It’s finally time to close the book on the preseason and the traditionally lousy football games that were even worse than the usual. The dreck of increased penalties, as well as more stars than ever being held out to eliminate injury risk, didn’t help.
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But before we say goodbye, let’s reflect upon the biggest stories of the past six weeks and how those events may resonate as the 2014 campaign unfolds.
Roger Goodell did the right thing — finally
The preseason’s most positive development happened Thursday just before the final games kicked off. Goodell sent a memo to league owners announcing widespread reforms to the NFL’s policy on discipline toward domestic violence as well as new player programs designed to deter such incidents from happening. Any offenses “regarding assault, battery, domestic violence and sexual assault that involve physical force” will now result in a mandatory six-game suspension. A second violation will bring at least a one-year ban.
Goodell admitted he was wrong by giving Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice just a two-game suspension for brutalizing his now-wife at an Atlantic City casino earlier this year. The mea culpa was actually less stunning than Goodell’s ruling in late July that reflected a callous, tone-deaf commissioner and staff of advisors.
To his credit, Goodell won’t make the same mistake twice. NFL employees had better not slip even once toward respectful treatment of their spouses or there will be far more significant consequences than before.
Flags, flags, flags
According to ESPN, there were 271 calls for illegal contact or defensive holding during the preseason compared to 56 last year and 285 for the entire 2013 regular season. Why so much laundry on the field? The NFL has placed far greater emphasis on trying to keep defensive backs and linebackers from grabbing or touching receivers beyond the legal five-yard zone from the line of scrimmage.
NFL officiating chief Dean Blandino told me he expects the volume of calls to drop in the regular season as defenders adjust to the new rules. Pittsburgh Steelers president Art Rooney II told ESPN that he hopes the NFL is simply trying to make a point during the preseason and officials won’t be blowing the whistle nearly as often when the game results matter.
Let’s hope both are right. The stop-and-go delays for penalties were making the NFL almost unwatchable.
The Josh Gordon saga
Nobody won when the NFL decided Wednesday to uphold Gordon’s drug suspension for the entire 2014 season.
Obviously, the biggest loser was Gordon. He did this to himself by never learning a lesson from his deviant behavior dating back to college.
Gordon’s inability to stay away from drugs – or, if you believe him, avoiding areas in which folks are puffing marijuana that generated the second-hand fumes leading to his failed test – has cost him dearly. The eight-digit contract Gordon could have earned went up in smoke. With the Cleveland Browns blocking his attempt to play in the Canadian Football League during his suspension, Gordon is looking at spending months away from the game and stability being in an NFL environment can provide while trying to get his personal life in order.
Cleveland pays a huge price, too. The Browns were banking on Gordon having his suspension reduced. Now, a talent-strapped offense is without the services of the league’s reigning leader in receiving yards.
The NFL doesn’t look good, either. Considering some of the league’s other decisions to reduce penalties for substance-abuse, the Gordon punishment seemed excessive. A source confirmed to FOXSports.com that Gordon barely tested positive for marijuana in one of his urine samples and was borderline negative in the backup sample. Suspensions have gotten reduced for less in the past.
Even though there are two completely different policies for the violations committed – not to mention varying opinions on marijuana use – the overwhelming public perception is that the league was ridiculous for cracking down so hard on Gordon while Rice got a two-game slap on the wrist for the altercation with his wife.
Or should I say, the NFL’s version of Johnny Bench.
Johnny Manziel didn’t instantly carry his college success at Texas A&M with him into the NFL. After a dreadful performance in Cleveland’s second preseason game punctuated by an immature obscene gesture toward the Washington Redskins sideline, Browns head coach Mike Pettine named Brian Hoyer the team’s starting quarterback for the regular-season opener against Pittsburgh.
Pettine shouldn’t have waited so long to pull the trigger. Admittedly, Hoyer is a Ho-hum journeyman with only four career starts in six NFL seasons. But at least he has experience running a pro-style offense. Manziel doesn’t – and it has shown.
Manziel has looked far better in the final two preseason games free of the pressure of trying to win the job running the first-team offense.
Trust me: He’ll be there soon enough. He’s just not ready now.
Oh, Sam I Am
A tale of two Sams in St. Louis had completely different endings.
Rams quarterback Sam Bradford will miss the entire 2014 season after reinjuring his surgically repaired left knee during a Week 3 preseason game against Cleveland. Bradford, who has struggled to stay healthy during his five NFL seasons, may have taken his final snap in St. Louis.
A St. Louis player told me that although the Rams experienced a “weird week” after Bradford went down because of how much his absence impacts the team’s postseason aspirations players have rallied around journeyman backup Shaun Hill as the new starter. Rams head coach Jeff Fisher told me that Hill reminds him of Kerry Collins in his ability to read defenses and help the offense make in-game changes. The Rams now need Hill to channel what Collins did for the Fisher-coached Tennessee Titans in 2008 and come out of mothballs to lead St. Louis into the playoffs.
The outlook is brighter for the other Sam even though his immediate future with the Rams is more tenuous than Bradford’s. Michael Sam – who is famously trying to become the NFL’s first openly gay player in a regular-season game — isn’t guaranteed to survive final cuts in St. Louis on Friday and Saturday with the Rams fielding the league’s deepest defensive line. But the rookie end has performed well enough during the preseason, especially as a pass rusher, that Sam confidently proclaimed after Thursday night’s game against Miami that he will make an NFL roster whether with St. Louis or elsewhere.
How would Sam celebrate if he sticks with the Rams? “A victory shot and a cigar,” Sam said with a smile.
Sam deserves both for earning the respect of teammates with his on-field play and the way he carried himself through a blinding media spotlight.
Are the Raiders ready to ride with Derek Carr?
For the first time since 2007, the NFL was set to open the regular season without a rookie quarterback under center. The three passers drafted in the first round who were pushing for spots – Manziel, Blake Bortles (Jacksonville) and Teddy Bridgewater (Minnesota) – were already relegated to backup roles entering the final week of exhibition games.
And then along came Derek Carr.
What seemed like a cut-and-dried decision for Oakland Raiders head coach Dennis Allen to start veteran Matt Schaub in Week 1 against the New York Jets isn’t so simple. Carr provided a spark for Oakland’s offense that wasn’t there under Schaub earlier in the preseason by completing 11 of 13 passes for 143 yards and three touchdowns in Thursday night’s 41-31 win over Seattle.
While such a performance came during a contest in which the Seahawks weren’t game-planning or fielding most of their front-line players, Allen must now weigh whether Schaub is the truly better short-term option. Schaub might not make as many rookie mistakes as Oakland’s second-round pick, but he hasn’t displayed a penchant for big plays like Carr has, either.
For a Raiders team unlikely to make the playoffs this season anyway, why not start laying the groundwork for the future now if there is no major drop-off between Schaub and Carr?
The Logan Mankins trade
Most franchises wouldn’t trade a team leader coming off his fifth consecutive All-Pro appearance.
Then again, most franchises don’t enjoy the annual success of the New England Patriots.
Part of the reason for that legacy: New England’s head coach doesn’t do sentimentality. Bill Belichick has no problems cutting ties with anyone perceived to be overpaid and on the decline performance-wise if there is a viable replacement waiting in the wings and future draft picks can be acquired to keep the personnel pipeline full of young talent.
That’s why guard Logan Mankins has now followed in the footsteps of Randy Moss, Richard Seymour and Lawyer Milloy as high-profile Patriots who were shipped elsewhere despite their respected locker-room standing and/or NFL resumes. Mankins is a major upgrade for Tampa Bay’s offensive line. But let’s be real – is his departure from New England going to keep the Patriots from knocking on the door of another Super Bowl berth?
Nope. There’s only one player whose absence would have that standing: Tom Brady. And he’s doing just fine.
The Cheech and Chong revival
Heck, the arrest details surrounding Steelers running backs Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount sound like they belong in a stoner comedy. Both running backs were charged with marijuana possession after a traffic stop spurred by the smell of reefer coming from Bell’s car. A police report stated that Bell told the arresting officer he didn’t know he could get a DUI while driving high.
What’s not so funny: Bell and Blount now face NFL sanctions that could lead to suspensions.
Alex and Andy
The top two quarterback contract situations entering the preseason belonged to Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton and Kansas City’s Alex Smith. Both were set to become unrestricted free agents in 2015.
Dalton’s deal got done. The Bengals signed him to a six-year extension that gives Dalton a strong show of faith he can lead Cincinnati into a Super Bowl despite losing first-round playoff games in each of his first three NFL seasons.
Smith’s future is far murkier. While general manager John Dorsey says the Chiefs are having dialogue with his agent, Smith remains unsigned for the long term. The worst-case scenario of a 2015 franchise tag might not be viable either because Kansas City also wants to secure the services of outside linebacker and pending free agent Justin Houston.
Smith’s overall value is tricky. His 30-9-1 record over the past three seasons is third-best among starting quarterbacks, but would anyone mutter Smith’s name in the same breath as “elite” quarterbacks earning monster paychecks like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees?
I don’t envy Chiefs general manager John Dorsey on this one.
Oh yeah, the Seattle Seahawks
In an NFL outpost geographically, the Seattle Seahawks traditionally don’t get as much attention as other franchises (especially those on the East Coast). That hasn’t changed too much this offseason despite the Seahawks being the reigning Super Bowl kingpin.
If it had, there would be far more raves about the preseason Russell Wilson enjoyed.
Entering his third NFL season, Wilson was brilliant this preseason with a 78.6 percent completion rate, 10.4-yard average per completion, three touchdown passes and no interceptions. Provided he receives better protection than he did last season and do-it-all wide receiver Percy Harvin stays healthy (a common refrain), Wilson is set to leap from care-taker to difference-maker in the quarterback ranking lexicon.
This would greatly boost Seattle’s chances of becoming the first back-to-back champion since the 2003-2004 Patriots – as well as the value of Wilson’s new contract that will be coming in 2015.