The NFL preseason doesn't count for anything in the bottom-line win-loss columns, but it's where all 32 teams are seeking to evaluate their own talent and determine which players will help them win the most games.
Several franchises stand out as having more on the line than other teams amid this exhibition period of pro football. Two are in transition, undergoing coaching changes and attempting to figure out their respective solutions to the all-important quarterback position.
The others with a lot at stake could see their coaches ousted by the 2014 regular season's end if they aren't able to engineer big turnarounds. Finding capable players to step up and help those efforts makes the preseason even more critical for them.
Let's take a closer look at the four teams with the most at stake before the games really start to matter.
First-year head coach Bill O'Brien is the latest ripe fruit to fall from the New England Patriots coaching tree, which is headlined by patriarch Bill Belichick. Prior Belichick disciples such as Eric Mangini, Romeo Crennel and Josh McDaniels have largely fallen short in their opportunities to helm NFL franchises.
That should only add to the scrutiny O'Brien faces. He is hailed as a reputed QB guru, and Houston didn't feel the need to bring in anyone better than journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick to lead the Texans under center in 2014.
Based on the opening preseason game, perhaps the front office had a little too much faith in O'Brien's offensive genius. The Arizona Cardinals swallowed up Houston's first-team offense, and Fitzpatrick threw two interceptions in a 32-0 loss.
Jerome Solomon of the Houston Chronicle weighed in on the sad display:
No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney faced pre-draft scrutiny for his work ethic. Now he is transitioning to a new position in a 3-4 defense that—ready for it?—Crennel is the defensive coordinator for. Clowney has a lot of hype to live up to and must prove capable of adjusting to his new spot on the field.
The defense should nevertheless keep the Texans somewhat close, but if they can't put points on the board, it won't matter. Star running back Arian Foster is coming off back surgery, and no one is stepping up to seize the No. 2 spot on the depth chart behind him.
O'Brien insisted this week that improvement is on the horizon ahead of Saturday's home tilt with the Atlanta Falcons, per the Texans' official Twitter account:
Some good news arrived Wednesday too, per the NFL on ESPN:
Andre Johnson, the longtime face of the franchise, was disgruntled this offseason and didn't attend mandatory minicamp. Not a good start for O'Brien. When a consummate professional is already having his doubts about buying in, particularly with a lackluster QB scenario, the sense of urgency to bounce back in a big way from 2013's woeful 2-14 campaign is heightened.
It could work out that the Texans have a second straight bad season and find their franchise quarterback in the first round of next year's draft, though.
No one endures more scrutiny than America's Team. This truly is a crossroads campaign for Dallas, its head coach Jason Garrett and Pro Bowl QB Tony Romo.
The tandem has produced explosive offense at times, yet it hasn't translated to a postseason berth. In fact, the Cowboys have gone five years without qualifying for the playoffs. Romo absorbs much of the blame due to the scrutiny of his position, but the Dallas defense has been dreadful.
Fox Sports Live did a wonderful job outlining just how bleak the outlook is on that side of the ball:
More pressure than ever will be on Garrett and Romo, even if it's unfair, to deliver the necessary points to compensate for how many the defense is bound to yield.
Romo is 34 years old and had his back operated on to address a herniated disk last December. He will make his preseason debut Saturday against the Baltimore Ravens, and he will have to knock off the rust in short order to be ready in time for the regular season.
The veteran QB recognizes the need to get on the field, per ESPN.com's Todd Archer:
I think you have to play in the preseason. Obviously, some people can't, but I do know from my perspective, this game is not just something where you can show up and think that you can do it. I think it's been proven far too many times that if you take too long of a break or don't get reps under you that you will be exposed in certain areas. I'm a firm believer that you have to play football to get better at football. Football's a way of life. It's not just [a] sometimes thing. It's an all-the-time thing if you're going to be a great player, and I think if you have the opportunity to play, you've got to play.
Someone has to step up and stop the opposition, and Romo has to get some quality in-game reps, because the early schedule is not kind to the Cowboys. The opener pits them against the San Francisco 49ers, and the New Orleans Saints come to town in Week 4.
Sandwiched between those contests is a Week 2 road trip to take on the St. Louis Rams and their terrifying front seven, in addition to a tangle with the Tennessee Titans.
Thus, a number of problems are plaguing Dallas. Solutions must be unearthed in swift fashion; otherwise, the Cowboys are in danger of getting off to a rocky 2014 start.
This is it for coach Dennis Allen and general manager Reggie McKenzie. Entering their third year in leadership roles, they've produced back-to-back 4-12 seasons. That won't cut it, especially with the rest of the AFC West coming off 2013 playoff berths.
Rookie second-round pick Derek Carr was expected to sit and learn behind veteran quarterback Matt Schaub, who's attempting to reignite his career after a horrific year in Houston.
And why don't we just bring this full circle to involve all the teams so far? Here's what Clarence Hill of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram observed when the Raiders took on the shaky Dallas defense in practice Tuesday:
If Schaub is somewhere around where he was last season, when he threw pick-sixes aplenty and registered a 73.0 passer rating, Oakland has to hope Carr is the answer under center in instant fashion. The Raiders brass will be sent packing if Schaub doesn't work out and Carr isn't quite ready, and the organization will be set back at least an additional year from competing in a tough division.
Aging and banged up running backs Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden also have to provide a spark in the rushing attack to keep Oakland balanced. Jones-Drew averaged 3.4 yards per carry in Jacksonville last year, while McFadden has never stayed on the field for more than 13 games in a single season.
Hope looms on defense, where first-round linebacker Khalil Mack will be counted on to deliver immediately. McKenzie was wise to bolster the trenches with the likes of LaMarr Woodley and Justin Tuck, who won Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Giants, respectively.
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The secondary gets Charles Woodson and Tyvon Branch as a seasoned, formidable safety duo. Former 49ers Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown are slated to start at cornerback, with 2013 first-round draft choice D.J. Hayden in the mix as well. All that looks good on paper. It's a matter this unit jelling and playing to the potential it has.
A lot of players are competing for spots on offense. In the quarterback-driven, offense-friendly modern era of the NFL, that's where the 2014 Raiders will be made or broken.
Starting with Friday's encounter with the Detroit Lions and onward, it is vital that Oakland develops chemistry on defense and, most importantly, finds some playmakers to give its offense hope.
Plenty of optimism can be had in Cleveland. The draft by first-year GM Ray Farmer was well-received and looks full of great decisions in the early going. Coach Mike Pettine is bringing an exotic defense with him that should compete well in the hard-nosed AFC North.
As was expected, Johnny Manziel vs. Brian Hoyer has been the main storyline at Browns training camp. Neither has seized the job, making it tougher for the staff to make a decision with any type of conviction.
Hoyer will get the start Monday night in Washington, but Manziel will have an equal opportunity to shine with the first team, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport:
Upgrades in leadership on defense saw Farmer swap out D'Qwell Jackson for Karlos Dansby at inside linebacker and T.J. Ward for Donte Whitner at strong safety. Those moves should pay dividends.
Every level of the Browns defense is strong, with depth on the defensive line, talent in the linebacker corps and a stout secondary. The latter two areas feature rookies Chris Kirksey, a dynamic inside backer who's vying to start alongside Dansby, and first-round corner Justin Gilbert.
Just like Oakland, though, the Browns' success will hinge on quarterback play, even with play-caller Kyle Shanahan's zone-blocking running scheme aiding the cause immensely. Hoyer is decisive with the football but not spectacular, while Manziel has the dual-threat ability many teams have trouble defending.
Some Johnny Football enthusiasts may disagree with how Manziel is being handled. Jim Corbett of USA Today made an interesting point about the Browns' current strategy:
Whenever Manziel is installed as the starter, it's safe to assume Hoyer's shot at leading his hometown team back to prominence is over. The dream opportunity for Hoyer could end as soon as Monday if Manziel shines in the nation's capital, or it could be during the season if the Browns struggle early.
The pressure will be constant, as Cleveland fans are clamoring for a winner after six straight seasons with double-digit losses. Tolerance for losing should be low within the organization as well.
If the ground game is clicking and the defense is playing well, it won't matter if a capable QB isn't running the show. Should Manziel be the starter and struggle right away, his entire development could be set back, making the Browns' evaluation all the more difficult moving forward.
Manziel will be the 21st starting QB for Cleveland since it reentered the league in 1999. How soon it happens will be determined Monday night. It may also determine how soon the Browns can even fathom contending for the playoffs, should Hoyer play to the level that's seen him be a career backup to this point.