salt, as detailed film analysis is really the best way to derive meaningful takeaways from preseason games. But that will not stop anyone from tuning in as the football craze sets in. For those craving the NFL's return, check out the full four-week exhibition schedule below, as well as some of the games with the most intriguing storylines.
|Date||Matchup||TV Info (ET)|
|Hall of Fame Game|
|Sun., August 3||NY Giants vs. Buffalo||8 p.m., NBC|
|Thu., August 7||Indianapolis at NY Jets||7 p.m.|
|Thu., August 7||San Francisco at Baltimore||7:30 p.m.|
|Thu., August 7||New England at Washington||7:30 p.m.|
|Thu., August 7||Cincinnati at Kansas City||8 p.m.|
|Thu., August 7||Seattle at Denver||9 p.m.|
|Thu., August 7||Dallas at San Diego||10 p.m.|
|Fri., August 8||Miami at Atlanta||7 p.m.|
|Fri., August 8||Buffalo at Carolina||7:30 p.m.|
|Fri., August 8||Tampa Bay at Jacksonville||7:30 p.m.|
|Fri., August 8||Philadelphia at Chicago||8 p.m.|
|Fri., August 8||Oakland at Minnesota||8 p.m.|
|Fri., August 8||New Orleans at St. Louis||8 p.m.|
|Sat., August 9||Cleveland at Detroit||7:30 p.m.|
|Sat., August 9||Pittsburgh at NY Giants||7:30 p.m.|
|Sat., August 9||Green Bay at Tennessee||8 p.m.|
|Sat., August 9||Houston at Arizona||8:30 p.m.|
|Thu., August 14||Jacksonville at Chicago||8 p.m., ESPN|
|Fri., August 15||Philadelphia at New England||7:30 p.m.|
|Fri., August 15||Tennessee at New Orleans||8 p.m.|
|Fri., August 15||Detroit at Oakland||10 p.m.|
|Fri., August 15||San Diego at Seattle||10 p.m.|
|Sat., August 16||Green Bay at St. Louis||4 p.m.|
|Sat., August 16||NY Jets at Cincinnati||7 p.m.|
|Sat., August 16||Baltimore at Dallas||7 p.m.|
|Sat., August 16||NY Giants at Indianapolis||7 p.m.|
|Sat., August 16||Buffalo at Pittsburgh||7:30 p.m.|
|Sat., August 16||Miami at Tampa Bay||7:30 p.m.|
|Sat., August 16||Atlanta at Houston||8 p.m.|
|Sat., August 16||Arizona at Minnesota||8:30 p.m.|
|Sun., August 17||Denver at San Francisco||4 p.m.|
|Sun., August 17||Kansas City at Carolina||8 p.m., Fox|
|Mon., August 18||Cleveland at Washington||8 p.m., ESPN|
|Thu., August 21||Pittsburgh at Philadelphia||7:30 p.m.|
|Fri., August 22||Oakland at Green Bay||8 p.m., CBS|
|Fri., August 22||Jacksonville at Detroit||7:30 p.m.|
|Fri., August 22||Carolina at New England||7:30 p.m.|
|Fri., August 22||NY Giants at NY Jets||7:30 p.m.|
|Fri., August 22||Chicago at Seattle||10 p.m.|
|Sat., August 23||Tampa Bay at Buffalo||4:30 p.m.|
|Sat., August 23||Dallas at Miami||7 p.m.|
|Sat., August 23||Tennessee at Atlanta||7 p.m.|
|Sat., August 23||Washington at Baltimore||7:30 p.m.|
|Sat., August 23||New Orleans at Indianapolis||8 p.m., CBS|
|Sat., August 23||St. Louis at Cleveland||8 p.m.|
|Sat., August 23||Minnesota at Kansas City||8 p.m.|
|Sat., August 23||Houston at Denver||9 p.m.|
|Sun., August 24||San Diego at San Francisco||4 p.m., Fox|
|Sun., August 24||Cincinnati at Arizona||8 p.m., NBC|
|Thu., August 28||Atlanta at Jacksonville||6 p.m.|
|Thu., August 28||Detroit at Buffalo||7 p.m.|
|Thu., August 28||Indianapolis at Cincinnati||7 p.m.|
|Thu., August 28||Kansas City at Green Bay||7 p.m.|
|Thu., August 28||St. Louis at Miami||7 p.m.|
|Thu., August 28||NY Jets at Philadelphia||7 p.m.|
|Thu., August 28||New England at NY Giants||7:30 p.m.|
|Thu., August 28||Carolina at Pittsburgh||7:30 p.m.|
|Thu., August 28||Washington at Tampa Bay||7:30 p.m.|
|Thu., August 28||Chicago at Cleveland||8 p.m.|
|Thu., August 28||Denver at Dallas||8 p.m.|
|Thu., August 28||San Francisco at Houston||8 p.m.|
|Thu., August 28||Baltimore at New Orleans||8 p.m.|
|Thu., August 28||Minnesota at Tennessee||8 p.m.|
|Thu., August 28||Seattle at Oakland||10 p.m.|
|Thu., August 28||Arizona at San Diego||10 p.m.|
Week 1: San Francisco 49ers at Baltimore Ravens
Jim and John Harbaugh always draw storylines whenever they meet, and the joint practices leading up to the contest should be thoroughly entertaining. However, the on-field matchup provides plenty of interesting storylines as well.
The Niners have been beset by running back injuries in camp, with Kendall Hunter's season-ending ACL tear followed by LaMichael James' dislocated elbow. As of now, San Francisco's backfield depth chart is perilously thin:
Carlos Hyde and Jewel Hampton are the only healthy backup RBs in camp, although Marcus Lattimore appears close to returning.— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) July 27, 2014
The 49ers' impressive depth is being tested, though a three-headed committee of Frank Gore, Carlos Hyde and Marcus Lattimore would still best the vast majority of the league. But for one of the few teams that still relies on two-back power sets and smashmouth gap-blocking offenses, the Niners cannot afford to lose any more depth. Expect to see plenty of Hyde in this game, with Lattimore likely to receive reps as he works his way back into shape.
As for the Ravens, much has been made of their putrid 2013 running game. Baltimore's 3.1 yards-per-attempt average was last in the league, and though Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce did have uncharacteristically poor seasons, the Ravens' porous offensive line did not help either.
Baltimore has since revamped its line, with new starters at center, left guard and right tackle. The latter position remains a question mark, with unproven second-year player Ricky Wagner and unspectacular veteran Jah Reid competing for the role. Against one of the best front sevens in the league, Baltimore's new-look line will have a stiff test in their preseason opener.
Week 2: Cleveland Browns at Washington
No NFL article would be complete without a mention of Johnny Manziel. Although evoking the polarizing rookie is apparently mandatory at this point, a rational analysis would understand that he is a relatively raw prospect who will likely need time to develop.
The Browns appear to understand that reality. Manziel has struggled in the early parts of camp, falling behind likely starter Brian Hoyer. But the Browns never really suggested that Manziel was likely to start on opening day, something that was reiterated for the umpteenth time at the beginning of camp:
Browns are comfortable with the idea of easing Manziel in. That can all change, but there's zero sense of desperation about starting him W1.— Marc Sessler (@MarcSesslerNFL) July 25, 2014
While the world would love to see what Manziel can do, many are confused about what Robert Griffin III will become. After a breathtaking rookie season, Griffin's sophomore campaign was mired in conflict and regression. The reports under new head coach Jay Gruden have been positive so far, though the honeymoon period is still in effect at this time of year.
Still, it would be disappointing if Griffin did not make significant strides as a pocket passer. Acquiring Desean Jackson and Andre Roberts in the offseason arms Washington with a much more multifaceted receiving corps filled with yards-after-the-catch potential. With steady possession receiver Pierre Garcon and budding matchup nightmare Jordan Reed in the fold as well, Griffin has few excuses for another poor campaign.
Neither Cleveland nor Washington figures to hold a prominent role in the playoff picture, though the mediocre NFC East could keep the latter team in the race. Yet when two of the league's most exciting and divisive quarterbacks meet, plenty of eyes will be honed into D.C.
Week 3: New Orleans Saints at Indianapolis Colts
The Super Bowl XLIV rematch pits two teams seen as secondary contenders in their respective conferences against each other. But while the Saints and Colts come with question marks, they also possess the core necessary to emerge as legitimate championship threats.
New Orleans has long lived off the right arm of Drew Brees. But with cap issues plaguing the Saints, Brees' supporting cast has thinned out in recent seasons, with the likes of Darren Sproles, Lance Moore and Robert Meachem among the departed.
The Saints rectified this issue by selecting Oregon State speedster Brandin Cooks in the first round. As a potential Sproles replacement and vertical threat, Cooks should help stress deep safeties and soften the middle for New Orleans' West Coast concepts. The early returns on the rookie have been positive:
"Saints: brandincooks going deep! Saints Camp https://t.co/68kmjy68q2"— Who Dat Girl ™ (@tk_u2) July 28, 2014
The Colts, meanwhile, are in need of a pass rush with Robert Mathis suspended for the first quarter of the season. 2013 first-rounder Bjoern Werner disappointed in limited playing time during his rookie year, but it appears he will receive his chance to atone during Mathis' absence:
Pagano on Werner: Will get lion's share of snaps with ones. -- Says @BjoernWernerBTM made "huge jump" in off-season.— Craig Kelley (@CraigKColts) July 25, 2014
With a pair of high-powered attacks in Denver and Philadelphia looming to open the season, Indianapolis must use this preseason to develop reliable pass-rushing options apart from Mathis. With uninspiring veterans like Erik Walden and Cory Redding as competition, Werner looks like the Colts' brightest hope.