The NFL’s preseason opener plays second fiddle to the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and this year will be no different with a loaded class selected for enshrinement: Tony Dungy, Brett Favre, Kevin Greene, Marvin Harrison, Orlando Pace, Eddie DeBartolo Jr., Ken Stabler and Dick Stanfel.
Dungy and Harrison’s former team, the Colts, then will take the field Sunday night to match up with Favre’s old club, the Packers, in the annual Hall of Fame Game. If nothing else, the crowd should be raucous, with plenty of Green Bay and Indianapolis faithful set to spend the weekend in Canton.
The actual game itself is as meaningless, results-wise, as any other preseason contest, but there are a few storylines to track as the NFL’s 2016 preseason gets going. Three things to watch on Sunday night when the Colts and Packers kick things off:
1. Andrew Luck’s return ... maybe
“Everybody’s gonna play,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said during a press conference earlier this week, a remark that seemed to confirm Luck would see at least a little action Sunday. Pagano walked that promise back Friday.
If he does get the nod as Indianapolis's starter, Luck likely won’t be on the field for long—think last season’s Teddy Bridgewater appearance, which spanned one drive and six passing attempts.
Still, the Colts could take advantage of this extra preseason tilt by getting Luck a few extra reps as he returns from his injury-plagued 2015 season. Luck suited up for just seven games, and he was largely ineffective when he was on the field, throwing two or more picks in five of those outings.
One factor that could reverse Luck’s ... uh ... luck this coming season is the arrival of rookie center Ryan Kelly, the Colts’ first-round draft pick. Unfortunately for Indianapolis, Kelly has been out of practice with a shoulder ailment and Pagano already has ruled him out for Sunday's game. (Another ding in the "everybody's gonna play" mantra.)
Nonetheless, a little bonus time for Luck to rebuild his in-game rapport with the rest of the offense wouldn't hurt.
“We can’t waste a day, we can’t afford to take any steps backward,” Pagano said. “We’ve got guys nicked up, dinged up, this that and the other. They’ve got to stay up with it from the mental standpoint, the physical standpoint and handle the grind. They’re not going to feel great. Nobody feels great. But we’ve got to go.”
Luck played in each of Indianapolis’s first three preseason games a year ago, completing 22 of 36 passes. As is the league norm, he and the first-team offense saw their most extensive work during the third exhibition. The Colts figure to follow a similar pattern beyond Sunday, with Luck making rather brief appearances at Buffalo (Aug. 13) and against Baltimore (Aug. 20) before handling several possessions on Aug. 27, against Philadelphia.
The Colts close their preseason at Cincinnati on Sept. 1, a game that no doubt will feature an abundance of snaps for backup QB Scott Tolzien and third-stringer Stephen Morris.
2. The Packers’ receiver battle
For the Packers, there is still progress to be made in the front seven—seeing Luck and the Colts’ first-team offense will provide a nice test for the linebacking corps. The working opinion, though, remains that Green Bay is only as good as its Aaron Rodgers-paced offense allows it to be.
Last season was a struggle. After Jordy Nelson dropped to a preseason knee injury, Rodgers & Co. finished just 25th in passing during the regular season, and Rodgers’s 3,821 yards were the fewest he’d ever posted in a year in which he played all 16 games.
Nelson, despite a self-described “hiccup” in his other knee, is expected to rejoin the lineup by early September. Randall Cobb is back, too, after a disappointing 2015, and he should benefit from the attention defenses must pay to Nelson. But beyond that, the door remains wide open for anyone who wants to catch Rodgers’s passes.
Green Bay would love for Davante Adams to drive his stake into the ground as the third option. The third-year receiver caught 50 passes for a lowly 483 yards a year ago; no other WR aside from Cobb and Jones even topped 15 receptions.
Adams has company from Jeff Janis, Jared Abbrederis, Ty Montgomery (who is currently on the PUP list due to ankle surgery) and rookie Trevor Davis.
“It’s going to be a lot of great competition,” Rodgers said Monday, via the Packers’ website. “That’s exciting as a quarterback. We have a lot of guys who are going to be competing for those, really, three through however many spots they keep. It’s going to be fun to watch.”
The passes Sunday night will be coming from undrafted rookies Joe Callahan and Marquise Williams. Rodgers is expected to sit, and backup Brett Hundley has been battling an ankle injury.
Still, every opportunity is important, as Green Bay attempts to optimize its offense.
3. Sean McDonough's debut battle
The Hall of Fame Game typically falls under the Sunday Night Football umbrella, meaning an NBC broadcast with Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth. The Olympics forced a change this year, with ESPN nabbing the preseason opener—Monday Night Football by name, despite the game occurring on Sunday.
That change is a bigger deal this year than it might otherwise have been because the Hall of Fame Game will mark Sean McDonough’s first NFL broadcast since replacing Mike Tirico as ESPN’s play-by-play announcer.
Tirico recently left ESPN for NBC, breaking up his popular pairing with Jon Gruden. The network promoted McDonough, a highly recognizable voice in his own right. McDonough had been ESPN’s lead college football play-by-play man and had spent the past three seasons calling NFL games for ESPN Radio.
“Sean is a premier play-by-play commentator who combines a signature voice with intelligence, passion and humor, and he always brings out the best in his partners,” said John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive VP of programming and production, when McDonough’s move was announced.
Gruden, of course, presents a unique set of challenges for his teammate in the booth. Tirico’s steady, nuanced call balanced Gruden’s almost comically enthusiastic approach. McDonough was paired with the far more even-keeled Chris Spielman for college games last season.
After the Hall of Fame Game, ESPN’s Monday night team will be on the call for an Aug. 13 preseason tilt between Dallas and Los Angeles (the Rams’ first home game since returning to the West Coast). The Monday Night Football regular season opener again will be a doubleheader: Steelers at Redskins, followed by Rams at 49ers.