Now that we’re past the midpoint of training camps, everything should start falling into place for NFL teams and quarterbacks as they prepare for the regular season. Tom Brady got his contract taken care of, and he’s locked in on 2019. Sam Darnold looks great in his second year. Joe Flacco is supposedly “throwing dimes” in Denver. The rookies are getting their reps.
But there are a surprising number of unsettled quarterback situations across the league. Injuries and ineffectiveness are creating a lot of nervousness, with two weeks to go until final roster cutdowns.
■ The most prominent example is in Indianapolis, where Andrew Luck is dealing with a mysterious injury for the second year in a row. I wrote about Luck last Sunday and the fact that he had missed seven straight practices with what was described as a calf injury. A day later, the story exploded.
Owner Jim Irsay casually mentioned on Sirius XM that Luck actually has a “small little bone” issue, and now the Colts are worried about Luck’s availability for the start of the regular season. General manager Chris Ballard said that Luck’s injury is a “cumulative thing” to his “posterior ankle” right below the calf, though he wasn’t more specific.
Coach Frank Reich said he wants to name the Week 1 starter after the third preseason game, giving Luck until next Saturday to get healthy. Luck still deserves the benefit of the doubt given his history with mysterious injuries — he came back from a shoulder injury last year to start all 16 games plus playoffs. But while Luck is working by himself with private quarterback coach Tom House, backup Jacoby Brissett is taking all of the reps in practice and preparing to start Week 1 against the Chargers.
Realistically, the Colts can get by without Luck for one or two games in the regular season, but certainly need him back in September. Brissett, meanwhile, can make himself a lot of money if he gets his opportunity and plays well, as he will be a free agent in March.
■ The good news in Philadelphia is that Carson Wentz says he is healthy and ready to go after his 2018 season ended in early December with a back injury. The bad news is that the Eagles’ depth chart is getting decimated by injuries.
Backup Nate Sudfeld broke his left wrist in the first preseason game, knocking him out for about six weeks. Then on Thursday, third-stringer Cody Kessler suffered a concussion and will be sidelined for an undetermined amount of time. That left rookie fifth-rounder Clayton Thorson as the only healthy backup behind Wentz.
Considering that Wentz has finished his last two seasons with injuries — an ACL in 2017 and his back in 2018 — the Eagles need a healthy, durable backup. And on Saturday they got one, signing 40-year-old Josh McCown out of retirement.
■ Jimmy Garoppolo was never the best practice player in Foxborough, but he lit it up in the few opportunities he saw the field in the regular season. So there’s no need to overreact to one bad practice.
But, boy, did Garoppolo have a rough day on Wednesday. He threw interceptions on five — yes, five — consecutive passes in team drills, with NBC Sports Bay Area calling it “his worst day on the 49ers’ practice field since arriving in the middle of 2017.” Garoppolo finished his day with better performances in the red zone and two-minute drill.
Garoppolo doesn’t have competition, but he is likely playing for his job this season. And he’s not exactly inspiring hope among the 49er faithful.
“You hope to never have a day like that,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “So when you do that, you hope that you practice long enough to give him a chance to play out of it.”
■ Meanwhile, Kyler Murray and Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury have a clapping problem. Kingsbury tried to explain to referee Carl Cheffers before Thursday’s game against the Raiders that Murray would be clapping multiple times as part of his cadence, but to no avail. Cheffers’s crew twice busted Murray for false starts, telling Murray that he was “too abrupt” in his claps and “not smooth enough as far as bringing my hands together,” the quarterback said after the game.
Clapping for the ball has been prominent in college football, and Kingsbury is now trying to bring it to the NFL. But it’s not going to work if the officials call it like they did on Thursday.
“I think it’s the first time for certain officials to see it, and we’ve been in contact with the league and had a great conversation on it,” Kingsbury said. “We’re going to work through that and make sure everybody’s on the same page.”
The NFL’s rulebook states that for quarterbacks in the shotgun, “any quick and abrupt movement is a false start. This includes thrusting his hands forward when there is not a simultaneous snap.” But Murray doesn’t believe he was doing anything wrong.
“To me, it’s like any other hard count,” Murray said. “It’s the defense’s job to watch the ball, so it really doesn’t make sense to me. I think we’re trying to fix things right now.”
■ Finally, Tennessee’s quarterback position looks surprisingly wide open. The Titans may have given Marcus Mariota his fifth-year option this year ($20.922 million salary), but they aren’t giving him a contract extension, and in fact gave him strong competition by signing former Dolphins starter Ryan Tannehill.
While Mariota hasn’t stood out this preseason (this column was written before Saturday night’s game), Tannehill threw for 130 yards and two touchdowns in the first exhibition game. And one report from ESPN this past week stated that Mariota is no lock to start in Week 1, with some of the Titans coaches preferring Tannehill, who ran a similar offense in Miami.
Even if Mariota does win the starting job at first, he certainly won’t be on a long leash.
COMES AS NO SURPRISE
Veteran Hoyer known quantity
A few Patriots-related notes:
■ Brian Hoyer’s performance this preseason is mostly meaningless (again, this column was written before Saturday’s game). The Patriots know exactly what they have in Hoyer — a savvy, 11-year veteran, a great leader for younger players, and a limited player.
But Hoyer’s spot with the Patriots may still be in trouble, even if he plays well. Rookie Jarrett Stidham looked great last week against Detroit, drawing high praise from Bill Belichick and others. The better Stidham looks this preseason, the less of a need the Patriots have for Hoyer, as Tom Brady rarely comes off the field, anyway. Hoyer already filled his most important role, which was being the veteran leader for the offense in the offseason, when Brady was away.
The Cardinals — whose quarterbacks are an undersized rookie who runs with the ball (Kyler Murray) and a young flame-out (Brett Hundley) — look like a team that could use Hoyer’s veteran presence in the quarterback room. The Patriots can also wait a couple weeks to see if any other quarterbacks get hurt.
But the better Stidham plays, the less value Hoyer has to the Patriots.
■ Interesting to see Scott Pioli take in the Patriots-Titans joint practices this past week. Pioli was also around the Patriots two weeks ago when he came to Foxborough for Rodney Harrison’s Patriots Hall of Fame induction. Pioli also happens to be a free agent, after leaving the Falcons in May.
With Nick Caserio looking like a decent bet to go to the Texans next offseason, Pioli would be a good choice to step into his old personnel role with the Patriots, which he held from 2002-08. It would continue a theme of inviting back old members of the early Patriots dynasty. Jerod Mayo joined the coaching staff this year, and Troy Brown, Deion Branch, and Kevin Faulk helped coach in the offseason.
■ I talked to CBS analyst and former NFL kicker Jay Feely on Wednesday about Brady, his longtime college buddy from Michigan. Feely said he doesn’t think Brady cares about not getting a real contract extension.
“I just think he’s thrilled to be playing and thrilled to be out there,” Feely said. “He’s at the point where he can just go have fun. And he did say to me this offseason one time, ‘It’s easy for me now. I’ve seen what every defensive coordinator can throw at me, I know the answers to the test before I take it. So why would I want to not play if my body’s going to let me? Because it’s easy now, compared to those first 10 years.’ ”
Feely believes that Brady is year to year, but doesn’t believe Brady would ever play elsewhere.
“Bob Kraft would never want to see him in another uniform,” Feely said.
■ Brady had an interesting response last Monday on WEEI about the responsibility of veteran quarterbacks mentoring young ones:
“Drew [Bledsoe] was great for me, a great example for me. I think it’s more, we’re together, basically, all day. We’re all in the same meetings. We sit next to each other, we go through the same tape, the same coaching points . . . It’s just constant sharing back and forth about football, plays, scheme, things that we need to talk to the receivers about, the running backs about, to Josh [McDaniels] about . . . The fact that a younger player gets to be in that room, they can learn a lot. They can learn the process, the thinking. Hopefully, they can apply it.”
Brady is saying, essentially, that if Jimmy Garoppolo, or Stidham, or any other youngster wants to learn from the best, it’s all right there in front of them. But Brady’s not going to hold his hand and lead him through the process, either.
Attempt to save Gostkowski’s leg
Patriots rookie punter Jake Bailey handled all six kickoffs in last week’s preseason opener, while Stephen Gostkowski was back at it Saturday night in Tennessee. But Gostkowski is now 35, an age when many kickers start to lose their deep power.
“It’s like I was playing golf, but I didn’t have a driver anymore. I was hitting 3-irons,” said CBS analyst Jay Feely, who continued to do kickoffs throughout his late 30s. “I could go out right now and kick 50-yard field goals. It’s the kickoffs where you lose the ability to pound it, and really drive it. It takes a lot out of your legs when you’re kicking off. Adam Vinatieri would probably have been done 10 years ago if he had to kick off the entire time.”
Gostkowski is always one of the busiest kickers in the NFL, and last year he ranked second in the league with 209 total kicks (38 field goals, 60 extra points, and 111 kickoffs). But the Patriots also struggled on kickoff coverage — ranking 32nd in average starting field position (27.1-yard line) — and Gostkowski was only 2 for 5 on field goals of 50-plus yards.
Now the Patriots can have the best of all worlds — Bailey has a younger, stronger leg for kickoffs, and Gostkowski can focus on field goals and save his body a bit.
“It allows you to be a better kicker,” Feely said. “You don’t have those little nicks throughout the year that you get from exerting yourself on kickoffs. Having a punter who kicks off allows you to get one of those older, veteran guys and say, ‘Hey, just come in and kick field goals for us.’ Matt Bryant was like that. It totally rejuvenated his career in Atlanta.”
Swimming with Dolphins
A couple of Dolphins notes I wasn’t able to squeeze into Friday’s profile of new head coach Brian Flores:
■ The Dolphins were dealt a blow in July when Jim Caldwell, the assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach, left the team for health reasons. He was arguably the second-most important coach in the organization, and was going to be a vital presence in helping advise Flores and quarterback Josh Rosen.
But two league sources said that Caldwell was actually taking more of a hands-off, bigger-picture approach to coaching the quarterbacks. Jerry Schuplinski, the assistant QB coach who held the same role with the Patriots from 2013-18, was really running the meeting room day to day. So when Caldwell stepped away, Schuplinski was pretty much already in charge.
■ Flores got his “Welcome to Head Coaching” moment this spring when he wanted to pop in on the quarterback meeting room. Flores knocked on the door, and answering it was Hall of Famer Dan Marino, who is a special adviser to owner Stephen Ross. Marino sits in on quarterback meetings whenever he’s at the facility, and sits quietly in the back, near the door.
For a 38-year-old Flores, who grew up in the Brooklyn projects and spent his first NFL season getting coffee, it was pretty neat.
“The head coach comes in and he looks at him and goes, ‘Huh, Dan Marino is holding the door for me. That’s so cool,’ ” a source said.
Al Riveron has been fairly cautious in overturning pass interference calls or non-calls thus far. In the first week of the preseason, he only overturned one of 14 challenges of a PI penalty (or non-penalty). On Thursday, there were seven such challenges, and Riveron only overturned two of them. That’s only three out of 21 calls that were changed, and even those three drew plenty of criticism. But Riveron is sticking closely to the “clear and obvious” standard, and is giving the call on the field the benefit of the doubt . . . Watching Antonio Brown arrive to Raiders camp this past week brought a smile. Nothing reminds you of the good old days better than watching a diva receiver end his holdout with a grand camp entrance with agent Drew Rosenhaus in tow . . . Jay-Z and the NFL may be ready to move on from the Colin Kaepernick controversy to other social justice projects, but as Panthers safety Eric Reid smartly pointed out, “It’s not an either/or proposition; millions can be helped and the wrong done to Kaepernick can be undone.” The NFL’s blackballing of Kaepernick was obvious and shameful, and this partnership with Jay-Z looks little more than a league trying to shield itself from criticism, and a rapper making a boatload of money.