August 9, 2012
The NFL preseason gets underway in earnest this weekend following Sunday’s Hall of Fame game. Optimism is high across the league as fans of all 32 teams feel that they’ve improved enough to contend for the postseason or in some cases, done enough to maintain the status quo. Seven teams changed head coaches from a year ago and conventional wisdom says that at least five of the twelve teams that made the playoffs in 2011 won’t be there in 2012.
As it stands, there appears to be three rookie quarterbacks who will be starting for their respective clubs on Opening Day. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, the top two selections by the Indianapolis Colts and Washington Redskins respectively, will be joined by 28-year-old rookie Brandon Weeden of the Cleveland Browns. Ryan Tannehill was taken by the Miami Dolphins but it’s expected to be either David Garrard or Matt Moore under center for Miami on Opening Day while Tannehill holds a clipboard.
I may be in the minority, but I have to say that if I was Pat Shurmur, Mike Holmgren and the rest of the Browns hierarchy, I’d be leery about handing the reins over to Weeden. At 28, he’s at an age that most quarterbacks have been in the league for several seasons and have acclimated to the pro style of play. Weeden spent five seasons playing minor league baseball before going to college and playing football.
The trend of quarterbacks playing baseball then returning to college and being drafted to the pros at an advanced age isn’t good: the one that comes to mind is Chris Weinke, who spent six years in the minors, went to play at Florida State and then was drafted by the Carolina Panthers. How did he do, you ask? Well, Weinke was 2-18 as a starter and played in a total of 29 NFL games over five seasons before retiring. He threw 15 touchdown passes and 26 interceptions in his career. I’m not telling you that Weeden will turn out to be another Weinke, just that if it were me, I’d be extremely cautious. The fact that third overall pick Trent Richardson is having knee surgery already is not a great sign either for the Browns, whether he makes it back before the regular season starts or not.
With those matters out of the way, let’s take a look at a few of the other questions that are looming on the horizon for the 2012 season.
Has Rex Ryan Lost the Jets?: The Jets imploded at the end of last season, missing the playoffs after dropping their final three games to finish 8-8. The team waved goodbye to LaDainian Tomlinson, Plaxico Burress and Jim Leonhard among others and in their stead added players that may have talent but are either a step slow (Yeremiah Bell), injury prone (LaRon Landry) or incredibly polarizing (Tim Tebow.)
The receiving corps is thin and to be perfectly honest, weak. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie stated earlier in training camp that he was the second best receiver on the roster. The sad part is that he might be right. Of course, right now that would elevate him to first on the depth chart after his hit on Santonio Holmes gave the receiver a rib injury that will cost him at least the preseason opener. Jeremy Kerley and rookie Stephen Hill strike fear in no one and Dustin Keller is a safety valve that doesn’t stretch the field.
Rex Ryan had to break up multiple fights this week in practice, including one that nearly spilled over near the stands. Factor in the Tebow spotlight where people will begin clamoring for him should Mark Sanchez struggle and Ryan’s boast that he’s the best defensive coach in the league, and things are starting to look rough for the Jets before the regular season opener against Buffalo ever gets started.
Has Buffalo Improved Their Pass Rush?: The Bills have had an anemic pass rush for several years now and made it a priority to upgrade this offseason. Intent on ending a playoff drought that dates back to the “Music City Miracle” debacle of 1999, the Bills went out and signed Mario Williams to a contract with $50 million in guaranteed money. They also added Mark Anderson, who had ten sacks a year ago with the Patriots. With Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus in the middle, Buffalo has a defensive line to match the league’s elite.
Buffalo also overhauled the secondary, with rookie corner Stephon Gilmore looking like he’s locked down a starting role. Who will be on the other side remains to be seen, but it could be second year man Aaron Williams, who played well in the second half of last season. With an improved defensive line, the expectation is that Buffalo’s defensive numbers will improve over the terrible totals that they ended 2011 with.
Bills fans get their first look at the new defense tonight as the team faces Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins at Ralph Wilson Stadium. The starters won’t be on the field long but this is the most anticipation Buffalo fans have had in some time.
Return of Peyton Manning; Does He Still Have It?: For over a decade, Peyton Manning was an ironman, in the lineup each and every week for the Indianapolis Colts, tormenting opposing defenses with his precision accuracy and deadly audibles from the line of scrimmage. Along the way he’s thrown for 54,828 yards and 399 touchdowns while collecting four MVP awards and a Super Bowl ring. As the saying goes, that was then, this is now.
Manning missed all of the 2011 season after having neck fusion surgery. Without him, the Colts floundered and ended up with the top pick in the draft. Rather than pay Manning $28 million in March, the franchise, namely owner Jim Irsay, chose to turn the page and cut Manning loose, paving the way for the team to draft Luck. Fourteen seasons, 141 regular season victories and the team’s first Super Bowl win since the “Blooper Bowl” of Super Bowl V didn’t mean much in the end and Manning become the most coveted free agent since Reggie White hit the market in the early 1990s.
So now Manning plays for the Broncos, having inked a five year deal worth $96 million. He’ll make his debut in a uniform other than the Colts on Thursday when the Broncos face the Bears. Denver and John Elway have to hope that Manning is 100 percent: if he gets hurt, the pickings are slim behind him. Former Bears backup Caleb Hanie and rookie Brock Osweiler are the other quarterbacks on the roster, and neither really inspires confidence the way Manning can.
Do Former Teammates Chad Johnson and T.O. Have Anything Left?: In what was a pair of the offseason’s strangest acquisitions, Miami went and signed Chad Ochocinco to a deal, while the Seahawks recently signed Terrell Owens after he didn’t play last season in the NFL and was waived in the Indoor Football League. For what it’s worth, it was almost as if Ochocinco didn’t play last year either, he had all of 15 catches with the Patriots.
Of course, Ochocinco is no longer Ochocinco, having changed his name legally back to Johnson earlier this year but he also is no longer a top threat either. He may end up as the de facto number one on Miami’s depth chart with the dealing of Brandon Marshall to Chicago but the fact remains that the Dolphins offense is in a state of disarray. After Johnson there is Davone Bess, Brian Hartline and a bunch of guys that most people have never heard of. Yes, there is a new coach in Joe Philbin and a new coordinator in Mike Sherman, but that doesn’t mean squat if the team sucks…and Miami is mediocre at best. In a division with the Patriots and the massively improved on paper Bills plus the Jets and their tough defense, Miami could be in for a long year.
Meanwhile, Owens signed a one year deal with the Seahawks worth $1 million. While he may be in shape, he’s 38 and didn’t play in the league last season. This is his fourth team in the last four years he has played and no team took a flier on him last year after he pronounced himself healthy. The move flies in the face of the moves the Seahawks have made under Pete Carroll of bringing in younger talent and letting them learn and adapt on the fly. Seattle also picked up veteran receivers Antonio Bryant and Braylon Edwards in recent weeks, making you wonder if Sidney Rice and company are capable of doing the job. It remains to be seen what kind of teammate Owens will be if he doesn’t get the ball.
You could easily have thrown Randy Moss in this category too. Moss didn’t play last year and looked disinterested when last we saw him in the NFL playing for the Titans in the second half of 2010. The 49ers gave him a shot to try and bolster their unimpressive wide receiving corps and it will be interesting to see what he brings to the table in the twilight of his career. San Francisco also added former Giants receiver Mario Manningham and first round pick A.J. Jenkins, signifying the fact that no one was overly impressed with the performance of Michael Crabtree last season even though the team made the NFC Championship Game.
The regular season is less than a month away. What big storyline catches your interest as we near the season opener?