Winners and Losers from NFL Preseason Week 2
It's just the preseason...
One of the biggest problems with the echo chamber that is NFL coverage has always been when the backlash against a topic is so ferocious that the original falsehood begins to be just as true as the points of those fighting against it.
Picture a narrow road with two large ditches on either side. In the middle, truth. On either side, deep down in those ditches are talking heads that demand satisfaction—tempting you to listen to their bloviating as they over-argue points to the extent they can't even believe the tripe coming out of their mouths.
Maybe it's the quarterback who is called elite in one ditch and a bum from the other. Perhaps it's a head coach's decision that is praised as gutsy on the left and foolhardy on the right. It isn't just that the opinions differ, it's the sheer force of said opinions—couched in certainty and rhetoric—makes it almost impossible to navigate the NFL landscape without falling into one of the ditches.
With this in mind, let's talk about what exactly the preseason means. Is it worth getting up in arms over when a team loses? No, of course not. Nor is it really relevant when a team wins. Growing up in Michigan, I will always remember the 2008 Detroit Lions who went 4-0 in the preseason and 0-16 when the games mattered.
What didn't that above paragraph say, though?
It didn't say the preseason doesn't matter at all, or we can't talk about the things that happen in the preseason as anything but a curiosity because it's "just the preseason." No, the preseason does matter to countless players and coaches around the league—it's why it's still around. We can use the preseason as evidence and in forming opinions, even if we do so with a grain of salt.
The winners and losers of this past week are those who have set themselves (or their teams) up for success in the upcoming season and those who have taken a step back for various reasons.
Winner: Ryan Shazier, Linebacker, Pittsburgh Steelers
Ryan Shazier is quickly proving he's more than just an athlete.
Over on Monday Morning Quarterback, Peter King says Shazier might be the perfect linebacker for Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. King notes Shazier's fantastic play in Week 2 of the preseason—especially in coverage. In LeBeau's 3-4 defense, linebackers are asked to be five-tool players, and Shazier has showcased all of the above this preseason.
This is a new kind of player from what we saw from Shazier at Ohio State, where he may have been a fantastic athlete but struggled to really put a composed game together. Football Guys analyst Jene Bramel called that change "striking."
If this is the player Shazier is going to be in the NFL, we could see a big swing in how imposing Pittsburgh's defense is this season.
Loser: Buffalo Bills Fans
It has to be tough for Bills fans to hear all about wide receiver Sammy Watkins lighting things up at training camp and then fail to be a big factor in the games. Now, they have to compound that concern with worries about his health after being injured at the hands of the guy from the previous slide.
From Gary Mihoces of USA Today:
Bills coach Doug Marrone announced Watkins had sustained a rib contusion but provided no further information.
Steelers cornerback Cortez Allen fell down on the incomplete, quick pass to Watkins. Rookie Pittsburgh linebacker Ryan Shazier jumped to avoid Allen and his knee collided with Watkins' side.
Watkins was holding his side as we walked to the sideline.
Watkins is supposed to be the crowning feature of a high-powered, youth-driven offense, but the fans have yet to see the offense surpass 20 points in any of its three preseason games.
This fanbase is struggling with an ownership transition and rumors of a potential move from the city of Buffalo. Watkins was supposed to be a bright spot this season, but so far he's just left the fans wanting more.
Winner: Dez Bryant, Wide Receiver, Dallas Cowboys
Dez Bryant already had a coming-out party last season, but if Week 2 of the preseason is any indication, this year could be even better. Bryant and quarterback Tony Romo connected three times in Week 2 and contributed one touchdown to the team's 37-30 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
This offseason has seen a bit of a "new" Bryant, as Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman pointed out in early August:
Bryant has been picking fights with the defense all camp. Talking smack, challenging them, pushing them. It's his attempt to get them as tough as he is.
I love this. I. Love. This.
This is the type of thing that if almost any other player were doing it, he'd be lauded. There would be odes written to Andrew Luck if he were firing up his defense like this.
I referenced that same passage from Freeman in my postgame reaction to the Dallas-Ravens Week 2 tilt and opined Bryant's on-the-field play will benefit from his becoming a leader rather than someone who needed to be babysat.
One thing I know for certain: It has to be scary for defensive backs on the schedule to watch Bryant go up and grab any pass lobbed his way, realizing they can do nothing to stop him.
Loser: Dennis Allen, Head Coach, Oakland Raiders
The Oakland Raiders seem to be in Year 32 of their current rebuild.
Like the Jaguars, the Raiders deserve some patience as they needed to spend years worrying about washing off the stink of Al Davis' later years with the team. Now, with full decks of draft picks and an atmosphere free agents actually want to play in, the Raiders should be able to take some real steps forward.
Hopefully Allen gets to be part of that.
Though the Raiders actually beat the Detroit Lions 27-26, it took a fourth-quarter resurgence, and they were outclassed 13-0 in the first quarter (you know, when the starters play). Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was 9-of-10 for 88 yards and two touchdowns and looked flawless, even though he's trying to integrate new players into an entirely new offense.
Allen is supposed to be a defensive genius.
No, I'm not saying this one quarter is going to be the albatross around Allen's neck, but it's not a great sign for a coach who was hired under the auspices that he was one of the NFL's best young defensive minds.
Winner: Blake Bortles, Quarterback, Jacksonville Jaguars
Just start him already.
Look, I appreciate the Jaguars' deliberate approach to team building, and I've said repeatedly I think this team is well on its way to being a contender down the road. They drafted Bortles knowing he was likely the least pro-ready quarterback prospect in the class but loved his physical tools enough to wait.
Guess what, life happens.
Against the Chicago Bears, Bortles was a decent 11-of-17 for 160 yards. Playing with the second team, Bortles looked poised and drove the ball down the field better than current slated starter Chad Henne.
In fact, at times during camp, some thought even journeyman Tarvaris Jackson could win the job because of his familiarity with the offense. Yet, Wilson earned a shot at an extended tryout in Week 3 of the preseason, and coach Pete Carroll once told me the "decision was easy" because Wilson "kicked ass."
Bortles has earned a shot to kick ass.
Loser: Manti Te'o, Linebacker, San Diego Chargers
For the second straight year, Te'o has injured his foot against the Seattle Seahawks in a preseason game.
This isn't to knock Te'o for being injured, though. No, but rather how out of place he consistently looked while he was on the field. At the point he left, that's just injury added to insult because the Seahawks offense did whatever it wanted against him all day.
He was able to rack up four tackles but didn't do so efficiently or in spots where the offense hadn't already gotten the yardage it needed.
There's still plenty of time left for him to turn things around, but performances like Week 2 make it difficult to imagine Te'o ever being the impact player he was at the collegiate level.
Winner: Gerald McCoy, Defensive Tackle, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
McCoy is unblockable.
Against the Miami Dolphins in Week 2, McCoy looked like a man possessed, penetrating through the Dolphins' reworked offensive line like a hot knife through butter. He managed three tackles, a sack and a QB hit in limited snaps.
Last season, the coaching situation in Tampa Bay was atrocious, and it seemed like the Buccaneers almost actively tried to scheme McCoy into situations where he was less effective.
That is no longer the case with Lovie Smith in town.
It goes too far to expect the world from the Buccaneers in Year 1 of the new regime, but there's little reason not to have high hopes for McCoy—not only because of a couple of great preseason games, but also since he finally has a coaching staff that will stay out of his way.
Loser: Matt Ryan, Quarterback, Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons lost 32-7, so what?
Sure, they did so against a Houston Texans team that was beat down by the Arizona Cardinals in the first week of the preseason. Still, it doesn't really matter.
Yeah, Ryan had a rough day at 3-of-7 for 37 yards—only 5.3 yards per attempt—and took a sack of seven yards which is basically like wiping out one of those aforementioned completions. Even that isn't why Ryan is one of the biggest losers from Week 2.
Left tackle Sam Baker is out for the year with a knee injury, and replacement Jake Matthews has looked less than capable of taking over against the NFL's elite speed-rushers.
Life was rough for Ryan last season, and it doesn't look like things will get any better in 2014.
Winner: Russell Wilson, Quarterback, Seattle Seahawks
Two straight slides, two pictures of Wilson making big plays while Te'o largely looks lost—the story of Week 2.
Wilson played like a man possessed in Week 2, going 11-of-13 for 121 yards and a 105.4 QB rating. The 9.3 yards per attempt not only showcased a Wilson who was more willing to take long passes, but also the presence of more help like Percy Harvin on offense.
The Seahawks are a defensive team with a hard-nosed rushing attack, so Wilson will never have to put up Tom Brady- or Peyton Manning-like numbers for this team to win more championships. However, if he continues to embarrass opponents like he did the Chargers, things could be that much tougher for the rest of the league.
Loser: The Long-Suffering Cleveland Fanbase
If you haven't seen the infamous Browns QB jersey yet, do yourself a favor and click here.
I feel for Browns fans, I really do. There are plenty of terrible football teams out there, but not every fanbase can say they've had their team stolen from them. Nor can many fans truly commiserate with the intense and prolonged losing that the Browns have subjected their fans to.
They deserve better than what they got Monday night of preseason Week 2.
This was supposed to be the grand unveiling of Johnny Manziel as a potential starter for the Browns—the beginning of an era. At worst, it could have been Brian Hoyer solidifying his hammerlock on the starting gig and telling the kid "soon, but not yet."
Instead, it was a fail of epic proportions only fittingly backdropped by a viral gaffe involving Manziel's middle finger and perhaps some sad trombone music.
Manziel went 7-of-16 for 65 yards and one touchdown. Hoyer was 2-of-6 for 16 yards. In fact, it was third-string rookie Connor Shaw who had the best game in the 24-23 loss to Washington: 8-of-9 for 123 yards and one touchdown.
I've made the point repeatedly and I'll make it again: One preseason game is not going to bless or doom Manziel for all time—nor Hoyer, for that matter. Still, this is one more week of Browns fans getting more of the same, and any bright light is far away at the end of a seemingly eternal tunnel.
Winner: Teddy Bridgewater, Quarterback, Minnesota Vikings
As I said with Bortles a few slides before, Bridgewater has earned his shot.
In the Vikings' 30-28 comeback win over the Arizona Cardinals, Bridgewater played well by box-score standards—16-of-20 for 177 yards (8.9 average) and two touchdowns. It's preseason, so the numbers really don't matter, and it was against second-stringers.
That said, it was the poise with which Bridgewater played that means he gets a shot with the starters.
Bridgewater is the future of this team. Even Matt Cassel knows that. Why doesn't Bridgewater deserve at least a chance to prove he can outperform Cassel with the No. 1 unit? There is nothing Cassel brings to this team that Bridgewater can't do.
For an incredible comeback and what it should mean for the future, Bridgewater is the biggest winner from Week 2.