I read an interesting comment the other day in Peter King's MMQB Mailbag . When King asked Phil Savage, the Browns GM, what he thought when Monday's debacle of a loss to the Giants was over, Savage responded, "I don't know. You never know. It's preseason.''
That answer may work for some in the NFL, but the higher-ups here at SI.com want me to know something about preseason and tell you all the things I have learned. So let's get started.
Better Than We Thought
The Houston Texans: They play in the very rugged AFC South, the conference that provided three playoff teams last season, so it was easy to overlook them. They did nothing bold this offseason, not making a splash in the free agent market, or moving up in the draft. Instead, they took a very low-key approach, trying to add solid players to the core of their 8-8 team from 2007.
So far this preseason, the Texans have a positive swagger and look to their team. Drafting Virginia Tech offensive tackle Duane Brown in the first round was an important step to helping rebuild the offense. Since the days of Tony Boselli, the Texans have been searching for a legitimate left tackle. Now, new line coach Alex Gibbs has a gem who's extremely athletic and can handle their scheme. That was a huge need the Texans appear to have solved.
The offense is very talented, led by quarterback Matt Schaub. If he can stay healthy, he can run the offense effectively. Talented rookie running back Steve Slaton fits their style and appears primed for a big debut. Add in a dynamic big play receiving group led by Andre Johnson, and the Texans offense has all the ingredients to be very successful. With head coach Gary Kubiak and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan both very effective play-callers, this team looks like it will score a ton of points.
On defense the Texans seem to have finally benefited from drafting top defensive linemen the last two years. Mario Williams is playing like a dominating end and Amobi Okoye is a force inside. They allow tackling machine DeMeco Ryans to make a ton of plays. Couple that with this offense being able to generate points, and the defensive line will be able to pin its ears back and rush the passer.
The Texans have a very tough beginning of the season, playing three road games in September against three 2007 playoff teams -- the Steelers, the Jaguars and the Titans. But the way Houston is playing this preseason indicates the Texans will be prepared for the challenges that lie ahead.
Tarvaris Jackson and the Vikings offense: Quarterback was the huge concern of the Vikings all offseason. Put Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or even Matt Schaub at quarterback and the Vikings are not just a playoff team, but a legitimate Super Bowl team. But what about with Jackson at the controls?
After watching him play and execute the offense this preseason, I am very impressed. His eye level is down the field, which is a key trait for quarterbacks. He has a rhythm to his game and seems to have improved his overall accuracy. Jackson is never going to be like Dan Marino with his accuracy, but he is a playmaker. His movement in the pocket allows him to create plays with either his feet or arm, but he is always looking down the field to make a play, which is the key.
He reminds me of a young Donovan McNabb, not as accurate as you might like, but with the big play potential. Jackson might have 10 bad throws during the game, but he will make two or three plays that help the team win. Don't grade him for style points, grade him for wins. And the more he makes plays in the passing game, this will enhance the already explosive running game. Jackson has a minor knee injury right now, but based on what I have learned this summer, he looks very good.
The only real concern the Vikings will have is the pending ruling on left tackle Bryant McKinnie's altercation this past March. Losing McKinnie for any extended period will certainly affect their offense.
Not As Good As We Thought
Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense: The Ravens hired Cam Cameron to run their offense; he knew it would require a major rebuilding effort. Based on this summer, the job might be even harder than many thought. When the Ravens drafted Delaware quarterback Joe Flacco in the first round it was with an eye on the future. No one expected him to come in and start right away, but then again, no one thought he would be so far behind. Flacco's progress has not been as quick as some hoped and this is hurting the progress of the offense.
With injuries to some of their offensive linemen and running back Willis McGahee, the Ravens have been forced to play with many moving parts, causing their offense to fall way behind. And without Flacco as an option for quarterback, the Ravens have only two other choices: Kyle Boller, who has looked like a turnover machine this summer, and Troy Smith, the former Ohio State quarterback who has been slightly inconsistent all summer. Smith gives them the best chance to win right now, and with Ray Rice filling in for the injured McGahee, there are a few bright spots.
For the Ravens, it will be important to get their offensive line healthy, play solid defense and continue to make a few plays in the kicking game. But based on this preseason, this offense will be a work in progress all season and points will be very hard to create.
The Cowboys pass rush: As many of you know, I believe the key to winning is not with shutdown corners, but with having a pass rush that can make plays at critical times. And so far, other than brief glimpses of DeMarcus Ware, the Cowboys pass rush has been nonexistent.
I know it's early and the Cowboys were coming off a tough two-week stretch, but in the Denver game, the Cowboys locked onto blocks and allowed Jay Cutler to have an easy time picking apart the secondary.
With 2007 first-round pick Anthony Spencer having knee surgery and Tank Johnson showing slight flashes, the Cowboys need to find a way to consistently pressure the good passing teams and keep from allowing points at the end of the half and the start of games. That was their Achilles heel last season. For the Cowboys to take the next step, their defensive line needs to really step up and attack the passer.
• From the Cincinnati Enquirer: "I'm not interested [in having Chris Henry return]," Marvin Lewis said at the team's annual preseason luncheon July 22. "I don't think it would be productive for our football team. You have to be a productive part to be an NFL player, and there's responsibilities to being an NFL player. It's a privilege, it's not a right. There's a lot that comes with being an NFL football player."
One thing I have learned in my 23 years in the NFL is the owners own the team. And it will always be THEIR team. I feel bad for Lewis as he tries to control the locker room with everyone knowing he was completely against this move. In fact, someone actually paid for a billboard sign on Interstate 75 in Kentucky, with the words, "Chris Henry Again? Are you serious"? Mike Brown is very serious.
• From the South Florida Sun Sentinel: "Two, one, I'm not sure where they are right now," Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said of the QB depth chart. "It's hard to tell. Chad [Pennington] hasn't had a lot of work right now. But I feel really comfortable with Chad Henne and my evaluation of where he is. I think he's developed a bunch since the start of rookie camp."
Henne has been very impressive for the Dolphins and could not be in a better situation for his growth as he becomes an NFL quarterback. Henne, right now, appears to be the best rookie quarterback in the 2008 draft, and even though the Dolphins have signed Pennington to be the starter, look for Henne to receive regular season work.
• From the Dallas Morning News: "I get criticized because I collect quarterbacks," Bucs coach Jon Gruden bristled after practice last week. "I collect rock and roll guitars. I collect antique football cards. That's what I collect."
And right now, Bucs GM Bruce Allen is probably fielding a few calls to see if they will part with one of Gruden's prized possessions. Many teams have yet to find a legitimate backup, starting with Dallas, New England and Green Bay.
• From HBO's Hard Knocks: "He hates losing more than he likes winning," Cowboys WR Patrick Crayton on QB Tony Romo.
I just love that quote. And it's backed up in how Romo approaches the game. I've been told that he never played tennis before high school and was challenged to a match by the best player on the varsity team. Romo won without losing a set. The passionate will to win is what takes him from being good to great.
• If I were the Cleveland Browns, I would be a little worried about my team's ability to play man-to-man in the secondary. The Browns' season will come down to their defensive lines' ability to apply pressure on the passer, because right now, the Browns don't appear to be able to cover in the secondary.
• If I were a team playing the Denver Broncos, I would worry more about their passing game than their running game. The Broncos, with Jay Cutler playing wonderfully in his third season, appear as if they can really throw the ball. Rookie wide receiver Eddie Royal is making plays for them while Brandon Marshall serves his suspension. Without a dominating running back, the Broncos will be a throw-first team this year.
• If I were the Green Bay Packers, I might want to try and run the ball a little more and take the pressure off Aaron Rodgers. The Packers have been a huge throwing team this summer, but this is not the same offense as it was with Brett Favre. Rodgers will need some balance in the play calls as he gains more experience in the offense.
• If I were the Philadelphia Eagles, I would be happy Shawn Andrews is back in camp and would help him in any way possible. Andrews is suffering from depression, but seems ready to resume his career. And the Eagles need him back badly. Their offensive line has struggled, specifically right guard Max Jean-Gilles.
I would like to extend my sincere condolences to the Gene Upshaw family. Gene did many great things for the players on and off the field and having labor peace allowed football to become America's game. He will be missed, but his hard work and love of the game will live forever on Sunday.