Legitimately worrisome things from the NFL preseason


Robert Griffin III didn’t look “fixed” yet by Jay Gruden during the preseason (Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

The NFL preseason is now done, and very little of what happened during it means anything at all. The games that count begin in less than a week.

But there are a few things that did matter for various reasons, and some that should produce legitimate concerns.

Here are some of them:

Penalties: The biggest red flag of all during the 2014 preseason was the number of yellow flags that were launched. The NFL said it would make strict enforcement of defensive holding in the secondary and illegal contact by defensive backs against receivers a major point of officiating emphasis for this season. And officials made it clear, at least during the preseason, that they indeed would make those calls as instructed, and they would make them often.

Thursday night’s final round of preseason games was even more meaningless than the rest of the exhibition season, given that few teams put their starters on the field. But through the third week of preseason games, there were 146 defensive holding and 84 illegal contact penalties in 49 games, according to figures compiled by ESPN. That’s after there were 38 defensive holding and 18 illegal contact penalties in 65 games during the entire 2013 preseason.

Games dragged on. Defensive players were left wondering if there’s anything left that they’re allowed to do to try to prevent quarterbacks such as Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers from putting up ridiculous numbers. Coaches said their players would have to adjust. The league maintained that the games will be called the same way during the regular season, although some wondered about that.

“I think that’s been the history that you’ve seen things called in the preseason more than you’ve sometimes in the regular season when they’ve decided to make a point,” Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney II told ESPN. “That’s been the pattern that I’ve noticed in the past so we’ll see if that holds true this year.”

RGIII: One of the primary tasks for Jay Gruden, the first-year coach of the Washington Redskins, is to fix quarterback Robert Griffin III. Griffin wasn’t the same player last season that he’d been as a rookie, probably in large part due to him being still on the mend from knee surgery but perhaps also because of a relationship with former coach Mike Shanahan that produced regular reports of a rift.

The early returns for Gruden and Griffin have not been particularly promising. They seem to get along just fine. But there has been no marked improvement in Griffin’s play, at least not yet. He does not appear to have made great progress as a pocket passer and he still is not adept at doing the things, such as sliding properly and getting out of bounds, necessary to protect himself when he takes off and runs with the ball.

Third-year backup Kirk Cousins remains in the fold and the notion that there is, or could be, a quarterback controversy in Washington simply won’t fade away. It surfaced when it was reported that Cousins looked more comfortable running the Redskins’ offense during a set of joint training camp practices with the New England Patriots in Richmond, and again when television analyst Joe Theismann said during a preseason game that Cousins had outplayed Griffin and would be the starter if the job was up for grabs.

Bradford: The owners appear to be losing interest in cutting the preseason from four games to two, but the idea of playing so many meaningless games seems particularly problematic when a player integral to his team’s chances of success suffers a significant injury. Such was the case when quarterback Sam Bradford had his season ended before it began when he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during the St. Louis Rams’ third preseason game at Cleveland last weekend.

Bradford was working his way back from a torn ACL suffered last October and Coach Jeff Fisher had praised his play. The Rams’ plan to use the draft picks gotten from the Redskins in the 2012 Griffin trade seemed to be working well and the team’s lineup around Bradford was improving. But now, that plan is shattered. The Rams are left going with backup Shaun Hill while speculation swirls about a possible trade for Cousins, Ryan Mallett or Mark Sanchez. By season’s end, Bradford will have played only 49 of 80 games since the Rams drafted him in 2010.

Giants Offense: Preseason results shouldn’t matter for a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback such as Eli Manning. But when that quarterback is attempting to bounce back from an 18-touchdown, 27-interception season, and when he has a 58.5 percent career completion percentage and the team is shooting for 70 percent this season, they matter a little.

Manning was just a 49 percent passer during the preseason, connecting on 20 of 41 throws. Coach Tom Coughlin even put his starting offense on the field for two series in Thursday night’s preseason finale against New England, with more troubling results. The Giants managed only one first down in those two possessions and punted twice.

Graham and Payton: Tight end Jimmy Graham and the New Orleans Saints spent the offseason at odds over Graham’s contract. The Saints used the franchise player tag on him and Graham argued in a grievance that he deserved the franchise value for a wide receiver, not a tight end. The two sides eventually struck a long-term deal and General Manager Mickey Loomis said in training camp that the first time he saw Graham afterward, he asked if the two would hug it out or punch it out. Graham replied they would hug it out, according to Loomis.

But when Graham received two 15-yard penalties in the same preseason game for doing his now-banned trademark touchdown celebration of dunking the ball over the goal post, Coach Sean Payton was not amused and expressed his displeasure to Graham on the sideline. Graham didn’t back down, and the sharp sideline exchange seemed to surprise some observers. Perhaps it was no big deal. But perhaps it was worth noting and remembering, just in case things don’t go the way that Graham and the Saints hope this season.

Cowboys Defense: Dallas ranked last in the league in total defense last season and then lost pass rushers DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher and reliable tackler Sean Lee in the offseason. The preseason results have been ominous, with the Cowboys surrendering 503 rushing yards through three games.

“I think it’s probably a combination of things based on who’s in the game,” Coach Jason Garrett said following last weekend’s game at Miami. “Gap discipline, making sure your run fits are right — that’s been an issue at different times throughout the preseason. Getting off blocks, tackling — those are all things we have to get better at. Hopefully our defense grows in those areas. I think we’ve shown improvement from the start of training camp until now in those areas. Individual guys have gotten better. We have to get better as a team.”

Browns Receivers: Josh Gordon’s season-long suspension was upheld on appeal. That leaves the Browns facing a murky future and, in the meantime, playing with a wide receiver corps of Miles Austin, Nate Burleson and Andrew Hawkins.

Brian Hoyer was given the starting quarterback job over rookie Johnny Manziel for the regular season at a point when he hadn’t led a touchdown drive in two preseason games. Hoyer must prove himself as an NFL starter, and the wideouts at his disposal might not do much to help his cause.

 

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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