"What do you expect? It's only the preseason." That's the built-in explanation (some would call it an excuse) teams give for poor play in the preseason.
Arguing the point is tough. With minimal game-planning and limited appearances by starters, there isn't a whole lot that resembles the real NFL product.
Therefore, forming solid conclusions from what takes place on the field is tricky. Final scores and statistics don't always paint an honest picture, good or bad.
Still, fans and media are always quick to grab a brush -- especially when what they see looks bad. And coaches and players are equally fast to respond by pulling out the it's-only-the-preseason card. Linebacker Keith Brooking told the Dallas Morning News that even his wife was among the many Cowboys fans "freaking out" after the team's 23-7 preseason loss to the Houston Texans last Saturday night. Brooking had to "sit down and have a talk with her" to assure her things weren't truly as bad as they looked.
However, when you throw other factors into the mix -- such as injuries, talent questions and trends dating back to the previous season, if not earlier -- you find that some of those discouraging pictures around the league do have validity.
With the preseason coming to a merciful end, here are five teams that look to have real concerns based on what they've shown on the field and/or other developments since the pretend games began:
New York Jets
They're one of the tougher teams to read because their preseason has been filled with the drama of Darrelle Revis' holdout and the controversy sparked by enough foul language during its "Hard Knocks" episodes on HBO to make Tony Soprano's crew blush. Although Revis' contract dispute easily qualifies as a real concern, there's reason to believe it will be settled by the start of the season. No salary is still a whole lot worse than getting less money than he's demanding.
The bigger issue could very well be the performance of Mark Sanchez. His struggles on the field this summer can't be ignored because he is a second-year quarterback who experienced a fair amount of growing pains as a rookie. It's incumbent upon him, and highly-touted Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, that Sanchez demonstrate significant strides. So far, the indications are quite the opposite. The knee surgery that took away from Sanchez's offseason work could be a larger factor than Sanchez or the Jets are willing to admit, and it might very well take several weeks into the season before he begins to step up his performance.
The hiring of Mike Martz as offensive coordinator was supposed to bring an infusion of explosiveness to the Bears' offense. It was supposed to make Jay Cutler a better and more productive quarterback. To date, there has been little evidence of that -- at least during preseason games.
Cutler's first year in Chicago was extremely disappointing. After so much offseason hype and anticipation, he never consistently showed the playmaking that had made him a dynamic force for the Denver Broncos (whose fans still aren't happy that Josh McDaniels gave him the boot). Cutler did OK in the first two preseason games this year, then slumped in the third. For the summer, he has completed 19 of 37 passes for 275 yards and a touchdown, with two interceptions.
Cutler recently told the Chicago Sun-Times that the Bears have been running "very vanilla stuff" on offense, which is a classic defense for shoddy preseason results. But just how much better he is going to play with Martz's guidance remains a mystery.
Now here is one preseason stat that is impossible to ignore: In three games, the Panthers have gone 42 offensive possessions without a touchdown.
It's hard to wrap your head around that even when the games don't count. No matter the level of football, 0-for-42 takes offensive ineptitude to a level all to its own. Remember, this is a team that believed it would be better off going with an inexperienced starting quarterback, Matt Moore, rather than a veteran, Jake Delhomme, who now starts in Cleveland. This is also a team that used a second-round draft pick on a quarterback, Jimmy Clausen, who doesn't appear physically (bad toe) or mentally ready to do anything but watch this season.
There hasn't been anything particularly bad about Moore's performance, but there also hasn't been anything particularly impressive. It doesn't help that the Panthers are without injured No. 1 wide receiver Steve Smith and running back Jonathan Stewart, yet all that has done is show how little they have in the way of depth. The one surprising bright spot is their defense, which has shown a strong pass rush despite the free-agent departure of defensive end Julius Peppers.
The easiest place to start for reasons this team should be very concerned is the fact their starting quarterback on opening day won't be Donovan McNabb, and instead will be someone who has made two starts in three years, Kevin Kolb. But that isn't all that could result in some sleepless nights for coach Andy Reid and the rest of the Eagles' brass.
Another major concern is the offensive line. Injuries disrupted this group in 2009, and the same has been true throughout the summer. Center Jamaal Jackson, who continues to recover from a torn knee ligament he suffered in late December, just began practicing this week. Left guard Todd Herremans, who has been dealing with an injured foot, missed the first two games of the preseason. Stacy Andrews still doesn't look like a great fit at right guard. And the bookends, Jason Peters and Winston Justice, are just OK.
With the starting line (or at least the starters from that unit who are healthy enough to play) taking the field in the preseason finale against the Jets, the Eagles are going to hope for some instant continuity when they take on the Green Bay Packers in the season opener. Not exactly the most comfortable situation with a virtual rookie at quarterback.
New England Patriots
The news came as a shocker earlier this week: Starting right cornerback Leigh Bodden will miss the season with a shoulder injury. That's a blow the Patriots, who need all of the help they can get on defense, are likely to have a hard time overcoming.
No one was quite sure how much of an impact Bodden would make in 2009, his first season in New England. He wound up exceeding expectations by sharing the team lead with five interceptions, including three against the Jets in Week 11. Bodden consistently was in a position to make plays, breaking up a team-high 17 passes. Now the Pats are expected to rely on a rookie (Devin McCourty) and second-year player (Darius Butler) as their starting cornerbacks for their season-opener against the Cincinnati Bengals' highly-accomplished duo of Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens.