It's the time of the football season where the first rush of optimism that greeted the opening of training camps has crashed into the reality born of shaky preseason games, dozens of tweaked hamstrings and the dawning realization that there aren't enough quarterbacks to go around. The dress-rehearsal preseason games are over, the regular season is just nine days away and it's time to take a clear-eyed look at where things really stand.
There is plenty that is still unknowable, like how many times Chip Kelly is planning to expose Sam Bradford in plays that allow hits like the one Terrell Suggs laid on Bradford's legs -- legally -- in Week 2 of the preseason. Or whether a new offense that places more emphasis on the run and a Gary Kubiak-designed plan for designated rest days will successfully preserve Peyton Manning for the stretch run in Denver.
Those answers will come into focus with time. But as we head into the new season, we can already draw some conclusions about what will feed our nausea ... and what will fuel our hopes.
» Life after RGIII in Washington? It probably says all you need to know that Robert Griffin III was in precisely this same spot when we did this assessment one year ago. If possible, things have only gone downhill -- and rapidly, over the last week -- from there. Confusion over Griffin's concussion and his availability to play only further exposed the awkward relationship between a team and the player to whom its future was staked. This is what it came to over the weekend: Conspiracy theories bubbled up about whether the team was exaggerating Griffin's symptoms to find a convenient way to bench him.
Now that he has indeed been benched in favor of Kirk Cousins -- with Jay Gruden making clear it is a long-term move not based only on Griffin's health -- the questions abound again: about Cousins' potential as the starter and about Griffin's future.
Cousins completed 20 of his 27 passes for 190 yards and a touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday night. And, perhaps just as significantly, he rebounded well after throwing an interception -- a concern for the team last year.
Former Washington general manager Charley Casserly watched the All-22 Coaches Film of Cousins from last weekend and believes Cousins' accuracy and poise in the pocket have him operating Gruden's offense better than Griffin does.
"The franchise is stuck in neutral with Griffin," Casserly said.
Casserly isn't sure Cousins is the answer, either, but the 27-year-old at least has made progress in his four-year pro career. And while Cousins has shown a knack for floundering late in games -- which is why Casserly is not entirely sold on him as the long-term solution -- Casserly says the feeling in Washington is that, with the job secured, Cousins won't be as mistake-prone because he knows he won't lose the starting gig.
And whither Griffin? With Griffin now buried on the depth chart, Casserly believes the Redskins have to consider releasing him -- particularly if they sense the chemistry in the locker room and in the quarterbacks' meeting room is showing fissures.
Furthermore, looking toward next year, Casserly said he would try to sign Cousins and then prepare to draft one or two quarterbacks.
It has been a stunning collapse for Griffin, but given the drama of the last few years, it shouldn't be entirely surprising. Even after he was benched, Griffin made news Monday night when his Instagram page liked a post that highlighted Washington's dysfunction and took shots at owner Daniel Snyder. Griffin later explained that it was an intern who did it.
Now that Gruden has made the big decision, it is up to him and new general manager Scot McCloughan to figure out what comes next. Given the recent history, fans might want to cover their eyes, but they might be able to take comfort in one note. McCloughan was a personnel executive for the Seattle Seahawks when they paid Matt Flynn a big bonus to sign and then chose Russell Wilson over him, leading to Flynn's eventual release. So at least McCloughan is willing to make tough decisions and move on. That might be the only good news this team gets this year.
» Different team, same concern for Rex. There are a lot of things to love about Rex Ryan. His handling of quarterbacks, if you paid any attention to his time with the New York Jets, is probably not one of them. Ryan named Tyrod Taylor the Bills' starter on Monday, which is fine on its face. Taylor was their best quarterback in the preseason and he also has the athletic ability that creates plays and delights Ryan. The problem is ... What happens if Taylor stumbles out of the gate? EJ Manuel's strong showing against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Saturday briefly made a muddled quarterback competition in Buffalo even cloudier. Matt Cassel is the kind of veteran who might be able to manage a team with a LeSean McCoy-led running attack and a top-tier defense.
"This is the ideal situation we had talked about," Ryan said Saturday, after Manuel's breakout game.
Selecting and grooming quarterbacks was Ryan's great failure in New York (see: Sanchez, Tebow, Smith). And his ability to do better for the Bills could be the difference between the team logging a 16th consecutive season without a postseason berth and fully taking advantage of a premier running back and one of the league's best defenses. It also could ultimately be the difference between Ryan remaining Buffalo's savior and him flaring out as an NFL head coach.
» Can the Dallas Cowboys spare some offensive linemen?Peyton Manning getting sacked three times by early in the second quarter on Saturday (all three on plays from under center) only underscored the weakness Denver shares with a bunch of teams. The Broncos' offensive-line upheaval has been startling -- at one point, the Broncos were prepared to start three players who had never before played an NFL regular-season snap -- but the signing of guard Evan Mathis figures to stabilize the group somewhat, and prevent the kind of pressure Manning saw coming up the middle Saturday, just in time for the regular season.
The reinforcements are not arriving in other places, though. Lovie Smith lamented the play of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' young line. Bruce Arians must have been cringing at the protection Carson Palmer got this weekend. The Miami Dolphins could start their third-string left tackle in the season opener, as they did Saturday, if Branden Albert and Jason Fox are still out. They also got a scare when center Mike Pouncey left the game, although he said his knee injury will not keep him out of the regular season. That's much better news than his brother Maurkice received. That Pouncey's broken tibia, which will likely keep him out until at least late November, was part of a brutal week for the Steelers, which included the four-game suspension of receiver Martavis Bryant and an unsettling loss Saturday to the Bills which raised questions about the readiness of the defense.
And in Seattle, the offensive line might be the only real weakness on a team with a legitimate chance to make it to a third straight Super Bowl. But, oh, that weakness ... The Seahawks had a different offensive-line combination in each of the three preseason games and three positions on the line are in flux. No matter the combo, the first-team offense has stalled: In 12 possessions, they've endured seven sacks and produced four field goals. The Seahawks were interested in Mathis but were simply too strapped for funds to make a deal.
» Alex Smith is throwing passes to wide receivers. This is not a drill. You know this already: The Chiefs did not have a touchdown pass to a wide receiver all of a last season. They were dead last in passes of 25 yards or more last season, and Alex Smith didn't have one in the first two preseason games this year. But Jeremy Maclin has arrived to fill in the hole that swallowed the Chiefs' playoff hopes. And suddenly, last weekend, the Chiefs had a downfield passing game. Alex Smith completed 16 of 18 passes with two touchdowns -- the first one on a 29-yard pass to Maclin down the sideline. The Chiefs took a 17-0 lead on the Titans when the starters were in, and with the passing game humming, they look like the kind of well-balanced team that should contend for the postseason.
» The comfort level of Sam Bradford and Blake Bortles. They are at the extreme ends of their career narratives -- Bradford trying to recover from injury-plagued seasons with a playoff contender, Bortles only going into his second year with a team that is very much still rebuilding. There was trepidation surrounding both of them, but that seems to have been allayed in the third week of the preseason with sharp performances that had both looking at ease in their respective offenses.
Whatever faint question there was about a quarterback competition in Philadelphia -- and whatever oxygen was expended on Tim Tebow -- should end right now. Bradford completed all 10 of his passes for 121 yards and three touchdowns in one quarter against the Green Bay Packers. With that one performance, he validated Chip Kelly's master plan -- at least until the regular season starts -- to blow up the roster, trade Nick Foles and try again. Perhaps most encouraging: Bradford stood in against a blitz and threw a touchdown pass as he was about to be taken down by an opponent. We haven't seen much of Bradford this preseason, but that one quarter provided enough evidence to believe that the Eagles' offense is in the right hands with Bradford -- and if he can stay healthy, Philly's a playoff team.
The Jaguars are probably still a few more bits of talent -- and a lot better injury luck -- away from the playoffs, but the development of Bortles provides hope that Jacksonville's braintrust got this shocking draft pick right. Bortles completed 20 of his 29 passes for 245 yards and a touchdown against the Lions last Friday. The starting offense has scored on eight of 11 drives in the preseason. The big takeaway: Bortles looks infinitely more comfortable and poised than he did last year, and while that won't be enough to propel the Jaguars past Andrew Luck in the AFC South, the offense won't be the Jaguars' weakness with Bortles around.
Why Patriots fans -- actually, all football fans -- should be happy after a long summer. Even the storyline that has dominated the entire offseason shouldn't get New England Patriots fans too down. No matter what happens in the coming days, the reality is that the Patriots get Tom Brady for at least 12 regular-season games this year. All but a handful of teams would sign up for 12 games with Brady, and the reality is that the Patriots are unlikely to go 0-4 even if Jimmy Garoppolo is starting, particularly because of the woes Pittsburgh -- New England's opening-night opponent -- now faces. Brady missed three days of practice during camp to attend hearings and settlement talks, and until he led a nearly perfect two-minute drill against Carolina last Friday, it was fair to wonder if he had been distracted enough that his preseason performance had suffered. But on an 18-yard touchdown strike to Scott Chandler, Brady finally looked like Brady. That is almost certainly the last we will see from Brady this preseason -- and perhaps for a while longer, if he has to serve any or all of his suspension.
Brady will even provide good news this week for those who live outside Patriots Nation: There will be some (at least temporary) resolution to his case. And even if there is no settlement and the loser appeals, that could take a year to wind through court. The league and perhaps Brady might be dreading that. But at least the story that has proved an irritant to just about everyone -- including owners who would like to see it wrapped up before the season kicks off -- would be shoved onto the back burner while the season plays out. Enjoy the silence.