Cover-Two: Examining the highs and lows of the 2014 NFL preseason
With the 2014 NFL preseason in the books, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar look back on the winners, losers and lessons from the exhibition season.
1. The preseason's biggest winner was ...
Chris Burke: Rookie quarterbacks not named Johnny Manziel
Derek Carr might be the new starter in Oakland. Blake Bortles should be the new starter in Jacksonville. And Teddy Bridgewater could bump Matt Cassel from the No. 1 job in Minnesota without anyone raising an eyebrow.
All three started Thursday in their respective preseason finales, with Carr throwing down the gauntlet in Oakland's quarterback race. With Matt Schaub sitting and nursing a sore elbow, Carr fired three touchdown passes against Seattle on 11-of-13 passing. To this point, Oakland head coach Dennis Allen has stood behind Schaub as his starter, but there may be no turning back Carr after that performance. Bridgewater and Bortles also each tossed touchdown passes -- Bortles' was a gem, a pump-faking 55-yarder on the move to Marqise Lee.
Doug Farrar: Jacksonville
Put simply, the Jaguars, a franchise that hasn't had a winning season since 2007 and put up just six total wins in the last two seasons, are actually on the right track to a better future. The Jags have three players on our All-Underrated Defense this year, and they may have hit the jackpot at the game's most important position with first-round quarterback Blake Bortles. The UCF alum lit up the preseason with his mobility, arm strength and ability to deal with pressure, and though the team will keep him on the bench until everyone's sure he's ready, Bortles appears to be bent on forcing the issue in a good way. If everything comes together, the Jags could actually challenge in an AFC South that looks vulnerable from top to bottom.
2. The preseason's biggest loser was ...
Specifically, the Buffalo offense. The arrival of wide receiver Sammy Watkins plus a second year in the Doug Marrone/Nathaniel Hackett system was supposed to propel the Bills' attack (and quarterback EJ Manuel) forward. Thankfully for them, the preseason results now get wiped from the books because there has not been much for the Bills to hang their hats on thus far. It took four games and 19 possessions for the first-team offense to finally find the end zone.
The coaching staff then rolled out its starters Thursday, in hopes of kick-starting some momentum. Instead, Buffalo was shut out 23-0 by Detroit. Manuel's third and final drive ended with the second-year quarterback firing high to a wide-open Robert Woods cutting across the field.
Start with the fact that receiver Josh Gordon, who was on a Jerry Rice/Randy Moss stat path through his first two NFL seasons, will miss the entire 2014 campaign due to his own off-field travails. Then, add in a preseason in which no quarterback on the roster has proven to be ready for primetime, and you have an offense that will not impress in its current state. First-year head coach Mike Pettine and new general manager Ray Farmer have assembled quite a roster on defense, but that might not matter too much; just like the Bills and Jets, the last two teams Pettine worked for, the Browns seem ready to prove what we already know: Without a legit quarterback in this league, you're doomed to the bottom of the food chain.
Brian Hoyer, the favored starter, hasn't shown enough yet; he's inconsistent at best and tends to miss easy throws in third-down and red zone situations. And Johnny Manziel has lived up to his hype from a flashy play perspective, but remains unable to throw from the pocket and still seems overwhelmed by the speed of the pro game. Maybe one of these guys will bust loose this season, but it's no sure thing -- and Gordon's presence certainly would have helped. Farmer and Pettine could have made things easier, too, had they done more to prepare the passing game for Gordon's eventual absence.
3. Which team or player has been most surprising so far?
Burke: Blake Bortles
Hate to double up an answer since I already mentioned him above, but I really thought that of the first-round QBs selected, he was the least ready to jump into an NFL lineup. (Hence my surprise when Jacksonville took him at No. 3 overall.) So far, he has proven all of his critics wrong. The natural gifts -- size, arm strength, etc. -- were evident throughout the whole pre-draft process. What wasn't always apparent was how well Bortles would be able to run through progressions and make smart decisions. As evidenced by the long touchdown toss to Lee, who was at least his second read on that play, Bortles has advanced the mental part of his game in short order. He may not be ready to take Jacksonville to the playoffs, but he is plenty capable of starting.
Farrar: Teddy Bridgewater
While I was fairly certain that Bridgewater's pre-draft critics were selling the Louisville quarterback short after a bad pro day and some strange tape analysis, I didn't expect that he'd end his first preseason as perhaps the NFL's most impressive rookie quarterback, although Mr. Bortles also has a solid argument. Bridgewater's "Welcome to the NFL" moment was a comeback drive against the Cardinals in Week 2 of the preseason in which he completed 6-of-8 passes for 64 yards and the winning score. Through the entire preseason, against different levels of defensive quality, Bridgewater has completed 30-of-49 passes for 283 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. Head coach Mike Zimmer has said that Matt Cassel will be his starter for now, but Bridgewater has shown more than enough to be part of that conversation.
4. Which team did we learn most about in the preseason?
It is far, far too early to declare the Gary Kubiak-as-offensive coordinator move a clear success. Still, the Ravens offense definitely looked more potent this preseason, while the defense -- healthy and bolstered by the likes of C.J. Mosley -- played more aggressively than it did at times in 2014.
Take specific note of the run game, which produced 684 yards in four preseason games. That's more than halfway to the 1,328 yards the Ravens gained on the ground all of last regular season. Bernard Pierce averaged 4.2 yards on his 21 carries and Lorenzo Taliaferro, seeing heavy minutes with Rice and later Pierce out of the lineup, churned out 243 yards on 65 attempts.
For Joe Flacco to be at his best, he needs a clean pocket created by solid play-action. Kubiak is as effective as they come at dialing up such fakes, an area that starts with establishing the run.
Farrar: St. Louis
The Rams came into this preseason hoping that quarterback Sam Bradford would be A) the player he was before he was hurt in 2013 and B) healthy enough to keep that rolling through the 2014 season. Sadly, with the ACL tear Bradford suffered in the third preseason game against the Browns, this franchise is back to what it was in the dog days of last season -- a tough, well-assembled team that can take the best fight any opponent has on any given day, but also a team that will not move out of the bottom of the brutally competitive NFC West without a better solution at quarterback than a veteran backup. For this year, St. Louis' best option is Shaun Hill, the former Vikings, 49ers and Lions journeyman who has parleyed his own attributes into a reasonably efficient but generally unspectacular career. The Rams will likely cut bait with Bradford after this season and try to find their franchise quarterback elsewhere, and they're young and good enough (especially on defense) to have a rather large window of opportunity if they get that right. Until then, it'll be more of the same for Jeff Fisher's team -- more toughness than wins, and a whole lot of what-if.
5. Which team did we learn least about?
Oh, the Cowboys could be pretty lethal on offense and terrible on defense? Thanks. Granted, Dallas was worse with the football than it would have liked to be in the preseason, averaging a mere 15 points per game while Tony Romo took a beating behind a struggling line. In the long run, there are too many weapons there -- and Romo too talented -- for the power outage to linger. That defense, though, whether because of injuries or holes on the roster, showed no real improvement over 2013.
Farrar: The Giants -- at least, the Giants had better hope so
"If they wanted to play more, they should have made some first downs."
That was Giants head coach Tom Coughlin's response when he was told that his offensive starters wanted to take the field more than they did against the Patriots Thursday night in the team's eventual 16-13 win. Big Blue ended their preseason 5-0, but the new offense run by first-year coordinator Ben McAdoo has been a fairly disastrous spectacle. Eli Manning has looked hesitant, out of sorts, and balky under pressure in an offense that was supposed to make things easier for him. This preseason, he completed 20-of-41 passes for 188 yards, one touchdown, several near-picks and five sacks. Manning is coming off a 2013 season that saw his highest career sack total and the lowest overall efficiency since his rookie campaign of 2004, and it's fair to wonder if this Manning isn't past his prime.
"I thought the worst play of the night was, again, the misconnection between Rueben Randle and Eli," Coughlin said after the Patriots game. "'I thought, he thought' -- one of those kinds of things. We’re all -- everyone in this room -- tired of hearing that stuff. There’s no place for that."
And the Giants have no more time for these messy dress rehearsals.