The only winners of the NFL preseason are those who emerge healthy.
The losers are everyone else.
End of story. Thanks for checking in.
Oh, so we’re really doing this? OK.
The dirty truth of the preseason is that you really can scrape together some insight from it, as long as you know where to look, and provided you resist the urge to draw dramatic conclusions. All that’s left now is the (extra) meaningless preseason Week 4. So come along, and we’ll give it a try together.
Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback: Winston hasn’t really lit up the field, having failed to throw a touchdown pass in 69 attempts. But he is without question the breakout star of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” and is arguably the most interesting and engaging protagonist in the history of the long-running show. I was moved by the detailed tour of his childhood home in the opening episode, and by the way his words personalized what could have been a cliché segment. His personality has been portrayed as overtly positive and personable, but without any sense that he is playing for the cameras. Winston entered the NFL under the legal cloud of a sexual assault allegation, which was settled in December 2016. Through “Hard Knocks,” the NFL world is seeing a fresh version of a still-developing player and man.
Mike Glennon, Chicago Bears quarterback: In the Week 3 game, Glennon provided what the Bears had been hoping to see all preseason. He was accurate and composed throughout a 134-yard performance against the Tennessee Titans, giving the Bears enough clout to (credibly) start him in Week 1 over rookie Mitch Trubisky — who has had a good enough preseason to enter that conversation. In his first two preseason games, Glennon threw a pair of interceptions and averaged just 4.2 yards per attempt. But no one should argue Glennon’s spot atop the depth chart now. Now the Bears have a better chance to insert Trubisky into the lineup when he’s ready, and not just because he is needed.
NFL social awareness: This preseason brought a mainstreaming of Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest, in spirit if not in replicated practice. The message expanded from a campaign against the treatment of black Americans by police to one of racial harmony and unity, featuring an important inclusion of white players and capped by about 30 Cleveland Browns locking arms. Some players kneeled or sat. Some raised their fists. Some simply embraced a teammate. As other leagues explore ways to handle this summer’s national unrest, it seems clear that the collective voice of NFL players is growing stronger.
Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys quarterback: The Cowboys won’t be able to replace the playmaking of tailback Ezekiel Elliott, who is suspended for the first six games (barring a successful appeal). But don’t count out the possibility that Prescott will elevate his game to compensate. Quietly, he was exceptionally sharp in two outings, completing 18 of 22 passes for 219 yards and two touchdowns. Consider the lesson of Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson’s early career: No one knew Wilson could sling it so well until the Seahawks’ personnel required it. Based on what we saw this summer, it’s reasonable to expect a similar surge from Prescott early in the season.
Miami Dolphins: Imagine the nightmare of football nightmares. Your starting quarterback, the one who emerged from a seemingly endless march through his development to put you in position for a playoff berth last season, tears his ACL during a training camp practice. You trust your backup to make a few starts but are hardly enthused about making him a 16-game starter. You’re desperate. You call around and find … a guy who might be a better performer than your original starter? That’s a reasonable outcome for the Dolphins, who have replaced Ryan Tannehill with a still-young-enough Jay Cutler and appear no worse off. This is not the part where we project a Pro Bowl season from Cutler, who was prepared to work this season as a television broadcaster. It is to say, however, that Cutler showed enough in the preseason that he should at least pick up where Tannehill left off. That would be quite an accomplishment for any team that loses its starter in August.
Cleveland Browns: Sorry. I’m not aboard the DeShone Kizer hype train. The Browns named Kizer their starting quarterback after he completed 6 of 18 passes Saturday night against the Buccaneers. Kizer played better than those numbers, by all accounts, and those who have watched the Browns’ preseason know he is the best quarterback on their roster. But being the best quarterback on a roster isn’t necessarily the same as 1) winning a competition, and/or 2) being ready to start. The continued career spiral of Brock Osweiler and a disappointing sophomore showing from Cody Kessler had as much to do with this decision as anything. I’m not arguing with the verdict. I’m just telling you there aren’t many people around the league who think Kizer should be an NFL starter in Week 1.
The Minnesota Vikings’ offense: If you were hoping to be assured that the Vikings’ reconfigured offense would have more firepower than it did in 2016, well, this wasn’t the preseason for you. Perhaps offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur was hiding his best stuff. Maybe the early camp injury to left tackle Riley Reiff, who has since recovered, delayed progress that is eventually forthcoming. But in 12 first-team possessions over three games, the Vikings punted 10 times, kicked one field goal and had one clock expiration. Rookie running back Dalvin Cook looked good, but not like a threat to score every time he touched the ball. Quarterback Sam Bradford was still finding himself under pressure, which was still forcing him to throw short, which was still leading to complete a high percentage of his passes (74.4) for a low average yards per attempt (6.74). Perhaps it could all change once the regular season begins, but the pattern seems familiar.
Los Angeles NFL fandom: Many have wondered whether the Los Angeles market would support two franchises after getting along just fine without even one for 21 years. How much interest would the Chargers generate in their debut season? And what about the Rams, whose weekly attendance had plummeted at the end of last season? The preseason numbers, at least, are gory. The Chargers drew 21,054 to their first game at StubHub Center (of a capacity around 27,000) and 21,197 for their second. The Rams reported attendance of 58,561 for a Week 3 game that featured both Los Angeles teams, at the Coliseum. (The Rams drew 62,880 in Week 1 when hosting the Cowboys.) It doesn’t help that neither team is projected to be among the league’s elite. But it’s fairly clear that the Rams’ honeymoon is over — and the Chargers might never get one.
Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars took a wild stab Thursday night at fixing their quarterback situation, at least in the short term. They elevated longtime backup Chad Henne against the Carolina Panthers and hoped he would look like something other than a longtime backup. He didn’t. So now the Jaguars are back to Blake Bortles, at least for Week 1. In essence, they have admitted they don’t have a starting-caliber quarterback on their roster. If anything, Bortles has gone backward since his technique-challenged performance of 2016. By all rights, the Jaguars should be done with him. But they’ve got no reasonable alternative. So here they are.
Amateur boxers: Early on an eventful afternoon at Nissan Stadium, Bears defensive linemen Jaye Howard Jr. and Titans offensive lineman Quinton Spain engaged in the kind of fisticuffs you often see in the trenches. Both players appeared to throw punches. Here’s where it got interesting: Referee Ed Hochuli swiftly ejected them both. The NFL rule book calls for an automatic ejection if a player is penalized twice in the same game for unsportsmanlike conduct, a penalty that includes punching. But it also allows for immediate ejection if the punch is “flagrant.” The guess here, and elsewhere, is that the NFL will consider nearly all punches “flagrant” this season in an effort to rid the game of even semi-violent fights. Former vice president of officiating Mike Pereira, now a Fox analyst, tweeted: “Not a good year to be throwing punches.”