A full week of preseason games is behind us, I'm back on the road and the season is coming up ...
• Sean Payton’s mood the other night grabbed headlines—he told the media he didn’t feel much like talking quarterbacks after a six-turnover meltdown in the Saints’ preseason opener against Baltimore. But really, his reaction should say a lot to everyone who’s following the competition. I talked with Payton a few times about the Jameis Winston/Taysom Hill dynamic over the course of the offseason, and I can remember his reticence to put non-negotiables on what he’d need from his quarterback, because “what if neither of them have that?” He did eventually dive into what he saw as important. “The most important thing is leading this team, leading the offense to scores, protecting the football and scoring,” he said. “There are certain commandments that we think are real important. Both of them have shown great leadership skills, both of them have been very unselfish, it’s been a really good room here for a while, even back when Teddy [Bridgewater] was in the room. The rest of it will take care of itself. Obviously, it’s on us to give these guys the best stuff that we feel like they can execute and allow them to play. But yeah, that’s the approach we take.” So we can judge them by that standard pretty easily.
Hill played the first three series of the game. The offense turned the ball over on the first two, with Hill accounting for one on an interception. He also took a 12-yard sack to end the third drive on a third-and-12 from the Ravens 40, which wasn’t ideal. On the bright side, the Saints picked up five first downs and converted four third downs while Hill was in.
Winston played the next five—with two ending in touchdowns, two more ending in turnovers (one of which was a Winston pick) and one in a three-and-out. Winston led twin seven-play, 80-yard drives in the second quarter and threw a touchdown pass to Lil’Jordan Humphrey in the two-minute drill.
So even though Payton wanted to hold off on Saturday night, it’s fair to say that round went to Winston. Which is not exactly reason for the former top pick to get comfortable, based on how his coach was feeling about the whole thing afterward.
• In the aftermath of the weekend, a lot of team people I spoke to were talking about how their rivals may regret having passed on Justin Fields in April. It’s early, of course, but what got a couple of scouts I touched base with was how comfortable Fields looked running Matt Nagy’s offense. And I don’t think that surprises the Bears guys, based on what they’ve seen to this point. Then, there’s how important the preseason games were going to be for Fields all along, which was reflected when I asked Nagy, a couple of weeks ago, if he’d be O.K.. putting Fields in a regular-season game, based on where he was. “We’re working through that right now,” he said. “That’s what from now until that first week we really want to see: Is he ready? And then, What’s the scenario? Because every team’s a little bit different. But I do believe this—he’s going to give it his all, he cares so much. I’ll again use the word ‘prepared.’ He’s always going to be prepared and he’s got talent. So there’s been a lot of quarterbacks that that have been able to come in their rookie year and do things. And every situation, teams build a little different from the next, they’ve all had their own situations and scenarios. So that’s the ultimate goal, is get him ready as soon as we can. But we got to be able to see more.” At which point I said to Nagy, then, that Fields’s job was make Nagy’s decision hard, right? “Yeah,” Nagy responded, “And I told him that.”
“If you do that, control that, nothing else matters,” he continued. “But yeah, man, make it hard. All [the quarterbacks]—make it hard.”
It sure feels like Fields might be in the process of doing that.
• While we’re on the Bears, I’ve been meaning to write this since I was at Bears camp three weeks ago: The players are over the moon on the promotion of Sean Desai to defensive coordinator. The 38-year-old has spent all eight of his NFL seasons with the team, so he’s got standing relationships with much of the locker room, and his energy has rubbed off on the entire group. Also, a return to a pure version of Vic Fangio’s defense, the scheme that made Chicago so fearsome on defense in 2018, has been welcomed by the vets in the room.
• I’m probably going to do more with the topic of “What you can really make of preseason games?” next week, but I was asking around on that the last few days, and one interesting principle came up: Second-half sacks can mean next to nothing. The reason why? Because offensive-line depth is really poor across the NFL, so the pass-rushers notching those sacks after halftime probably aren’t accomplishing as much as you think they are. So temper your enthusiasm for that sixth-round pass-rusher who looked great in the third quarter last weekend.
• Related: Sniffing around on the trade market, offensive line still seems to be the most sought-after position. Meaning if you’ve got a good spare lineman or two, you may be able to get a good return for them.
• Washington edge terror Chase Young put Patriots left tackle Isaiah Wynn in a body bag last Thursday, and seeing him get to Cam Newton as quickly as he did should only illustrate what the WFT defensive line, stocked with first-round picks at all four spots, should be able to do in the fall. And here’s another reason why they feel good about where they are: Improved depth at corner with veteran addition William Jackson and rookie Benjamin St. Juste added to the mix has the coaches believing they’ll be able to play more man coverage. Which should only allow them to be more aggressive up front. Which, it stands to reason, could be a really bad deal for the offenses they face.
• The Jamal Adams situation in Seattle was absolutely part of the equation in the Jets’ decision to trade their star safety last summer. They knew, beyond Adams’s being unhappy with his situation there, that he was going to be very, very difficult to re-sign. And the Seahawks are now caught in a little bit of a Catch-22, having given up a pair of first-round picks to get him without doing an extension beforehand. And if you want to get an idea on how that sort of thing can swing leverage, take a look at what the Texans wound up paying Laremy Tunsil, and what the Rams gave Jalen Ramsey.
• One looming piece of business for teams—deciding how to use the remaining preseason games. In the past, they’d routinely use the third game as at the dress rehearsal/regular-season tune-up, and the fourth game as a final chance to look at every guy on the bottom of the roster. But this year, with the fourth game lopped off, that script needs to be rewritten. Some might use this week’s game as the dress rehearsal, though that leaves a three-week gap leading up to the openers. Some will keep it during the third game, at the cost of some more evaluation of the bottom of the roster. Bottom line is there’s downside to either/or, and that’s why teams that have joint practices the next two weeks will probably have a better shot to manage things.
• Tim Tebow’s not appearing on special teams isn’t a great sign for his viability to stay on the Jaguars roster. If he doesn’t make it, it’ll be interesting to see if they put him on the practice squad. Thing is, generally, 33 is too old for a player to be a developmental project, which is what those practice-squad spots are usually for.
• The end of the Lions’ game against the Bills on Friday night was instructive in how teams generally use preseason games in different ways. New coach Dan Campbell caught some crap for his managing of the clock. Down by two, the Lions had second-and-10 at the Buffalo 15 with 1:49 left. Campbell and OC Anthony Lynn called two passes. On second down, receiver Javon McKinley ran out of bounds to stop the clock at 1:46. Third down was a David Blough incompletion. So Randy Bullock trotted on for a 28-yard field goal, 1:38 was left, and the Bills drove for the game-winning field goal. And were this a regular season game, that would’ve been malpractice by Campbell and Lynn. But in this setting? Campbell saw a shot to evaluate Blough in a red-zone spot, and get a look at his two-minute defense. Which makes sense, of course, given he’s still learning the team. So, yes, everyone uses the preseason in a different way. But winning the actual games is never really paramount.
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