The NFL preseason is in the books.
While it’s foolish to jump to conclusions based on preseason action, there’s good reason for some teams to be encouraged by three weeks of games. Others, not so much. Here’s what stood out after the final week of preseason play.
New England Patriots
Vibe: Not sure
For the first time since 2011, the Patriots offense will not be run by Josh McDaniels. The longtime offensive coordinator is now the head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders, leaving New England’s offense in the hands of — well, it’s not exactly clear.
Head coach Bill Belichick declined to name a coordinator. Senior football/offensive line consultant Matt Patricia and offensive assistant/center back Joe Judge — those are their official titles — split the offensive duties during New England’s three preseason games to less than stellar results.
Friday’s 23-6 loss to McDaniels’ Raiders raised the most important flags as New England’s starters led by second-year quarterback McJones combined for 74 yards, two touchdowns, a field goal and an interception on four possessions. The turnover was the low point as Jones failed to see linebacker Luke Masterson in zone coverage after trying to escape pressure.
Then again, it’s the preseason, so take the results with a grain of salt along with the benefit of the doubt that Belichick rightfully won. Meanwhile, Patricia and Judge are failed coaches who have never run an NFL offense. Patricia, in fact, is a defensive specialist who previously spent six seasons as New England’s defensive coordinator. The questions are valid, especially considering Jones’ development is at stake.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The good news for the Bucs is that Tom Brady is back. We still don’t know where he went during his hiatus from training camp. But the seven-time Super Bowl champion returned to the field in Saturday’s preseason finale against the Indianapolis Colts and looked fine while completing 6 of 8 passes for 44 yards, including a 20-yard strike to new teammate Julio Jones.
The bad news is that he will play in Tampa Bay’s Week 1 matchup with the Dallas Cowboys behind a depleted offensive line and without Pro Bowl target Chris Godwin, whose return date remains uncertain after tearing his ACL late last season. Following Ali Marpet’s surprise retirement at age 28, guard Aaron Stinnie and Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen are both facing long layoffs with knee injuries. Jensen’s replacement, Robert Hainsey, left the field Saturday with an ankle injury. but it is said to be ready for week 1. As is All-Pro left tackle Tristan Wirfs, who is considered day-to-day with an oblique injury.
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Either way, it’s a suboptimal set of circumstances surrounding a 45-year-old quarterback — even one who defied the laws of age, declining more than anyone in league history.
But it’s Brady, so there’s more good news than bad. The NFC South projects as one of the poorest divisions in football outside of Tampa Bay. The Bucks are going to win as long as they can keep Brady up.
Vibe: Cautiously optimistic
After starting Carolina’s training camp with a supposed quarterback battle between Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold, head coach Matt Rhule came to the conclusion we all knew he would. Mayfield is the obvious starter over Darnold, who is expected to miss 4-6 weeks with an ankle injury now anyway.
Now the question remains: Is Mayfield capable of being a winner in the NFL? His time with the Browns was a mixed bag at best. But he’s thrown some upside, and he hasn’t gotten over the point of proving his NFL doubters wrong. He left a toxic situation in Cleveland for a fresh start and is coming off a season hampered by a non-throwing shoulder injury.
His preseason was spectacular, but largely error-free, as he completed 59.1% of his passes with two touchdowns and no interceptions in limited action through two games. Both of his scores came against Buffalo Bills backups on Friday on a 9-of-15 effort for 89 yards. There’s nothing here that says Mayfield looks like a former No. 1 pick. But he has a chance to revive his career as a capable starter for a franchise that has long been lacking.
After being scratched from Week 2 of the preseason, Tyreek Hill made his Dolphins debut alongside Tua Tagovailoa in Saturday’s 48-10 win over the Philadelphia Eagles. It went as expected.
Miami’s first play from scrimmage saw Tagovailoa fire a deep ball up the middle for Hill, who beat a pair of Eagles defenders to haul in 51 yards.
Tagovailoa’s next pass was an 11-yard completion to Hill. Two plays later, he found receiver River Cracraft for a touchdown to cap an efficient 75-yard score. It appeared to be exactly how rookie coach Mike McDaniel planned things.
Qualms can — and was — with Tagovailoa’s distance on his deep ball that Hill had to adjust to in order to bring inside. But the result of the game and the movement are indisputable. Now Miami just has to repeat it during the regular season. Tagovailoa’s future in Miami and the Dolphins’ 2022 draft depend on it.
After weeks of training camp and three preseason games, the Pittsburgh Steelers are without a starting quarterback. Not something they’re ready to announce, at least.
Mitchell Trubisky and rookie Kenny Pickett saw action in Sunday’s preseason finale against the Detroit Lions. Both played well with Trubisky completing 15-of-19 passes for 160 yards and a touchdown, while Pickett completed 10-of-14 passes for 90 yards.
After the game, head coach Mike Tomlin declined to name a starter and appeared offended when asked about the position.
“Maybe, but you guys won’t today,” Tomlin said when asked if he had decided on an appetizer. “We’re not going to make knee-jerk reactions and statements after a play. We’re going to go through our proper business process. We’re going to evaluate the game. We’re going to meet with our front office people. We’re going to have conversations.
“We’ll talk internally. We’ll talk about external possibilities. We’ll go through our normal process this time of year and reveal it at our leisure to be quite honest with you.”
It’s hard to read which way the Steelers will go. They haven’t had a quarterback battle since Tomlin took over for Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback in 2007. Pickett is clearly the presumptive quarterback of the future after the Steelers traded up a first-round pick to select him in April’s draft. But are they ready to hand a rookie the reins to a team they hope can compete for the AFC North now?
Trubisky and Pickett both looked outstanding during the preseason. Trubisky, a former No. 2 overall pick, completed 70.6 percent of his passes for 8.3 yards per attempt with two touchdowns and no interceptions in three appearances. Pickett, meanwhile, completed 80.6 percent of his passes for 7.2 yards per attempt with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
It’s not an obvious call, for good reasons. But it is critical. Tomlin’s right to spend as much time as he needs to fix it.