Robert Griffin III struggles, Tom Brady surges in NFL preseason

The most important preseason games are over and with just 10 days to go until the regular season begins, a clearer-eyed assessment of teams is replacing the optimism that greets the opening of training camps.

In a lot of cases, that's good. If, for instance, you are a fan of Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, you are probably not losing a lot of sleep over anything you saw in the preseason, except for the amount Manning might be fined for taunting Houston Texans safety D.J. Swearinger, whose hit to the head concussed Wes Welker.

But in some cases it is very bad. With the season-ending knee injury quarterback Sam Bradford suffered Saturday night, the St. Louis Rams are now preparing for a season in the NFL's toughest division without their most important player.

Below are a few more things that could make fans feel a little sick as the season nears ... followed by some notes that might lift spirits.

The nausea:

The problem(s) with RGIII.Robert Griffin III won the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award just two seasons ago -- over Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson. Sure, few would argue that RGIII has since kept pace with Luck or Wilson, but it's truly astonishing that in some precincts, Griffin is not even thought to be as valuable to Washington as his backup, Kirk Cousins. Griffin, who is not expected to play Thursday -- although Jay Gruden kept the door slightly open to the possibility -- finished the preseason 13-of-20 passing for 141 yards and two interceptions. The first-string offense did not score a touchdown in 10 preseason possessions. And Griffin looks distinctly uncomfortable as he tries to make the transition to being a pocket passer. In the preseason game against Cleveland, he slid awkwardly on one play and on another exposed himself to at least three hits he shouldn't have. Against the Ravens, his longest pass was for seven yards and he was sacked three times.

According to one former personnel executive who has watched Griffin closely, the quarterback's troubles right now are manifold. He is coming off his reads too soon. His footwork is not consistently good. He is pulling the ball down and running too soon, and, in other cases, he is late on some of this throws because he is holding the ball too long.

Gruden said Griffin is further along than he appears to be in acclimating to the new offense. And making him into a pocket passer is certainly in the long-term interests of Griffin and the franchise that has invested so much in him -- there is no turning back. But the transition is clearly still a messy work in progress as the opener against Houston nears. The fear is that Griffin, now a full season removed from the knee surgery that limited him last year, might take much longer -- if ever -- to return to his dynamic playmaking self of 2012.

The Kansas City offensive line is ... whoa! Look out Alex Smith! The Chiefs' starting offense hasn't scored a touchdown in 16 preseason possessions, and against the Minnesota Vikingson Saturday, this looked more like a unit at the very start of training camp than one at its end. Smith threw twored-zone interceptions that night, a chill-inducing development for the Chiefs because he threw just seven picks all of last season, when Kansas City went to the playoffs.

Sure, offensive linchpins Dwayne Bowe and Jamaal Charles didn't play, and perhaps the pressure of trying to score contributed to the poor decisions that Smith made on the interceptions. But an overarching problem of the preseason that might not have an easy fix is the offensive line, a concern entering training camp that has only gotten worse. Smith has been sacked six times the past three weeks, the most of any of the projected starting quarterbacks in the league. The Chiefs' offensive line is a mess: Right tackle Donald Stephenson has been suspended the first four games of the season; the team has yet to absorb the offseason departures of three regular contributors; and left tackle Eric Fisher -- the No. 1 overall selection in 2013 -- has not lived up to expectations.

Coach Andy Reid said that after reviewing film from the Vikings game, the Chiefs aren't far away from where they need to be. That might be true at some positions. But close won't be good enough for an offensive line that has to face the Tennessee Titans, Denver Broncos, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots in the four games that Stephenson will miss.

When your quarterback stinks, he gets booed off the field. (Even when the game doesn't count.) So it went for EJ Manuel and the Buffalo Billsthis past Saturday. The Bills have gone all-in on Manuel, as evidenced by their sacrifice of next year's first-round pick to draft receiver Sammy Watkins in May. Watkins is gifted enough to cover up a multitude of deficiencies, but all you need to know about the Bills' offense without him is what happened when he sat out the team's third preseason game with bruised ribs.

The Bills' first-stringers did not score at all in their eight possessions in the first half (against the Bucs' first team). Manuel was intercepted and fumbled on a sack. To make matters worse, it's obvious Buffalo has no real backup option. The Bills released Dennis Dixon and Thad Lewis over the past couple days, signing Jordan Palmer to join Jeff Tuel in the reserve stable. At this point, the Bills just might have the worst overall quarterback situation in the entire league.

A frustrated Doug Marrone, who also had to contend with fights in practice last week, essentially said Manuel was trying to be too perfect with his passes.

"He tries to pinpoint the ball and really focus on just trying to get it there, and that's really just difficult to do," Marrone said.

But there might be a much bigger problem. Maybe Manuel is just not that good.

"I was not high on him in college," said a second former personnel executive who watched Manuel at Florida State. "Not good versus good teams. Too inconsistent in accuracy and decision-making. He is the main problem with the offense."

Salvaging Manuel and the offense, then, will largely fall to Watkins. In a sign of how concerned the Bills might be, Marrone will play his starters in the Bills' final preseason game this Thursday, an unusual decision for most teams.

The relief:

National Flag League? Not so fast. Nothing has been more maddening about this preseason than the torrent of penalty flags, many of them for things like illegal contact and defensive holding -- points of emphasis for officials this season.

The good news this week: It appears that the promised adjustment is coming -- albeit slowly. In Week 3 of the preseason, there were 34 penalties for defensive holding, compared with 46 in Week 2, and there were 28 calls for illegal use of hands, compared with 41 the previous week. Illegal contact calls inched up slightly from 26 to 29 in Week 3, and offensive pass interference (that, too, was a point of emphasis) went up from 13 to 18.

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One reason for the improved numbers: In Week 3, starters -- presumably the more skilled, more experienced players -- play longer, offering a higher level of competition. They, perhaps, do not need to resort to the pulling and grabbing the NFL is trying to eliminate, or they at least can adjust faster to a penalty than a less-skilled player. But officials are also getting a better feel for what should be called as they are graded week to week.

After a game against Washington in which 21 penalties were called, Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden said even his opponent thought some of the defensive penalties were off-base.

"That was crazy," Haden said. "I was talking to DeSean (Jackson), and he said, 'These are bad calls. You weren't holding.' I know I wasn't holding."

Things are looking up if you're excited for a repeat of the 2013 AFC Championship Game. The Patriots and Broncos spent much of their respective offseasons revamping their defenses, and the results have been that they have the early look of two of the most complete teams in the entire league.

But it is their quarterbacks who already appear to be in midseason form, rather than guys still shaking off the rust. Manning has completed 79.6 percent of his passes through three preseason games, while Brady has hit on 80.6 percent. Just four other projected starters were in the 70s and only one -- Russell Wilson -- got close to an 80 percent completion rate, finishing at 76.9 percent.

Consider that Brady's numbers have come without rehabbing tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has been the Patriots' offensive catalyst since the end of his rookie season. Manning and the Broncos seem to have absorbed Eric Decker's departure in free agency (to the New York Jets) without blinking. The addition of Emmanuel Sanders (who had two touchdown receptions against Houston) already looks seamless -- even though Manning pronounced that the offense stunk during joint practices with the Texans leading up to the game.

The only concerns for these quarterbacks are lingering ones. Will Gronkowski (and his knee) be in full form when he hits the field in the regular season? And how much time will Wes Welker miss after suffering a concussion, his third in less than a year?

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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