What an amazing first week of preseason action! Blaine Gabbert played enough snaps against the Texans to take a clear lead over the injured Colin Kaepernick by default in the race to be Chip Kelly’s starter. Antonio Brown appeared in midseason form as he blew past Lions corner Darius Slay on multiple occasions. The Vikings-Bengals soiree in Cincinnati was overflowing with fans.
The only problem is all that stuff all happened in scrimmages at joint practices.
Then came the “game” action. The first week of preseason games has become so dull it now rivals the last for sheer lack of star power. We at SI proudly unveiled our list of the Top 100 NFL players last week. Eight of the top 10 (including Brown) didn’t suit up this weekend. And many, many, so many more joined them. Most of the starting quarterbacks that were forced to play didn’t last more than two series—heck, Drew Brees threw just one pass.
Most players, and really, most sensible people in general, understand that a four-game slate is too long. The first and last weeks of the preseason closely resemble a Pro Bowl gone bad, and there must be a push to reduce to two games when the CBA expires after the 2020 season at the latest. (Among the 75 other things players need to use their leverage for this time.)
As it should, player safety has always been the rallying cry of the masses that strongly prefer to see the preseason cut in half. Ask poor No. 2 pick Carson Wentz, who suffered a hairline fracture in his ribs in the fourth quarter of Thursday night’s Eagles-Bucs game under the protection (or lack thereof) of an offensive line mostly destined for the chopping block. What a significant blow to Wentz and the Eagles given that the rest of his preseason may be wiped out, an absolutely crucial learning period for a young, developing quarterback. Conversely, veterans are extra cautious not to put themselves in danger. There’s a reason Rob Gronkowski hasn’t seen preseason action since 2012 and is doubtful to break that streak in the coming weeks.
Moreover, joint practices and scrimmages have become increasingly common since the last CBA was signed in 2011. Just last week, the Lions and Steelers, Vikings and Bengals, 49ers and Texans, and Patriots and Saints all held them. More are upcoming. (The Patriots and Bears start a series of joint practices today because Bill Belichick knows what he’s doing, folks.) The relevance of these practices—with a significant increase in red zone drives and exposure to different schemes—only makes those extra weeks of televised preseason action seem even more pointless. Why not exchange two weeks of preseason game “preparation” for an even fuller slate of joint scrimmages across the league? Are the not-exactly-played-at-real-game-speed preseason affairs, particularly the first and last weeks, really offering so much more clarity? To top it off, these joint practices tend to be one of the best fans experiences out here, particularly because they are the league’s F-word, free.
But of course the four-game preseason must carry on because the league didn’t become a $12 billion entity by doubling as a charity…
I was absolutely floored when I saw this, even more so to discover L.A. is not alone. Obviously the Rams’ first game was much more about starting anew in an old home than any on-field action. Quite frankly, it was likely their Super Bowl this season. Still, if you paid $80 to park by the Coliseum and it didn’t come with a personal greeting by Isaac Bruce or Henry Ellard, please call me so I can help you. Parking is typically independent, but pricing is typically based on valuation, which is directly correlated to preseason ticket pricing.
Most teams mandate season-ticket holders purchase preseason games as part of their package—a common business practice that extends well beyond the NFL, yet still falls somewhere between coercive and shady. This profiteering only underscores the hollowness of the preseason, particularly this first week. Star players on hiatus. Horrid play everywhere. Awful, sleep-inducing football. Not even preseason DFS made it interesting.
Two preseason games, scheduled a couple of weeks later and loaded with regulars who play with modicum of polish, is the ideal. More real football, please.
Breaking glass and kicking a--
In more intriguing preseason news, kudos to KNBR’s Kate Scott, who called the 49ers game on Sunday night. It was the first of a two-game assignment for Scott while regular play-by-play announcer Bob Fitzgerald slides into the TV booth for Ted Robinson, who is in Rio. Preseason football has to be one of the toughest broadcasting gigs out there, yet Scott was well prepared, her modulations perfectly suiting each key moment’s highs and lows, and her pronunciations were spot on.
Scott follows in the footsteps of Beth Mowins, who is calling her second consecutive preseason for the Raiders’ television broadcast. Maybe it’s merely a Bay Area coincidence, but Mowins and Scott’s appointments feel like a lot of pavement has been laid.
The Kelly-Gabbert era
Speaking of the Bay Area, Gabbert’s debut under Chip Kelly fell somewhere between expected and dispiriting. He was 4 of 10 for 63 yards and an easy downfield touchdown to tight end Vance McDonald over a couple of series. Mostly though, he was erratic, not displaying much prowess in the way of footwork, decision-making or accuracy.
I can’t help but wonder if in hindsight Chip Kelly wishes he had signed Nick Foles before Kansas City scooped him up. Foles’s career appears to be on a downward trajectory, but there was a sliver of time, not too long ago, when Kelly whipped him into a Pro Bowl quarterback. The chance he does the same with Gabbert is 0%.
Party of Five: Preseason All-Stars
While I remain a proponent of eliminating the first slate of preseason games (see above), they still decidedly exist. Whether any of the action matters or not remains to be seen, but let’s highlight the standout performances just in case…
1. Dak Prescott, Cowboys QB: The fourth-rounder bested the first-rounder as Prescott stole the show in front of a crowd of 90,000 that included the Rams’ Jared Goff on the opposite sideline. He displayed extreme poise and veteran smarts, finishing 10 of 12 for 139 passing yards and two touchdowns, both thrown with pinpoint accuracy. Prescott’s impressive performance was only magnified by the fact that he was playing with the first team in Tony Romo’s absence and, more importantly for his development, against the vaunted Los Angeles defense. At risk of overreacting, the Cowboys’ backup quarterback situation has seemingly flipped from dire to one of the most enviable in the league. O.K., I just overreacted.
2. Derrick Henry, Titans RB: The Heisman Trophy winner shined in practice all week and absolutely demolished the Chargers in his NFL debut. Henry’s power and size are undeniable, but his spin moves and shifty east-west agility especially impressed. Look for King Henry to rise up fantasy rankings en masse.
3. Broncos defense: We already know the sheer dominance of Denver’s starting defense. But with DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller, Chris Harris and Aqib Talib all not in uniform, the Broncos’ fierce, sack-happy second- and third-stringers showcased the sheer depth of the group that held the Bears scoreless.
4. Allen Robinson, Jaguars WR: Hardly a secret anymore, Robinson showcased why he is one of the game’s most dynamic receivers Thursday night against the Jets with three catches for 80 yards. Two were especially spectacular, as Robinson leapt and stretched above his defender for the grab—they also happened to come on back-to-back plays.
5. Game Pass: The NFL charges a whopping $99.99 for live, online access to almost all preseason games. During the previous four years it felt predatory, as the viewer experience was often hampered by some technical glitch. A game on significant delay. The radio broadcast and video out of sync. A blackout outside of the local market. Well, ignoring that strong inclination to cancel the service finally paid off. Game Pass was flawless in Week 1, and the technology shined (my personal favorite is toggling between each team’s radio broadcast). It’s all so well pixelated and modern that you almost forget you’re watching meaningless football. Almost.
If anyone knows how to aptly explain to a dejected five-year-old why his favorite NFL player (in this case, Kirk Cousins) was quickly pulled from the first NFL game of the season, please send tips.