When I was in Los Angeles this offseason, I would pass the desk at my hotel every morning on my way to work. Jason, the gregarious man working the early shift, always presented me with the same question:
"How are my Raiders going to be this year?"
Each time, I told him he had to wait for the preseason to determine the answer. In reality, this was a lie. The preseason can tell part of the story, but not the whole truth.
The main purpose of the preseason is to give teams (and fans) a chance to evaluate specific parts of a team -- not the team as a whole. The Green Bay Packers already are a great squad, but they might not be a complete team if they don't shore up the left tackle position. Marshall Newhouse missed the first preseason game due to a concussion suffered in practice; his replacement, Herb Taylor, did not inspire confidence. That is a going to be the biggest issue surrounding the 2012 Packers: not their ground attack, not their secondary, but their suspect situation on the blind side. Should they panic after one game? No. But trust me, everyone in Green Bay is concerned.
Meanwhile, the New York Giants are reigning Super Bowl champs, so we know that's an excellent bunch. And it looks like the rich got richer when they signed free-agent tight end Martellus Bennett. Bennett, who spent his first four NFL seasons with the rival Dallas Cowboys, appears to have been a huge addition who will definitely help in the run game. Bennett will make the Giants a better team in 2012, plain and simple.
Evaluating teams in preseason games is hard because the score does not tell the whole story. Yes, the Cleveland Browns beat the Detroit Lions 19-17 on Friday night. Truthfully, though, the Lions dominated the game. What happened is, as the game went on, the Browns' backups outplayed the Lions' backups, allowing Cleveland to win the game -- yet Detroit was clearly the superior team.
Understanding the level of competition during the preseason is critical, especially when it comes to individual matchups. For example, a young rookie who is playing well in the fourth quarter of a preseason game is not necessarily a potential star. It just means the youngster will play earlier in the next game, when the team will get to see how he fares against foes of a higher caliber.
The level of competition at each position changes from team to team, too. Rookie Lions cornerback Bill Bentley looked like Deion Sanders in his preseason debut. The third-round pick out of Louisiana-Lafayette blanketed Browns receivers, particularly supplemental draft pick Josh Gordon, and secured his first NFL interception. But we all know Cleveland lacks great skill players; the Lions will have to wait and see if Bentley can be the same shutdown corner against better competition -- like the Baltimore Ravens this Friday.
Indianapolis Colts rookie quarterback (and No. 1 overall draft pick) Andrew Luck looked very impressive in his first start against the St. Louis Rams, as did Washington Redskins rookie QB (and No. 2 pick) Robert Griffin III in a game against the Buffalo Bills. However, the Browns' quarterback, first-round pick Brandon Weeden, struggled at Detroit. What does this ultimately mean? Not much. All three rookie starters have plenty of work to do before Week 1 of the regular season.
For some perspective, let's examine the preseason performances of a pair of notable quarterbacks in 2011. The first had a 101.7 quarterback rating last summer, completing 61 percent of his passes and averaging seven yards per attempt, with four touchdown passes and just one interception. The second posted a lowly quarterback rating of 64.9, completing just 42.1 percent of his passes and averaging 5.3 yards per attempt while managing just one touchdown throw. Any idea who these two quarterbacks might have been? The first was the Browns' Colt McCoy. The second? None other than 2011 Offensive Rookie of the Year Cam Newton.
That's right, at the end of last summer, McCoy was being hailed as the savior in Cleveland, while some were worried about Newton being named the Carolina Panthers' starter over Jimmy Clausen. Then the regular season happened, and we know how things turned out: McCoy's barely hanging on to his roster spot while Newton looks like the next NFL superstar. Long story short: It's impossible to truly judge young quarterbacks on the limited sample size of preseason stats.
In general, the first preseason game will feature the easiest scheme an NFL quarterback will face all year. After all, pass coverages border on high schoolish. So veteran signal-callers (players with three-plus years of experience) should play well. When they don't, there is definitely cause for concern. When Kevin Kolb makes a mistake on his first preseason throw, misreading a simple coverage and tossing an interception like he did in the Hall of Fame Game, the Arizona Cardinals have to worry that Kolb is simply never going to get better -- or, worse yet -- never going to get "it." Entering his sixth NFL season, Kolb should look great in the preseason. When he looks as bad as he has, the Cards must know they have some real issues at quarterback. Do you think they regret paying Kolb a $7 million roster bonus earlier this offseason? After two preseason games, they must feel they made a huge mistake, even if they'd never publically admit it.
Week 2 will offer more clues -- but those clues will foretell things about certain positions or players, not entire teams. We should not rush to judgment, but we should also know when a player should perform well. This week, understand the individual matchups, focus on certain positions of concern and don't worry about the final score.
And the next time I see Jason, I'll make sure to tell him his team is a work in progress -- as all teams are in the summer.
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi