• Will they actually play the game this year? How will the rookies look? And can the Cardinals revive quarterback Blaine Gabbert’s career?
By Chris Burke
August 03, 2017

Once the Cardinals and Cowboys kick off in the 2017 Hall of Fame Game (tonight, NBC, 8 p.m. Eastern), the next Thursday night without the NFL will not arrive until Dec. 21, just before Week 16 of the regular season.

Congratulations, you made it. Football is back.

History tells us that Thursday’s preseason opener, like much of the exhibition season, will be ugly. (A historical outlier: Tennessee’s brilliant fake punt from the 2009 Hall of Fame Game, which raised the question: Why would the Titans waste a brilliant fake punt during the 2009 Hall of Fame Game?) It is football nonetheless, and these games matter—to players battling for roster spots, at least.

Here are three things to watch for as the NFL raises the curtain on 2017:

Will they actually play the game this year?

The Hall of Fame Game barely counts as a step up in competition from the popular joint practices that teams schedule between one another, but football-starved fans still make it appointment viewing every year. To wit: The 2015 installment between the Vikings and Steelers drew a 6.6 rating and averaged 11 million viewers. (For comparison, the 2017 MLB All-Star Game checked in at a 5.5 rating and 9.28 million viewers.)

Last year’s Hall of Fame matchup between the Packers and Colts would have drawn a crowd, too, except it never happened. In an embarrassing moment for the NFL, the game was canceled an hour before kickoff “due to safety concerns with the condition of the playing surface,” according to a joint press release from the NFL and the NFLPA. The paint used for the field’s logos and end zones hardened, leaving the footing treacherous.

Save for the work stoppage in 2011, the game had been played every year from 1967 to 2015—including with replacement players during the strange strike year of 1974—so chalk up last year’s hitch as an anomaly.

It should be all systems go tonight.

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Which rookies are ahead of the curve?

If you’re hoping to get a glimpse of the Cardinals’ or Cowboys’ starters (for fantasy purposes or just out of curiosity), you’ll have to wait until at least next week. Arizona coach Bruce Arians announced on Tuesday that his starters would sit the preseason opener.

Dallas coach Jason Garrett didn’t take a matching stance, at least officially, but the odds very much favor him keeping the first-teamers on the sideline. Even when the Cowboys have been on the traditional four-game preseason schedule, Garrett has played it safe in early August—neither quarterback Tony Romo nor veteran tight end Jason Witten suited up for the first preseason game from 2013 to ’16 (and others, such as Tyron Smith, also sat out the opener a year ago).

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones also said this week that linebacker Jaylon Smith, the 2016 second-rounder who continues to work his way back from a devastating knee injury, is “unlikely” to make his debut on Thursday night.

So, as is often the case with this extraneous game, the main focus will be on the newcomers. The Cardinals’ 2017 draft class was headlined by a pair of defenders, linebacker Haason Reddick and safety Budda Baker. Per Kyle Odegard of the Cardinals’ team website, Reddick’s Thursday appearance “may be a short stint,” but he’ll be out there. Same goes for promising third-round wide receiver Chad Williams, whom Arians just called out this week.

“Until he gets in better condition he won’t have a role,” Arians said of Williams. “He is big, strong and can catch. He’s still feeling his way.”

Dallas will travel without at least two of its rookies, cornerback Jourdan Lewis and wideout Ryan Switzer (both are battling hamstring issues), but second-round corner Chidobe Awuzie has created buzz early in camp. He could see Williams a bit, in an intriguing head-to-head. First-round defensive end Taco Charlton, an Ohio native, will get some run, as well.

The preseason is a grind, and teams spend most of the duration merely trying to keep their main guys healthy. Arizona and Dallas still have the complete slate of four preseason games to play beyond Thursday’s Hall of Fame showcase, so the coaching staffs will dip even deeper into their depth charts than usual.

The players who do wind up on the field tonight likely won’t complain. And in the rookies’ cases, Thursday offers the first real measuring stick of progress.

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Can the Cardinals revive Blaine Gabbert’s career?

You remember Blaine Gabbert, right? Of course you do. The 10th overall pick in 2011, he was a colossal flop for the Jaguars who, over the past two seasons, started a combined 13 games for San Francisco. Aside from a 28-0 Week 1 win over the Rams last year, it did not go well.

Arizona marks the third stop for the 27-year-old quarterback, who will start on Thursday night while incumbent starter Carson Palmer and backup Drew Stanton both take the night off.

“You want to see [Gabbert] in live bullets,” Arians said Tuesday, via arizonasports.com. “I see the talent in practice; games are different—a different secondary, a different front. All those things, how you react to it. Can you put all those pieces together in one day? Because that’s all we practice for these guys, is one day.”

The Cardinals are rapidly approaching a crossroads under center. Palmer, now 37, has a contract that expires after 2018 and becomes far more expendable after this coming season (Arizona could save $14 million by cutting him before the ’18 campaign.) Stanton, 33, is in the final year of his deal.

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By no means should Gabbert be considered an eventual Palmer replacement, but the door could be open for him to unseat Stanton as the backup. Bare minimum, he is hoping to convince another team to add him as a No. 2 or No. 3 quarterback should the Cardinals part ways with him later this month.

Gabbert is expected to play the entire first half, followed by undrafted rookie Trevor Knight. The Cowboys figure to counter with Kellen Moore, then Luke McCown and their own UDFA, Cooper Rush.

I’ll be watching the game. Follow along with me on Twitter at @ChrisBurke_SI.

Question? Comment? Story idea? Let us know at talkback@themmqb.com

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