Why Does Tom Brady Need a Dress Rehearsal?
Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers starters are expected to play at least the first half of Saturday's preseason finale against the Houston Texans.
Why? Oh, for the love of all that's holy, why?
Bruce Arians thinks it's important, that's why. "I want to see game speed, real game speed," he said this week, per Tampa television reporter Gabrielle Shirley, "which we have not really had yet. Six plays does not get it for you."
But but but … what about joint practices and scrimmages? After the Patriots pummeled the Eagles last Thursday night, my timeline and my South Jersey neighbors assured me that the Eagles saw everything they needed to see in joint practices and could therefore merrily dicker around in the meaningless game.
"It is still practice. Nobody is hitting it. Those type of things. So we need to go out there and play game speed and play to our potential," Arians said.
Oh yeah, that's right: tackling to the ground and sacking the quarterback instead of tagging him can make a big difference when evaluating players. Also, Brady himself has always played more in the preseason than his peers. For example, Brady threw 44 passes in the 2018 preseason. Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers combined to throw 13 that year.
The "bench the starters for the entire preseason" phenomenon is a Sean McVay innovation which was picked up in recent years by his imitators and wannabes. The cancellation of the 2020 preseason may have convinced a few other coaches that preseason games are utterly inconsequential. Furthermore, different coaches clearly had different timetables for the "dress rehearsal" now that the preseason has been shortened to three games.
Throw in some quarantines and intestinal distress and August has been a crazy quilt of competing usage philosophies: Patrick Mahomes playing nearly a half last weekend for the Chiefs, Nathan Peterman taking every single snap for the Raiders, and so forth. The starters-versus-scrubs phenomenon played havoc with some of the league's quarterback competitions: think Broncos starters against the Vikings randos, Patriots against the Eagles, all the Trey Lance takes in the known universe.
It's telling that Arians, Bill Belichick, and Andy Reid (plus Brady) see value in preseason playing time. The McVay camp, on the other hand, is full of coaches with wavering convictions. Matt Nagy decided Mitchell Trubisky and his first-team Bears offense were a 100% finished product and didn't need a single preseason snap back in 2019. He used this preseason straining all credibility in an effort to affirm Andy Dalton as his starter. Nagy will figure out the correct formula one of these years. Just kidding! He'll be fired in October.
Meanwhile, Chargers coach Brandon Staley, a.k.a. Sean McDefense, has kept Justin Herbert and other significant starters bubble-wrapped throughout the preseason. Herbert was great last year, but I missed the part where he became so dominant and experienced that he needs less preparation than Brady.
"Our practices are going to be a lot more like games than these preseason games," Staley said a few weeks ago. "The environment that we create on our practice fields is where the real action is in the preseason for guys like him."
Cool theory, but the boat parade guys disagree.
It all feels a little backwards: the rebuilding Falcons flailing around with AJ McCarron and Feleipe Franks while the Buccaneers go the extra mile, Daniel Jones (who will play this weekend) getting treated like he has nothing to prove while Ben Roethlisberger plays a half against the Lions. It's a little like a teacher handing out an ungraded get-to-know-you assignment on the first day of class and watching the A+ students diligently complete it while the slackers goof off because, you know, it doesn't count.
Sure, maybe the Super Bowl contenders have more need of a dress rehearsal to hit September running than a rebuilding team. But to extend the classroom analogy: how will the students who fell behind catch up by doing less work?
If I were a coach, I'd require any sub-Mahomes-caliber young quarterback to play a handful of preseason quarters. But I would think twice before exposing Brady to a Texans defense which has registered seven preseason sacks and is full of last-chance types who might be tempted to do something foolish to impress Lord Easterby. But Brady and Arians know better than anyone, including nearly all of the other coaches and quarterbacks in the NFL, what they need to get out of a preseason.
Cardinals at Saints, Saturday, 8 p.m.
Saints quarterback competition update:
Should Start: Jameis Winston 99.7%, Taysom Hill 0.3%
Will Start: Jameis Winston 70%, Taysom Hill 30%
The Walkthrough Should/Will Start indices were inspired by the political election forecasts popularized by other statistics-themed websites. In that sense, the 30% possibility of The Lovechild beating Winston serves as a reminder to take nothing for granted when it comes to seemingly rational people making incomprehensibly dumb choices.
Marquez Callaway and Lil'Jordan Humphrey looked like Randy Moss and Michael Irvin on Monday night. Perhaps they are ready to seize the old Devery Henderson and Marques Colston roles in the Saints offense, at least until Michael Thomas returns. (Tre'Quan Smith is Lance Moore or somebody). Or perhaps Monday night provided a false read about a pair of former undrafted rookies, and by extension the whole Saints offense, including the quarterback.
At any rate, Winston may have a useful slash-slot weapon in his arsenal when the games start to matter. But will Taysom be willing to return to the farm now that he has seen Par-ee?
(Note: Jameis Winston was named the starter on Friday morning, just before Walkthrough was published. The Should Start/Will Start bit was kept in as a testament to what a weird competition this has been.)
Rams at Broncos, Saturday, 9:05 p.m.
Look for Sony Michel to play the 2019 Todd Gurley role in the Rams offense: moderate to heavy workload, a bunch of short touchdowns, 3.8 yards per carry, top-25 DYAR ranking based on sheer bulk. Scouring the post-cutdown waiver wire for Michel-caliber talent may have made more sense than trading two picks from an analytics standpoint, but the Rams would then have been competing for talent with the Jaguars and other teams.
Vic Fangio has named Teddy Bridgewater his starting quarterback. If they're lucky, the Broncos will get lukewarm Bridgewater instead of tepid Bridgewater for most of the season.
The Broncos were 8.5-point favorites as of Thursday afternoon. The house may not have adjusted to the Broncos starting job being settled and the likelihood that Brett Rypien and the deep bench will play much of the game. The Rams may be worth a play if that line holds and you are catastrophically bored on Saturday night.
Colts at Lions, Friday, 7 p.m.
Carson Wentz is practicing again and "optimistic" about playing in Week 1.
Wentz practiced regularly throughout 2018 training camp while recovering from his 2017 ACL tear. Nick Foles ended up starting the first two games of the season, looking like Non-Super Bowl Foles before Wentz rode to the … rescue? Wentz suffered a back injury later in the same season, and Foles used the last of his cheat codes to push the Eagles into the playoffs.
The 2018 season was the first Blame the Receivers year for Wentz, because what sort of incompetent, dysfunctional organization tries to build a receiving corps out of Nelson Agholor and bunch of tight ends?
There is little evidence that these events are destined to happen again. But there is even less evidence that something much better will happen instead.
Steelers at Panthers, Friday, 7:30 p.m.
PANTHERS KICKER BATTLE UPDATE: The Panthers traded for Giants camp leg Ryan Santoso and signed Dominik Eberle this week to compete with Joey Slye, who has had a rough preseason.
Santoso served as the Titans' kickoff specialist briefly in 2019, because these Kicker Battle Updates are a flat circle. The German-born Eberle was a perfect 175-of-175 on extra points at Utah State and twice led the Mountain West Conference in scoring. The extra points are relevant because Slye attempted a whopping 12 field goals under 30 yards last year, because the Panthers apparently didn't practice goal-line offense or other situations much last season. They also got stuffed at the goal line last week against the Ravens, for what it's worth. Santoso probably has the inside track to the starting job because of the trade, but a conditional seventh-round pick doesn't exactly buy guarantees.
Dwayne Haskins gets the start for the Steelers, and much was said this week about his growth and confidence after his struggles in Washington. Perhaps a little too much is being said about a quarterback competing for a No. 3 quarterback spot. Haskins needs to perform well to avoid punching a ticket on the Josh Rosen Express.
Vikings at Chiefs, Friday, 8 p.m.
Per Andrew Krammer of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Everson Griffen will be limited to situational pass-rush duty in his return to the Vikings. Defensive coordinator Andre Patterson compared Griffen's efforts with the Cowboys and Lions in 2020 to a Picasso painting poorly imitated by lesser artists. In other words, the Vikings felt so symbolic that they bought themselves a grey guitar.
Griffen adds some pass-rush juice, Justin Jefferson has been participating in 11-on-11 work, and unvaccinated quarterbacks are suddenly the Patriots' problem. So drink to the Vikings, drink to their health: their preseason looks a lot less like Guernica than it did a few weeks ago. All they need to do now to get back on track is settle that old Griffen-Kirk Cousins beef. After all, no one ever called Pablo Picasso an asshole. So hug it out, guys!
No, Everson, that was a figure of speech. DO NOT COME WITHIN SIX FEET OF KIRK COUSINS. Oh well. See you next week.
Eagles at Jets, Friday, 7:30 p.m.
Loser Leaguers: this is your Jets backfield committee update! Tevin Coleman remains the nominal starter based on his experience in Shanahan-/LaFleur-flavored offenses and the possibility that he might break one long run per month. Fourth-round pick Michael Carter has gotten lots of preseason playing time; Carter was the lightning to Javonte Williams' thunder in the North Carolina backfield and is well suited to all-purpose committee work. Ty Johnson got snaps with the starters against the Packers last week; he's broadly similar to Carter and useful on special teams, giving him an inside track to a roster spot. La'Mical Perine was unimpressive last year but has gotten positive reports from camp.
The Jets are expected to embrace the committee approach, meaning some combination of two or three of these rushers is likely to generate 10-carry, 32-yard stat lines each week. Anyone who gets cut may end up in a Jaguars committee. Friday's game might or might not sort out the Jets backfield. Robert Saleh doesn't appear to be in any hurry, and non-Loser League fantasy gamers shouldn't be, either.
Packers at Bills, Saturday, 1 p.m.
Three-way trade proposal: Packers trade a fourth-round pick for Jake Kumerow, and the Bills then trade that pick to the Eagles for Zach Ertz. It's a win-win-win-win-win!
- The Bills get a missing piece for their Super Bowl puzzle.
- The Eagles get some value for an expensive veteran who wants out.
- Ertz gets to play for a contender again.
- Brian Gutekunst overpays for 36 glorious hours without Aaron Rodgers telling everyone in earshot what an awful general manager and person he is.
- Kumerow escapes Team Chickenpox Party and goes back to a cushy life as Rodgers' barn puppy.
Ravens at Washington, Saturday, 6 p.m.
The Ravens will be going for their 20th consecutive preseason victory, an accomplishment John Harbaugh described as "notable" on Monday. "I mean, there are going to be people that say this doesn't mean anything, and there are going to be people who look at it and say, 'Wow, that's something.' So, I think everything is something," he said.
While there's certainly lots of randomness in the winning streak, it's also a testament to the perennial strength of the Ravens organization. Their 90-man roster is usually stacked with well-coached talent, allowing them to win some meaningless August second halves: the Ravens have outscored opponents 18-0 in fourth quarters this preseason and 19-0 in 2019. Positive preseason vibes may not carry on to the regular season, but they certainly don't hurt.
The Ravens are four-point favorites on Saturday for those of you who want to stress-test the Gambler's Fallacy.
Bears at Titans, Saturday, 7 p.m.
TITANS KICKER BATTLE UPDATE: Ficken Defeats McCann! Ficken Defeats McCann! The Titans waived Tucker McCann on Monday, leaving Sam Ficken as the only kicker on their roster. Ficken likely sealed his victory with 48- and 58-yard field goals against the Buccaneers last weekend. Ficken is 12-of-22 from 40-plus yards for his career, so the Titans have surely solved their kicking problems once and for all!!!!!
There's a four-dimensional chess theory circulating that Andy Dalton should start ahead of Justin Fields because the Bears offensive line is so bad that Fields could either end up injured or seeing ghosts. In other words, Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy are so incompetent that their best option after four to six years of roster-building is to purposely start an inferior quarterback, yet they are cagey enough to both realize that and create a smokescreen to hide the fact that they are doing so.
I would make fun of that theory, except that it may not only have merit but be the ultimate encapsulation of the Mediocre Football Brain thought process.
Chargers at Seahawks, Saturday, 10 p.m.
CHARGERS KICKER BATTLE UPDATE: Based on this report from Fernando Ramirez of Sports Illustrated and Michael Badgley's 50-yarder last weekend, the Badgley/Tristan Vizcaino battle is going down to the wire. The Money Badger has been Mister Inconsistency for three years for the Chargers; Vizcaino kicked three field goals in the 49ers' 2020 season finale. The loser of this battle will likely get a tryout with the Browns, which isn't a bad consolation prize.
The Seahawks were close to signing former Bengals veteran defensive tackle Geno Atkins at press time. They already employ former Bengals edge rusher Carlos Dunlap. The Seahawks need veteran reinforcements at linebacker after an injury to Ben Burr-Kirven, but they have been lukewarm about a K.J. Wright return throughout the offseason. Say, what's Vontaze Burfict up to these days? Oh. Sorry I asked.
Jaguars at Cowboys, Sunday, 1:30 p.m.
The saddest thing about the Travis Etienne foot injury is that an exciting young athlete suffered a potentially career-altering setback. The second-saddest thing about Etienne's injury is that many of us were already writing off his rookie season as a total loss for other reasons.
Cooper Rush has won the role of Red-Headed Cowboys backup quarterback formerly held by Jason Garrett, Andy Dalton and, um, Cooper Rush. Don't expect Jerry Jones to make goo-goo eyes at Gardner Minshew as a potential insurance policy on Sunday. "You look around the league and most clubs don't break the bank at backup quarterback when you got the premium player we have at quarterback," Jerrah told the Cowboys' website. "We had it backed up last year the best that I have ever seen, and it didn't work for us. We lost Dak and we still, our backup quarterback had issues of availability, Andy Dalton. So, no matter what you put there doesn't necessarily have the results that you want."
Kudos for the team website for not cleaning up the boss' grammar. And kudos to Jerrah for making more sense when it comes to Andy Dalton than the entire Bears organization combined.
Dolphins at Bengals, Sunday, 4 p.m.
Worried about Ja'Marr Chase's preseason drops? Teammate Tee Higgins isn't. He told Charlie Goldsmith of the Cincinnati Enquirer that he suffered a case of the drops before his sophomore season at Clemson. "During fall camp it was three days in a row where I was just dropping (everything) and I had to sit down and talk to myself and say, 'This is not you.'" Good advice. Also, Chase should remind himself that it wasn't Joe Burrow who was throwing passes behind him or leading him straight into the path of an oncoming safety. Burrow's preseason debut on Sunday will either boost everyone's confidence a bit or irrevocably shatter it.
It sounds like Brian Flores won't play his starters on Sunday after giving them lots of work in the first two games. That makes sense: the Dolphins are one of the few up-and-coming teams that really made a positive preseason impression.
Raiders at 49ers, Sunday, 4 p.m.
Per Vic Tafur of The Athletic, the Raiders tried to work out a trade to get Khalil Mack back from the Bears in the offseason. I love the idea of Jon Gruden and Ryan Pace attempting weird Doctor Strange magic to rewind their careers and lives, perhaps so Pace could start over fresh in Chicago or Gruden could relive his Super Bowl glory, perhaps so each could go back to when they were last truly happy, as embryos.
A marquee pass-rusher such as Mack might indeed have launched the Raiders into playoff contention this season. And trading Mack would have both saved the Bears much-needed cap space and signaled a much-needed rebuild, casting Justin Fields' arrival in a different (more realistic) light.
A Mack undo-trade made sense for both sides, in other words. Which explains why it didn't happen.
A brief warning, now that it appears that Jimmy Garoppolo has locked up the 49ers' starting job: exposure to Trey Lance Twitter takes in real time has the same effect on the brain as sealing yourself in an unventilated room, setting off three insecticide foggers, and hopping on the Peleton for a quick workout.
Patriots at Giants, Sunday, 6 p.m.
When its succession plan for a much-decorated champion became wobbly, an organization with an outstanding reputation but spotty recent draft record selected a prospect named Jones whom many draft analysts considered the weakest choice among the top quarterbacks. Jones looked reasonably sharp in training camp and the preseason, and local fans quickly soured on the incumbent, who was several years removed from his last productive season. Fans rejoiced when Jones took over early in the year, and everyone lived happily ever after, because the best way to wrest a starting job from a creaky and/or unvaccinated veteran is by default. Right?
It's logical to predict that the Mac Jones tale will work out better than the Daniel Jones tale because of Bill Belichick. But it's also worth reflecting upon the similarities.
Browns at Falcons, Sunday, 8 p.m.
With Cody Parkey out due to a quad injury, Chase McLaughlin is now the Browns' placekicker. McLaughlin has kicked for five other teams (Colts, Chargers, 49ers, Jaguars, Jets) in the past two seasons. Teams with impressive camp legs such as the Ravens (Jake Verity) and Chargers (see earlier) may make trade offers, but the analytics-minded Browns won't get snookered into trading for a kicker. They'll instead scour the upcoming waivers and assemble dossiers on available kickers if/when McLaughlin falters.
And this is the way the 2021 preseason ends: not with a bang but a kicker.