Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A few observations before the NFL season begins

For some inexplicable reason, this upcoming football season that starts tomorrow isn’t generating as much excitement for me as much as seasons past. Perhaps it is because there isn’t anything really  different from last season, no “hot” new players to be revealed, other than “Johnny Football” Manziel—although he is more of a curiosity at this point than substance. The Seattle Seahawks won their Super Bowl, and any questions about Russell Wilson’s ability have been rendered moot; even if he never approaches that level again, he’s “earned” himself a pass for at least a couple of years, given the fact that we may remember that blame for any faults was always blamed on “not having weapons” during his rookie campaign. 

My real “home” team, the Green Bay Packers, have in an effort to compel its defense to compete with the new “read/option” offenses that the Packers have failed to master—including San Francisco and Colin Kaepernick in the playoffs the past two year—have acquired Pro Bowl defensive lineman Julius Peppers and a rookie safety from Alabama, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who are supposed to solve this dilemma (Clinton-Dix did not play well enough this preseason, however, to earn a starting spot even over a second-year player). The opener at Seattle, which the Seahawks are favored to win, should give an indication of how the season will go for both teams. 

I haven’t been paying too much attention to preseason games, but I thought it would be interesting to see how some quarterbacks were utilizing their opportunities:

Mark Sanchez, late of the New York Jets and a popular whipping boy for many fans and commentators, has actually had a fine preseason for Philadelphia, completing 25 of 31 passes for 281 yards, two touchdowns and only one turnover.  He apparently locked-up the back-up position enough to sit out the final preseason game along with starter Nick Foles. Analysts and fantasy football experts are stumped over this unexpected development, and have scrambled for an explanation. The one that they have come up with is that coach Chip Kelly knows how to best utilize a quarterback’s strengths and minimize his weaknesses; too bad the defensive-minded Rex Ryan wasn’t capable of bringing out the best in Sanchez; he might have made it to at least one Super Bowl.

What about the Jets latest “quarterback of the future,” Geno Smith?  Smith, who was the worst-rated quarterback in the league last season—worse than even Sanchez’s worst season—has on paper raised hopes among easily deluded Jets fans that the Super Bowl is just around the corner. Smith has completed 23 of 33 passes for 268 yards and one touchdown pass and an interception. Perhaps now the Jets can win games on their own—instead of needing the assistance of officials calling obscure penalties no one knew existed. 

Robert Griffin III, whose conflicts with former coach Mike Shanahan caused him to be benched late in the season, after a disappointing sophomore performance that could have been predicted. He is clearly not the same player if required to play from the pocket, and the condition of his knees are a point of worry. RGIII played only sparingly in the preseason, throwing just 20 passes, completing 13 for 141 yards, no touchdowns and throwing two interceptions. This does not bode well for the season.

After Matt Flynn came in to “save” the Packers’ playoff hopes last season, there seemed no question that he was and is the team’s best option at the back-up position, and he was resigned with that in mind. But as has happened the previous two seasons—when Flynn was outmaneuvered out of an expected starting position by a bum arm, substandard play, and coach and fan enthrallment with an “exciting” new talent—he seems in danger of losing his job again. In the first instance, that turned out to be Russell Wilson, which obviously was the right move in hindsight. In the second instance, Flynn was incomprehensibly cut after just one start, the Oakland Raiders management apparently believing that Terrelle Pryor was the next “hot” read/option quarterback. This turned out to be a false notion, and Pryor was cut and then signed by Seattle, where he was cut from the final roster.

Unfortunately for Flynn, his play this preseason has been surpassed by former Wisconsin Badger Scott Tolzien, who previously was the third option for San Francisco before being cut and acquired by the Packers last season. Flynn’s numbers—18 of 38 passing for 232 yards, 3 touchdowns and a really horrible-looking interception against Oakland—paled in comparison to Tolzien’s: 38 of 56 passing for 477 yards, 3 touchdowns and no interceptions. On paper it would seem clear who should be Aaron Rodgers’ back-up; but looks can be deceiving. Tolzien showed plenty of arm strength  but less decision-making in relief of Rodgers last season, and Flynn was re-signed a few weeks later, and showed that his command of the Mike McCarthy’s offense could be counted on in a pinch. The Packers obviously have a dilemma on their hands; reportedly they intend to keep both Flynn and Tolzien on the roster, at least for now.

As mentioned above, the only rookie quarterback who intrigues is Johnny Manziel, a Heisman Trophy winner. Truth to tell, Manziel looks a little under-sized to play in the NFL, even next to Russell Wilson; one imagined that his go-for-broke playing style in college that required more instinct than thinking would serve him well, if only to help him run for his life escaping hungry defensive lineman. In his first three preseason games, Manziel showed some capacity for at least pretending to be an NFL quarterback, completing 24 of 42 passes for 213 yards, one touchdown and not a single interception. But in his fourth game, Manziel’s performance seems more what we can expect: only six of 17 passes completed for 83 yards, but 55 yards rushing. This indicates that once play begins for real, Manziel will spend minimal time reading the field and more time using his “instinct” to pick-up positive yardage. Will Manziel be the white guy version of the read/option quarterback? Is that what the Browns are hoping?

So much for preseason observations. As usual, I want to see two things occur this season: The Packers winning the Super Bowl, and Peyton Manning falling on his face.

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