Monday Morning Digest: Quarterback Fear Factor
With the regular season just three weeks away, it's time to be very, very afraid.
- The Colts must fear starting the season without their starting quarterback. And they aren't alone.
- The Broncos must fear there will be no clear winner of their quarterback competition. And they aren't alone.
- Blake Bortles must fear losing his starting job. And he isn't alone.
- The Seahawks must fear their offensive line is coming unglued. Again.
- The Raiders must fear their secondary is coming unglued. Again.
- If you look up in the sky Monday afternoon, you may go permanently blind. That's also scary.
If you aren't afraid, then you haven't been paying attention to the preseason. Luckily, Digest is here to bring you all of the action, excitement and reasons to lie awake at night.
Season Opener May Be in Jeopardy for Flacco, Luck and (Maybe) Newton
It's late August. Do you know where your quarterback is?
Training camp officially ended for most NFL teams over the weekend, meaning we are well past the "it's early, nothing to worry about" phase of preparation for the 2017 season. Yet three injured starting quarterbacks have been nearly invisible all summer long.
Do Ravens, Colts and Panthers fans have reason to be nervous? Let's take a closer look at three hard-to-read quarterback situations.
Quarterback: Joe Flacco, Ravens (Back injury)
Timeline: Flacco injured his back prior to the start of camp. Has not practiced since.
Alternative: Ryan Mallett (two interceptions Thursday night) is a "system fit," which is a nice way of saying that he combines the worst attributes of Flacco and Jay Cutler.
Doubletalk Level: High. Coach John Harbaugh said last week that doctors and a back specialist gave the team "a pretty straightforward date" for Flacco's return. Maybe they used the Mayan calendar. Flacco is not expected to practice this week; apparently, his injury was only minor two weeks ago, when reporters were asking Colin Kaepernick questions.
Anxiety Level: Moderately high. Without Flacco, the Ravens offense cannot engineer the 30-yard drives that lead to the 55-yard field goals that keep the team competitive. Kidding aside, Flacco-sized 32-year-old quarterbacks must worry about back injuries; they are often a sign of the beginning of the end.
Quarterback: Andrew Luck, Colts (Shoulder injury)
Timeline: Has not been seen throwing a football since the end of last season.
Alternative: Scott Tolzien, who is like the poor man's Dan Orlovsky, or Stephen Morris, who has been a preseason superstar for two years in Indianapolis.
Doubletalk Level: Extreme. The Colts haven't provided a straight answer about Luck's injury status since 2015. Trying to pin down general manager Chris Ballard or owner Jim Irsay for a timetable (no one even tries to glean sense from coach Chuck Pagano anymore) is like trying to get a narrower service window from your cable provider than "sometime between 9 a.m. Tuesday and when the sun goes supernova."
Anxiety Level: Extreme. The Colts without Luck are practically the Jets. The organization's "nothing to see here" approach to the severity of Luck's injury and lack of preparation for his absence don't jibe well with the "bold new direction" message they are trying to send.
Quarterback: Cam Newton, Panthers (Shoulder injury)
Timeline: Newton threw seven-on-seven drills in joint practices against the Titans last week.
Alternative: Derek Anderson, who looks like an adequate spot starter if you ignore the five interceptions he threw last year or the one he threw against the Titans on Saturday.
Doubletalk Level: Low. Ron Rivera said Newton is "trending up," will throw more this week and could play in the regular-season dress rehearsal against the Jaguars.
Anxiety Level: Low, but with an asterisk. Newton will be ready for the season opener. The concerns for the Panthers are: a) Christian McCaffrey looked like the only player who belonged on an NFL field for most of the Titans game Saturday; and b) Newton at less than 100 percent is susceptible to both bad throws and exacerbated injuries once he starts running and taking hits. The Panthers need 2015 Newton; lingering aches and rust could leave them with 2016 Newton.
Quarterback Competition Digest
Quarterback competitions aren't over until the head coach says they're over. But the picture is beginning to come into focus for the five NFL teams who have not officially named a starter. Here is a look at who is winning...or at least, who is not losing.
Tom Savage (8-of-9, 98 yards, 1 TD) may have the job sewn up after a pair of productive drives against the Patriots. Deshaun Watson (3-of-10, 102 yards, 1 rushing TD) displayed poise and big-play capability, but forced some throws and was off-target at times.
There doesn't appear to be much urgency in Houston to push Watson into the lineup, because a) Savage's bland adequacy could be enough for a 10- or 11-win season; and b) coach Bill O'Brien has a history of making sudden early-season quarterback changes, anyway.
John Fox and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains force-fed Mike Glennon (13-of-18, 89 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) a diet of two-yard passes to make his stats look spiffy (ahem...help him "find his rhythm") versus the Cardinals. The moment Glennon threw a meaningful pass, Tyrann Mathieu intercepted it. Glennon then stayed in the game, throwing micro-passes until he led a short touchdown drive against Cardinals backups.
The only thing keeping Mitchell Trubisky (6-of-8, 60 yards, 1 TD) from the starting job is organizational stubbornness. Unfortunately, the Bears may lead the NFL in organizational stubbornness.
New York Jets
Christian Hackenberg (2-of-6, 14 yards) actually netted negative-three passing yards against the Lions on Saturday when his two sacks for 17 yards are factored in. There is absolutely, categorically nothing remotely NFL-caliber about Christian Hackenberg.
Bryce Petty made his bid to start by completing 15-of-24 passes for 160 yards and one interception against Lions backups. Yep, that qualifies as a "bid to start" for the Jets. Josh McCown will have to run the daycare as long as he can stay healthy.
Playing Monday night, folks.
Trevor Siemian (8-of-11, 93 yards, 1 TD) appears to have survived a non-challenge from Paxton Lynch (9-of-13, 39 yards; yes, it's possible for a quarterback to average 4.3 yards per completion).
Siemian is the quarterback equivalent of autopilot. But Lynch plays like a big, strong-armed guy who keeps expecting the starting opportunity to come to him. Lynch is more indistinct than terrible. Maybe the pilot light will flicker on eventually, but he wasted a whole summer when the Broncos were just begging for him to light it.
New Quarterback Controversies Erupt for the Jaguars and Bills
We knew entering training camp that the Bears, Broncos, Browns, Jets and Texans were holding open quarterback competitions. But new controversies often brew in the August heat. Here's a look at a pair of trending quarterback situations to keep an eye on:
Why is Blake Bortles suddenly in danger of losing his starting job?
If you are seriously asking, you need to consult video of Bortles doing absolutely anything in the last two years. Thursday's preseason performance was actually good by Bortles' standards: He completed some short passes, but anything that traveled more than 15 yards in the air looked like it was thrown by a high school quarterback. Blindfolded.
What about Tyrod Taylor?
Taylor had a miserable performance against the Eagles on Thursday night, and the recent Ronald Darby and Sammy Watkins trades (which significantly weakened the 2017 roster) show that new Bills coach Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane are in full "let's bring in our guys" mode.
Who are the Jaguars and Bills alternatives at quarterback?
The Jaguars have Chad Henne, an off-the-rack veteran journeyman, and second-year Arkansas product Brandon Allen, who would fit right in on the Jets roster.
T.J. Yates is the Bills' designated journeyman, but, per Daniel Gallen of PennLive, there is buzz around rookie Nathan Peterman, who has thrown three preseason touchdowns. Peterman draws Kirk Cousins comparisons. There are some similarities between Peterman and the Washington starter, but the Cousins comp is really just code for "there is nothing special about him but he will probably end up starting."
Are the quarterbacks solely responsible for their fates?
Quarterbacks never are. Jaguars receivers have been dealing with the dropsies since last year, though it's important to note that receivers develop bad habits when they have no idea when or where a ball will arrive. The Bills offensive line got manhandled by the Eagles line last Thursday, and Taylor's starting receivers were rookie Zay Jones and Anquan Boldin, who retired on Sunday night.
So can either quarterback turn things around?
Bortles is even bad during practice, by all accounts. A fourth-year pro may still struggle in games against a pass rush or a tough opposing defense, but he should be able to crush 7-on-7s. If he can't, that's really telling you what you need to know.
Taylor's situation is trickier. He was caught in the middle of the Rex Ryan-Doug Whaley tug-of-war late last year, and the Bills have been double-talking about him ever since. He's a good starter in a bad situation.
How will this end?
Henne will be the Jaguars' Week 1 starter. Adjust your Jaguars season projections accordingly (I'm catapulting them from 4-12 to 5-11!)
The Bills are more likely to start Taylor and let nature take its course. By the Week 6 bye, Taylor will be weary from running around in circles and Peterman's heroics against Eagles and Vikings backups will be remembered like the Trials of Hercules. You know what happens next.
Team Spotlight: Seattle Seahawks
From their 48-point explosion in the preseason opener to Kasen Williams' one-handed Odell Beckham Jr. homage Friday night to the various off-field personality conflicts and political protests, the Seahawks remain one of the NFL's most fascinating teams. They also have the potential to be one of the NFL's best teams if they can effectively block out distractions and, well, effectively block.
Storylines to Watch
Lacy Does It. Eddie Lacy is in shape, and that shape is not a fluffy spheroid! Lacy has looked OK in a pair of preseason performances, though he has failed to convert several short-yardage and goal-line opportunities. It doesn't help that the offensive line still leads the league in flopping to the turf as defenders race past.
Offensive Line Shuffle (Oh No, Not Again). Left tackle George Fant tore an ACL on Friday night, meaning it's time for Pete Carroll and line coach Tom Cable to once again spin their Wheel of Ill-Advised Solutions! The Seahawks will most likely move Luke Joeckel back to the position he spent four seasons in Jacksonville proving he could not play. But Cable likes to needlessly complicate things, so don't be surprised if rookie Ethan Pocic, a center in his senior season at LSU, receives a sudden opportunity to show off his versatility.
Protest, Shmotest. OK, that's a little glib. Whether you are inspired by Michael Bennett's national anthem protest or plan to boycott the NFL forever because of it, there's no denying that it's a big deal. But the Seahawks are better positioned than most teams to weather any "distractions": They play in one of the most progressive cities in America, teammate Justin Britt (a white guy!) stood with Bennett during Friday's protest, and this is the team whose defensive superstars scream at offensive coordinators and it is all shrugged off as no big whoop.
If the Seahawks win the Super Bowl, it will be credited to bold moves on both sides of the ball (like signing Lacy and new cornerback Tramaine Brock) and the unique, delicate chemistry of the team's culture. If the defense goes H.A.M. and declares mutiny on the offense after a 13-10 loss in December when Russell Wilson endures eight sacks and Lacy gets stuffed three times at the goal line, the Seahawks will probably blame the media.
Team Spotlight: Oakland Raiders
Preseason Story So Far
The Raiders entered training camp as the designated up-and-coming challengers to the Patriots for the AFC. But the first-string defense has looked awful in a pair of preseason games. General manager Reggie McKenzie, head coach Jack Del Rio and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. are searching for answers. But if the answer is that they are the three best defenders on the payroll (besides Khalil Mack, of course), then the Raiders will not live up to their offseason billing.
Storylines to Watch
Secondary Shuffle: If the Raiders enter the season with TJ Carrie, David Amerson and Sean Smith at cornerback, they will field one of the worst secondaries in the NFL. And the linebackers aren't much better. From the coverage to the open-field tackling, the Raiders have been a disaster against quarterbacks like Jared Goff and Drew Stanton this preseason. First-round cornerback Gareon Conley and second-round safety Obi Melifonwu (neither of whom has practiced much due to legal issues, in Conley's case, and injury) will have to blossom into Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas quickly to really save the day.
Carr Revving: At least the offense is humming. Derek Carr found Michael Crabtree for a touchdown and Amari Cooper for a gorgeous leaping 31-yard reception Saturday night. Marshawn Lynch sat for the national anthem, then received a joyous cheer from the crowd after a six-yard run (hmmm...). This team is going to score some points.
Penn Stationed: Left tackle Donald Penn is still holding out. Knock-around veteran Marshall Newhouse has been adequate in his place, but the Raiders cannot afford "adequate" on offense with their defenders tripping over each other in coverage. There has been no movement on the Penn front, but holdouts often end when training camp officially ends (as it did for the Raiders last week) and the regular weekly schedule begins.
The Raiders open the regular season with three tough road games (Tennessee-Redskins-Broncos) wrapped around a chance to feel good about themselves against the Jets. As of now, the Raiders defense is built to lose shootouts on the road. Keep an eye on Conley, Melifonwu and other rookies the Raiders have raved about in camp, such as cornerback Breon Borders, per the Associated Press (h/t USA Today) and linebacker Marquel Lee, per defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. Until any of them prove they can play, take the over.
Player Spotlight: Redskins Running Backs
Preseason Story So Far
Clinton Portis called the Washington running backs "probably the best group in the NFL" during a preseason telecast. It's not clear whether he was a) counting himself among them; or b) wearing one of his Choo Choo costumes when he said it.
Redskins running backs rushed 11 times for 10 yards in the first half against the Packers on Saturday and 10 times for 10 yards in the first half of preseason opener. Beltway fans have playoff expectations. Fantasy gamers expect big things from whomever emerges as the bell-cow rusher behind the excellent Redskins offensive line. But everyone (including Portis) is going to be disappointed if none of the Washington runners can break the one-yard-per-carry barrier.
Who to Watch
Rob Kelley has been one of the preseason's biggest disappointments. He has rushed 12 times for 11 yards, failed to convert a 4th-and-short against the Packers on Saturday and looks like he may have adopted Eddie Lacy's old cheese-and-gravy diet. There is no reason to believe that Kelley, an undrafted rookie who had a few fine games last season, has a stranglehold on the starting job.
Rookie Samaje Perine fumbled and dropped a pass in his preseason debut but bounced back impressively against the Packers: eight carries for 45 yards and a 29-yard reception on a deep sideline route (all against second-half backups). Perine is a big back with some moves who can catch. He has an interesting all-purpose skill set. But projecting him into a featured role requires a short memory and a high opinion of his readiness.
Chris Thompson (5 catches for 52 yards) is a quality third-down back, meaning he will catch a lot of short passes, run some draw plays, help the Redskins a little and reduce the fantasy value of the other backs by a lot.
Fumble-prone Matt Jones has five carries for three yards in the preseason. His future is as a Knile Davis or Christine Michael who wanders the league drawing headlines when teams sign him (because fans remember his name) but getting cut weeks later when he coughs up the football during a non-contact practice.
Mack Brown, who rushed eight times for 81 yards on Christmas Eve against the Bears last year, is still on the roster. Brown is more likely to make the team than Jones.
This backfield screams "committee." A three-headed Kelley-Perine-Thompson monster should get the job done behind the Washington line, even if Kelley is a few burgers overweight and Perine is learning on the job.
The Redskins backfield will look better once the team is game-planning for opponents. But it may not be the major strength the team needs it to be to compete for an NFC East crown, and it's also going to cause a lot of fantasy headaches.
Player Spotlight: Falcons Defense
Preseason Story So Far
Team owner Arthur Blank claims that the Falcons now have the fastest defense in the NFL. And while team partisans often offer some loopy opinions (see Clinton Portis' appraisal of the Washington backfield on the last slide), Blank may be onto something. The youthful Falcons starters swarmed all over the Steelers on Sunday and looked good against the Dolphins in the preseason opener until second-half silly time.
Blank wants to see his Falcons play "a full four quarters now in the Super Bowl," because he's seen what happens when they settle for three-and-a-half. Will he get his wish?
Players to Watch
Takkarist McKinley had an uneventful NFL debut Sunday, though if you watched closely, you saw him bull-rush a left tackle on one play and flush Joshua Dobbs from the pocket on another. Look for McKinley to be eased into a pass-rush rotation that is suddenly deep behind Vic Beasley, with Brooks Reed, Courtney Upshaw and others looking healthy and effective right now.
Grady Jarrett and Dontari Poe should be a nasty defensive tackle tandem, with Poe munching on double-teams while Jarrett disrupts the backfield (as he did several times against the Steelers).
De'Vondre Campbell, now the strong-side linebacker, looked comfortable in the role against the Dolphins. He also made a big play against the Steelers, delivering a big hit and forcing a fumble on a Martavis Bryant end-around.
The Falcons secondary is difficult to evaluate, because the team hasn't faced a starting quarterback yet. Jalen Collins gave up a 99-yard touchdown against the Dolphins but is not in the team's plans. Fifth-round pick Damontae Kazee, one of those young speedsters Blank is raving about, is being groomed as a designated nickel defender and flashed some potential against the Steelers.
The Falcons special teams bears monitoring. The Steelers blocked one punt and nearly blocked a second. Falcons return men fumbled twice against the Dolphins. It's probably nothing, but the Falcons need to mind the details after the way last season ended.
If you are checking the Falcons' vital signs for evidence of an impending Super Bowl slump, you won't find them on defense. This is a deep, rapidly improving and (yes) lightning-fast unit. It's too early to tell if the Falcons defense will let the boss and the fans down in January or February. It will have no problem doing the job in September.
Jets receiver Lucky Whitehead will miss four to six weeks with broken foot.
Saints fire two doctors after Delvin Breaux's "leg contusion" turns out to be a fractured fibula.
That's what happens when you hire graduates of the Rob Ryan School of Medicine and Grooming.
Employment experts report that it is now easier for job applicants to explain a "gap year" than a "Jets year."
Seahawks sign center Justin Britt to a three-year, $27 million contract extension.
Britt is now expected to play all five O-line positions simultaneously.
Patriots lose top draft pick Derek Rivers to injury.
The Patriots had a third-round pick this year? They didn't lose it to TurnipGate or something?
Ravens fans revealed by Fanatics.com to be least likely to date fans of any other NFL team.
No one in his/her right mind responds to dating app messages that start with "I am totally turned on by three-play drives, long field goals and 16-13 final scores."
Dolphins to replace the playing surface at Hard Rock Stadium.
That's what happens when you choose your sponsors without a sense of irony. At least the Dolphins turned down other potential stadium-naming partners: Shattered Glass Car Stereo, Rusty Tetanus Needles Medical Waste Disposal LLC and Severely Ruptured ACL Triple-Hopped IPA.
Preseason Sights and Sounds Digest
This week's edition leans a little heavily on the kickers, punters and specialists.
Charcandrick West rushes for 113 yards on seven carries, looks like 1983 Marcus Allen vs. Bengals.
While the Broncos search for a quarterback, the Raiders search for a cornerback and the Chargers search for anyone healthy enough to play on their soccer pitch in September, the Chiefs are playing their tortoise-and-hare game. Don't sleep on them.
Third-string quarterbacks outplay backup quarterbacks.
It happened all over the league: for the Cowboys (Cooper Rush over Kellen Moore), Colts (Stephen Morris over Scott Tolzien), Ravens (Josh Woodrum over Ryan Mallett) and so on. The best way to interpret it: The third-stringers are not nearly as great as they look, but the journeyman backups probably are just as bad as they look.
Christian Hackenberg loses the grip on the football and throws a pass at an offensive lineman's feet.
(Consults Big Book of Rationalizations for the Jets Drafting Hackenberg Last Year). It was rainy!
Justin Tucker runs downfield to recover a fumble after his own kickoff.
Tucker then had to kick a field goal after the Ravens offense couldn't move the ball. This may be the most Ravens thing the Ravens have ever Ravened.
Buccaneers kicker Nick Folk misses a 47-yard field goal and has an extra point blocked.
Folk was competing with former second-round pick Roberto Aguayo before Aguayo was released (and picked up by the Bears). What's the opposite of "steel sharpens steel"? "Fluff softens fluff"? The Buccaneers kicking competition was an example of fluff softening fluff.
Roberto Aguayo misses 49-yard field goal for the Bears.
Has everyone seen enough yet?
Deonte Thompson returns a missed field goal 109 yards for a Bears touchdown.
Maybe Aguayo is just in camp to give extra reps to the Bears' missed field goal return team.
Adoree Jackson's electrifying punt return touchdown is nullified by a penalty.
Jackson is an explosive athlete, and the return was fun to watch. But when we start analyzing plays that didn't count in games that didn't count, it means we've had a little too much preseason.
Total Eclipse of the Stats
You probably know you shouldn't look directly into Monday's solar eclipse without special eclipse goggles to protect your eyes.
Well, you shouldn't look directly at preseason statistics either. They can cause harmful misconceptions about players and teams.
Luckily, Monday Morning Digest applied special lenses to some common preseason statistical lines to determine what they really represent. Allow us to stare right into the burning heart of the sun so you don't have to:
Stat Line: 4-of-6 for 57 yards, no touchdowns, no interceptions (Falcons QB Matt Ryan)
Eclipse Goggles: Low attempt total, high yards per attempt, looks like an established starter looked great on an opening drive, then grabbed the nearest baseball cap.
Stat Line: 10-of-14 for 70 yards, no touchdowns (Colts QB Scott Tolzien)
Eclipse Goggles: The high completion rate and low yards per attempt are indicators that this is an embattled starter or emergency backup (Tolzien is a combination of both right now) throwing short rollout passes to find his rhythm. This is a statistical disguise for bad quarterback play.
Stat Line: 8-of-10 for 110 yards, 15 rushing yards, two rushing touchdowns (Ravens QB Josh Woodrum)
Eclipse Goggles: The touchdowns are the tell that a third stringer went ham during a playground fourth quarter. Please don't overreact. (Too late.)
Stat Line: Three rushes for three yards (Cardinals RB David Johnson)
Eclipse Goggles: The team just needed to make sure the franchise running back's shoulder pads fit properly.
Stat Line: Seven carries for 20 yards, three receptions for 50 yards and one touchdown. (Patriots RB Rex Burkhead)
Eclipse Goggles: Bill Belichick is trolling you. Dion Lewis, Mike Gillislee, James White and some guy the Jets are about to release will split Patriots carries this year.
Stat Line: Six catches for 131 yards (Jaguars WR Dede Westbrook)
Eclipse Goggles: When a rookie like Westbrook puts up big preseason numbers, it means that he has been with the Jaguars long enough to prove he belongs in the NFL but not so long that he proves he belongs on the Jaguars.
Stat Line: Five catches for 57 yards (Buccaneers WR Mike Evans)
Eclipse Goggles: When a veteran like Evans puts up big preseason numbers, it means Jameis Winston has gotten a little over-reliant on his go-to receiver.
Stat Line: Five tackles, three assists, zero passes defensed (Raiders CB T.J. Carrie)
Eclipse Goggles: If a veteran cornerback needs to make eight tackles in a preseason game, it's a really bad sign.
Stat Line: Zero tackles, 8 assists (Bengals LB Nick Vigil)
Eclipse Goggles: No idea what this means. Seriously. This stat line is so weird it's like looking at an eclipse and seeing an alien armada.
Stat Line: 22 penalties for 176 yards (Combined 49ers-Broncos results)
Eclipse Goggles: The rookie coaches have some work to do. Particularly Kyle Shanahan, because the 49ers can't even line up without drawing an illegal formation penalty on every series.