Hope springs eternal for every team in the preseason. The rookies and free agent signings are mixing in with the veterans, and coaches are trying their best to glue everything together for a championship run—or for some teams, the opportunity to end a run of perpetual embarrassment.
Something else springs eternal in every NFL preseason: the camp reports written by local beat writers and national columnists. The names change every year, but the format remains the same. It occurred to me that as formulaic as these stories tend to be (and I'm as guilty as anyone else), we could set up ... well, a formula. This Mad Libs-style template doesn't include media lunches or the chance to argue with p.r. directors over what you wrote last week, but it's a clear path to a perfectly league-average preseason article. After all, when you're tied to a format that is both universal and inevitable, you might as well think outside the box as much as possible.
[NFL CITY] — The 2015 [team name] are looking to rebound from years of lackluster results, and [team owner who wouldn't know a football if he was hit in the head with one] showed his determination to win with a nearly complete overhaul of the coaching staff and front office. New team president [former general manager who was out of the NFL for five years but lives on the Peter Principle] was hired first, replacing [good football man who aged fifty years in five years under aforementioned owner].
It was a bold move, but the questions about the new man's experience were quickly dashed when he hired as his general manager [former scouting director who gives good quotes], long a favorite of NFL experts.
To coach his team, the new general manager hired [former Bill Belichick assistant with no head coaching experience], a man with a plan to redefine the team in his [actually, Belichick's] image. “In my time in the NFL, I've learned to do things right,” he said at his introductory press conference. “We'll do things differently around here. First, we'll switch our defense to a hybrid [scheme that doesn't work at all for the current personnel] as we had in New England. Second, we'll [training camp practice that will have the team fined by the NFL at least once]. Only through rigorous application of [stuff he learned by reading The Education of a Coach] will we return this team to the greatness its fans demand. I've talked to [grumpy Hall of Famer] and [grumpy should-be Hall of Famer] for inspiration because I want to run an old-school program around here.”
To do that, the new staff will need to deal with a lot of roster turnover. The [team name] went into free agency needing to shed the annual gross national product of [small European nation] to get under the salary cap, so some difficult decisions had to be made. Veterans like [10-year inside linebacker who held the defense together and will subsequently have to retire after a 2–14 team cuts him], [drastically overpaid strong safety who last made the Pro Bowl five years ago] and [career backup quarterback who was given a $30 million contract three years ago because he threw for six touchdowns in a preseason game] were shown the door.
Further challenges present themselves in those players whose contracts are too unwieldy to cut without major cap penalties. The new coaching staff is working especially hard with [former All-Pro guard who now spends his off-seasons on informal tours of local fast-food joints] and [decent receiver with a 45% catch rate in 2014 who firmly believes he's better than Dez Bryant]. If the new staff can create a spark, one never knows how things might turn out.
Meanwhile, a very contentious quarterback battle continues. [Small-school quarterback overdrafted by the former general manager] struggled mightily again last season, and his brief moments of success against [horrible pass defense] and [even worse pass defense] did not prove conclusive enough to keep [new head coach] from signing [former Patriots backup quarterback] and trading for [former Patriots backup quarterback], along with the selection of [immobile one-year college starter overvalued by draftniks for his arm strength] in the second round of the 2015 draft.
At running back, there's a spirited competition between [franchise rushing leader who carried the ball 388 times last year and is about to fall off a cliff] and [second-year back from a spread school who doesn't know how to block]. [Former Belichick assistant with no head coaching experience] learned from the master that schematic diversity is the key to success, which is why he's going with an overall game plan that should be the envy of every team his team faces [if it didn't consist of 10 total pages from the 2004 Patriots playbook].
One thing's for sure: the offensive coordinator, [son of a former head coach two years removed from a quality control job] will have experience and skill on his side in the form of [star receiver who's considering leaving the game to co-star in a new HBO show]. Free-agent pickup [slot receiver who was overpaid because the new staff doesn't believe in three-wide sets] is adjusting nicely to his new role as an outside man.
“It's been kind of different dealing with press coverage on every play,” he recently said, “but I'm ready for the challenge. [Nagging injury which will limit him to 37 targets all season] shouldn't hold me back at all.”
On defense, several players are champing at the bit to jump into the [scheme that doesn't work at all for the current personnel], taught by [legendary defensive coordinator who's been in TV for the last seven years]. The irascible future Hall-of-Famer believes firmly that moving [4–3 personnel into an unfamiliar 3–4 scheme, or vice versa] is actually to their benefit, as the players get to flex muscles they never knew they had.
“Hell, I remember talking to Matt Millen about this a few years ago,” the coach said. “It ain't about your Xs and Os; it's about your Jimmys and Joes. And anyone who thinks differently can go put on a dress.”
The coach punctuated that last bon mot with a decisive tobacco spit. What an old-school guy!
And that defense will benefit seriously from the team's primary free-agent acquisition, [defensive tackle who has dominated as a one-gap penetrator his entire career and now will fall into oblivion as a two-gapper]. Signing the veteran to a seven-year, $100 million deal with $60 million guaranteed was a risk, but after finishing dead last against the run in 2014, key decisions had to be made. He will be expected to mentor [third-round tackle who will outplay him by Week 7], which will be good for all involved.
[Legendary defensive coordinator] has often said that he wants coaches on the field. That will hopefully include the gifted [pass rusher who was suspended for most of last season after punching a clown at his kid's birthday party].
While the defense seems to be in good hands, the real story of the preseason has been the acquisition and progression of [former rugby/Aussie Rules/cricket star], who's been the subject of national interest, despite the fact that he's never played a down of regular season football. As [local columnist who stopped watching tape five year ago] recently wrote, “[Former rugby/Aussie Rules/cricket star] is ready to take over the NFL in a transcendent and unexpected way we haven't seen since the Tebow phenomenon."
Yes, folks: It's all beginning again.
New rookies with chips on their shoulders. Veterans with a lot to prove. A new coaching staff and front office, ready to being a new dynamism and philosophy to the party.
It may seem like the same old story, but it's not.
It's a new year.
It's a new time.
It's [the same 7–9 record as last season].