NFL teams have begun reporting to training camps. It is that hopeful time of the year when there are visions in so many pro-football cities, realistic or not, of a winning season, a playoff appearance or even a Super Bowl trip.
But it also is the time of the year when coaches must start gathering information to make some tough decisions and begin dealing with some harsh NFL realities. That is particularly true for those coaches of franchises without a clear-cut solution at quarterback.
Not every team has a Pro Bowler at the sport’s most important position. Not every team was able to land a prized rookie to provide the promise that a franchise player perhaps has arrived to take over. Some teams don’t know yet who will be the season-opening starter. In a few cases, the likely starter to open the season does not have the credentials to inspire confidence that the issue has been addressed on anything more than a temporary basis.
It was an offseason in which there were not enough capable quarterbacks to go around. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Jameis Winston with the top pick in the NFL draft and the Tennessee Titans chose Marcus Mariota second overall. The Philadelphia Eagles traded one would-be starting quarterback, Nick Foles, to the St. Louis Rams for another, Sam Bradford. A number of free agents with less-than-dazzling resumes moved from team to team.
There remain unsettled quarterback situations league-wide as training camps get under way. Here is a look at the most intriguing of them:
Tom Brady and Patriots vs. the NFL
Veteran players for the New England Patriots are scheduled to report to training camp Wednesday and it is not clear whether Brady’s appeal of his four-game Deflategate suspension by the NFL will be resolved by then. So it’s possible that the Patriots will open camp not knowing whether their four-time Super Bowl winner or Jimmy Garoppolo, Brady’s second-year understudy, will be their starter at quarterback when they host the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL’s season-opening game Sept. 10.
The group that has surrounded Brady and Coach Bill Belichick during the Patriots’ dynasty has changed ceaselessly. Belichick never has been afraid to make the tough, unsentimental choices necessitated by the salary cap and parted ways abruptly with standout players such as cornerback Ty Law, safety Lawyer Milloy, linebacker Mike Vrabel, defensive lineman Richard Seymour, wide receiver Randy Moss and guard Logan Mankins.
But Belichick and Brady have been the constants. Even before their fourth Super Bowl triumph in tandem to cap last season, Patriots owner Robert Kraft called them the greatest coach-and-quarterback combination in league history. Brady missed almost an entire season in 2008 when he suffered a knee injury in the opening game, and Matt Cassel took over and helped the Patriots to 11 wins and a playoff near-miss. But otherwise it has been Belichick, Brady and their ever-rotating supporting cast.
The Deflategate saga has consumed virtually the entire offseason and most recently has given way to talk of settlement negotiations or a lawsuit by Brady and the NFL Players Association if Brady’s suspension is not rescinded by Commissioner Roger Goodell’s appeal ruling. More remains to play out and the timetable for that is uncertain. The Patriots face the prospect of having prepare both Brady and Garoppolo, a second-round draft pick in 2014, to be ready to start the opener.
“I’ve definitely gotten more confident throughout the year,” Garoppolo said during Super Bowl week. “Growing from being a rookie in minicamp to where I am now, I feel a lot more confident.”
Will he be put to an immediate test this season? Will Deflategate end up giving the Patriots a glimpse of life after Brady at quarterback? That remains to be seen.
Josh McCown vs. Johnny Manziel, Browns
The Cleveland Browns were supposed to be off the list of quarterback-needy teams after using a first-round draft choice on Manziel in 2014. But Manziel certainly wasn’t the answer as a rookie, failing to win the starting job from Brian Hoyer during a preseason marked by Manziel directing an obscene gesture at the Washington Redskins’ sideline. Manziel sat and watched for most of last season, then was far from productive when he got his chance.
He is back for his second training camp with the Browns after spending part of his offseason in treatment, reportedly for possible alcohol dependence. There is little reason for the Browns to feel secure that Manziel and suspended wide receiver Josh Gordon can be their future offensive cornerstones, as they once envisioned. There were reports during the offseason that team officials were ready to move on from Manziel.
In free agency, Hoyer left and McCown signed with the Browns. McCown almost certainly will enter the season as the starter, and Manziel has much work to do to reassemble his NFL career. But McCown, with his career passer rating of 76.1, is on his seventh NFL team and never has been the long-term solution anywhere else. Manziel could get another chance at some point, if for no other reason than the lack of a proven alternative.
Matt Cassel vs. EJ Manuel vs. Tyrod Taylor, Bills
The Buffalo Bills have much going for them as they attempt to gain ground on the Patriots in the AFC East. They hired Rex Ryan as their coach. Ryan inherited a rugged defense and he traded for tailback LeSean McCoy to be the centerpiece of his running game.
But does he have a quarterback? Kyle Orton retired. The Bills traded for Cassel and signed Taylor in free agency to go with 2013 first-round pick Manuel. There are some within the league who privately express the belief that Taylor, who made zero regular season starts in four seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, might be Ryan’s best option.
Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. Geno Smith, Jets
Is it time for the New York Jets to give up on Smith as the team’s prospective franchise quarterback? That’s what the team’s first-year coach, Todd Bowles, must decide.
The Jets gave themselves a decent but mostly unexciting alternative by trading for Fitzpatrick, who had a passer rating of 95.3 last season for the Houston Texans but has a career mark of 79.5. The Jets bolstered their roster in other areas, trading for wide receiver Brandon Marshall and signing cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie in free agency. But can they find a way to get quarterback play good enough to make that matter?
Brian Hoyer vs. Ryan Mallett, Texans
J.J. Watt practically did it all, on offense as well as defense, last season but couldn’t quite get the Texans into the playoffs. Maybe he should have taken a few snaps at quarterback.
Fitzpatrick is gone and the Texans signed Hoyer to go with Mallett, who was re-signed in free agency. It’s an interesting choice for Coach Bill O’Brien. Hoyer kept the Browns in the playoff race for much of last season. But he was derided as a mere game-manager even while winning, and a particularly unproductive stretch of games for Hoyer gave Manziel his chance in Cleveland. Manziel failed, and Hoyer’s play with the Browns perhaps looked better in retrospect.
Mallett has eye-catching arm strength but has made only two starts in four NFL seasons in New England and Houston. O’Brien must decide whether Mallett is ready to be entrusted with a team that was on the cusp of a postseason spot last season.
Robert Griffin III vs. Kirk Cousins vs. Colt McCoy, Redskins
Is this the final chance for Griffin to make things work in Washington?
The Redskins exercised their fifth-year option for the 2016 season in Griffin’s contract and have called him the team’s starter. But that option is guaranteed for injury only, not performance, and it is for a 2016 salary hefty enough — $16.155 million — that Griffin probably must play well this season to be kept around.
Griffin has endured two seasons of injuries and disappointing play since his electrifying rookie year in 2012. He demonstrated in that dazzling debut he can be a top-tier NFL quarterback under the proper circumstances. It seems premature to suggest he is done and all is lost three seasons into his NFL career.
But certainly his Redskins tenure is at a crossroads. He must prove he is the right quarterback for Coach Jay Gruden’s offense. He must re-establish he can be an accurate passer and he must find the proper way to blend his running and throwing skills. He must show his injuries have not diminished his physical gifts.
The Redskins have alternatives — perhaps viable, perhaps not — in Cousins and McCoy. But this is all about Griffin and finding out, maybe once for all, if he can succeed with the franchise that surrendered so much to get him.
Sam Bradford vs. his knee (and Mark Sanchez), Eagles
Philadelphia Coach Chip Kelly’s mad-scientist offseason routine included bringing in a quarterback, in Bradford, working his way back from a twice-torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and having played 49 of a possible 80 games in his five seasons with the Rams.
As with so much that Kelly did, it’s difficult to say. Bradford is a talented passer when healthy. Kelly certainly knows how to orchestrate an offense. However it works out, it should be fascinating to watch.
… AND TEN
1. Cowboys RB
The most noteworthy non-quarterback competition in training camps league-wide will come as the Dallas Cowboys sort through their options at tailback after losing reigning NFL rushing champion DeMarco Murray to the Eagles in the offseason.
The Cowboys didn’t draft a featured runner-to-be. They didn’t trade for Adrian Peterson. They did sign Darren McFadden and they have tentative plans to have him share playing time and carries with Lance Dunbar and Joseph Randle.
McFadden had one 1,000-yard season in seven years with the Oakland Raiders. Neither Dunbar nor Randle has had even 400 rushing yards in a season in the NFL. The Cowboys are confident that their offensive line will make whichever runner they choose productive. But are they fooling themselves?
2. Brady ruling later rather than sooner?
Many seem convinced that the NFL’s ruling on Brady’s appeal will come by the time the Patriots open their training camp Wednesday. If there is any chance of Brady and the league completing a negotiated settlement, that perhaps is one pressure point for Brady, who might want to have the matter resolved by the time camp begins.
But an even bigger pressure point is the opening of the regular season, and there is some sentiment within the sport that there’s a chance a resolution might not come until closer to then.
Goodell has said there is no timetable for a decision on Brady’s appeal.
3. Chargers, Raiders ahead of Rams for L.A.?
The owners are scheduled to meet early next month in Chicago to discuss efforts to place a team or teams in Los Angeles. They might speak about the issue by conference call before then.
There are some early indications that sentiments within the ownership ranks favor the joint ownership bid of the Raiders and San Diego Chargers over that of the St. Louis Rams.
The thinking apparently is that the Chargers and Raiders have what might be the league’s worst stadium situations, while there are some hopes about the possibility of securing a new stadium for the Rams in St. Louis. The Chargers’ Dean Spanos is a widely respected owner, and the Raiders’ Mark Davis seems to have scored some points among his peers for playing by the league’s rules in this situation in a way that his late father Al probably never would have done.
There still is strong sentiment among the owners, it seems, that there will be a team or teams in Los Angeles by the 2016 season.
4. Expanded playoffs
The owners have had no recent discussions about the possibility of expanding the NFL playoff field from 12 to 14 teams, perhaps beginning in the 2016 season, according to a person familiar with the league’s inner workings.
The owners likely will take up the matter again in October or December, according to that person. It is possible that the owners will tie the onset of an expanded playoff field to the sale of the sport’s Thursday night television package to a network on a long-term deal.
5. Camps getting going
The Steelers and Minnesota Vikings, who will face one another in the Hall of Fame Game to open the preseason, began their training camps over the weekend.
All other NFL teams will report to their training camps by the end of this coming weekend.
6. Rookies signed
When the Indianapolis Colts signed third-round draft choices D’Joun Smith and Henry Anderson on Friday, it meant that every player selected in this year’s NFL draft was under contract before training camps opened.
The NFL’s rookie pay system, put in place by the labor agreement between the league and players’ union in 2011, was designed, in part, to streamline the negotiating process and get rookies to camps on time. That clearly has happened.
“Until a few years ago, this time of year would have been filled with stories of rookie negotiations and potential holdouts,” former Eagles and Browns executive Joe Banner wrote on Twitter. “Glad that’s gone[.]”
7. Wilson negotiations
The Seattle Seahawks are attempting to negotiate a long-term deal with quarterback Russell Wilson before their training camp opens Thursday.
Wilson is entering the final season of his four-year contract signed as a rookie. Unlike Griffin and Andrew Luck, Wilson’s original deal does not contain an option for a fifth season in 2016, given that he entered the league as a third-round draft choice. The Seahawks have offered what Profootballtalk.com reported is a deal worth about $21 million per season. But the way the contract is structured apparently is the issue now, and it is not clear whether an agreement will be in place by the time Wilson takes the field for training-camp practices.
8. Eli Manning’s contract
Another quarterback who could be due for a big new deal is the New York Giants’ Eli Manning.
The two-time Super Bowl winner is entering the final season of his current deal. It is not clear if Manning and the Giants will be able to complete an extension before the season. But if it does get done, the deal probably will resemble Ben Roethlisberger’s five-year, $99 million contract with the Steelers, which can be worth as much as $108 million with escalators.
9. Waiting on Pierre-Paul
The Giants open their training camp Thursday but there remains no clear timetable for defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul to return to the field after his injuries, including a finger amputation, suffered in a fireworks accident. Pierre-Paul has not signed his one-year franchise-player deal, and apparently will not do so until he is healthy enough to play. The Giants seem to have been left mostly guessing about when that might be.
10. Not always business as usual
There were some signs during the offseason that it was business as usual for some NFL teams in some instances. Greg Hardy was signed. Winston was drafted first overall. Peterson received a new contract from the Vikings. The Bills signed Richie Incognito.
But it is not business as usual all the time. Ray Rice remains unsigned. The New Orleans Saints decided last week to release linebacker Junior Galette.
Galette has totaled 22 sacks for the Saints over the past two seasons. He signed a four-year, $41.5 million contract extension with the team last year. But the league reportedly is reviewing his case for possible discipline under the personal conduct policy after a pair of off-field incidents. And the Saints decided that Galette’s talent was not enough to keep him.