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The Winners and Losers of the 2019 NFL Preseason

Danny Dimes and Kyle Sloter are exhibition game kings. The Vikings’ and Bears’ kickers … well, not so much.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Every week this NFL season, we will celebrate the electric plays, admonish the colossal blunders, and explain the inexplicable moments of the most recent slate. Now, we’re extending that to the preseason too. Welcome to Winners and Losers. Which one are you?

Winner: Danny Dimes

The world laughed when the Giants selected Daniel Jones with the sixth pick in April’s NFL draft. But there is no more Daniel Jones. There is only Danny Dimes.

That’s the quarterback who was born when the Giants took the field for their first 2019 preseason game, on August 8 against the Jets. Jones completed every pass that he attempted, including this picture-perfect touchdown throw.

Jones’s preseason statistics are off the charts. He went 29-of-34 (85.2 percent) passing for 416 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He averaged 12.2 yards per attempt, nearly doubling his college career average of 6.4 yards per attempt. He gained 16 first downs on 34 throws, and his 137.3 passer rating led all QBs with more than 10 preseason passing attempts. If Jones were to maintain his completion percentage and yards-per-attempt average over a full season, he would smash the all-time NFL records in both categories.

But stats can be misleading. Let us look at the tape, which reveals that EVERY PASS DANIEL JONES MAKES IS A BLESSING FROM HEAVEN.

He throws perfect deep balls! He fires darts into tiny windows! He’s 13 feet tall and weighs 800 pounds and can poop Lombardi Trophies! As someone who watched Jones in college and panned him ahead of this draft, I am stunned. Jones played 36 games at Duke, averaging at least 10 yards per attempt in only three of them. In the last month, he was significantly better than he ever was in college, except he was going against pro competition.

When Jones was drafted, Giants general manager Dave Gettleman outlined a three-year plan for Jones to become the starter. Meanwhile, owner John Mara claimed he hoped Jones would not see the field this year, since that’d mean Eli Manning was thriving. After Jones dominated the preseason, the question has to be asked … should Jones start for the Giants right now?

I’m not ready to applaud the Giants’ pick yet. But I’ll say this: If Jones routinely made the throws in college that he can now apparently make with ease, there wouldn’t have been as much yelling and booing back in April.

Loser: Cursed Kicking Situations

We can’t discount kickers’ preseason performances in the same way that we discount the performances of the other 52 guys on an NFL roster. They do not spend these exhibitions kicking against third-string goalposts. Their difficulty level in these games is roughly the same as it is during the regular season. This has to be terrifying for the Vikings and Bears. Both NFC North franchises have seen their playoff hopes disintegrate with missed field goals over the last few seasons, and both could have their cursed kicker situations continue into this fall.

In January 2016, then–Vikings kicker Blair Walsh missed a 27-yard field goal attempt that would have won Minnesota a playoff game. Walsh had enjoyed a great career to that point, yet he promptly fell apart, failing to convert four field goals and four extra points in the 2016 season before getting cut. In 2017 the Vikings turned to Kai Forbath, who missed five PATs, and in 2018 they drafted Daniel Carlson, who made just one of his first four field goal attempts. The Vikings cut him too, electing to sign Dan Bailey, who at the time was the second-most accurate kicker in NFL history. Then Bailey went 21-of-28 with Minnesota and dropped down to fifth.

The Vikings entered this preseason determined to fix this problem. They still had Bailey, but also watched the 31 other teams in the league to see if any had a backup kicker worth snagging. They found one: Kaare Vedvik of the Ravens. He went 12-of-13 across two preseasons with Baltimore, even hitting a few 50-yarders, but had no chance of making the Ravens’ roster because Justin Tucker is perhaps the best kicker in the league. The guy who loses Baltimore’s kicker battle to Justin Tucker is a hot commodity—that’s how the Saints found Wil Lutz. So two weeks ago, the Vikings traded the Ravens a fifth-round draft pick to acquire Vedvik, a Norwegian kicker out of Marshall. It made so much sense: Vikings are literally Norwegian.

And then Vedvik sucked. He made just one of four preseason field goal tries with the Vikings, missing every attempt from over 30 yards. He reportedly went 5-of-9 in a recent training camp session. The Vikings cut him and will enter this season with Bailey. Vedvik signed with the Jets, with whom he will surely relearn how to kick.

The Bears’ high-profile kicking miss came in last season’s playoffs—the famed Double Doink. Yet Chicago fans will tell you that its kicking struggles began in 2016, when the team released all-time leading scorer Robbie Gould rather than shell out a few extra dollars to pay his salary. And Cody Parkey didn’t just start doinking in the postseason; he somehow hit the post four times in one regular-season game, a feat as miraculous as it was upsetting.

All of this appears to have driven second-year coach Matt Nagy mad. He brought in nine kickers this offseason, grading them daily and measuring their kick speed, RPMs, and other metrics. The Bears’ kicking battle was such a prominent story that during an August 8 game against the Panthers, Carolina coach Ron Rivera iced Chicago kicker Elliott Fry on an otherwise meaningless field goal attempt, explaining after the game that he wanted to help Nagy evaluate the kicker’s clutch performance.

Do you realize how unusual that is? Coaches don’t often try to help other coaches solve roster problems. Can you imagine a coach dialing up a ton of blitzes during a preseason game to help an opposing coach determine whether his QB could handle pressure in the pocket? Fry made the kick, but lost the preseason battle to Eddy Pineiro, who concluded his August by shanking a PAT so violently that he missed the damn net.

Both teams leave this preseason with more kicking questions—and existential dread—than answers.

Winner: Preseason God Kyle Sloter

You probably haven’t heard of Sloter, so let me summarize him this way: He might be the best quarterback in the NFL, and we’re never going to find out.

Sloter went undrafted out of Northern Colorado in 2017 after a strange college career that saw Southern Miss coaches move him to slot receiver before pulling his scholarship. Upon reaching the pros, Sloter made the most of every opportunity. As a rookie with the Broncos, he threw for 413 preseason yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions, the highest passer rating of anyone in the AFC. But the Broncos had no room for Sloter. How could they give him a roster spot with the unstoppable trio of Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler, and Paxton Lynch at quarterback? Those guys have two Super Bowl rings between them! (Both won as backups to Peyton Manning, but whatever.) So Sloter went to the Vikings, where he continued his remarkable preseason play. In 2018, he threw for 366 yards with four touchdowns and no picks while completing 73.2 percent of his passes.

He did it again this preseason. Against the Saints on August 9, Sloter went 6-of-7 passing for 62 yards with a touchdown. Against the Seahawks on August 18, he went 11-of-13 for 116 yards with a score. Against the Cardinals on August 24, he went 6-of-7 for 102 yards with a touchdown.

Sloter barely got first- or second-team reps, seeing only a few minutes of action in these games, but he almost instantly led his team on touchdown drives when he did. Through three weeks of the 2019 preseason, Sloter’s career stats in these exhibitions were staggering: 111-of-148 (75 percent, what?) for 1,059 yards (7.1 per attempt, not great) with 10 touchdowns (a massive 6.7 touchdown rate) and zero interceptions. Statistically, this makes him the greatest QB in the NFL.

Sure, sure, sure: This was preseason football, with Sloter mainly excelling against backups. But the guy essentially went the equivalent of three full games with 10 touchdowns against no interceptions! Vikings starter Kirk Cousins didn’t have a comparable stretch at any point last year!

So Sloter got the start in Week 4 of the preseason. Unfortunately, he didn’t have his best game. On August 29 against the Bills, he went 16-of-24 for 163 yards with one touchdown and his first-ever preseason interception. The Vikings summarily cut him, retaining Sean Mannion as their backup and undrafted free agent Jake Browning as their practice-squad QB. It feels like a joke. Mannion has never shown anything special; Browning went 10-of-13 with an interception this preseason.

Sloter earned the undying love and support of a devoted corner of Vikings fandom. (People even made T-shirts!) Head coach Mike Zimmer was less supportive, saying that there were “a lot of things he has to get better at if he wants to be the backup quarterback.” There were also rumblings that Sloter did not practice particularly well. The Vikings tried to trade Sloter, but found no takers. He was cut, inciting rebellion and soul-searching among a segment of Vikings diehards.

There is a happy ending for our hero: The Arizona Cardinals picked up Sloter for their practice squad. He won’t play in the regular season—he technically isn’t allowed to unless Arizona promotes him to its full-time roster. But this means Sloter will almost certainly find a spot to spin more touchdowns in the 2020 preseason.

Loser: The NFL’s Road Show

One of the strangest games in NFL history took place on August 22. The Raiders, who are entering their final season in Oakland before relocating permanently to Las Vegas, were forced to move the game out of their home stadium because they waited too long to sign their 2019 lease, during which time the NFL created a preseason schedule that didn’t account for potential conflicts with the cotenant Oakland A’s. So instead of playing the Packers somewhere in California, in UNLV’s stadium in Vegas, or in any American city without an NFL team, the Raiders searched for a deal with Canadian cities. They settled on Winnipeg, home of the CFL’s Blue Bombers.

The Winnipeg stadium reconfigured its field for the Raiders (a CFL field is 110 yards long with 20-yard end zones), but messed up one critical aspect. When the goalposts (which sit at the CFL’s goal line) were moved back to the end of each end zone, the holes left by the departed posts were not properly filled in. Needless to say, this wasn’t sufficient.

With a gigantic hole in the middle of each end zone, the teams agreed to play on an 80-yard field. Here’s a touchdown at the 10-yard line.

The Packers sat 33 players; the Raiders sat 24. Nathan Peterman led a game-winning drive, which culminated in a field goal kicked through goalposts that were technically stationed 10 yards behind the end of the field. The whole thing was so strange that everybody almost forgot that Antonio Brown was sitting out because of a cryotherapy treatment gone wrong and a controversial protest over the league’s helmet rules.

This marked the third time in the last four seasons that the NFL attempted to play a game in an unusual stadium, but then had to rethink things for safety reasons. In 2016, the Hall of Fame Game in Canton was canceled because a field crew tried to speed up the paint-drying process by heating it, causing the rubber pellets in the artificial turf to melt and form a rock-solid mass. Last season, a Rams-Chiefs game scheduled for Mexico City was canceled when torrential rain, a Shakira concert, and usage by soccer teams combined to make the field unplayable.

Clearly, the NFL likes to spread its product to new countries and new stadia. If the league is going to ask its players to play games in foreign countries, it feels like the least it could do is invest in playable fields.

Winner: The Ravens’ Exhibition Dynasty

The 1972 Miami Dolphins are canceled! Nobody cares about their undefeated season anymore. Our new gods are the preseason Baltimore Ravens, winners of 17 consecutive exhibition games across the last four years. The Ravens finished this preseason 4-0, just as they finished the preseason 4-0 in both 2016 and 2017. They didn’t finish last year’s preseason 4-0 because they actually went 5-0, winning the regular allotment of preseason games while also winning the Hall of Fame game.

And they didn’t just win this year: They crushed the opposition, starting with a 29-0 rout of Jacksonville and continuing with multiscore wins over Green Bay, Philadelphia, and Washington. The Ravens outscored their preseason opponents by 66 combined points; no other team had a point differential over 40. “It was supposed to be an exhibition!” humiliated and horrified Baltimore opponents screamed in shame after watching the Baltimore Dragos pummel their friends to death.

Technically, the Packers once had a longer preseason win streak, spanning 23 games from 1959 to 1963. But the two are barely comparable. Back then, the NFL preseason wasn’t a regulated four-game slate for all teams—each team scheduled its own scrimmages across the country during an era before games were regularly broadcast on television. Starters played because the idea was to put on a show for regional fans who paid to watch big stars. It’s honestly weirder that the Ravens keep winning in an era when preseason is primarily about teams figuring out which fourth-string players to keep on their regular-season roster. The third-, fourth-, and fifth-longest preseason win streaks of all time are also from the 1950s and 1960s, making the Ravens the only remotely modern team in the top five.

What does the win streak mean? Well, nothing. When asked about it, head coach John Harbaugh told reporters, “I don’t know how significant that is.” One wonders whether he had any idea it was happening at all. And there is little correlation between preseason wins and regular-season ones. Teams that go 4-0 in preseason have a losing record on average and make the playoffs less than half of the time. The 2008 Lions and 2017 Browns both famously went 4-0 in preseason before going 0-16 in the regular season.

The players who dominated for the Ravens this preseason are unlikely to see the field this fall: Trace McSorley, who handled the majority of the snaps at quarterback, is the third-stringer; De’Lance Turner, who led the team in rushing, is on the practice squad; Patrick Ricard, who had as many sacks as the Ravens’ four opponents combined, is Baltimore’s starting fullback and thus won’t play much on defense. As such, nobody is celebrating the Ravens’ preseason perfection.

I will not stand for it. After four years, it’s undeniable that the August Baltimore Ravens are America’s greatest football team. Let’s fast-forward through this regular season and skip the Super Bowl. I can’t wait until next preseason, when the Ravens try to push their meaningless win streak past 20. Bow down to your exhibition gods.