It's no exaggeration to say that one of the most important decisions of the upcoming season won't be made by a coach, player, general manager or even an agent. It falls to Harold Henderson, a former NFL executive, who has been designated to hear on Tuesday the appeal of Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, who has been suspended six games following a year-long league investigation into domestic violence allegations.
Elliott is the defending rushing champion and was the primary reason the Cowboys thrived in the immediate aftermath of Tony Romo's season-ending injury last preseason. While we can anticipate the continued development of quarterback Dak Prescott and properly credit the Cowboys' superb offensive line, it shouldn't be taken for granted that the Cowboys will successfully navigate their first six games if Elliott's appeal fails and he does not get an injunction from the court that would allow him to play.
For the Cowboys, nothing that has happened in training camp or the critical first three games of the preseason is as important as Elliott's fate. So stay tuned. The expectation is that Henderson will decide the appeal swiftly, giving Elliott and the Cowboys time to figure out their options before their regular-season opener Sept. 10 against the Giants.
Henderson, then, will determine if this has been a good or bad preseason in Dallas. Here is a sample of both from the rest of the league, as the preseason winds down.
Reasons for hope
Your team drafted a quarterback last spring. We heard a lot about how far from ready this class was, but the early returns have been promising. DeShone Kizer was named the starter in Cleveland. His accuracy can be spotty, and in the third preseason game he got little help from his receivers. But to understand why Hue Jackson still has glowing things to say about Kizer, check out the pass he threw early Saturday night, when he rolled to his left and then, still on the move, launched a 32-yard strike to Corey Coleman at the sideline.
Mitchell Trubisky has kept the pressure on presumptive starter Mike Glennon in Chicago, playing so well in the first two games (24-of-33 for 226 yards and two touchdowns) that he took some first-team reps in practice last week and played a series with the starters in the third preseason game. Houston's Bill O'Brien has called Deshaun Watson one of the best rookie quarterbacks he's ever coached, although he announced after the second preseason game that Tom Savage will be the starter. Patrick Mahomes looked so good in Kansas City's firsttwo games with a combination of passing ability and mobility that Andy Reid felt compelled to make it clear that Alex Smith will be his starter. Watch next for possible midseason switches. Smith seems safest and Savage has performed well in his preseason action, although he will have to overcome a history of injuries to stay on the field. But the Bears have a very difficult opening quarter of the season (vs. Atlanta, at Tampa Bay, vs. Pittsburgh, at Green Bay), and assuming Glennon starts the opener, the door could be wide open for Trubisky if Glennon and the Bears struggle.
The Bucs' and Titans' offenses. Last week, the NFL tweeted an astounding statistic: Tennessee quarterback Marcus Mariota has thrown 33 touchdowns and no interceptions in the red zone since he entered the league in 2015, the best ratio during that time. Just behind him, the quarterback who was drafted one spot ahead of him by Tampa Bay, Jameis Winston, who has 34 touchdowns and one interception. The preseason gave tantalizing glimpses of more to come from those two and their offenses. In three preseason games, Winston led six drives that resulted in a score and completed 68 percent of his passes. Mariota led three scoring drives and completed 62.5 percent of his passes, despite he and the Titans' offense having a sub-par performance in the third game.
You trust that the Patriots can overcome practically anything. The loss of Julian Edelman to a season-ending knee injury is an undeniable blow to a Patriots offense for which he is the catalyst and Tom Brady's security blanket, particularly on third down. But the Patriots have a well-documented ability to withstand absences of even their most essential players without much of a slowdown. There is no one-for-one replacement for Edelman. Much of the attention during training camp, before Edelman's injury, was on the Brady-to-Brandin Cooks connection. Brady hasn't had a fast, big-play target like Cooks since Randy Moss, and they dutifully combined for deep passes and finger-tip catches, enough to put terror in the hearts of defensive backs, who Cooks easily got behind in practice. But don't overlook the increased role Chris Hogan is likely to have with Edelman gone. He has had a stellar camp and preseason, and he and Cooks are now the top two receivers, with Danny Amendola providing the shiftiness that Edelman possesses. The second preseason game reminded us of another offseason addition, running back Rex Burkhead, who tore through the Texans' defense with 50 yards on three receptions with a touchdown and 20 rushing yards on seven carries in a display of the versatility the Patriots want more of in their running backs and which will also fill some of the holes created by Edelman's absence.
You are a member of the Watt family. J.J. has returned from back surgery and, remarkably, appears prepared to pick up where he left off as the 2015 Defensive Player of the Year -- to say nothing of his stirring effort to raise money for Houston disaster relief. The Texans were careful to monitor J.J.'s workload during camp, and a fresh, healthy J.J., paired with Jadeveon Clowney, is a devastating force added to the league's top defense. Younger brother T.J. announced his arrival with a two-sack outing in the Steelers' preseason opener against the Giants, making public what the Steelers already knew -- he has picked up the playbook so quickly that he is going to start from Day 1, allowing the ageless James Harrison to be in a backup role that should preserve his body for when the Steelers need him most.
Reasons to worry
You're an Indianapolis Colts fan. The Colts brain trust has remained resolutely on message about Andrew Luck's return from shoulder surgery, emphasizing that their concern is for his long-term health. That's as it should be. But now seems like a good time to start panicking about the start of the season. Luck is still not practicing and head coach Chuck Pagano said last week there is no timeline for him to start. We know Luck is throwing. We don't know how much or how far, though, and while the team has insisted he will be on the active roster for the start of the regular season, the more urgent question is when doctors will clear him to start practicing and how much time he'll need before he is ready to go. The calendar is working against him. There are just six practices remaining until the season opens, making it more likely that Scott Tolzien will have to start the season under center. An added wrinkle: The Colts' starting center Ryan Kelly, the best member of an uneven offensive line, is out for the foreseeable future following foot surgery.
You're rooting for the Chargers to be crowd favorites in Los Angeles. It's only the preseason but the buzz for the Chargers in their new/temporary 27,000-seat home at the StubHub Center has been decidedly underwhelming. Last Sunday, just 21,197 fans showed up, stunningly few for an NFL event (they saw a particularly horrific game, with the Chargers giving up eight sacks and generating just 158 total yards). The team has sold out all tickets for the regular season, but the small crowds indicate that the Welcome Wagon hasn't been rolled out for the Chargers despite the intimate setting, which will surely become even more apparent if the team struggles this season. The Chargers don't play at home again until Week 2 against the Dolphins. But here's the game that will tell us plenty: The regular-season finale when the Chargers host the Raiders, who are almost certainly still the most popular team in Los Angeles.
You are a fan of the Jets' offense. During training camp, one talent evaluator advised me to start researching the worst offenses in NFL history if I had to write about the Jets. Saturday night's preseason game, which was all about seeing what Christian Hackenberg could do after a week of taking the first-team reps in practice, was a microcosm of everything that is wrong: Hackenberg does not sense pressure (he took a blind side sack Saturday night), often locks in on his receiver (he telegraphed the throw to the right flat that led to Landon Collins' pick six) and is nowhere near ready to start. The offensive line is unreliable. And there are few viable weapons around to boost the quarterbacks. After this failed experiment, the Jets announced Monday that they are going to start Josh McCown, who has exactly one preseason series under his belt. To add to the alarm: Bryce Petty, who played well enough in the preseason that he deserves to be No. 2 on the depth chart, injured his knee Saturday night. He hopes to play Thursday, though. All this leaves Todd Bowles with no good choices to start the season and perhaps well beyond that.