NFL Preseason: Teams That Are Already in Trouble
Though the NFL regular season is still three weeks away, some teams—and fans—are already starting to feel some uneasiness.
Whether from preseason Week 1 games or off-the-field injuries and incidents, several squads are already dealing with problems.
The New York Jets lost their starting quarterback for at least the first half of the season from a sucker punch, the Carolina Panthers will be without their best wide receiver for the entire season, and the defending Super Bowl champions might be without the reigning Super Bowl MVP for the league opener on Sept. 10.
Of course, the preseason usually isn't the best gauge for predicting the next Super Bowl champion.
For some teams, the games in the preseason are a nuisance more than a necessity, and a star player not getting injured is more of a reward than an actual win is.
But for other teams, preseason games serve as a tryout of sorts for some of the more important positions on the field. Players can win or lose starting spots based on performances, and the results on the field could carry a fair amount of weight for a player, coach or organization.
Last week, teams had their first chance to see what needs work before opening day. And though it's certainly not time to panic just yet, a handful of squads are already in trouble.
The following slides will address some of the teams that need to make adjustments after struggling in their first preseason games or were dealt big blows to their starting lineups because of injury.
7. New England Patriots
It's never a good thing when a team's star player is spending more time in a suit than a uniform.
Such is the problem for the New England Patriots and Tom Brady, as the saga known as Deflategate continues to drag on with no end in sight.
ESPN.com reported Wednesday that "U.S. District Court Judge Richard M. Berman has ordered Brady and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to appear in court on Aug. 31 if no settlement is reached before then in Brady's appeal of his four-game suspension."
The report also stated that Judge Berman would like to make a decision by Sept. 4, but that date isn't necessary set in stone. And, even if a ruling is made, it can also be appealed.
That's where the trouble comes in for the Pats. For starters, even if a ruling is made by that date, it leaves New England with just six days to prepare for its season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That becomes a problem if Brady must miss one, two or the full four games. Jimmy Garoppolo would then feel the pressure to perform on the big stage.
In Week 1 of the preseason, Garoppolo went 20-of-30 for 159 yards with no touchdowns and one interception in a 22-11 loss to the Green Bay Packers. He was also sacked seven times. It wasn't great, but it wasn't awful either.
We'll see a lot more of him in the next couple of weeks. If Brady ends up with the full four-game suspension, it would be up to Garoppolo to lead the charge for three games until New England gets its early bye in Week 4.
After Pittsburgh, New England travels to play the Buffalo Bills and then hosts the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Pats should beat the latter team, but Rex Ryan will certainly cause Garoppolo some headaches. A poor start to the season wouldn't mean the end of the world for the Pats, but it could come back to bite them.
Of course, if the suspension of Brady is overturned, the crisis would be averted. Brady would have no trouble being ready for Week 1 since he has continued to practice and will see more preseason snaps.
6. Buffalo Bills
Just in case you've forgotten, the Buffalo Bills haven't made the postseason since 1999.
Now that we've gotten that out of the way, a new head coach and new starting running back have brought hope back to Buffalo. Unfortunately, there might be a couple of issues this season.
Unlike his brother, Rex Ryan has an incredible defensive mind. He could use a little help on the offensive end, however, though he didn't exactly have Joe Namath as a quarterback when coaching the New York Jets.
Rex's quarterback troubles won't end this season either. The Bills will most likely throw out Matt Cassel or Tyrod Taylor as their starting quarterback in Week 1, while EJ Manual holds the clipboard.
Cassel played in just three games last season with the Minnesota Vikings before breaking his foot, while Taylor had been a backup to Joe Flacco on the Baltimore Ravens for his entire four-year career before coming to Buffalo.
With uncertainty behind center and a ground-and-pound coaching philosophy to boot, it'll be no surprise when Ryan runs the ball into the ground this season. The trouble is that new starting running back LeSean McCoy has already gotten hurt.
He hurt his hamstring Tuesday, though ESPN NFL Insider Adam Shefter reported that McCoy is expected to start the season opener. In Week 1 of the preseason, McCoy ran for just 16 yards on six carries. With McCoy hurt on Tuesday, the Bills were down to just two undrafted rookies as their only healthy running backs.
Though McCoy should be ready for opening day, Bills fans will spend much of the season holding their breath any time the running back takes a little longer to get up. Ryan will want to run—the question will be if McCoy can take it.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
All eyes will be on first-round draft pick Jameis Winston when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers take the field this season. He is used to playing under the spotlight, but the lights of the NFL tend to be a lot hotter than at the collegiate level (sorry, Johnny Manziel).
In a 26-16 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in Week 1, Winston was average. He went 9-of-19 for 131 yards while playing the entire first half. He threw a pick, fumbled and also spent too much time staring down his wide receivers before making throws.
Winston did rush for an eight-yard touchdown and could use that as some motivation for next week.
The problem for Winston is that the Bucs don't need him to be average—they need him to be great. Fans will expect as much and call for him to be benched if the Bucs don't find quick success. On top of that, the media will view every pass, in-game decision and off-the-field antic under a microscope.
While it's too early to tell how Winston will fare in the NFL, time will tell whether or not he'll be ready for the pressure of the big stage. If he's not, Mike Glennon won't be much better.
4. San Francisco 49ers
It feels like a lifetime ago, but the San Francisco 49ers are just two years removed from playing in the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, your favorite player from that team is most likely no longer on the roster.
San Francisco went through a terrible trend during the offseason when several players faced legal trouble or suspension, left the team or left the game of football altogether, which has left the 49ers in shambles.
A once feared and revered defense is now a shell of its former self, and many of the offensive weapons that Colin Kaepernick relied on are now playing elsewhere.
Kaepernick barely played in his team's 23-10 loss to the Houston Texans in Week 1. For new head coach Jim Tomsula, there's no sense risking one of his few offensive weapons.
Unless San Francisco shows some signs of life in the next couple of weeks, don't expect it to surpass last year's 8-8 performance.
3. Washington Redskins
The Washington Redskins look like the same team that lost 12 games in the NFC East last season.
Head coach Jay Gruden still shows no real public support for his quarterback, while his quarterback is still in the news for all the wrong reasons.
In an interview with ABC 7 and News Channel 8's Alex Parker on Sunday, Robert Griffin III said he was "the best quarterback in the league." Though the quote sounds better in its full context, the stories that followed painted a picture that Washington could have done without.
The Redskins tried to keep Griffin away from the media on Tuesday, but he still said he would not apologize for his previous comments.
While it's good to hear his confidence, in nine games last season, RG3 had just four touchdowns while throwing six picks and fumbling nine times. He just hasn't been the same quarterback since tearing his ACL in 2013. In the 20-17 win over the Cleveland Browns in Week 1 of the preseason, Griffin played in just the opening quarter and threw for 36 yards.
Kirk Cousins went 12-of-14 for 154 yards in that opening game, but he's proved better as a backup than as a starter.
Griffin will be under center for at least the first few weeks, whether Gruden likes it or not. The question is, will both still be with the Redskins at the end of the season?
2. Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers jumped up to near the top of this list in the blink of an eye Wednesday when star wideout Kelvin Benjamin tore his ACL at practice, as first reported by NFL Network National Insider Ian Rapoport.
Benjamin was an absolute stud in his rookie season last year, catching 73 passes for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns. He quickly developed into quarterback Cam Newton's favorite target and used his 6'5" stature to his advantage.
The Newton-to-Benjamin connection was already on display in a 25-24 win over the Buffalo Bills in Week 1 of the preseason. Newton finished 5-of-10 for 82 yards and accentuated the day with a two-yard toss to Benjamin for the touchdown.
The loss of Benjamin is tremendous for Carolina, which now must rely on rookie Devin Funchess or veteran Jerricho Cotchery to fill the No. 1 role. While one player doesn't make a football team, the Panthers are now limited on what they'll be able to do offensively while trying to improve on last year's 7-8-1 record.
The NFC South will still be up for grabs and is still within reach for Carolina and its superb defense. Unfortunately, Newton will now have to remain healthy and carry the load this season.
1. New York Jets
Ah, the New York Jets.
The Jets entered the season with some optimism as new head coach Todd Bowles and wide receiver Brandon Marshall provided a spark to go along with a good defense. There was no way the squad would only win four games again this season.
But on Aug. 11, Bowles said in a press conference that Geno Smith had his jaw broken by a "sucker punch" and would be out for six to 10 weeks. You can't make this stuff up.
This season was going to be a make-or-break year for Smith, who is still trying to prove to the Jets—and the league—that he can be a starting quarterback. Unfortunately for him, he's been responsible for 41 turnovers in the past two seasons.
His replacement, journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick, isn't exactly a fantastic answer either. He has a 33-55-1 record as a starter and will just try to keep the Jets above water for as long as possible. Fitzpatrick threw for just 16 yards in a 23-3 loss to the Detroit Lions in Week 1 of the preseason.
New York also signed backup quarterback Matt Flynn on Wednesday, as reported by Randy Lange for NewYorkJets.com. The vet has managed to make more than $18 million in his career while starting just seven NFL games.
While Smith wasn't going to take the Jets to the Super Bowl, his on-field performances would have at least helped answer some questions about his future and the direction of the franchise. Now, New York is faced with playing the waiting game until he returns. And there's no guarantee that he'll even win his spot back.
The Jets need to move on quickly from Smith's injury and focus on winning some football games. Before the injury, there was optimism. Now, the doom and gloom that typical accompany the Jets at some point during the season has already arrived. Someone or something needs to put a stop to that in the upcoming weeks.