For openers, NFL preseason has some value

July 31, 2001 4:46 AM
by

share

Football finally begins on Friday as the NFL preseason kicks off with the Steelers playing the Falcons, and continues throughout the weekend, with the Bengals playing the Bears and the Cowboys hosting the Raiders on Saturday, and culminates with the Hall of Fame Game on Monday night, which will feature the Rams playing the Dolphins. All four games involve teams with interesting story lines heading into the new season, and some with more answers than questions.

Falcons (-2) vs. Steelers

Atlanta has already had a successful training camp. When camp opened last week, the Falcons had 100 percent attendance, including top overall pick Michael Vick, who has wowed observers with his incredible athleticism. Vick is listed as the team’s second string quarterback, but probably won’t see a lot of time against the Steelers this week. Vick still looks uncomfortable in the passing game, and should see more time later in the preseason, as veteran Eric Zeier may retain the number two role for a while, despite his number three title on the depth chart.

The Falcons also have a new defensive coordinator, Don Blackmon, and he hopes to exert more pressure on opposing quarterbacks than last year, when Atlanta had just 31 sacks. Defensive end figures to be one of the most fought-over positions on the roster, as Patrick Kerney, Brady Smith and Chuck Wiley battle for the two starting spots, which should create some great pressure during the exhibition schedule. Wide receiver also looks like a spot with a lot of competition, with Tony Martin back from Miami, and the return of Terance Mathis, Shawn Jefferson and Jammi German, as well as rookie Vinny Sutherland, one of four rookie receivers looking to earn a job against the veterans.

The Steelers will do their best to keep the Atlanta pass-rushers out of their backfield. Kordell Stewart comes into the preseason as the Steelers’ starting quarterback, and has been a much more confident player during this year’s camp. Stewart is beginning another season under a different offensive coordinator. Mike Mularkey took the post after Kevin Gilbride was dismissed, despite advancements made by Stewart last season. Stewart has responded well under Mularkey so far. Pittsburgh’s pass catchers have been inconsistent, at best, over the last few seasons, but Troy Edwards looks very good and could have a big season. Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress are battling for the other spot, with Ward the better of the two right now.

Bears (-2) vs. Bengals

The Bengals should be very optimistic coming into the new season. They signed Corey Dillon, have Darnay Scott back from injury and drafted two quality prospects in defensive end Justin Smith and wide receiver Chad Johnson with their top picks. Cincinnati also brought in a number of solid veteran free agents, such as defensive tackle Bernard Whittington and offensive tackle Richmond Webb as well as fullback Lorenzo Neal. Instead of optimism, though, the Bengals are mired in a quarterback controversy, between Akili Smith, Jon Kitna and Scott Mitchell. Smith was awful last year, throwing just three touchdown passes and six interceptions and completing 44 percent of his 267 attempts, easily the worst performance of any starter in the league. But Smith feels he should be starting, and he has a point. The Bengals used the third pick in the draft on him a few seasons ago, and, while he’s been extremely inconsistent with his arm, he still has a lot more talent than the other two retreads on the roster. All three quarterbacks should see playing time in this game, as head coach Dick LeBeau, presiding over his first training camp, tries to figure out his quarterback.

The story isn’t much different for the Bears. Chicago took Cade McNown in the first round of the same draft in which the Bengals took Smith, and, like the Bengals, the Bears are still waiting for a return on their investment. It is possible than McNown won’t even make the Bears opening day roster, as Jim Miller and Shane Matthews have shown the ability to lead the team in the past, and McNown has been considered a detriment to the team because the other players don’t like him.

One thing working for McNown is the fact that Miller is currently injured with a hamstring problem that will keep him off the field for another week. That extra time will give McNown a chance to work his way back into the team’s plans. Dick Jauron, the Bears’ head coach, is in a make-or-break year, and if the Bears start slowly, Jauron could be looking for a job. That makes it more likely that McNown won’t be starting when the real games begin, unless he blows away the competition in exhibitions. His first chance is Saturday.

Raiders (-6.5) vs Dallas

Two of the most storied franchises in league history face off in Oakland when the Raiders host the Cowboys on Saturday night. The Raiders remain a Super Bowl contender entering the season, and are certainly much older than they were last year, with the signing of Trace Armstrong, Jerry Rice and Charlie Garner. The Cowboys are rebuilding and look like one of the worst teams in the league. Rice, now at split end instead of his normal flanker role, may see some time early on against the Cowboys.

The most impressive Raider in camp so far has been second-year receiver Jerry Porter, a big, fast athlete who worked very hard over the off-season to become a pass-catcher. Quarterback Rich Gannon doesn’t figure to play much. Without Gannon, as the Raiders saw last season in the AFC Championship Game, they don’t have much chance for success. Look for Bobby Hoying and second round pick Marquis Tuiasosopo to see most of the time behind center.

The Cowboys have only two players back from their glory days of the mid-90’s, safety Darren Woodson and running back Emmitt Smith. Dallas brought in a number of free agents and draft picks, and hopes the healthy return of Joey Galloway can inject some explosiveness into the offense. Troy Aikman retired and was replaced by free agent Tony Banks, who has never been an accurate passer. The Cowboys have high hopes for second round pick Quincy Carter and Anthony Wright, who played in the last four games last season. Many observers felt that the Pokes reached for Carter, who probably could have been had with a fourth round pick.

On the other side of the ball, things aren’t much better for Dallas, especially in the secondary. At cornerback, Dallas is so young and inexperienced that they are hoping safety Izell Reese can move to the outside, a position he’s never played in the NFL. Overall, the cornerbacks on the Cowboys’ roster have a total of five NFL starts between them, meaning whoever plays quarterback for the Raiders should have a field day. Look for Porter and Hoying or Tuiasosopo to hook up for a big play or two.

Dolphins (—3) vs Rams

The Rams matchup with the Dolphins in Canton, Ohio is probably the most interesting of the weekend. While the game isn’t a regular season battle, it is an interesting juxtaposition of two opposite teams. Players like Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk and Isaac Bruce should only see token action for the Rams, but the Mike Martz system remains the same. Martz will want to see what backup Joe Germaine can do, considering Warner’s injury problems last year. Rookie Marc Bulger should also get considerable playing time. The line has moved heavily on this game. The Rams began as four point favorites, but Martz said he considers this game little more than a scrimmage, resulting in the line moving way to the Dolphins side.

Miami is a three-point favorite across the board at the time of this writing. The Dolphins strength is on defense, but cornerbacks Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain, as well as linemen like Darryl Gardner and Jason Taylor and linebacker Zach Thomas, will only play for a few minutes in the first half. The Dolphins have brought in a number of free agents defensively, and drafted another cornerback, Jamar Fletcher, in the first round. Head coach Dave Wannestadt is a defensive-minded coach, and will have his second and third stringers ready to slow down St. Louis.

On the other side of the ball, the Dolphins tried to get faster, bringing in wide receivers like Dedric Ward, James McKnight, and rookie Chris Chambers. With Jay Fiedler and Ray Lucas fighting for the top quarterback spot, look for Miami to play wide-open offensively, against a Rams’ defense that is basically rebuilt. The Rams didn’t stop anybody last season, and have a whole new look. Two of their three first round picks, safety Adam Archuleta and defensive tackle Ryan Pickett, are still unsigned. Their other first rounder, defensive tackle Damione Lewis, just came to terms, and should play limited minutes.

As the weeks wear on and the weather grows colder, the games will get more important, and more interesting. For an opening week of preseason games, this batch offers a number of reasons to stay interested, including the first opportunity to make some money on the gridiron this season.

TEAM  

OPEN  

NOW

St. Louis  

5-1  

4-1

Tennessee  

7-1  

 9-1

Washington  

 10-1  

 15-1

Denver  

10-1  

8-1

Oakland  

 10-1  

15-1

Minnesota  

12-1  

 18-1

Baltimore  

12-1  

 7-1

Indianapolis  

 12-1  

12-1

NY Giants  

15-1  

 15-1

Tampa Bay  

15-1