Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we run down the winners and losers in Week 2 of the NFL's preseason. The games don't count, but the perceptions sure do. ...
• WINNER -- Brace yourselves, I'm about to jump on the Raiders' bandwagon even before it really gets rolling. The NFL preseason is all about trying to generate some momentum to carry into the regular season, and to this point, I see no team in the league that has more mojo building in August than the long-downtrodden Raiders. That's right, the Oakland Raiders, they of the seven-year streak of 11-plus-loss seasons.
Oakland is 2-0 so far, but that's not the most impressive part since we know preseason results easily can be skewed. The better news for the Raiders is how they've won their games, with both coming on the road, featuring dominating displays of defense, against teams that have 2010 playoff aspirations (Dallas and Chicago). Oakland's 17-9 win at Dallas in Week 1 gave the Raiders confidence, because they held the Cowboys' first team without a touchdown and limited Wade Phillips' powerful club to just three field goals on four trips deep into the red zone.
Then against the Bears on Saturday night, the Raiders flashed another facet of their emerging defensive improvement in a 32-17 win, sacking Chicago quarterbacks six times. Five came in the first half, when both teams were still playing their starters. Newly acquired Oakland outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley was the star of game for the Raiders, abusing Bears offensive tackle Chris Williams with an eye-opening four sacks of Jay Cutler. (Two quick thoughts on that: When's the last time you can remember anyone amassing four sacks in a preseason game, and how about the Raiders for a change picking another club's pocket in a trade, which it looks like they did with the ex-Brown Wimbley?)
Oakland's defense had some issues defending the run against the Bears (174 yards on 25 carries), and Chicago's starting offense did put up 14 points in the first half on a pair of big plays -- an 89-yard Matt Forte run and a 22-yard Cutler-to-Johnny Knox pass. But the Raiders clearly have something coming together on defense, and when you factor in their improvement at quarterback with Jason Campbell, and the strong work they did with their 2010 draft class, the buzz that's just starting to be heard in Oakland seems legit.
• LOSER -- It has become obvious by now there are no winners in Washington's ever-burgeoning Albert Haynesworth saga, and the story continues to hold both sides hostage. All Haynesworth is doing is further damaging his reputation and making everyone who predicted that he would be impossible to motivate once he got a big payday look positively prescient.
As for Washington head coach Mike Shanahan, his high-profile makeover of the Redskins seems on hold as it continues to take a backseat to the stand off he's locked into with his overpaid and disgruntled defensive lineman. The focus in D.C. has been on nothing but the negative so far, and the longer that continues, Shanahan and his team lose, even if the head coach is in the right when it comes to laying down the law to Haynesworth.
After a decade of dramatic underachievement in the win-loss column and glaring failures in the personnel department, the Redskins were hoping for a fresh start with this new, proven regime. Instead, it seems like business as usual in Washington, with a team's dysfunction on display instead of its determination to change its losing ways.
• WINNER -- As a former mid-round pick, Kyle Orton has really never been the chosen one throughout his solid NFL career. But he's the guy for the foreseeable future in Denver now that the Broncos have extended his contract through 2011. No, that's not a long-term investment, but it's a start, and Orton just might make Denver look very smart this year for having him locked up.
Orton has been on fire so far this preseason, completing 68.6 percent of his passes for 261 yards and four touchdowns, and running the Broncos offense with a sophistication and familiarity he clearly lacked at times last season. The Tim Tebow experiment in Denver notwithstanding, the Broncos are Orton's team until the former Purdue Boilermaker says otherwise.
• LOSER -- Between the Vikings' whatever-it-takes approach to luring Brett Favre back to town -- sure, you can miss practice, guys -- to the Rex Ryan brainstorm of canceling his team's workout to invite everyone to take part in a Darrelle Revis negotiating session, the concept of no one player being bigger than his team has taken a beating this month. Both Vikings head coach Brad Childress and Ryan have been perfectly willing to send the message that a very, very different set of rules applies to their superstars, and everybody else should just get used to it.
It may sound hopelessly old-school of me, but I think it's the worst development of the year so far in the NFL.
• WINNER -- LaDainian Tomlinson has been telling anyone who will listen this summer that he's healthy again and supremely motivated to prove all his doubters wrong in his first season with the Jets. I've been among the group believing Tomlinson looked to be an old 31, but I have to admit I saw something akin to the old L.T. burst in New York's 9-3 win over Carolina on Saturday night.
Tomlinson ripped off a 20-yard run up the gut against the Panthers, turning a third-and-13 situation at the New York 5 into a first down at the 25. It was the kind of run he never seemed to have in him last season, when he rushed for career lows in yards (730) and average gain (3.3), with just 20 receptions for 154 yards. Tomlinson finished with 26 yards on three carries against Carolina, adding a pair of catches for two yards.
For a guy who rarely played in the preseason while he was a Charger for nine seasons, it still seems odd to watch L.T. in action in August. But the Tomlinson we saw the other night in Charlotte was familiar all the same.
• LOSER -- It's not particularly fair, but the leash on Matt Leinart is going to be short enough this year in Arizona that he'll have to endure the criticism and questions that come with even one so-so preseason performance. Like the one he turned in Monday night in a 24-3 loss at Tennessee.
Leinart was 4 of 6 for 28 yards against the Titans, but the Arizona offense looked sloppy with him in the game and failed to generate even one first down on his three series of work. Predictably, Leinart's lack of success, his body language, and his leadership skills were picked apart the rest of the evening on the ESPN telecast.
Leinart repeatedly told a sideline reporter in the second half that he was "fine,'' but the reality is no one will let him be fine this season after a showing like that one. He just doesn't have enough credit in the bank yet, and that means he can't afford mediocrity. This year is going to double as a week-to-week referendum on his future in Arizona, and Leinart has very little margin for error.
• WINNER -- He played only six snaps Thursday night at Atlanta, but that was all we needed to see to realize that Wes Welker is back, and because he is, the Patriots offense might be, too. More than anyone this side of Tom Brady, Welker is the guy who makes things go in New England and his full-speed return from last season's Week 17 ACL injury was a big part of the Patriots' plan for success in 2010.
Forget all the medical marvel stuff. These days, Welker's return from an ACL injury is impressive, but not the stuff of miracles. The significance is that he was healthy enough to catch two passes for 20 yards in the Patriots' second preseason game, and that means there will be no need to ease him into the regular season whatsoever. New England can relax and know that Welker, who led the NFL with 346 catches over the past three seasons, will be ready to handle anything they throw at him from Week 1 on. In the three-team AFC East race that we all expect to unfold, that's a huge comfort for the Patriots.
• LOSER -- In the what-a-difference-a-year-makes department, the Browns look like a competitive team this summer. But even in the rain that soaked Cleveland in Saturday night's 19-17 loss to the visiting Rams, five turnovers is entirely too many. The Browns lost three fumbles and threw two interceptions, paving the way for St. Louis to win despite gaining just 178 yards of offense.
I suppose the best news out of all those mistakes was that Cleveland starting quarterback Jake Delhomme only added one to the turnover total. As you might recall, giving the ball away was kind of his downfall last year in Carolina. Delhomme fumbled twice, but recovered one of those bobbles. He and four other Browns all had one turnover apiece against the punchless Rams.
• WINNER -- The Saints offense must have sent shivers through the rest of the NFL with its showing Saturday night at home against Houston. The defending Super Bowl champs scored touchdowns on four of their six first-half possessions en route to a 38-20 dismantling of the Texans.
The Saints were the picture of balance in rolling up 409 yards of offense. They threw for 211 and ran for 198, with 15 first downs on the ground compared to 12 through the air. On third downs, New Orleans was a sharp 8 of 16, and even converted all three of its fourth-down tries.
For now, the dreaded Super Bowl hangover effect appears to be a preseason storyline in search of some evidence in New Orleans.
• LOSER -- It's only the preseason, but we still have yet to see even a glimpse of the Tony Romo who threw for 26 touchdowns and nearly 4,500 yards for Dallas last season, with just nine interceptions and a career-high 97.6 passer rating. In the Cowboys' first three preseason games, Romo has completed five, four and four passes, with a 13 of 28 showing overall for 141 yards.
Romo was just 4 of 11 in the 16-14 Dallas win at San Diego this weekend, for 30 yards with both a touchdown and an interception. He threw off his back foot on several occasions, as the Chargers hurried or hit him, and never once looked comfortably in the flow of the game. With everyone considering Dallas to be one of the NFC's strongest Super Bowl contenders, Romo only has a couple more weeks to find his game. At the moment, he looks like he's feeling the pressure, both literally and figuratively.