August in the NFL is a time for dreamers.
Late-summer weeks in which any fan can make a case for even the flimsiest of squads pulling off a playoff bid.
These are the happy-drunk hours of optimism before devastating injuries rip cannon-ball-sized holes into the starboard side of your favorite roster; before you learn point-blank one October Sunday that your second-year quarterback is NOT making the leap; before the campaign at large turns into just another rerun of the Patriots facing some johnny-come-lately on a bleak and scattered February afternoon.
For now, though, us dreamers are still allowed to fantasize about a campaign that goes just as we planned, minus anything resembling a hiccup.
Here is my wish list for 2019:
Down-to-the-wire drama in the AFC East: The least competitive division in sports has operated for most of the past two decades as a long-running stage act starring Bill Belichick and Tom Brady battling wits with a trio of trash bags. I'm calling for rebellion in Buffalo, where the Bills under Sean McDermott sport a well-coached, "nationally underrated" defense and a dangerously mobile quarterback in Josh Allen who -- a bit of a wild card, yes -- has better weapons around him in 2019. The real hope for a Patriots agitator, though, is 22-year-old Sam Darnold evolving rapidly inside a Jets offense armed with Le'Veon Bell, a sturdier front five and a solid gaggle of wideouts led by breakout candidate Robby Anderson. Throw in superstar safety Jamal Adams, and Gang Green has the makings of a club ready to punch up.
Could New England finally slide? While the Patriots boast a rugged defense with one of the league's top secondaries, questions linger over an offense saddled with a bottom-five receiving group, the ghost of Rob Gronkowski and the unknown trajectory of a 42-year-old signal-caller. We've hit uncharted territory, but Brady is not your average 40-something dude masking belly fat with baggy clothing, pondering occasional chest pains in the middle of the night and citing a walk to the pub as his "exercise" for the day. New England always finds a way.
More in-season philosophical shifts akin to last year's Ravens: Baltimore's flip from Joe Flacco to Lamar Jackson paved the way for one of 2018's more intriguing transformations. A stuck-in-the-mud attack leaning heavily on Flacco through the air (and paying for it) was reshaped by assistants Marty Mornhinweg and Greg Roman into a Truman-era juggernaut that averaged 19.4 more carries and 136.9 more rushing yards per tilt with Jackson down the stretch. Where the league was zigging toward early-down passing as part of an all-out air war, the Ravens zagged to heavy-formation heaven, with stacked backfields, multiple tight ends and a running quarterback who left defenses wondering who spiked the Gatorade with off-market psilocybin.
I'm asking for more of this in-campaign flexibility, please. If what you're doing is failing, gather the cooks and rewrite the recipe. Let's say the Texans lose Lamar Miller and two other runners in the course of a fortnight. Instead of signing Trent Richardson off the street, why not hire Mouse Davis as a consultant and barrel into Week 9 with a freaky-fast, amped-up version of the run-and-shoot? It's easy to forget in August how much bad football exists post-Thanksgiving. This is the product of injuries, but also clubs refusing to blow up the playbook to maximize the men still standing. Let's get creative!
Two-hundred tackles for Darius Leonard: The Colts linebacker led the NFL with 163 stops as a rookie, 19 more than the next guy on the list. Upon learning he had been outrageously snubbed by Pro Bowl voters, Leonard vowed to notch 40 tackles against the G-Men in Week 16, but wound up with nine. Drats.
I'll be monitoring Indy's Tackle Droid come September, hoping Leonard pulls off a feat unheard of this century: the elusive 200 mark. It was last achieved by Tampa's Hardy Nickerson (214) in 1993, and twice previously by Atlanta's Jessie Tuggle (207 in 1991 and 201 in 1990). Let's add a third member to that exclusive club.
Nick Foles keeps the magic carpet ride alive ... : Philly's Super Bowl strongman predictably inked a massive free-agent deal to wipe away the memory of Blake Bortles in Jacksonville. Forking over $50.1 million in guarantees, the Jaguars expect fireworks from a player whose high-water mark for single-season starts is 11 with the Rams in 2015, when he was benched for Case Keenum. Durability has been an issue. Fumbles have been a lingering career bugbear. The hope is that Foles -- one of the better stories we have in the NFL -- has evolved into something more and will continue to grow with a coach who understands his strengths in Jags OC John DeFilippo. So far, so good:
... While Carson Wentz wins over Philly for good: The flip side of Foles moving into a new chapter of life is the man he replaced for two straight playoff runs. Wentz was a high-quality quarterback last season, but hobbled again by injury when it mattered most. Leading a fully loaded attack, the oft-forgotten Eagles starter sits in grand position to dominate one of the three-easiest NFL schedules in 2019, per NFL analyst Warren Sharp's advanced metrics. Boasting one of the top front offices in all of sports, the Eaglesboldly extended Wentz through 2024 this offseason. I love the move and believe it will look even better after he's tugged Philly deep into the playoffs come winter.
Kellen Moore named Assistant Coach of the Year: Moore, the first-year Cowboys offensive play-caller, is merely 30 years old and just a few seasons removed from serving as a brainy backup to Tony Romo and then Dak Prescott. It's deja vu for Jason Garrett, who was a youngish 40 when Jerry Jones hired him as his offensive coordinator in Dallas in 2007.
So what will change from last year's bland attack? While Moore is keeping elements of the playbook used by dismissed OC Scott Linehan, the old scheme will be modernized with liberal doses of pre-snap motions, misdirection and formation variation to keep defenses guessing.* A coach's son cited to possess a "beautiful mind," Moore has generated less press than some of the young offensive brains taking over the league. With Garrett in the final year of his deal, could Jones be tempted to hand over the reins to Moore if the newbie shines?
*Potential fly-in-the-ointment alert: The possibility of Ezekiel Elliott choosing to spend autumn-into-winter on the beaches of Cabo reading David Foster Wallace's 1,079-page manifesto "Infinite Jest" back-to-back with James Clavell's 1,152-page (oft-ponderous) historical yarn "Shogun" if he doesn't get the offer he's seeking.
Revolution in the desert!: I root for any team that makes preseason games (almost) must-watch television. The Cardinals have morphed from the most boring club in football to a total fascination thanks to the arrival of Kliff Kingsbury and his Air Raid-flavored offense. In an age when the hungriest minds at the NFL level dip into college and high school playbooks for new wrinkles, we'll be getting the full menu from Kingsbury and his hand-picked quarterback, Kyler Murray. Football peaks for me when teams courageously unfurl schemes once scoffed at. The Shanahans worked wonders with Robert Griffin III, Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman showed insane multiplicity with the Niners and Kingsbury promises to double down on everything we've seen prior. If four- and five-receiver sets are the future, they're today's fare in Arizona, and I'm rooting for it to change the NFL forever.
Rosen Revenge!:Cardinals intrigue aside, I'm rooting for Josh Rosen to get his due. At best, he was treated scandalously by an Arizona front office that traded up to draft the quarterback in 2018 before plopping him behind the league's worst offensive line. Instead of complaining, Rosen offered kind words to Cardinals fans on his way out -- the earmarks of a me-first, unhinged millennial, right? Now in Miami, Rosen has shown sparks in his camp battle with Ryan Fitzpatrick, although head coach Brian Flores is leaning toward starting Fitzpatrick in the team's preseason opener. Forget the battle: I would make Rosen the team's starter this season and gain a comprehensive evaluation before next April's draft. How many former first-round passers sit in Year 2? My wish for Rosen is to end Miami's quarterback search for good.
The other shoe never drops in Cleveland: Perhaps because the offseason feels like a slow-motion drift through the outer reaches of our galaxy, we've hit this tedious point on the timeline: Browns backlash.
It's not everywhere, but it's there. A sense the Browns have already arrived, had their fun and must be ushered out for the next new face of the NFL. Despite 11 straight losing seasons, Cleveland didn't even make Yahoo!'s recent list of the league's most tortured fan bases.
Maybe it's just the nerve-racked 12-year-old Browns fan in me sensing a public ready to pounce if the team stumbles. I'm hardwired to wonder if the Football Gods have set the table for something next-level evil to unfold after so much newfound promise. I need this time to be different. It's not a wish. It's a fundamental human need after decades of calamity.
Tired with the Patriots winning six Super Bowls? I hear you. If people have already tired of the Browns -- before winning a game in 2019 -- it's Baker Mayfield's job to turn the screws and show Planet Earth what back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back Super Bowls feels like. Then one season off to allow the Jets to win it all before the Browns rise again for back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back titles.
Then come talk to me about your exhaustion. This show's just getting started.