I don’t want to come out and say the preseason doesn’t matter … but does it? I understand it’s a necessary evil that coaches use to evaluate players, but is success in August really that predictive of what we’ll see in the regular season? In most cases, the answer is a resounding no. For affirmation, take one look at last year’s preseason standings. The Cowboys and Seahawks both made the playoffs after tanking the exhibition slate (0-4) while the Cardinals won as many games in August (three) as they did during the regular season. The preseason can offer us glimpses—Christian McCaffrey parlayed his dominant summer (7.2 yards per carry, two touchdowns) into a sophomore breakout in 2018—but it’s still just one piece of the puzzle.
One less-than-stellar showing on August 19 won’t make or break a career, but if the eye test means anything, Jimmy Garoppolo could be in some trouble. Seeing his first game action since Week 3 of last season when he tore his ACL in a loss to Kansas City, Garoppolo’s return to the gridiron was a struggle and a half. The sixth-year quarterback looked anything but comfortable in his 2019 debut, completing 1-of-6 passes for zero yards and an interception in three series under center for the Niners, who dispatched the Broncos by a comfortable 24-15 margin Monday in the Mile High City.
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Beyond his miserable stat line—which included a pitiful 0.0 quarterback rating—Garoppolo displayed non-existent composure, folding like the dealer gave him a bad hand whenever Bradley Chubb so much as looked in his direction. Nobody was expecting Garoppolo to be gangbusters in his return from a nearly year-long absence, but even with our collective expectations lowered, it was still jarring to see the 49ers’ franchise quarterback implode so spectacularly. Worst of all, the 27-year-old’s Monday night woes didn’t appear to be a product of rust. Instead, Garoppolo looked like a man short on confidence. His passive demeanor immediately reminded me of NBA star Gordon Hayward, who looked noticeably tentative last season in his return from a horrifying ankle injury suffered just five minutes into his career as a Boston Celtic.
Garoppolo’s five-interception practice last week was mostly treated as a non-story—Patrick Mahomes was similarly careless with the football last summer before leading the league in nearly every passing statistic. But this feels different. Whereas Mahomes had no trouble reeling in some of his more self-destructive gunslinger tendencies (a rite of passage for young quarterbacks), Garoppolo’s skittish pocket presence and apparent lack of confidence will be harder to overcome. There’s time to remedy whatever’s ailing the former Patriot (about two weeks and change before their season opener in Tampa) and maybe Monday’s nationally-televised train wreck was the splash of water Garoppolo needed to get himself back on track (if I were Jimmy G, one look in the mirror is all I’d need to restore my confidence).
But is it also possible that Garoppolo, a player who has started a grand total of 10 games over the course of five NFL seasons, might not be the surefire star we all thought he was? Garoppolo’s bloated contract would suggest he belongs among the NFL’s upper echelon, but beyond a handful of successful starts late in 2017 and his ties to the greatest dynasty of our lifetime, the New England Patriots (the team that drafted him 62nd overall in 2014), what has Jimmy G really done to earn that reputation? It’s not Garoppolo’s fault the Niners paid him like a king, but maybe they should have read his resume first.
Garoppolo understandably drew most of the headlines for his poor performance Monday night, but he was far from the only point of interest. Monday’s exhibition also marked the return of Emmanuel Sanders, who has made a shockingly smooth recovery from last year’s torn Achilles. The fear was that Sanders—who has always relied on his speed to create separation—would come back as a slower, less effective version of his former dominant self. But if the Achilles tear left any cracks in Sanders’ armor, they weren’t apparent Monday as the 32-year-old looked as spry as he ever has, totaling 24 yards on two touches including a 19-yard reverse on a toss from first-year Bronco Joe Flacco. Sanders was also the recipient of a 45-yard deep bomb from Flacco, though the refs had to strike it from the record thanks to a holding penalty on teammate Garett Bolles. There’s only so much you can glean from a 14-snap cameo in the third of five preseason games, but seeing Sanders back in uniform less than nine months after enduring one of the most devastating injuries an athlete can suffer was pretty remarkable.
Established stars like George Kittle don’t have much use for the preseason (that’s probably why he watched the game from a suite Monday night), but for others trying to make a name for themselves, the exhibition slate is all business. Unfortunately for Drew Lock—the latest lab experiment in John Elway’s growing list of project quarterbacks—Monday’s showdown with the Niners did little to improve his stock.
First-year coach Vic Fangio gave an extremely blunt assessment of Lock’s development this summer when he said the former Missouri Tiger “is not a quarterback yet.” That wouldn’t be much of a deterrent if he was working the stadium snack bar, but Denver drafted Lock in hopes that he’d become the franchise quarterback that Paxton Lynch, Brock Osweiler, Chad Kelly and Case Keenum clearly weren’t capable of being.
The most confounding element of Lock’s game in college was that he was somehow more accurate from 40 yards out than he was on 10-yard layups. To his credit, Lock was at least consistent in his ineptitude Monday night, scraping together just 40 yards on 7-of-12 passing while struggling in all facets of the game. He didn’t have the benefit of playing alongside Sanders or Courtland Sutton, who were long gone by that point, but it was still an anemic effort by Lock, who remains miles behind entrenched starter Joe Flacco.
With so many moving parts, neither team could find much of a rhythm in this one, though the upcoming dress rehearsals should bring a sense of normalcy that’s been missing in recent weeks. Teams typically employ their starters for most if not all of the first half in the third week of preseason games before eventually ceding the stage to backups and fringe roster types fighting to make the final 53. That means Jimmy G will have a chance to redeem himself Saturday in Kansas City, where Garoppolo was carted off the field last September. Returning to Arrowhead will surely bring back bad memories, but Garoppolo doesn’t have time to revisit those. It’s all about 2019 now.
Quick Hits: Antonio Brown returned to Raiders practice on Monday, a day after going AWOL for the second time this summer. He may be back at practice, but AB is not ready to give up his crusade against the NFL just yet. The mercurial wide receiver has filed a second grievance in hopes that he’ll be able to wear his preferred helmet, which didn’t pass the league’s latest safety standards. … The Patriots gave veteran punter Ryan Allen the boot (no pun intended) Monday, cutting him in favor of fifth-round rookie Jake Bailey. Allen appeared in four Super Bowls, winning three, over his six-year run in Foxboro. … New England’s offense received a major boost Monday with the return of Julian Edelman, who was activated from the Patriots’ active/PUP list. The reigning Super Bowl MVP broke his thumb earlier this summer, though his availability for Week 1 was never in doubt. … Dontrelle Inman has a meeting on the books with Detroit, his first free-agent visit since New England cut him loose over the weekend. If he signs with the Lions, it would be his fifth team in three years. … D’Onta Foreman, who joined the Colts after he was cut by Houston earlier this month, is headed to injured reserve with a torn biceps. Indianapolis worked quickly to find a replacement for Foreman, adding former Chief Charcandrick West to the team’s backfield mix. … Derwin James, who was diagnosed with a stress fracture after hurting his foot in practice last week, will require surgery and is facing a 3-4 month absence. Adrian Phillips, an All-Pro special teamer in 2018, will be tasked with replacing James at strong safety. … DeMarcus Lawrence, who has spent the summer recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, is nearing a return to practice and could be activated from the PUP list any day now, according to NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo. A two-time Pro Bowler, the sixth-year Boise State alum cashed in this offseason when the Cowboys rewarded him with a five-year, $105 million contract. … Derrick Henry finally resurfaced Monday, returning to the practice field after a multi-week absence. The former Heisman Trophy winner has been a spectator most of the summer, owing to a calf injury he suffered on the first day of Titans training camp. … Derrius Guice is on track to play Thursday in the Redskins’ dress rehearsal in Atlanta. It will be Guice’s first game action since tearing his ACL last summer. The 2018 second-rounder has also been slowed by a hamstring injury he suffered during his rehab earlier this offseason. … Cody Kessler resumed practice just four days after he was concussed in a preseason game at Jacksonville. With newly unretired Josh McCown now installed as the backup to Carson Wentz, Kessler may face an uphill climb to crack the Eagles’ 53-man roster. … Dolphins coach Brian Flores won’t commit to Ryan Fitzpatrick as Miami’s Week 1 starter. Fitzpatrick fared poorly in Friday night’s preseason loss to the Bucs (20 yards on 3-of-9 passing), though fortunately for him, his competition, Josh Rosen, wasn’t much better (10-for-18, 102 yards, three sacks). … Golden Tate has entered the league’s concussion protocol and won’t be available for Thursday’s dress rehearsal in Cincinnati. Tate has plenty of time to get healthy—he’ll begin the year serving a four-game PED suspension.