As we do every week, let’s take a swing around the NFL, looking at a bunch of random things …
So, what’s been up?
1. I cued up my Game Pass yesterday and checked out the Jaguars/Saints game… and I almost couldn’t believe what I saw. Where in the world did this guy still called Blaine Gabbert come from? Last year, the former first-rounder was a mess. Just scared and shaky, looking unprepared and fidgety in the pocket with no recognition skills. I didn’t shy away from criticizing him, wondering if it was all a big mistake. Meanwhile, Jaguars fans pointed out what a similar disasterbacle Eli Manning was a rookie … and that turned out fine. Based on Friday night’s performance vs. the Saints, I might have been wrong. In Year 2, Gabbert looked poised and decisive, going 13 of 16 for 112 yards and two TDs. It helps to have sick talents like Justin Blackmon, who does a fantastic job of out-wrestling CBs for the ball. But the entire process before Gabbert fires seems improved. Credit coach Mike Mularkey (a QB guru), OC Bob Bratkowski and QB coach Greg Olson for honing his skills. My favorite play of his game was merely a five-yard gain to RB Rashad Jennings. Nothing flashy. But Gabbert stood tall in the pocket as a rush came up the middle, didn’t flinch, and hit Jennings for a dump off on his third read. No freakin’ way he makes that play last year. He’d be bailing. (On a side note, hope Gabbert doesn’t think I’m jealous for saying he was scared last year. Sigh. No need to sound like Billy Zabka, but that’s a story for a different day.)
2. Patriots coach Bill Belichick can spend an entire press conference and give you nothing. That’s true. That’s been well-publicized, and it happens mostly after games. He also can stand at the podium and be enlightening, explaining little-discussed issues around the game. That was the case earlier in the week, when Belichick was asked about how players practice. He chided some of us who watch and critique, noting how we’re too quick to judge a touchdown as a success and a pick as a failure (true). Except, in reality, sometimes a TD happens just because it does and an INT occurs when a receiver screws up, not the QB. But – and this was Belichick’s point – in practice nothing happens by accident. Everything has a point. Sometimes players make mistakes because they are pushing themselves and seeing how far they can throw it or how tight a window they can fit a ball in to. Sometimes, a linebacker will test an angle and fail to cover a tight end, resulting in some knowledge for next time. Mistakes don’t happen in a vacuum. “As I tell our players, that’s part of what practice is for,” Belichick said. “To take risks, to push it, to see how far it can go, to see how much you can do. Sometimes it’s going to come up a little bit short, but if it’s done in the right context then you learn from that and you realize, ‘This is how far I can go and I can’t gamble beyond this but I can push it this point.’ But if you never push it to that point, I don’t think you ever really know how far it can go.” Belichick said that this is a topic he discusses with Tom Brady a lot, how he mentions that Brady could simply try to make the safe throw all the time and look OK. But what about when you have to have it? “Better to find out in practice then in the middle of the fourth quarter that, ‘No, I can’t. I don’t want to be doing that,’ ” Belichick continued. “That’s not the time for it.” Good points.
3. Justin Tuck raised some eyebrows with his disclosure that he contemplated retirement. Shoot, I was surprised, considering the Giants pass-rusher is just 29. But last year wasn’t easy, he didn’t feel right for most of the year, and he struggled. Then, in the offseason, he wondered if he could still do it. When did he realize he would dive back into football? When he felt how his body responded to non-football workouts. “In the offseason last year, I was kinda banged up,” Tuck told me this week. “Once I got away from football and started training, I felt good, I felt my competitive edge still there.” In his own, comedic way, Tuck said he felt the talk of retirement was overblown. Yes, he considered it. Pondered it. But nothing more than that. You’ll love how he tried to explain it. “I didn’t call you guys and say, ‘I’m thinking about retirement, just in case, what do my options (at NFL Network) look like there?’ ” Tuck joked. “So, it’s kinda gotten blown out of proportion. But the biggest thing is, I know where my heart is now. My heart is, ‘Go out and help this football team win again and be successful’ and in no way thinking about retiring.”
4. Lost in the hoopla over the debut of Colts QB Andrew Luck (sorry, I contributed to the craziness) was that a former first-round draft bust might be making a comeback. Can we even call it a comeback if the guy was never there in the first place? I don’t know the rules about comebacks, so maybe this isn’t even one. But whatever, did you notice that Jerry Hughes showed up and did things in the Colts’ preseason opener? Noteworthy, in particular, because too often over the past two years, Hughes hasn’t done anything. Zero sack in 2010, one sack in 2011, a washout as a defensive end. The TCU speedster seemed lost. But in the Colts’ first preseason came, Hughes had two sacks. Granted, one was when he came unblocked, but the other saw him whip Rams tackle Jason Smith. On his first sack, Hughes was so shocked that he went unblocked that he cracked, “I thought I messed up somewhere.” Nope. On the second one, it was pure athleticism. Now, the Colts are doing some new things on defense this year, going with a 3-4 look that has turned Pro Bowl defensive ends like Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis into outside linebackers. Hughes is one, too, so he’s transitioning like they are. But both sacks came in a sub package, with Hughes at his more natural end spot. Maybe the best thing is that no longer is he considered the dude who hasn’t lived up to expectations over the last two years. Under new head coach Chuck Pagano, the weight of the past years has been lifted from him. Maybe that makes a psychological difference. “Everybody around here has a fresh start,” Hughes said. “It’s a new coach, new GM. We are just all trying to go out there and play hard.” This defense gets much better if Hughes becomes the guy they originally thought he was.
5. I thought, in his four carries against the Colts a week ago, Rams RB Steven Jackson looked good. He gained 17 yards, lowered his shoulder, looked fast, and seemed to be himself. You can’t complain about your starter getting four carries in the first drive, getting his work, then getting the heck out of there unscathed. Same with last night’s seven carries for 49 yards. But, as we’ve said before, use extreme caution when trying to judge a player by his preseason performance. As Jackson explained after the opening game, “We kept it really basic. We had some core runs and core passes that we really wanted to wrap in, and get some good film and get guys out there hitting someone else outside of what we’ve been doing the last two weeks.” That was his focus. Get a few good hits, get some film on guys trying to make the team, and then be done. On the other end of the spectrum is Chris “LOL” Johnson with the Titans. He had a terrible preseason opener, dropping passes and gaining just five yards on eight carries. As if you couldn’t tell by his “LOL preseason” tweet, Johnson doesn’t really care. I hate to say it, but I kinda don’t blame him. I don’t care either. All he wants to do is run into the line, take a couple hits, run some key plays, then get off the field. Catching screen passes would’ve been nice. And a lackadaisical attitude doesn’t help when rookies watch it. But the reality is, Johnson did enough to help his eyes adjust to the game’s speed. He did enough to help his body continue its acclimation process. It’s just the results weren’t there, which guarantees he won’t lead the preseason in rushing. Maybe he should take a different attitude, considering how he played last year. But maybe it’s also a good thing that he’s so confident in getting his speed back that he can laugh at a poor performance. And wouldn’t ya know? He busted off a sick, lightning 14-yard TD run on Friday night. He finished with 10 carries for 46 yards, and it’s safe to say no one was worried about him, anymore. So, yeah, LOL preseason. I’m with you Chris (as long as you show up in Week 1 looking like yourself).
6. Things could change with the Cardinals quarterback competition, and based on something possibly from practice, Kevin Kolb might thrust himself right back into the mix. But after a frozen performance against the Raiders, the lights were dimmed. Through three preseason games, Kolb is 5 of 15 for 47 yards with one interception and four sacks. He actually started off well, leading a TD drive, be he then totally fell apart. In the face of pressure, he nearly was safetied, then actually was. He simply didn’t move, showing no poise, no awareness, and no ability to handle it when things didn’t go his way. For the Kolb supporters in the organization, it was crushing. It’s not looking good. Not that John Skelton (10 of 15 for 90 yards with 1 TD and 1 INT) has been that much better, but it hasn’t been pandemonium when he’s under center. Kolb, meanwhile, has had his chances. He may have more. But if Friday night’s showing offered the funeral for Kolb’s starting opportunity, on his tombstone will read, “That boy’s scared.” Those were the words of loquacious Raiders DT Tommy Kelly, who could be overheard saying that on the broadcast. That, my friends, is a game-changer. That’s really it. When people see you are scared, two things happen. Opponents know it’s open season, and teammates know it is, too. Well, maybe that’s one thing. But anyway, if teammates know you can’t handle an intense atmosphere, they stop believing. That, above anything else, is bad news for Kolb. Still, he did respond defiantly, telling Cardinals.com, “There’s a fine line between holding in the pocket and trying to escape to make a play. Tommy Kelly is too clueless to know the difference. I don’t mind people criticizing my play. Don’t ever question my toughness.” We’ll see which comments stick.
7. In amazingly under-the-radar fashion, Chiefs WR Dwayne Bowe showed up in Kansas City and signed his franchise tender. He had been in town for a bit, drove over to the facility and just did it. Ho hum. So, that’s that. End of sit-out. Point made? Not really. Bowe didn’t like being the franchise player, he didn’t like not having a long-term deal, and I guess he didn’t like merely a one-year, $9.5 million deal. But he had no recourse after that mid-July deadline for an extension. He had no leverage. So, sitting out the start of training camp while your teammates are sweating seems kinda like a hissy fit. Pouting, but with no actual reason. There were no options. You weren’t going to sit out the season. You’re just grumpy, acting out. If there was a point to prove, I must have missed it. All his sit-out did was show the Chiefs that they have a real star-in-the-making in Jon Baldwin, who could be every bit as good as Bowe. Maybe they’d have found out eventually, but Bowe’s absence made it clear. In my mind, this makes it clear Bowe won’t be getting a long-term contract from the Chiefs next year, mostly because his replacement is already on the team. So, fail by Bowe. Now, Bowe needs to work to earn a contract from another team for 2013, busting himself into football shape in the process. One other thing about this: The Chiefs, like the Patriots, can be frustrating to cover because they don’t speak about issues like this. The disciplined Scott Pioli literally said nothing about Bowe, despite doing many interviews during his sit-out and being asked about it. As a reporter, that can be mind-numbing. But what it resulted in was no harsh words being exchanged on either side. Now that Bowe has showed up, neither side has anything to apologize for or play nice about. It was all business, and both Bowe and the Chiefs acted like that publicly. Maybe that’s why it’s so under-the-radar. Since neither side had (public) hard feelings, Bowe just shows up and goes back to work. That’s that. Hard to execute, but done very nicely.
8. The Jets have a real problem on offense, and it has nothing to do with Mark Sanchez or Tim Tebow. Well, it kinda does, but only in that it keeps resulting in them getting destroyed. That offensive line is a serious issue. Seven sacks, 2.7 yards per rush, and those are actually kind compared to the product it put on the field. Getting stopped on third-and-1 a few times and fourth-and-1 once was just as bad. We can focus all the attention we want on Sanchez and certainly we can for Tebow. But if the Jets can’t block, they will be nowhere. Of course, the poster child for this craptacular unit is RT Wayne Hunter, who the Jets guaranteed a bunch of salary to before the season, while publicly declaring his greatness. Not so much now. Hunter allowed four sacks, serving as merely a direction arrow pointing to the QB. It was almost not fair, as JPP, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora … they just dismantled him. Unbelievably, the Jets often gave Hunter no help, making one wonder if they really understand their situation at tackle. It appears Hunter understands the gravity of his fate, telling reporters, “Either you perform or you don’t perform. If I don’t, they’re going to find someone to bring in and compete. I need to get something figured out before the first game though.” He’s right. The Jets need to figure it out, too. They tried with the Jeff Otah trade, though he wasn’t healthy. And I don’t understand why they didn’t draft a tackle before the sixth round. Watching Hunter tonight makes me think the Jets starting right tackle isn’t on their roster yet.
9. Peyton Manning’s numbers were, for the most part, good last night. He was 16 of 23 for 177 yards, and when he got in a two-minute drill, he cruised. At times, as Around the League mentioned, he looked like the old Manning. He was even barking at Broncos WRs who screwed up. Ah, just like old times. But it was those two interceptions that caught my eye and made me think it’ll be a little while until he’s completely back. On his first pick, Manning’s dunk at the line was tipped and picked by K.J. Wright of the Seahawks. On his second pick, former undrafted free agent Jeron Johnson of the Seahawks caught a badly overthrown deep ball. That second INT actually came a play after Manning had tried to go deep and was off the mark. What does all of this mean? Lots to like about Manning’s second game … but some definite causes for concern. He still has not thrown the deep ball with accuracy or precision and that takes time. While focusing on short, timing routes, he has had the ball tipped at least three times. When people ask why I think the Chiefs will win that decision, this is one reason. I think the Broncos will be great come playoff time. But I’ll be very surprised if Denver comes out of the gate like that. That’s why I think Kansas City will be the steadier division winner, albeit maybe not the better team come playoff time.