A long, long time ago, while I was attending Valley Forge Military Academy, the veteran cadets would refer to the period between Christmas break and the first week of March as the “Dark Ages.” The weather sucked and it was zero fun to march to and from meals in the windy, bitter cold. My days were never longer than they were at an all-male military school. But once March arrived, things picked up: the weather warmed, Fleetwood Mac had just released Rumours, and summer was just around the corner.
Even though much time has passed since my encounter with the Dark Ages, a new one has emerged. It starts right after MLB’s All-Star Game and continues until the NFL’s Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, on August 3. Nothing in sports excites me during these three weeks. There’s baseball, poorly officiated NBA summer league games with horrendous camera work, and … nothing. At this point in the summer, my television remote is useless. And the only exciting part about the Hall of Fame Game is not the action on the field but the mere signal of the return of NFL football. Now that excites me. What else am I excited for?
I’m excited to see J.J. Watt return to the Texans’ already impressive defense. I’m excited to watch the Texans’ quarterback battle between Tom Savage and Deshaun Watson. I’m excited for Hard Knocks featuring the Bucs and getting some insight into whether I should believe in them as a contender in the NFC South. I’m excited to learn how Brandon Marshall of the Giants has adapted to being a third or fourth option, and I’m excited to get daily updates on all the Giant receivers. (The Giants’ receiver room would be perfect for reality television.) I’m excited to watch all the rookie running backs play, especially Dalvin Cook, who might end up being the best of the bunch. I’m excited to watch Sean Payton use Adrian Peterson in the passing game and evaluate his talent — what he can still tap into, anyway — in the already high-octane Saints offense. I’m excited to watch the Packers defense determine whether they’ve improved Dom Capers’s patchwork schemes. I’m excited to watch the Chargers play in front of a full house — albeit just 30,000 screaming fans — at the StubHub Center. I’m excited to see what lies ahead for Kirk Cousins if the team in our nation’s capital continues to punt on giving its QB a long-term deal. I’m excited to watch Blake Bortles (really) and see if his new mechanics will allow him to become more accurate with the ball down the field. I’m even more excited to watch Year 2 of the Doug Pederson offense in Philadelphia and see if he’s made the changes necessary to take advantage of Carson Wentz’s game. I’m excited to watch the Cardinals this year and find out what version of Carson Palmer we’re getting in 2017. But most of all, I’m excited about three things, starting in Dallas.
I’m excited to see how the Cowboys bounce back from their heartbreaking playoff loss to the Packers along with how they handle the success of their 13–3 2016 season. As Bill Belichick often tells his team at the start of the offseason, “Last year was last year; this is a new team, and a new season — we haven’t won anything yet.” Which is the mistake the Cards made last year, and Bruce Arians admitted as much: “I think the biggest reason was losing the opener on Sunday Night Football to the Patriots on that missed field goal,” Arians said this week. “That took a lot of swagger out of our football team, then we came back and lost to the Rams in another close game. We didn’t win the close games we had won in the past but it all goes back to that first one.”
What makes the Cowboys so interesting centers on their ability to handle the doubt that crept up last year. And that doubt could continue this season if they start slow. The Boys have no cakewalk to start the season. Their first five games are brutal. They open at home against the New York Giants, who beat them twice last season, and then hit the road against the Broncos and Cards before returning home to face the Rams and Packers. Each opponent will be gunning for them; everyone will have studied their tape and found new ways to defend their offense and attack their defense. Losing five starters from last year’s defense will create some early-season obstacles — which they could overcome, but it’ll take more than the preseason to iron out the kinks.
In 2016, the focus on the Cowboys’ success typically revolved around the offense, primarily Dak Prescott’s emergence as the new leader and playmaker, along with Ezekiel Elliott’s ability to take over the game as a dominant offensive line wore down opponents. However, their defense, while not flashy, was highly effective in critical areas. For example, Dallas was the no. 2 team in the NFL last year at controlling the football, with an average of nearly 32 minutes per game, in large part due to their ability to play defense on third down (15th overall). They were also among the best in the league in limiting pass plays of 20 yards or more. Think of it this way: The Cowboys played less defense than 30 other teams, kept the ball from being thrown over their head, and got off the field on third down. That’s how you succeed.
At the start of the 2017 season, potential problems linger — the first is clear cut: The team has lost defensive end David Irving to a four-game suspension for PED use. In addition, the Cowboys also have a new right tackle to integrate, a bunch of new starters on defense, and no real backup at quarterback. Trouble could be imminent.
The other issue is far more complicated and sensitive. The looming specter of losing running back Ezekiel Elliott to a suspension related to domestic violence accusations made in 2016 by an ex-girlfriend arose again this week. What will come of it right now is unknown.
And since Dallas is playing a first-place schedule, things don’t get any easier as the season progresses. The Boys finish with three of the last four games on the road: at New York, at Oakland, home vs. Seattle, and a regular-season finale in the City of Brotherly Love. Ouch. Which makes the start of their season so important — I’m giddy to see how Jason Garrett handles the enormous expectations surrounding his team. Don’t forget, Garrett has pressure from his newly inducted Hall of Fame owner after his playoff bomb last year at home against Green Bay. Anything short of a deep playoff run and there could be a new sheriff in charge of America’s team.
I’m excited to watch DeShone Kizer play after he wins the job as the Browns’ 4,145th new starting quarterback since they returned to Cleveland in 1999. In recent drafts, the Browns have passed on every top quarterback prospect, including Carson Wentz, Mitchell Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes, and Deshaun Watson, before finally selecting Kizer in the second round of this year’s draft. Maybe they were right to pass on those top picks, and maybe they have the right man for the job. The preseason minicamp hype indicates he’s their future. That can be good and bad. Good in the sense that he solves their interminable QB problem; bad in the sense that he might be only a short-term answer, and the 2018 draft might be the best quarterback class in recent memory.
Let’s say Kizer plays like Dak Prescott did last year. Then the answer is easy; we have our guy. Or let’s say he plays like Jared Goff. Again, easy; we don’t have our guy. But what happens if he alternates three games like Goff and one like Prescott throughout the season? Do the Browns enter the offseason with a glass half full of optimism that Kizer can overcome his inconsistency, allowing the team to pass on Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Lamar Jackson, or Josh Allen? Or do they just thank Kizer for his services, keep him as a backup, and enter the 2018 draft quarterback hungry?
We’ve seen this problem unfold in the NFL before. The Rams thought they had their man with Sam Bradford in 2010 and passed on other quarterbacks before realizing that Bradford wasn’t durable enough and was unwilling to throw the ball down the field. The same thing happened in D.C. when RG3 briefly looked like a savior and the team wouldn’t give up on him after his rash of injuries. (Remember when he was benched in favor of Colt McCoy?) Most teams make mistakes evaluating quarterbacks, but more teams than you might think do so both before and after the draft.
The Browns are anxious for any good news under center; they might overlook potential pitfalls with Kizer, the same way Washington did with Griffin. And if Kizer plays reasonably well, it might put blinders on their ability to appropriately evaluate his long-term future. Browns head coach Hue Jackson will not want to enter Year 3 in 2018 with another starting quarterback — developing another rookie won’t assure him of keeping his job.
I have a 20-game rule for evaluating quarterbacks; it takes at least 20 games for defensive coordinators to determine how to defend a quarterback’s skill set. They must first understand the scheme, then defend the player in the scheme — which is why RG3 looked so good so early. He was making plays that were largely scheme devised, not based on decision-making. Once smart coordinators forced him to stay in the pocket, he had no answer.
If Kizer does start, the Browns need to pay close attention to weeks 6 through 8, when they face the Texans, Titans, and Vikings: three well-coached defenses with smart coordinators that will either bring out the best in Kizer or the worst. I’m excited to watch those games.
Being a lame duck is never a good thing. Just ask Chris Christie, the soon-to-be ex-governor of the great state of New Jersey. The Chiefs’ Alex Smith has the same lame-duck status as Christie, and I’m excited to see how this awkward in-between year will unfold. The Chiefs’ plan is to let first-round pick Patrick Mahomes learn and develop at Smith’s feet, essentially grooming the rookie for 2018. When has this plan ever worked? Don’t tell me Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. Favre was never a lame-duck quarterback — the Packers just made a move when they felt Rodgers was ready.
To win big in the NFL the quarterback must have the full confidence of the team. That’s why the Chiefs traded next year’s first-round draft pick to secure Mahomes. If the Texas Tech product looks strong in practice or a preseason game and Smith does his usual check-down short-passing routine, fans (and maybe some inside the team) will want Mahomes in the game. Having two of something is great, unless it’s a quarterback.
Chiefs head coach Andy Reid wants the best of both worlds — a great year from Smith as he searches for a new team, and a new contract if he’s cut, and for Mahomes to develop. Chiefs players and coaches know Smith’s limitations. My sense is once Mahomes can demonstrate his ability — and prove to the coaches and the team that he has big-game potential — the Chiefs should trade Smith. Why wait? They’re not winning a championship with Smith, nor are they winning one with a rookie quarterback. However, if the Chiefs’ master plan is predicated on winning in 2018, the time to start is now.
My battle with this latest version of the Dark Ages is slowly coming to an end. Now all I need is a new Fleetwood Mac album.