This looked to be shaping up, in some ways, like 2007 all over again for the New England Patriots.
The Patriots improved themselves in the offseason, even after adding another Super Bowl triumph last season to their ever-growing collection. They added cornerback Stephon Gilmore and pass rusher Kony Ealy and traded for Brandin Cooks to go with Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan at wide receiver. It did not seem at all far-fetched to envision quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots chasing an unbeaten season just as they did in 2007, when only a Super Bowl upset for the ages at the hands of the New York Giants kept them from going 19-0 and being hailed as perhaps indisputably the greatest NFL team ever.
So is there a glimmer of hope for the rest of the league?
That depends on your perspective.
The Patriots are still, by a relatively comfortable margin, the best and most imposing team in the NFL as the regular season nears. But they are not as good or as deep as they were before Edelman was carted off to the locker room.
“We feel badly for Julian and hope that he will have a speedy and complete recovery,” Coach Bill Belichick said in a conference call with reporters Saturday. “But yeah, the team will have to move on and we’ll have to compete in this season without him. It’s unfortunate. But that’s the way it is. So we’ll have to figure that out.”
Without Edelman, Brady loses his security-blanket receiver. Edelman had 98 catches for 1,106 yards last season. Brady still has plenty of pass-catching options. Cooks and Hogan are big-play receivers. Fellow wideouts Danny Amendola and Malcolm Mitchell become more important now. The Patriots can cross their fingers and hope that tight end Rob Gronkowski remains healthy and in the lineup all season. But Edelman was Brady’s preferred target to get a key first down and keep a drive going, his modern-day Wes Welker. Edelman’s absence will be felt.
Ealy had appeared to be a solid addition for the Patriots when they traded for him in March. He was penciled in to help the pass rush and could have replaced the now-retired Rob Ninkovinch. But he failed to demonstrate that he could fit into the defensive system, and his lack of progress had the Patriots reportedly exploring trade options for him before deciding instead to simply release him.
It has been a quick plummet for Ealy since his three-sack performance against the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl at the end of the 2015 season. He might have been the MVP of that Super Bowl if the Panthers had won. But now two teams have given up on him in fairly short order. The Patriots, despite their success, have not been perfect under Belichick in their player evaluations and roster-building moves. But they are unafraid to concede a mistake and move on quickly when it becomes clear to them that things aren’t going to go as projected. That’s what they did with Ealy, who was claimed off waivers Sunday by the New York Jets.
“It’s just one of those things that didn’t work out or wasn’t going to work out,” Belichick said in Saturday’s conference call. “It’s nobody’s fault. He worked hard. We worked hard. There was a lot of effort put in. But in the end, we didn’t feel like this was going to work out.”
Both participants in the upcoming opener on Sept. 7 lost a key offensive player for the season during this round of preseason games. The Kansas City Chiefs are expected to be without running back Spencer Ware all season after he suffered a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee Friday night against the Seattle Seahawks. Rookie Kareem Hunt becomes the starter, with C.J. Spiller and Charcandrick West to back him up.
Shorter preseason, anyone?
The Patriots are the heavy Super Bowl favorite entering the season. But their front-runner status is not quite as prohibitive as it was a few days ago. The chances are slightly improved for the other 31 franchises.
“This team has to move forward with the resources that we have,” Belichick said. “And unfortunately we’ve lost one [player], and an important one. But as a team, we still have to move forward. And that’s what we’ll do. I guess that process has already started.”
1. Falcons’ stadium unveiling … The Atlanta Falcons weren’t very good Saturday night. The defending NFC champs lost their third preseason game, 24-14, to the Arizona Cardinals as their starting offense sputtered. Quarterback and reigning league MVP Matt Ryan threw an interception on the Falcons’ first offensive play en route to a four-for-11, 36-yard passing performance in what is supposed to be the primary tuneup for the regular season.
The Falcons’ new surroundings, though, were far better.
Mercedes-Benz Stadium opened to raves from fans and Falcons personnel. The retractable roof remained closed and there were reports of some opening-night glitches that included long lines at some concession stands. But those were minor details, it seemed, amid the splendor of the $1.5 billion building’s overall pageantry.
“It’s unbelievable,” Falcons Coach Dan Quinn said after the game. “Our team, we’re so damn excited to be here. So for all the men and women who created this, this lasting legacy, we want to make sure we acknowledge all of you, how much we appreciate all the work you’ve put in. We’re so damn excited to play. It didn’t turn out like we’d like tonight in terms of the way the finish happened for us. But I did want to acknowledge it’s so special to be here back with our fans in this, our home. So we’re really excited to get rolling.”
The 71,000-seat stadium’s most striking feature is the 360-degree halo-shaped video board high above the field. It is an attention-grabber, even for the players who are on the turf below.
Falcons rookie linebacker Duke Riley, asked what had caught his eye, said: “The 360 board up there. I did a 360 when I was looking at it. It was awesome. I just can’t wait to improve and have more fun in there.”
Riley said the stadium “definitely” lived up to its advance billing.
“It was awesome,” he said. “It was beautiful to have all the fans there. It was my first time in here. I had to stop one moment and just soak everything in one time. It was good. I had fun. We’ve got a lot to improve on. We’ve got to take the next step this next preseason game and then going into the regular season.”
Quinn said he came across no football-related drawbacks.
“The field surface was terrific and identical to the one that we have [at the team’s practice facility] in Flowery Branch,” Quinn said. “As far as the halo board, it’s very high. We came in [Friday] as a team to kind of go through to make sure: Where’s the scoreboard? Where’s the game clock? Where’s the shot clock? We caught some punts. But honestly, they thought of all those details ahead of time. And it totally came through for us in the biggest way.”
The Falcons, attempting to rebound from their come-from-ahead Super Bowl defeat to the Patriots, are 0-3 in the preseason. But that’s an issue for another day. For now, what matters is that their new home appears to be an honest-to-goodness football palace.
2. Jags and Bortles … The Jacksonville Jaguars are back to Blake Bortles at quarterback after switching to Chad Henne as the starter for their third preseason game. Perhaps Henne had a legitimate chance to seize the starting job and didn’t take advantage. Perhaps Coach Doug Marrone merely was sending a message to Bortles. Either way, the Jaguars have tied their fortunes to Bortles.
There’s no way they can feel particularly good about that. Bortles seemed to regress last season, and he’s done little since then to make anyone believe that he’s on his way to becoming a franchise quarterback. Marrone has made it clear that he’s willing to switch to Henne if circumstances dictate. No one should be surprised by an early-season move to Henne if Bortles continues to struggle.
3. Why not Kaepernick? … The question remains: Why in the world haven’t the Jaguars signed Colin Kaepernick? He’s better than either quarterback the Jaguars have. Owner Shahid Khan has said publicly he would support signing Kaepernick if that’s what his football people wanted to do. The Jaguars have many of the pieces in place to be an improved team if they can get competent quarterback play. Adding Kaepernick would improve their chances.
4. Kaepernick rally … The pro-Kaepernick rally outside the NFL’s offices in New York last week drew a sizable crowd and sent a forceful message. There is room to wonder, however, if it improved Kaepernick’s chances of securing NFL employment. If any team is shying from signing Kaepernick because it does not want so much attention and controversy attached to a quarterback who might not be the starter, such a public show of support would not exactly ease those concerns.
5. QB thoughts … Some quick thoughts on other quarterback situations around the league:
- The Panthers can feel quite a bit better about Cam Newton’s return from shoulder surgery. His preseason debut Thursday night at Jacksonville was brief but effective, as he led a touchdown drive and then exited. That should be plenty for the Panthers to be confident in Newton’s readiness for the season.
- The Indianapolis Colts wish they could be as confident about Andrew Luck’s readiness for the season opener as he works his way back from his own shoulder surgery.
- Ditto for the Baltimore Ravens with Joe Flacco’s return from his back issues.
Mike Glennon will likely be the Bears’ starter. (Mark Zaleski/AP)
- Buffalo Bills starter Tyrod Taylor is subject to the league’s concussion protocol after leaving Saturday night’s preseason game in Baltimore with a concussion. Taylor must be cleared medically to return to the field, so the decision about his readiness for the season now is out of his hands and out of the team’s hands. The Bills announced Sunday that T.J. Yates also is in the concussion protocol, leaving rookie Nathan Peterman as the team’s only healthy quarterback. The Bills traded Cardale Jones to the Los Angeles Chargers in late July. Is it even worth mentioning that Kaepernick is available and it would make sense for the Bills to sign him?
- Cleveland rookie DeShone Kizer had a six-for-18 passing performance and threw an interception in his start Saturday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. On Sunday, he was named the starter for the regular season. How very Browns-like. In truth, there’s little reason not to start Kizer and find out if he’s up to the task. Kizer gets the starting nod ahead of Brock Osweiler and Cody Kessler. It remains unclear whether Osweiler will be kept on the season-opening roster. But anything is possible with the Browns. And if last season’s script is repeated, each quarterback on the roster will get his chance at some point, maybe even current fourth-stringer Kevin Hogan.
- Jets Coach Todd Bowles is to make an announcement soon, perhaps Monday, on his choice for a season-opening starter at quarterback. It has been expected by many within the sport that Josh McCown will be Bowles’s pick. McCown didn’t play Saturday against the Giants. But second-year pro Christian Hackenberg squandered his chance to stake a claim to the starting job with another shaky performance. Even so, Hackenberg is in line to be at least the primary backup, with Bryce Petty having suffered a knee injury.
- Mike Glennon’s solid outing Sunday at Tennessee likely enables the Chicago Bears and their coach, John Fox, to stick to the organization’s original plan of having Glennon open the season as the starter ahead of rookie Mitchell Trubisky, the No. 2 overall selection in the NFL draft. Trubisky has been the more impressive quarterback at times this summer. But Glennon was signed to a significant contract in free agency to be the starter. Trubisky is the quarterback of the future after the Bears traded up in the draft to take him. That future probably will not arrive Sept. 10. Whether it arrives at some point this season remains to be seen.
6. Elliott’s appeal … The appeal by Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott of his six-game suspension by the NFL under its personal conduct policy is scheduled to be heard Tuesday by Harold Henderson, the former labor executive for the league appointed by Commissioner Roger Goodell to resolve Elliott’s appeal.
It is not clear when Henderson will make a ruling. If Henderson does not rule by Friday, the decision might not come until Tuesday of next week, given the holiday weekend. That could leave Elliott’s representatives and the NFL Players Association rushing to court days before the regular season if they are not satisfied with Henderson’s ruling.
7. Elliott’s debut … Elliott made his first appearance of this preseason by playing one drive Saturday night against the Oakland Raiders, getting six carries and making two catches. He is scheduled to miss practice Monday and Tuesday to participate in his appeal hearing and presumably will not play in the preseason finale. Barring a successful appeal or court intervention, Elliott would not play again in a game until Oct. 29 against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field.
8. Bell’s return … Tailback Le’Veon Bell is expected to rejoin the Pittsburgh Steelers around Friday or so, following the preseason finale. The running back has not yet signed his franchise-player deal, enabling him to stay away from the team without being fined.
No one should fret too much about Bell missing training camp and the preseason. He’s an established veteran player. He knows how to prepare and he knows the offense. He is working out on his own and he has plenty of motivation as he plays for the long-term deal that he and the Steelers failed to strike before the leaguewide deadline in July for franchise-tagged players.
Bell, by staying away, also did not face the risk of being injured in a preseason game. Ask the Patriots right about now if they’d have preferred for Edelman to have been safely tucked away somewhere for the preseason with plans to return in time for the games that count.
9. Bills and Dareus … Say this about the Bills’ new regime of General Manager Brandon Beane and Coach Sean McDermott: Those two aren’t messing around. The Bills traded wide receiver Sammy Watkins. They sent home defensive tackle Marcell Dareus from Baltimore before Saturday’s game for what was called a violation of team rules. The Bills might not be particularly good this season. But Beane and McDermott are wasting no time letting everyone know that they are taking a no-nonsense approach.
10. Beathard’s candidacy … Some observers were upset about the nomination of Bobby Beathard, the former general manager of the Redskins and San Diego Chargers, as a finalist for the 2018 class for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the contributor category. Some of those critical of Beathard’s nomination pointed to the role of Beathard’s former colleague in the Redskins’ front office, Charley Casserly, as an adviser to the committee that made the nomination and cited a list of other candidates that includes owners Pat Bowlen of the Broncos and Robert Kraft of the Patriots and former executives George Young and Gil Brandt.
But Casserly, as he pointed out on Twitter, did not have a vote on Beathard’s nomination. He recommended multiple candidates, he wrote.
Spirited debate about Hall of Fame candidacies is fine. But no one should disparage Beathard as a candidate. He is a worthy nominee and would be a deserving Hall of Famer. The same goes for Bowlen, Kraft, Young and Brandt. All of them should be enshrined eventually but waiting one’s turn remains a frustrating part of the process.