Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:
1. Running back Danny Woodhead does a lot of good things for the Patriots, but he doesn’t add the explosive element most teams seek in the kickoff return game. He’s not a burner. Still, the coaching staff has him as the No. 1 returner at this time, which is a hard one to figure.
2. The standoff between the NFL and its officials is like any negotiation; the leverage shifts back and forth over time. After the first week of preseason games, the officials seemed to gain more leverage in their stance. It’s hard to imagine the NFL allowing the 2012 season to be played with replacement officials, given some of the gaffes that occurred this past week. Embarrassing.
3. The more the Patriots lock Dan Connolly into the right guard spot, as has been the case over the last week or so, the more it makes me wonder if they have doubts that veteran Brian Waters is coming back. Connolly is one of the team’s best five linemen (even though he struggled Thursday), so he’ll be on the field somewhere when the season starts (likely center or right guard). I think the Patriots wanted him at center in 2012, but Waters’ reluctance to report to camp has shuffled the deck and the team has been working Dan Koppen, Ryan Wendell and Nick McDonald in the pivot.
4. Weekly reminder of the importance of depth in the NFL: Chargers running back Ryan Mathews (broken clavicle, out 4-6 weeks) ... Packers linebacker Desmond Bishop (hamstring, season in jeopardy) ... Bengals offensive lineman Travelle Wharton (knee, likely season-ending) ... Patriots linebacker Dane Fletcher (knee, likely season-ending) ... Steelers fullback David Johnson (knee, likely season-ending). Those were some of the big injuries of Week 1 of the preseason, and of the group, Bishop stands out. He’s a key player for the Packers’ defense.
5. Many believe the running back position isn’t one to invest in, but the Panthers have done it twice, signing both DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart to big-money, five-year contract extensions over the past two seasons. Stewart’s deal was announced Saturday, and I like it for the Panthers. They have to get through the explosive Saints in the NFC South, and the “Double Trouble” combination gives them a better chance to control games. Combine that with the big-play capability of quarterback Cam Newton and it looks like a nice offensive foundation in Carolina.
6. Along those lines, it’s why I think the Tim Tebow/Jets marriage has a chance of working. The formula for them to beat the Patriots has to be play great defense and control the ball as much as possible on offense. Mark Sanchez alone doesn’t strike much fear into the opposition. But in adding Tebow, which will force the opposition to devote valuable time game-planning, should help. He’s tough to bring down, as the Patriots discovered first-hand last season. This all assumes the distraction of Tebow doesn’t trump all.
7. Went into the offseason wondering if the Patriots had one of the best quarterback depth charts in the NFL, in part because of the progress Brian Hoyer has shown over the last three years along with high hopes for 2011 third-round draft choice Ryan Mallett. But Thursday’s preseason opener has put the brakes on those thoughts for now. Felt the Saints quarterbacks were better.
8. Was interested hearing Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff tell the story of one of cornerback Asante Samuel's first practices with the team, and how he intercepted a pass and kept running across the field in celebration. Samuel also posed on the field while pointing to his jersey. That might have caught head coach Mike Smith a bit by surprise, as Samuel’s flair is a change of pace for the normally buttoned-down Falcons. Sounds like Samuel’s presence has been a firecracker of sorts for the club, which can be a good thing.
9. Tough debut (and possible finale) for Chad Johnson with the Dolphins in the preseason opener, dropping the lone pass thrown his way on a third-and-4 situation. Then Saturday night he was reportedly arrested for domestic violence, which could be the beginning of the end of his time in Miami. Will be interesting to see how the Dolphins handle Johnson's situation ... and if Johnson finds a way to blame the Patriots.
10. Encouraging signs for the Dolphins with rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill's preseason debut. With David Garrard sidelined after a knee scope, Miami’s QB competition comes down to Tannehill (drafted 8th overall) and Matt Moore. Has to be Tannehill. It sort of reminds me of Drew Bledsoe, Patriots, 1993. No way Bill Parcells was going with Scott Secules that year.
11. Media note, Part I: Congratulations to Heath Evans on news that he will serve as a game analyst for Fox Sports this season. Evans is good at what he does, but on top of that, I think he is a classic example of a player taking advantage of being part of the “Patriots brand.” Evans arrived as an afterthought free-agent pickup in 2005, having been cut by the Dolphins. The role-playing fullback gave the Patriots 3½ good seasons, and in doing so also raised his own profile as a media-friendly player. Then he went on to the Saints and experienced more success. Had he done that in St. Louis and Carolina, for example, I’m not sure he’s calling games on Fox this year.
12. Media note, Part II: I enjoy “Hard Knocks” a great deal, looking forward to it each week. But man, does that put coaches like Joe Philbin in a tough spot. Can’t imagine Philbin feels good about having his first year as coach chronicled like this, and having the team’s displeasure with players like cornerback Vontae Davis so public. In this case, the Dolphins put business ahead of football.
13. Media note, Part III: Former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira, now a successful analyst for Fox, has created a niche for those with an expertise on the NFL rulebook. Because Pereira added so much value to Fox’s coverage, others are following suit. Look for more “rules analysts” on national broadcasts/programming this year.