The preseason is winding down, final roster cuts are due next Sunday, and the regular season is almost here. While exhibition games don’t count in the standings, plenty of news has played out across the league over the last 4½ weeks since training camps began, from injuries to suspensions to position battles and rookie surprises.
As we ramp up to Week 1, let’s take a look back at the most interesting and important on-field developments to happen during the preseason:
Struggles in New York: Giants quarterback Eli Manning is coming off the worst year of his career — 18 touchdowns, 27 interceptions, and a 57.5 completion percentage — and his marriage with new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo hasn’t gone well. Manning was 1-for-9 passing for a grand total of 6 yards in his last two exhibition games before having a little more success Friday against the Jets, throwing for 139 yards and a touchdown despite completing just 12 of 21 passes. Manning has never been the most accurate passer, and the Giants’ decision to hire McAdoo and install the West Coast offense doesn’t seem like the best fit for Manning’s skills.
Quarterbacks on the mend: Elsewhere in the NFC East, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo is working back slowly from offseason back surgery, and he isn’t taking his normal workload in the preseason. After sitting out the first game, he completed 4 of 5 passes for a touchdown in the second game, and was scheduled to play about a half in Saturday night’s contest. Romo left no doubt that he’ll be ready for Week 1. “At this point, yeah, there’s no question you’d be playing a football game,” he said last week.
And we got a close look at Panthers quarterback Cam Newton Friday night in Foxborough as he returns from offseason ankle surgery. Newton has completed only 12 of 21 passes in two exhibition games with no touchdowns or interceptions, and he looks a bit tentative and unsure whether he should scramble out of the pocket and subject himself to hits. Panthers coach Ron Rivera said after the game that Newton and the starting offense will play in the final exhibition game, which is rare. “It is very evident that we’ve got to get them out there,” Rivera said.
QB battles settled: A half-dozen coaches named their starting quarterbacks last week — at least for the early part of the season — and the veterans beat out the kids in all but one city.
In Minneapolis, Teddy Bridgewater looked great in the second exhibition game against Arizona, but so did Matt Cassel, who has been the sharper quarterback throughout training camp and is on track to start in Week 1 (and potentially Week 2 against the Patriots).
No. 3 overall pick Blake Bortles has looked outstanding this preseason for the Jaguars, completing 62 percent of passes for 435 yards and a touchdown in three games. But coach Gus Bradley is curiously sticking to his guns and going with Chad Henne to start the season.
Brian Hoyer won the starting job in Cleveland almost by default, given how bad Johnny Manziel was in his second exhibition game against Washington and how immature he has looked at times since being drafted. But the Browns have a bye in Week 4, so don’t be surprised if we see Manziel shortly after that.
Matt Schaub has looked pretty terrible in Oakland, completing 51 percent of passes with no touchdowns, an interception, and three sacks in three games, but second-round pick Derek Carr sat out Friday’s third exhibition game with bruised ribs (he also suffered a concussion on the same play) and will sit behind Schaub at least initially. Ryan Fitzpatrick beat out Case Keenum and rookie Tom Savage for Houston’s starting quarterback, though Fitzpatrick’s play has hardly been inspiring.
The one youngster to win a starting job was Jets quarterback Geno Smith, who beat out Michael Vick in a seemingly rigged position battle. “All along, I’ve had the notion that I’d be out there Week 1,” Smith said Friday. “The handwriting was pretty much on the wall.” But how long of a leash will the Jets give him?
Injuries: A dozen or so notable players have already suffered season-ending injuries, including: Cardinals DT Darnell Dockett (knee), Falcons LT Sam Baker (knee) and LB Sean Weatherspoon (Achilles’), Bills LB Kiko Alonso (knee), Colts OL Donald Thomas (quad) and RB Vick Ballard (knee), 49ers RB Kendall Hunter (knee), and Rams RB Isaiah Pead (ACL).
Elsewhere, Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles is dealing with a bruised foot, suffered while moving out of the training camp dorms, Ravens RB Ray Rice is dealing with a shoulder injury, Titans RB Shonn Greene hyperextended his knee last week, and Bucs RB Charles Sims is out 12-14 weeks, and possibly the season, after ankle surgery. Bills rookie WR Sammy Watkins has been slowed by a rib injury, Dolphins C Mike Pouncey is out 6-8 weeks following hip surgery, and Cardinals OL Jonathan Cooper is hurt again (toe) after missing his rookie season. And on Friday, Raiders LB Sio Moore was carted off with a neck injury, while Giants OL Geoff Schwartz was carted off with a foot injury.
Rob Gronkowski also isn’t the only key player coming off a torn ACL. Slowly working back into playing shape are 49ers LB NaVorro Bowman, Cardinals CB Tyrann Mathieu, Eagles WR Jeremy Maclin, Steelers C Maurkice Pouncey, Colts WR Reggie Wayne, Broncos LB Von Miller, Rams LT Jake Long, and Hoyer.
Suspensions: Several notable names won’t be available for the start of the season due to suspensions: Cardinals LB Daryl Washington is gone for the season, Giants S Will Hill got six games, Rice infamously got two games, Chiefs WR Dwayne Bowe got one game, Browns WR Josh Gordon and 49ers LB Aldon Smith are awaiting their fate, and about a dozen players are facing a four-game suspension for violating the drug policy, including Robert Mathis, Brandon Browner, Reshad Jones, Dion Jordan, Stedman Bailey, Donald Stephenson, Ace Sanders, and Lane Johnson.
POINT OF CONTENTION
Instead of longer PATs, why not closer?
The results are in from the NFL’s experiment with lengthening the extra point, and the impact was fairly significant. Kickers missed eight of 141 extra points through two weeks of exhibition games — more misses than in the entire 2013 season (only five in 1,267 kicks). We also saw Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski bank one in off the goal post last week. The 94.3 percent success rate this year is 5 percentage points lower than last year’s success rate during the regular season (99.6 percent).
The anarchist in us likes the mayhem that could be created by permanently adopting this rule, which places extra point snaps at the 15-yard line and makes the extra point the equivalent of a 33-yard kick. It’s fair to note that most of the misses this preseason were by backup kickers who won’t be in the league this fall, but the weather conditions have also been perfect. The extra points would be much harder to convert in cold and inclement weather later in the season, and it would almost guarantee that several games per year would be decided by botched extra points.
That said, we don’t really like the idea of moving the ball back to the 15 — it’s a little too radical and has too much of an effect on the game, as we’ve already seen this preseason.
But we do agree with the overall philosophy of making the extra point a more competitive play. Instead of moving the ball back, the NFL should move it up, from the 2 to the 1-yard line. Given that teams convert 4th-and-1 plays approximately 66 percent of the time, moving the ball up to the 1 will give teams more incentive to go for a 2-point conversion.
The idea of moving the ball up caught a little steam last week when Tom Coughlin mentioned it to reporters. The Giants coach mostly isn’t a fan of longer extra points because of the weather factor — dome teams and warm-weather teams will be at a disadvantage when kicking on the road late in the season.
“I think you have to be aware of the fact that it’s a 33-yard field goal in November when the wind’s blowing and it’s snowing here and it’s . . . in Miami it’s 75 degrees,” Coughlin said. “It’s a little different in different parts of the country. You do have to be aware of that. I would say probably the ball will stay at the 2, extra points. But if you really want to make it interesting put it at the 1.”
OPEN JOB MARKET
Growth of practice squad boon for many
It wasn’t exactly an earth-shattering, stop-the-presses story last week when the NFL announced the expansion of practice squads this season, from eight to 10 players. But for hundreds of current players and thousands of future ones, this was major news that can give a big boost to prolonging careers.
Practically, this expansion adds 64 new jobs this year. Practice squad players will make $6,300 per week during the regular season.
But the NFL also changed the eligibility rules for practice squad players. Under the old system, players could spend up to three seasons on the practice squad, and three games in one year constituted a season credited. And a player lost his practice squad eligibility if he dressed for at least eight regular-season games in one season at any point in his career.
Now, it takes six weeks on the practice squad to constitute a season credited. And teams can now have two players on their practice squad who have two accrued seasons of free agency (being on a roster for at least six games in one season).
In practical terms, this allows a player who dresses for all 32 regular-season games over the first two seasons of his career to still be eligible for the practice squad.
For example, Patriots receiver Josh Boyce (nine games active last year) and defensive tackle Joe Vellano (16 games) are now eligible to make the Patriots’ practice squad this year. Under the old rules, the Patriots had only two choices with players like Boyce and Vellano — cut them or keep them on the active roster. Now they can try to stash them on the practice squad, continue to develop them, and maybe call them up to the active roster if an injury happens.
One agent called last week to say these new rules are long overdue. He had a client who played in 16 games as a rookie, but was cut in his second training camp and couldn’t find subsequent work because he didn’t have any practice squad eligibility.
While these new rules (applicable for the 2014 and 2015 seasons) create just two additional spots per team, they create newfound options for hundreds of players looking for work.
Cohesive unit has had one big change
Not many people around New England seem too concerned with the Patriots’ offensive line. The unit has never been a huge issue with the Patriots, and they return at least four starters, and potentially all five if Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell both make the team.
But this unit showed signs of slippage last year by allowing 40 sacks, by far the most for Tom Brady since 2001. They are still unsettled at center and right guard, Logan Mankins looked average last year, and Nate Solder hasn’t looked great in the preseason. And unlike in previous years, Dante Scarnecchia isn’t around to piece things together.
“I’m sure it’s a transition with Dante not being there. He was such a linchpin for that group,” one general manager told me this preseason. “His group always achieved. Even though individually they weren’t necessarily the guys you’d pick out of a lineup to be a starter in the NFL, they worked well together.”
Whether new line coach Dave DeGuglielmo can work the same magic remains to be seen.
Patriots rank second in value
Forbes released its annual report ranking the NFL’s most valuable teams last week (based on their estimates), and the numbers were even more eye-popping than usual. The Cowboys became the first American pro sports team valued at more than $3 billion ($3.2 billion), and the Patriots came in second at $2.6 billion.
What’s so unbelievable is how NFL franchises increased in value across the board — an average of 23 percent per team, according to Forbes, the league’s largest increase since 1999. The Patriots’ value increased a whopping 44 percent from last year, the highest increase in the league. The average NFL franchise now is worth $1.43 billion, the highest it has been in the 17 years Forbes has tracked NFL financial data.
It’s just more proof that the owners are making a killing thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement, which appears more one-sided with each passing day.
It’s not like the Patriots just opened a new stadium or paid off a lot of stadium debt. The new TV deals have kicked in, including the mega-money Thursday night package, and the new CBA has owners making money hand over fist, while the players are getting squeezed six ways from Sunday.
Most of the attention in the preseason has been focused on the increased frequency of penalties against defensive backs — illegal contact, pass interference, and defensive holding. But there has been just as much of an emphasis on calling illegal use of hands or hands to the face for offensive and defensive linemen. There were nine such penalties awarded last week in the Patriots-Eagles exhibition game . . . Devastating news this week to hear that former Titans linebacker Tim Shaw, only 30, has been diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Shaw, who played six NFL seasons (his last in 2012), joins O.J. Brigance, Steve Gleason, and Kevin Turner as former players age 45 and under who have been diagnosed with the disease. No definitive link has been made between football, head injuries, and ALS, but the research is also still in its infancy . . . Colts owner Jim Irsay’s court date on charges of operating a vehicle while intoxicated got pushed back to late October or early November, according to the Indianapolis Star, allowing Roger Goodell to continue to sit on his hands and wait for the “process” to play out before deciding on any punishment for Irsay. Why does it feel like Irsay’s lawyers will keep delaying the process, his charges will be pleaded down, and Irsay will escape any punishment from the league? If a player was caught driving while intoxicated, and holding several bottles of prescription medication and $29,000 in cash in a duffel bag in a suitcase, there’s little doubt he’d earn a stiff punishment from the NFL.Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and team and league sources was used in this report.