The NFL Preseason is underway, with one week already in the books. For most teams, Week One is a game of little to no significance. Position battles are far from settled, starters play a virtually non-existent role, and results are often meaningless. But with just 3 weeks until the regular season kicks off with the Packers and Seahawks in Seattle on September 4th, each passing game has more and more significance. Here are Three things to watch during week two of the preseason.
Quarterback battles heating up across the league.
More often than not, there are rarely more than one or two true quarterback battles in the NFL during preseason. Though coaches and GMs will undoubtedly play up the fact no-one’s position is secure, in truth, most players and coaches know who is going to start under centre before anyone has taken a snap.
In 2014 however, a combination of a lot of new head coaches, rookie general managers, unproven veterans, and no sure-fire rookie starters means that there are more than a few genuine QB position battles across the league.
Perhaps the most talked-about of these is the battle between rookie Johnny “Football” Manziel and Brian Hoyer for the Cleveland Browns starting job, but it is by no means the only one.
Over in Jacksonville, a strong training camp and week one outing for first round pick Blake Bortles undoubtedly has the Jaguars wavering in their public commitment to Chad Henne. Meanwhile, in Minnesota the three-way battle between Matt Cassel, Teddy Bridgewater, and Christian Ponder remains as open as ever.
We would expect Manziel, Henne and Cassel to be named starters at their respective teams come the start of the regular season, but none of these man have their jobs locked up yet, and we would expect both rookies Bortles and Bridgewater to be given a shot to earn a starting spot before season is over.
Also of interest are the veteran battles at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Jets.
In Tampa, new head coach Lovie Smith quickly brought in the man he considered his starting QB, Josh McCown. However, a very poor outing during week one of preseason, and a better—statistically at least—performance by Mike Glennon may yet see this battle busted wide open again.
For the Jets the battle is between a past his prime Michael Vick, and an arguably not quite ready for prime time “Vick Lite” in Geno Smith.
Many expected that when the Jets brought Michael Vick into their fold it was more as a mentor for the younger Smith, as well as a backup whom they could run Smith’s playbook with without too many changes—both players have a similar style of play. However, the Jets coaches and managers have refused to name Smith starter, and have continued to insist that the battle is wide open.
Normally, we would be inclined to call this the faux-competition which exists in most teams throughout the league, but this is Rex Ryan, a man who ran with Mark Sanchez throughout most of their disastrous 2012 season, and even considered him starter ahead of Geno Smith in 2013 prior to his season-ending shoulder injury during preseason. When it comes to Ryan and the Jets, all we can say is, we’ve seen stranger things happen.
These battles look set to be some of the fiercest in recent memory, and are sure to keep these otherwise dry preseason games interesting.
NFC West Remains Most Intriguing Division in Football
For a number of years the NFC West has been widely acknowledged as the toughest division in football.
However, with the Seahawks, 49ers and Cardinals all achieving at least .625 winning percentages—generally considered good enough for a wildcard spot—and a Rams team handed only 4 losses outside the division in 2013, it is also quickly becoming the most intriguing too.
For week one of preseason, the NFC West were all involved in some of the more interesting games. The Seattle Seahawks were handed a loss by the team they so thoroughly dominated in the Super Bowl last season, and their first team defence appeared to be some distance away from the dominance they displayed in 2013 in their admittedly short outing.
The 49ers were handed a 23-3 defeat by the Baltimore Ravens, with injuries and suspensions of key players looking likely to hurt their chances going forward. Again, the first team played only a short time, but it quickly became apparent that their backups, players they will likely be relying on heavily at least for parts of the season, simply are not ready for prime time yet.
The Rams were part of one of the closer fought contests of Week One, with first string players appearing to have the better of a New Orleans team some are tipping as early Super Bowl contenders. Moreover, their first team was without Sam Bradford who is still nursing a knee injury, but is expected to be available for their week two contest against Green Bay, and will undoubtedly improve things for the team.
And then there was the Arizona Cardinals, a team who had the most convincing win of any team during week one. A 32-0 shutout against the Houston Texans may seem somewhat insignificant, given it came during Week One of the preseason, against the worst team in football in 2013. But for anyone who actually watched the game, the win is actually much more impressive.
Firstly, Carson Palmer was perfect against the Texans first string defence on his lone drive going 5-of-5 for 84 yards and a touchdown. The Texans spent much of their offseason shoring up their defence, and in spite of this, they struggled to stop a Cardinals offensive unit missing several of its key players, including breakout receiver Michael Floyd.
However, more significant than this is the fact that the win came against a team which already appeared to be running in “Week Two” mode. Ryan Fitzpatrick played the entire first half, as did most of the Texans first string offence—albeit without marquee players Arian Foster and Andre Johnson. Moreover, the Cardinals demonstrated that key defensive losses, especially at linebacker—such as Daryl Washington who is suspended all season, Karlos Dansby, who left Arizona for a job in Cleveland, and John Abraham, who will likely face a multi-game suspension relating to a recent DUI—can easily be covered by their existing depth.
Clearly, the gap between all four teams is now closer than ever, and the NFC West will remain the most closely fought, toughest division in football. Their week two games will definitely be worth a watch.
New Rules Likely to Continue To Slow Down Pace of Games
Anyone who watched any of Preseason Week One will have undoubtedly noticed the pedestrian pace of the games. After more than 6 months without full-contact football for most players it is hardly surprising that a lot of them were not yet running at 100% game pace.
However, without a doubt, the biggest thing which slowed the games down was the sheer number of penalties called for relatively minor infractions. Prior to the start of preseason, NFL Referees were instructed to really emphasise defensive holding and illegal contact calls, as well as clamping down on illegal hands to the face between offensive and defensive linemen.
Come regular season, a combination of experience with the new rules, less inexperienced rookies and journeymen on rosters, and the finding of a balance by referees will undoubtedly mean that we will see far fewer of these calls, but during the coming weeks, expect a much more stop-start game than you are used to, with far higher incidence of these types of penalties being called, especially on rookies, backups, and practice squad members trying to keep their spot on the roster.