Musings, observations and the occasional insight as the NFL preseason mercifully comes to a close ...
• Well at least the Jets scored a touchdown in August, even if it was with their third-team quarterback running the offense in the ultra-meaningless fourth game of the preseason. But if New York's fate this year comes down to what Greg McElroy can do under center, Rex Ryan and Co. are probably in considerable trouble.
I love the Jets defense and it should keep them in most games. But New York seems to think it has enough playmakers on offense and I just don't see it. In training camp, when I asked him how he knew rookie second-round receiver Stephen Hill was ready to contribute early, Ryan gave me a very honest, but curious answer.
"Well, nothing told me he would (contribute),'' Ryan said. "Nothing. When I saw the tape (of his collegiate play) I was concerned. But (Jets general manager) Mike Tannenbaum and (senior personnel executive) Terry Bradway and all our scouts were adamant about this guy. They were adamant that this guy can do it. He can run all these routes, he had good hands and he's got 4.2 speed at 6-foot-5. He was the guy they all wanted, but honestly, when it came down to it, a wideout? Not my dream pick. But now that we have him, of course, I want to claim him: 'Oh, that was my pick.' But it really wasn't.''
While Ryan was clearly speaking tongue-in-cheek, and giving Tannenbaum and Bradway credit for the pick, I wonder what the Jets coach thinks of his rookie receiver now? Hill led New York's receivers this preseason with nine catches for 106 yards, but he also had at least three drops, including one that turned into a Carolina interception in last Sunday night's Jets loss to the Panthers. New York finished 0-4 in the preseason for the first time since 1993, and this is clearly a team that hasn't yet figured out its offensive identity.
• The Redskins are limiting the media availability of Robert Griffin III in his rookie year, but his teammates can give you a pretty good snapshot of the most celebrated rookie in Washington franchise history. I haven't heard anyone do that better than new Redskins receiver Josh Morgan.
"As mature as he handles himself and as humble as he is, he really is a goofy little kid,'' Morgan said. "He's a funny little kid, and he's got a lot of little kid still in him. You see most guys his age, with all that hype, and they let it go their head and just get caught up in it. You end up saying, 'Wow, what is this guy thinking? What is he doing?' But you see him dealing with everything, and he's like a little 5-year-old going to elementary school for the first time.
"All he cares about is football. He doesn't care about anything else. He sticks to his job. And he's on his way to being a great professional already. He definitely is for real.''
• Baltimore running back Ray Rice calls Ricky Williams "the best thing to happen to me last year,'' but with the veteran running back finally retired for good, Rice is keenly interested in who's going to win the Ravens' backup rushing job. Rookie Bernard Pierce, a third-rounder out of Temple, is expected to get the nod over rookie Bobby Rainey, a collegiate free agent from Western Kentucky. But both have been impressive at times this month. Rainey, listed at 5-8, 212 pounds, is a virtual clone of Rice, who is also listed at 5-8, 212.
"Nah, I'm taller than Bobby,'' Rice said. "Bobby's about 5-7 and some change. With my shoes on, I'm a legit 5-9. But Rainey does remind me a little bit of myself. I can't deny that.''
• Bills first-round cornerback Stephon Gilmore might have been the most impressive defensive rookie I saw this preseason, and I don't think it'll take long for opposing quarterbacks to realize they can't pick on him in pass coverage. Gilmore will get his hands on the ball plenty this season, said new Buffalo defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt.
"He's got as good a ball skills as any of the Pro Bowl cornerbacks I've coached,'' Wannstedt said. "His hand-eye coordination when the ball is in the air is as good as anyone's I've seen. He's got the size and speed, just the whole package, with the right temperament to play that position.''
As Wannstedt points out, playing at South Carolina in the SEC means Gilmore has already faced the likes of A.J. Green and Julio Jones, so he knows what an NFL caliber receivers looks like at this point.
"He's covered them all and lined up and played them,'' Wannstedt said. "This is not a one-year or two-year wonder type of guy. This guy has played at a high level against good competition for three-plus years in the SEC. He's as steady as can be.''
• Not that the Carolina Panthers ever want Cam Newton to get used to losing, but one of the parts of his game that he needs to work on most this season, teammates say, is bouncing back from defeat. Newton as a rookie had a tendency to treat every loss as a cataclysmic event, maybe because he rarely had to deal with failure at the collegiate level. That won't fly as well in the locker room this season, and Newton can't afford to ride the emotional rollercoaster he did last year.
"It was easy to understand why that happened last year, in that he had just come off winning a national championship (at Auburn),'' Carolina center Ryan Kalil said. "It's hard to adjust and realize the difference between the college competition level and the pro competition level. You have to learn to control the ups and downs, because everything's not alway going to happen the way you want it to happen in the NFL.
"The fact he was emotional and he was upset about losing, and things not going right, that's a good thing because it shows how much he cares. But at some point, yeah, okay, that's fine. But you've got to be able to shelve it and move on to next week. That's the hard part for him, but I think he's done a good job of learning from that.''
• With the addition of first-round rookie outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, the Texans will field the league's best young collection of disruptive front seven defenders in 2012. Mercilus is my pick for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, and he'll be turned loose to rush from the edge on passing downs, which in the league these days is nearly every down. If Mercilus delivers as expected, opponents will have a rough time containing him, defensive end J.J. Watt, inside linebacker Brian Cushing and outside linebackers Brooks Reed and Connor Barwin. No wonder defensive coordinator Wade Phillips doesn't seem at all worried about the loss of Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans.
"The good thing is neither one of those guys played a whole lot last year anyway,'' Phillips said of Williams, whose season-ending pectoral injury occurred in Week 5 last year, and Ryans, who came off the field on passing downs. "So we're placing guys with guys who have already played. Since the fifth game of the year last season, we've got 10 starters back from that group really. We think we can win, that's the big thing.''
• Watt was one of the league's breakthrough defensive rookies last season, and he played his best ball in Houston's two playoff games, totaling 3.5 sacks and that game-turning 29-yard interception return for a touchdown in the second quarter of the Texans' first-round defeat of visiting Cincinnati. He missed the whole preseason with a dislocated elbow, but could have played the past two weeks if it had been the regular season. I asked him during camp if he surprised even himself with his rookie impact?
"I was surprised I caught that ball against Cincinnati and scored a touchdown,'' Watt said, laughing. "But I wasn't surprised with the rest of my year. I had good coaching at Wisconsin, and I knew with Wade's defense and good teammates here, we could make things happen.
"We have much bigger expectations in our locker room than anyone outside does. We expect to win the division again and win it handily. But we don't do that without putting in the work and putting in the time.''
• If you're Aaron Rodgers, and you're coming off an MVP season in which you threw for 45 touchdowns and 4,643 yards, with just six interceptions and a league-record 122.5 passer rating, what exactly do you find to improve? Rodgers can't even identify a few bad games he had last season and work on not duplicating those. His personal to-do list includes focusing on a few sub-par quarters he had, or even a handful of bad throws within those quarters.
"I want to be consistent for four quarters every game,'' he said. "I think I was pretty consistent game in and game out, but there were parts of those games where I had stretches of not playing the way I want to play. I had a couple dumb fourth quarter interceptions last year that I'd like to clean up.''
I've seen a few pundits picking the Bears to win the NFC North, calling them a more balanced team than Green Bay, but I wouldn't sleep on the Packers this season. Not as long as Rodgers is running the offense.
"I think we're in a real good position because we don't realize how good we can be yet and people seem to be talking about other teams this year,'' Rodgers said. "It's about the Giants, or the Saints, Philly, New England or San Francisco, and you haven't heard as much maybe about us. ESPN is 24/7 on the Jets or the bounty thing with the Saints, so it's nice to not have the same type of pressures right now and be able to build our team without those crazy expectations -- at least besides what's already in our own heads.''
• Mario Williams still can't get over why people were so surprised to see him sign in Buffalo. Even if there were all those dollar signs that had something to do with it.
"It's not like I was going to the Antarctic or something like that,'' he said. "It was Buffalo. The last thing you want to do is make a decision about your career based on weather. People say it's cold here. Well, it's hot in Houston. It's hot in Arizona. People still sign there.''
Williams said he loves the vibe in western New York, and has had no trouble getting acclimated to his new surroundings. Early in training camp, Williams proved his mettle to Bills head coach Chan Gailey, and it had nothing to do with what he brings to Buffalo's defensive line. It came hours after Williams had fallen on Bills receiver David Nelson's leg in practice, costing Nelson a couple weeks of missed time.
"Nobody really knows this, but when David Nelson got hurt, Mario went to his room that night to check on him and say, 'Golly, I'm sorry,' '' Gailey told me. "A guy doesn't have to do that in this league, and a prima donna never does it. But a good guy does. That tells you something about what kind of human being he is. We felt good about the money spent already because he's a hard worker and a great player. But that just reinforced what we already thought.''
• Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray and Dallas linebacker Sean Lee have had some great one-on-one battles in training camp and in offseason workouts, and the unlikely duo are fast friends off the field who don't mind mixing it up in heated fashion on the field. Teammates love recounting stories of their encounters, and Lee is even said to have blown Murray up in a non-contact goal-line drill in OTAs, with both men saying their competitiveness gets the best of them at times.
"Neither one of us ever want to lose and when we get against each other it's highly competitive to the point where it's chippy,'' Lee said. "But there's that respect, and as soon as it's over, we're both laughing about it.''
Murray has so much respect for Lee that he watches Lee's every move on the practice field.
"Sometimes he doesn't even know I'm watching him,'' Murray said. "I just want to see what he does and how he does it. We'll stay after practice some times and work on some drills together. I have trouble at times picking him up in the blitzing game, and he'll at times help me and let me know what he sees. Sometimes he'll have a hard time covering me when it's one on one, and I'll help him and let him know what I'm doing and what I'm seeing.''