NFL Nation: Inside Slant

Among the goals of our Referee Report is to shine light on a long-held but under-reported part of the football. Namely: games can be influenced by the style of each officiating group. Penalty frequency and emphasis can fluctuate, a result of the same human element that causes strike zones to vary based on home-plate umpires in baseball.

NFL penalty totals aren't purely dependent on the officiating crew, of course. Efficiency and playing style of the teams involved factor in. But over time, I think we can get a feel for the activity level of the NFL's 17 crews by looking at the average number of penalties, both accepted and declined, they call per game.

We'll start that process now with a chart that documents the two-week totals and average of each crew. Keep in mind that there are more crews than games each week, allowing for some off days. Also, the chart doesn't include what Craig Wrolstad's crew called in Thursday night's Week 3 game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons.

What's most notable at this point is the significant discrepancy of range. Games officiated by Clete Blakeman's crew averaged less than half the penalties as those handled by the crews of Carl Cheffers, Ronald Torbert and Tony Corrente. The two-game sample is small, but there is no question that teams keep track of those figures, perhaps not to impact their game plans but at least to supplement their preparations.

If these numbers hold, of course, you can feel better about using aggressive techniques in Blakeman's games compared to if Cheffers, Torbert or Corrente had your games. (Here is a link to's unofficial but always reliable referee assignments for Week 3.)

ESPN Stats & Information's database also allows us to sort referees by penalty type, another exercise most teams perform on a weekly basis. Much of the early frequency reflects the full penalty totals at this point, but what follows is one type of trend we'll keep an eye on.

In the first two weeks of the season, there were 77 calls for defensive holding or illegal contact, two of the key points of emphasis for the NFL in 2014. Of that total, 11 have been called by John Parry's crew. On the other hand, Gene Steratore's crew has called only one, while the crews of Brad Allen and Walt Anderson have called two.

So if you're a defensive back preparing for a game with Parry's crew, you might want to curb your aggressiveness relative to a game with Allen or Anderson. We'll continue to look at and update these trends throughout the NFL season.
Zygi WilfAP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltThe indictment of Adrian Peterson was another lesson in management for the Wilf family (Mark, second from left, and Zygi, right) as Vikings owners.

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- It was about 2 years ago when Zygi Wilf and I were having an informal conversation in his office at the Minnesota Vikings' practice facility. It was the same room where, in previous years, Wilf had addressed his embarrassment over the team's "Love Boat" scandal, and later his concerns about a coach who kept releasing players without telling him, and later a stadium fight that threatened the future of his franchise.

"I'll tell you this," Wilf said, rubbing his forehead, "you have to really love football to do this. I mean, you have to love football. The headaches that come with it ..."

We laughed, because he and I both understood that the money is pretty decent, too. But to me, it was Wilf's way of saying that owning an NFL team comes with all sorts of unintended consequences and moments far beyond the comfort zone and interest level of even the most successful businessmen in the country.

The indictment of running back Adrian Peterson, and the Vikings' confusing and contradictory response, should be viewed as the latest in a long line of lessons in the education of an accidental owner. The Wilfs made their billions with a family-run real estate company that by definition bears little resemblance to the structure of NFL franchises, distinctions that have been made clear one incident at a time.

Few people remember that Zygi Wilf, his brother Mark and cousin Lenny never intended to be in a spot where their management style was subject to public scrutiny. They grew up as New York Giants fans whose father, Joseph Wilf, once made a run at purchasing the New York Jets.

In 2005, mutual acquaintances helped recruit Zygi Wilf into an investment group led by Arizona entrepreneur Reggie Fowler, who signed the initial 2005 purchase agreement with former Vikings owner Red McCombs. When questions about Fowler's financial backing threatened to scuttle the deal, Wilf and his family swapped places with him -- in part to salvage the group's $20 million deposit.

From the start, the Wilfs were on their managerial heels. Their initial hopes to be invested fans scuttled by Fowler's financial questions, the Wilfs tried to structure a franchise to operate independently with their occasional involvement.

The model was Garden Homes, the Wilfs' real estate company, where family members talk through issues and make group decisions. In Minnesota, it led to a three-man committee system for football operations that included the head coach, the personnel director and the contract negotiator. Zygi Wilf envisioned himself as the tiebreaker on football decisions, while Mark Wilf was considered the glue between vice presidents of finance, marketing, stadium development and legal.

That structure was appealing in theory because it removed owners from making decisions out of their expertise. But it proved clunky and inefficient while leaving the team vulnerable to issues that fall between the cracks of their internal fiefdoms.

Rick Spielman finally convinced Wilf in 2013 to verticalize football operations under one general manager role, but the rest of the organization remains structurally splintered and contributed to the team's chaotic response to Peterson's arrest.

The Wilfs are among a handful of NFL owners who don't live in their home market, but in most of the other cases, a unifying team president is on site every day. The Vikings' team president technically is Mark Wilf, who like his brother lives and works in New Jersey.

The arrest of a superstar, at a time of intense social scrutiny of the NFL, is not a matter for a general manager, a vice president of legal affairs or anyone else. It requires leadership from a unifying figure that the Vikings don't possess. Someone with the appropriate authority must take charge in that situation. The decision to reinstate Peterson on Monday was overbalanced toward football goals and was punctuated by an obvious failure to work through the problem from a moral and business standpoint.

Zygi Wilf acknowledged Wednesday that the Vikings made a mistake, and Mark Wilf expressed hope that team supporters will recognize "we are doing our best as ownership and a franchise to do the right thing."

How will the Wilfs react? It was worth noting that they were joined at their news conference by not only Spielman but also Kevin Warren, the longtime vice president of legal affairs. Is Warren in line for a business-side promotion on par with Spielman? That's a question worth asking as the Wilfs deal with the headache that is NFL ownership.

Inside Slant: NFL Week 2 QB Report

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
Let's take our weekly deep dive into the Sunday performance of five NFL quarterbacks, using data supplied by analyst Jacob Nitzberg via ESPN Stats & Information. After all, the numbers don't always speak for themselves.

Matt Cassel
Minnesota Vikings
WEEK 2 vs. NE: L, 30-7
NEXT: 9/21 at NO
CMP: 19
ATT: 36
PCT: 52.8
YDS: 202
TD: 1
INT: 4

There was a staggering inability to get the ball downfield. Cassel threw eight passes that traveled at least 10 yards in the air. Three were intercepted and all eight were incomplete. His longest completion traveled 8 yards. Cassel is 1-for-11 on such passes this season. It's the first time in at least six years that a quarterback has started in Weeks 1 and 2 without more than one such completion. ... All four of Cassel's interceptions came when in the pocket and while facing four pass-rushers. His QBR when facing standard pressure this season is 17.5, by far an NFL low.


Cassel is emerging as a quarterback who must play it safe; hope for a big-time running game to emerge -- a tough sell in this offense. Since the start of 2013, he has completed 34.3 percent of passes that traveled 15 or more yards in the air, fifth-worst among 38 qualified quarterbacks. His struggles downfield seem in stark contrast to the type of quarterback who succeeds in coordinator Norv Turner's offense.

Kirk Cousins
Washington Redskins
WEEK 2 vs. JAC: W, 41-10
NEXT: 9/21 at PHI
CMP: 22
ATT: 33
PCT: 66.7
YDS: 250
TD: 2
INT: 0

Cousins got the ball downfield in a way that Robert Griffin III was unable to in Week 1. Of his 250 passing yards, only 73 came after the catch. (In Week 1, 160 of Griffin's 267 yards came after the catch.) Much of Cousins' production came outside the numbers (153 yards), and he was particularly successful throwing to his right (10-of-13 for 110 yards and both touchdowns). ... He completed all eight passes on third down, converting six, and his favorite receiver was tight end Niles Paul, whom he targeted eight times for seven receptions and a drop.


For one game, at least, Cousins proved an effective pocket passer in his debut with coach Jay Gruden. His only rushing attempt was a kneel-down on the final play, and his downfield success is worth monitoring as Griffin recovers from a dislocated ankle.

Colin Kaepernick
San Francisco 49ers
WEEK 2 vs. CHI: L, 28-20
NEXT: 9/21 at ARI
CMP: 21
ATT: 34
PCT: 61.8
YDS: 248
TD: 1
INT: 3

All three of Kaepernick's interceptions came against four or fewer pass-rushers. He also was sacked twice against standard pressure. This speaks to Kaepernick taking too long to release the ball and ultimately throwing into a flooded zone. It's also worth noting that Kaepernick seemed to be pressing on first down, where he took three of his four sacks and threw two of his interceptions. His QBR on first down was 0.1, by far the worst of his career. ... His second interception resulted in the largest swing of win probability (81.4 percent to 55.5 percent) of any play during the weekend.


It wasn't all bad for Kaepernick, who completed 7 of 8 passes and rushed for 66 yards on third down. But overall, the numbers paint a quantitative portrait of what we all saw live: Kaepernick struggled finding open receivers, spent too long in the pocket and pressed when he finally released the ball.

Cam Newton
Carolina Panthers
WEEK 2 vs. DET: W, 24-7
NEXT: 9/21 vs. PIT
CMP: 22
ATT: 34
PCT: 64.7
YDS: 281
TD: 1
INT: 0

Newton was excellent against the Detroit Lions' blitz, completing 9 of 11 passes for 101 yards in those situations. It was the second-highest completion percentage of his career against the blitz. ... Most of his success Sunday came on short passes; he completed 12 of 14 throws of 5 or fewer yards past the line of scrimmage and 10 of 20 passes that traveled more than 5 yards in the air. (Receiver Kelvin Benjamin did catch two passes that traveled at least 15 yards, however.) ... Newton completed his first 11 passes on first downs, keeping the Panthers in manageable down and distance for much of the game.


Smartly, the Carolina Panthers played it safely as Newton recovers from a rib injury. His short passes and just two designed runs -- tying a career low -- illustrated their intent.

Philip Rivers
San Diego Chargers
WEEK 2 vs. SEA: W, 30-21
NEXT: 9/21 at BUF
CMP: 28
ATT: 37
PCT: 75.7
YDS: 284
TD: 3
INT: 0

Rivers threw just four passes that traveled more than 15 yards downfield. His longest traveled 24 yards in the air. ... He threw 25 passes of less than 11 yards downfield, completing 21 and two for touchdowns. Rivers completed all eight play-action passes for a 93.8 QBR on those plays, a stark contrast to the 24.7 QBR the Seahawks allowed last season on play-action. ... The Chargers skewered the Seahawks' standard pressure, completing 22 of 25 passes for 211 yards and all three touchdowns to tight end Antonio Gates against four or fewer pass-rushers.


Rivers and the Chargers just pecked away at the Seahawks, maintaining time of possession on a hot day rather than trying to make big plays. Gates was the finisher, catching two of his three touchdowns on third down.

As the center in a complex and fast-paced offense, Jason Kelce must think quickly and run faster. As his Philadelphia Eagles drove for a game-tying score Monday night, Kelce literally couldn't get away from teammate Darren Sproles on a screen play. He found himself pinballing between bodies as Sproles -- all 5-foot-7 and 190 pounds of him -- rumbled down the field for 51 yards.

In the Eagles' 30-27 victory over the Indianapolis Colts, Sproles finished with a career-high 152 receiving yards. All but 4 of those yards came after the catch. Below are Kelce's extended thoughts about Sproles, his pairing with running back LeSean McCoy and how dangerous the Eagles are in the opening field, as told to ESPN's Kevin Seifert and others in the Eagles' locker room.

INDIANAPOLIS -- That screen, I think both of our guards were outside of me. They kind of had the outside sealed, and I thought Sproles was going to cut back, so I just turned upfield.

Sproles ran into me a little bit and was kind of waiting for me to get going. He did a good job being patient, and I ended up getting an extra guy. Really, he kind of knocked into me for the most part. I got hit pretty good, but it was enough to seal it from [the defender] making it to Sproles.

I didn't really know the guy when he first got here. I had never met him. You knew he was a good player. Anyone who watched New Orleans play knows he was a great player. I didn't really know what to expect from him in this offense, but he's been awesome since he's been here.

[+] EnlargeEagles
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesJason Kelce (62) has been impressed with Darren Sproles (43) since his arrival.
I can't really pick out a particular moment when that was clear, but what you don't know until you play with him is how dedicated of a guy he is. He's a hard worker, very professional, and you see that with the way he plays on Sundays.

On his touchdown run, I'd have to go back on the film, but I think he made more out of that run than there actually was there. He made a guy miss who was unblocked. Then he made a few more guys miss and scrambleD into the end zone. So it was an outstanding run by him. I don't know that the offensive line had much to do with that one.

Getting Sproles here gave us two very dynamic backs who at anytime can take a play that really doesn't have anything and make it into a strong run for us. To tell you the truth, I don't know who is back there. Both him and Shady [McCoy] are both guys who make people miss and have tremendous vision. There's not too much of a difference between them.

They both can do everything. I don't think we're limited to certain plays with either one of them back there.

That's tough for defenses to defend. They're both good at a lot of different things. Screens, runs, draws, pretty much anything, they can do. It's great to have both of them. We can spell Shady a little bit. He doesn't have to take so many carries and get tired out.

That's part of what this offense is built on -- the ability to spread the width of the field and attack everything. So if you're going to try to pack it in, you can attack the outside. If you want to spread it out, we'll get downhill and have a good running game.
In an interview last week, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell spoke of the league's "responsibility to society" and suggested it has the ability to "make a difference" through its policies and responses to instances of misconduct.

"And every day," he concluded, "that's what we're going to strive to do."

Except for Monday, I presume.

After an exhaustive two-day investigation into serious charges against their best player -- charges that ballooned into two separate cases Monday night -- the Minnesota Vikings decided there was absolutely nothing they could do. They ignored Adrian Peterson's own admissions and announced they would allow due process to take its course before ruling on his status. Because the legal timetable will extend well into next year, it's quite possible the Vikings will never have to address the issue at all.

So let's call this what it is: A blatant and obvious play to wring one more year out of an aging superstar before bidding him farewell under the guise of salary cap management and the occasion of his 30th birthday.

Naturally, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman denied that suggestion Monday during a tense exchange with reporters.

"It has nothing to do with that," he said. "It has to do with the information that we have."

Let's look at that information and compare it to the recent history of the organization.

Peterson was charged Friday with reckless or negligent injury to a child after an incident in the spring involving his 4-year-old son in Texas. In separate statements, Peterson and his attorney have acknowledged he committed the acts that led to the injuries, which have been documented by photographs.

The statements disputed only the intent of the discipline, and Peterson said: "I am not a perfect parent, but I am not a child abuser. I am someone that disciplined his child and did not intend to cause him injury."

From a legal sense, Peterson absolutely has a right to due process. But in this case, it will not determine whether Peterson struck his son or caused injuries. The only question is whether he intended to injure. Let's put aside that legal debate for a moment and reiterate what we already know: Intentional or otherwise, Peterson injured his son. The resulting photographs, even Spielman admitted, were "disturbing."

Intent might be an important legal point, but as part of a league that claims it is striving every day to make a difference, the Vikings' reaction shouldn't be based solely on legal points. Can't we invite common sense, decency and just a drip of morality to the table as well? Isn't it possible to give Peterson due process while also insisting even incomplete information is enough to render some level of judgment?

We can reasonably discuss the severity of punishment required. A four-game suspension to undergo counseling is one idea I've heard. But you're not making a difference, as Goodell claims the league aspires to, by welcoming back a player who has admitted to injuring his son. Isn't that all the information necessary to render some level of judgment?

Certainly, it's more than the Vikings had when they acted decisively to keep cornerback Chris Cook away from the team in 2011 while he awaited trial for domestic abuse charges. It's more than what they knew about the assault case that led them to release a running back named Caleb King in 2012 and a domestic violence case that ended the career of cornerback A.J. Jefferson.

Spielman said those situations were "different," and he's right. None of them involved a future Hall of Fame player whose absence Sunday left the Vikings' offense lifeless in a 30-7 loss to the New England Patriots. Yes, we must plunge to the deepest levels of cynicism to understand why the Vikings are moving forward with Peterson as if nothing happened, why Spielman said they "feel strongly as an organization that this is disciplining a child" and thus not worthy of immediate action. (If the Vikings are consistent, you would assume revelations of an alleged second incident with another son won't impact their fervor for due process.)

The Vikings need Peterson on the field to compete this season, and they know it. They also know Peterson's contract gives them the opportunity to move on with minimal salary cap damage anytime after this season. He turns 30 -- far past the prime of most running backs -- in March, and barring a monster 2014 season, he seems an unlikely candidate for his scheduled salary of $13 million in 2015.

Montgomery County assistant district attorney Phil Grant has already said a trial is unlikely until next year, a timetable that conveniently excuses the Vikings from action should they -- oh, by coincidence, of course -- decide to release or trade him this offseason, as teams routinely do when superstar salaries outweigh performances.

Many will posit that football is about winning games, not constructing a morality play. Fine. But let's not allow the NFL to have it both ways. Let's not have its commissioner try to sell the brand as an agent of social change when, at an obvious and clear moment of reckoning, it reveals itself as nothing more than a mercenary of the status quo.
Procedural tweaks and a personnel overhaul bring us a fresh level of NFL officiating uncertainty in 2014. Three new referees and a total of 13 first-year officials made their regular-season debuts in Week 1, yet another reason why it makes sense to track their calls and search for trends using the vast trove of data available from ESPN Stats & Information.

We'll get to the volume of penalty calls in a moment; they were only slightly higher than Week 1 of 2013. For now, however, I thought we would examine how each referee crew called the two most notable points of emphasis penalties last weekend. Numbers from any one week could be anomalies, but over time, we can start to get a feel for how a crew might call its upcoming game.

The NFL doesn't announce crew assignments ahead of time, but Football Zebras does a reliable job of pulling together all of the information by week's end if you want to match up these figures with the assigned referee for your favorite team's game.

The chart breaks down by crew the 38 penalties, accepted or declined, for defensive holding and illegal contact. For context, recall that those penalties were called an average of 1.1 times combined per game last season. In Week 1 of 2014, it worked out to 2.4 times per game -- a notable jump but not nearly the rate of about 4.7 we saw during the first three weeks of the preseason.

Penalty rates are dependent on more than simply the whim of the referee. A team's playing style is among other critical components. If nothing else, however, we can see that the crews of Tony Corrente and Jeff Triplette were far more active than those of Brad Allen, Clete Blakeman, Bill Leavy and Pete Morelli. You better believe that most NFL teams are aware of those numbers and have taken them into account while preparing for Week 2.

The uptick in defensive holding and illegal contact accounted for a minor rise in overall penalties in Week 1 (268) compared to the first week of last season (250). As always, of course, there was significant discrepancy among the crews -- figures that will start to take on more meaning as we add multiple games to their ledgers.

The crews of Ed Hochuli (25 penalties), Carlton Cheffers (24) and Ronald Torbert (22) were most active in Week 1. (Hochuli's two-game total is 39 after Thursday night's game in Baltimore.) Blakeman (12), John Parry (12), Morelli (11) and Gene Steratore (8) called the fewest.

My plan for this season is to post this analysis every Friday morning. Stay tuned.

Aerial view of CenturyLink FieldKirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsCreating the kind of home-field advantage the Seahawks enjoy is not as easy as replicating the design of CenturyLink Field.
As he set about designing a new stadium for the Seattle Seahawks, architect Paul Griesemer juggled a series of requests and realities. Seahawks owner Paul Allen wanted an homage to nearby Husky Stadium, where fans are close to the field. A relatively tiny footprint mandated steep inclines to squeeze in 67,000 seats. Seattle's rainy weather prompted a metal covering that protected 70 percent of the seating bowl.

The result is a structure that provides the loudest and most effective home-field advantage in U.S. sports today. And to me, it yields an obvious question: Why aren't designers elsewhere emulating the conditions at CenturyLink Field -- accidental as they might have been, in some cases -- to give their teams a similar advantage? The question is especially significant, of course, as the Seahawks' NFC West rivals prepare Levi's Stadium for its regular-season debut Sunday night.

The answer is not as simple as the question. I've spoken recently with three designers, including Griesemer as well as architects for the San Francisco 49ers' and Minnesota Vikings' new stadiums, and found that psychology is as important as architecture in creating an in-house environment.

"What we usually find is that, above all else, people want a unique experience," said Bryan Trubey, whose HKS firm designed the Vikings' stadium, scheduled to open in 2016. "That's what we really focus on, to make a place that is so unique relative to the team that it's special. When you have a building that's absolutely and totally unique in every way, the response will be unique and there will be a connection made between the fan and what's going on in front of them. The quality of the environment -- which every community sees a little differently -- is a big key to [home-field advantage]."

In Seattle, science tells us that having a metal roof amplifies and redirects crowd noise back to the field. Positioning fans close to the field also raises noise levels. The stadium famously posted a Guinness World Record at 137.6 decibels last season, and crowd reaction has caused at least two recorded earthquakes.

In the big picture, the Seahawks have a .698 winning percentage at home and .392 on the road since the stadium opened in 2002. More recently, they've won 18 of their past 19 at CenturyLink, with an average margin of victory of 16.1 points. Griesemer, however, was emphatic in dispersing credit for those numbers.

"I don't know that we necessarily went into it thinking we would cause a record of false starts and all that," said Griesemer, of the firm AECOM. "What the fans there have made it into is as much or more as what we made it. The fact is they created this identity of the 12th man, and taken the framework of the stadium to create something special. That's one of those pleasant surprises that you like to be part of.

"If someone were to say, 'I'm going to replicate Seattle and replicate the same great game environment,' well, one plus one doesn't really equal two. You add up one plus the 12th man, and you get something more than 13.

"A lot of it comes down to how connected people can be to team and game environment. There is a lot of pride in Seattle that they can be influencers of the game. When you get that level of connection, it takes on a level of its own."

So how did the designers of the 49ers and Vikings' stadiums endeavor to create the same connection? Let's take a closer look.

Levi's Stadium

In deference to their location near Silicon Valley, the 49ers set out to build the most connected new stadium in the NFL. A custom smartphone app will allow fans to check traffic, order food, update statistics and view replays. There are also nine separate clubs to service the 49ers' high-income clientele.

[+] EnlargeLevi's Stadium
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsLevi's Stadium's open concourses will give fans a full view of the field as they walk to bathrooms, concessions and other areas.
What, then, will keep fans focused on and engaged with the game? Lanson Nichols, senior project manager at HNTB, pointed to a series of features. The 49ers will have more seats in the lower bowl -- about 45,000 -- than any other NFL stadium. Fans in the first row will be as close as 17 feet from the back of the sideline.

Most notable, however, are the open concourses that give fans a full view of the field as they walk to bathrooms, concessions and most other destinations. During preseason games, fans gathered along the rails of the lower concourse facing the field to create impromptu standing room areas.

"People really lined the edges of the concourse, the rails, standing and watching the games," Nichols said. "It brought a lot of people closer to the field. Two- and three- people deep all the way around the edges of the concourse. I think it will make a big difference in terms of people's engagement.

"You talk about noise, but you also have to talk in a larger sense about the presence of the fan. It's about giving them the ability to engage and observe and participate in what's going on on the field."

And in Minneapolis …

The Vikings' as-yet-unnamed stadium will benefit from the advantages of a fixed roof, much as the notoriously raucous Metrodome did from 1982 through 2013. About 60 percent of it will be built with a clear synthetic polymer commonly known as ETFE, and the rest will be metal.

ETFE hasn't been used much in American stadiums, but Trubey said "it's a more acoustically reflective material" than the Metrodome's fabric roof. "It should make the stadium louder" as a result, he added.

Meanwhile, Trubey's efforts to engage fans by positioning them close to the field took a unique turn. The first row of seats will be elevated an average of seven feet off field level, about twice the industry standard.

"A lot of these buildings, the first three or five rows are too low and people there can't see too well," Trubey said. "To us, that makes a critical difference in terms of how people are connected. When the first five rows don't feel connected, that really has a powerful effect on the excitement of fans all the way up. On the other hand, if the fans closest to the field are engaged, it will have a domino effect."

It would be fruitless, all three designers agreed, to copy the CenturyLink blueprints and expect an identical result. In this case, architects are like coaches. Their job is to put fans in position to impact the game. The rest is up to them.

Inside Slant: NFL Week 1 QB Report

September, 9, 2014
Sep 9
Sometimes the numbers speak for themselves. Most times, however, we need a deeper dive -- mixed with a bit of common sense -- to understand how an NFL quarterback performed in a given week.

The full answer can be elusive, but as in past years, we'll endeavor to get as close as possible in the weekly Quarterback Report. The vast trove of data produced by ESPN Stats & Information, much of which is used to calculate Total Quarterback Rating (QBR), will guide us. (Special thanks to analyst Jacob Nitzberg for his help in sifting through and translating the data for me.)

This season's edition will provide detailed analysis of five (or so) quarterbacks from Week 1 action. Feedback and suggestions are encouraged, either via the comments below or through my mailbag.

Quarterback: Jay Cutler
What you saw: Thirty-four completions in 49 attempts for 349 yards, 2 touchdowns, 2 interceptions.
What you might have missed: All but one of Cutler's passes against the Buffalo Bills came from inside the pocket, a notable departure when you consider how good he's been when on the run in his career. Last season, his 84.7 QBR outside the pocket for the Chicago Bears ranked second in the NFL.

As it turned out, Cutler's one foray outside the pocket Sunday led to a crushing interception by defensive tackle Kyle Williams, a play that dropped the Bears' win probability from 64.3 to 43.9.

A hamstring injury limited deep receiver Alshon Jeffery to 36 snaps, and the impact on Cutler was clear. Of his 49 attempts, 33 traveled 10 yards or fewer downfield. He completed only 1 of 8 passes of at least 15 yards downfield, including none of five after halftime, and he threw his average pass 2.43 seconds after the snap. (Last season: 2.63 seconds.)

Finally, Cutler completed 41.7 percent of passes thrown to players other than Jeffery, Brandon Marshall, tight end Martellus Bennett and running back Matt Forte.

Final analysis: Cutler looked an awful lot like a West Coast system quarterback. Historically, he's been at his best when moving outside the pocket and creating chances for his downfield guys to break open.

Quarterback: Tom Brady
What you saw: He was 29-for-56 for 249 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs.
What you missed: A struggle against the Miami Dolphins' standard pass rush, especially in a four-sack, two-fumble second half.

For the game, when the Dolphins sent four or fewer pass-rushers, Brady's QBR was its lowest (18.4) since 2010. He completed only 50 percent of his passes (20 of 40) and took three of his four sacks in those situations. Overall, Brady was under pressure on 16 dropbacks, his second-most in a game for the New England Patriots since ESPN Stats & Information began tracking it in 2006. His performance when under pressure in the second half: 0-for-6 with four sacks.

Not surprisingly, Brady didn't have much time to get off an accurate deep throw. He missed on 16 of 18 passes that traveled at least 15 yards downfield, over- or underthrowing 61 percent (11 of 18) of them. For context, in 2013 Brady missed on 41 percent of his deep passes.

Brady's performance on third down was equally weak, with three completions in 11 attempts, including none in four attempts to tight end Rob Gronkowski. Overall, eight of Brady's 12 throws to Gronkowski fell incomplete.

Final analysis: The best quarterbacks are expected to excel regardless of pass rush, but the Patriots' pass protection didn't do Brady many favors. When you're under pressure more often than you have been in years, and it's typically via a standard rush, those around the quarterback deserve significant blame.

Quarterback: Robert Griffin III
What you saw: He was 29-for-37 for 267 yards, 0 TDs, 0 interceptions
What you might have missed: One of the most conservative games of Griffin's career with the Washington Redskins. Documenting his approach leads to some staggering numbers.

Griffin's average pass against the Houston Texans traveled 5.89 yards in the air, the third-lowest total of his career. Of his 37 attempts, 25 traveled 5 yards or fewer downfield. About 60 percent of his yardage total (160 of 267) came after the catch, and while he completed all eight of his passes targeted at receiver DeSean Jackson, six of them traveled 5 yards or fewer downfield. Of Jackson's 62 yards, 43 were after the catch.

That 267-yard total is worth further inspection. Nearly three-quarters of it (193 of 267) came in the second half, which began with the Redskins having a win probability of 17 percent and never rose above 31.6 percent. In other words, it came when the Texans were more willing to allow yards in exchange for time off the clock.

Final analysis: Robert Griffin III the pocket passer makes one yearn for Robert Griffin III the wild runner. Checking down all game only works if your team has a lockdown defense. The Redskins don't. They need more explosive plays from their quarterback, one way or the other.

Quarterback: Geno Smith
What you saw: He was 23-for-28 for 221 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT.
What you might have missed: A completion percentage aided by an excess of short passes, and a QBR (32.3) lowered by two significant turnovers.

More than half (12) of Smith's completions were caught either at or behind the line of scrimmage, including seven screen plays. Smith also completed 10 of 12 play-action attempts. His longest completion traveled 17 yards in the air. Meanwhile, his interception dropped the New York Jets' win probability by 11.5 points, and his fumble inside the Oakland Raiders' 5-yard line dropped it by 15.4 points.

He completed all five of his passes on third down, but only two were converted to first downs. He also took both of his sacks on third down.

One significant, positive development: Smith completed 8 of 9 passes against the Raiders' blitz after finishing 2013 as the NFL's second-lowest ranked quarterback against the blitz.

Final analysis: The Jets' use of Smith suggests he hasn't fully earned their trust. It worked at home against the Raiders, and in general is a good formula for a young quarterback in development, but it will require top-end play from the Jets' defense to support victories against teams with higher-scoring offenses.

Quarterback: Jake Locker
What you saw: He was 22-for-33 for 266 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INT
What you might have missed: A notable adjustment in the way Locker was used by the Tennessee Titans' new coaching staff.

Locker didn't attempt a single pass from outside the pocket, something that never happened in 2013 and in general has been a rarity during his injury-riddled career. He acquitted himself well when asked to be a pure pocket passer, completing 7 of 11 passes on third down, converting six into first downs. His only miss? A third-and-19 in the first quarter. Overall, he converted a career-high 18 passing first downs.

Fantasy players and traditional fans alike would be interested to note that of Locker's seven passes to receiver Kendall Wright, five traveled 5 or fewer yards downfield. Receiver Justin Hunter, meanwhile, was targeted on five passes that traveled at least 15 yards downfield.

Final analysis: We know Locker has the ability to scramble, but we also know he has had a tendency to get hurt. New coach Ken Whisenhunt's offense is safer for him if he can excel within its parameters. So far, so good.

Detroit Lions QB Matthew Stafford: 'Sometimes instincts just take over'

September, 9, 2014
Sep 9
(Matthew Stafford opened the 2014 season with an exclamation point Monday night, throwing for 346 yards and accounting for three touchdowns and producing a career-high 97.5 QBR in the Detroit Lions' 35-14 victory over the New York Giants. Below are his extended thoughts, as told to ESPN's Kevin Seifert.)

DETROIT -- It's nice to put last year to bed.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsMatthew Stafford scrambles and finds Calvin Johnson for the team's first touchdown.
Obviously, I didn't play as well as I could have last year. I'm not in the dark about that. I know that. I'm real with myself. I understand that there's a lot of factors that go into that, and part of that was just not playing well. It's a quarterback-driven league and you've got to play well at quarterback. I've worked extremely hard this summer to make sure I can play as well as I possibly can. Our defense set us up a couple nice times, but it was huge to get some points tonight and get our offense loose in this new scheme. On our first touchdown, I got to the line and saw the defense was in a two-shell. They rotated into single coverage, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie had pretty decent coverage on Calvin Johnson. Our offensive line did a nice job pushing guys past me, and I got out to the right sideline. Their defensive end [Damontre Moore], he was scraping over the top, and I made him miss.

[+] EnlargeDetroit's Calvin Johnson
Tim Fuller/USA TODAY SportsCalvin Johnson dives for Detroit's second score.
I was trying to find Joique Bell, just to complete the ball and get the first down, but then I saw Calvin was uncovering. Everyone was kind of working toward the sideline, and he just snuck out the back. I had enough time to check back and make sure no one was over there, and nothing bad was going to happen, and then I threw it. Sometimes instincts just take over when you're on the field. That's what happened on our second touchdown. This game, if you played it on air, it would look totally different. Everyone would step in and make the perfect read and the perfect throw, and everything looks great. But stuff happens in this league and when it breaks down, you have to find ways to make plays. Calvin and I have played together for so long that he kind of knew what I was thinking. I was running away from him, but I was able to put it into a spot where only he could get it. It was tough to see from my angle, and I still haven't seen the replay, but from what I hear, he made a heck of a play to keep that ball off the ground.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Tim Fuller/USA TODAY SportsStafford's 5-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
I don't run a lot, and it's a fine line on when to take off. Knowing the situation in the game is a big part of it. Most of the time, I'm buying time to throw the ball down the field and get it to guys who are a lot faster than me. But sometimes, you've just got to go out and make a play, and that's what I did on the third touchdown. It just kind of happened. Pre-snap from the 5-yard line, they had a pretty good two-on-one over there with Calvin. So my first read was Golden Tate. He was there, but we had a population issue over there. If he catches it, there are too many people there. Chances are he's not getting in. Then I had Joe Fauria in the back of the end zone, but the mike 'backer [middle linebacker] was way deep in the back there. That would have been a jump ball. That's 50-50. So it's one of those things that just parted for me. I moved right, initially thinking I could find a throw somewhere. But I just kind of saw the opening and tried to run. I knew if I kept going, I was just going to get smoked. So I cut back and got in. I think a team rallies when you see a quarterback kind of stick his neck out and try to go in and get a score. It was a tough situation coming in this year, learning a new offense. It's as different as it can be compared to what we used to run. Guys have really embraced it, and I've tried to embrace it as much as I can. I want to lead these guys and it was nice to get out and put some points up.
John Parry, you're on the clock.

Parry is the referee for Thursday night's kickoff game between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks, according to ESPN's Sal Paolantonio. That puts Parry in the important position of setting a tone for the way the NFL's 2014 points of emphasis will be called in the regular season.

We all know what happened in the preseason: Calls for defensive holding and illegal contact rose by nearly five times the 2013 rate. NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino predicted that those figures would regulate as coaches, players and officials adjusted, and indeed that process seemed to begin in the final week of the preseason.

It's worth noting that Parry's crew was a relatively prolific caller of defensive holding and illegal contact last season, before the points of emphasis were announced. It called a combined 26 of them in 15 regular-season weeks, tying with Clete Blakeman's crew for the most in the league.

You'll see in the chart that Parry's 2014 crew called 20 such penalties during the preseason, according to ESPN Stats & Information. A full penalty breakdown isn't available in the preseason, so I can't tell you where that ranked among other crews. What I can tell you is that since Parry's 2013 rate was higher than all but one referee, his increase to 2014 wasn't as severe as most.

What does that mean for Thursday night's game, which includes a Seahawks secondary that most assume is a target for the rule emphasis? To be safe, we'll put it this way: Last year, games refereed by Parry's crew averaged 1.73 calls for defensive holding or illegal contact. I'll take the over for Thursday night, but I have a hard time believing the NFL wants its signature kickoff game to be bogged down by penalties. We'll see.

Seven NFL predictions for 2014

September, 4, 2014
Sep 4
Golden Tate Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesThe Packers and Seahawks open the NFL season in their first meeting since 2012's "Fail Mary."

Of course. Two of the NFL's best teams will kick off the 2014 season Thursday night -- and all you want to talk about is some random play that happened two years ago in a dark period of NFL history.

Fail Mary? Thpptttt. You still don't think Golden Tate caught the ball? You're waiting for Roger Goodell to invoke his right to reverse outcomes? You're incredulous the NFL would open itself to outside influence by substituting woefully underqualified officials as leverage in collective bargaining? You're still following T.J. Lang after he posted the most re-tweeted tweet of all time?

Nope? Me neither. Over it.

I, for one, am far too focused on the crucial nuts and bolts of this game -- and the upcoming season -- to get worked up about the most recent time the Green Bay Packers visited the Seattle Seahawks. This is all business. I want to see if quarterback Aaron Rodgers can withstand the Seahawks' fierce pass rush and if his girlfriend, Oliva Munn, is in the stands to watch it. I'm pumped to break down how Richard Sherman matches up with Jordy Nelson -- in between viewings of his latest Campbell's Soup ad.

Nothing generates deep discussion of strategy, scheme and precision like the NFL. How will the Cleveland Browns find a deep threat after the suspension of Josh Gordon? (And what club will Johnny Manziel hit after their first game?) Will Robert Griffin III respond to new expectations as a pocket passer? (And who will be the next world leader to speak out against the Washington Redskins' team name?) How in the name of doomsday will the Dallas Cowboys field a competitive defense? (And can owner Jerry Jones find a way to market a practice squad player?)

So many questions, so little time in the film room. So for your collective preparation efforts, here is a touchdown's worth of predictions for the 2014 NFL season. Carve them in stone, bet the house on them, and if I'm wrong, feel free to call me at (555) 555-5555.

1. Officiating will be better

[+] EnlargeNFL Instant Replay
AP Photo/Jack DempseyOfficials will now get instant replay assistance from the league office.
Yes, I know. We spent the entire preseason freaking out about a spike of penalties for illegal contact and defensive holding, two key points of emphasis dictated by the NFL's competition committee. I'm well aware that officials called almost the same number of those penalties in 69 preseason games (271) as they did in 256 regular-season games (285) in 2013.

But it's also worth taking a breath and reiterating that the rate dropped sharply in the final week of the preseason as all sides adjusted. The rate will still be higher than in 2013, but I wouldn't expect anything close to what we saw in the first few weeks of the preseason.

Aside from that issue, the league took several important steps this offseason in response to a rough go of it in 2013. It replaced three referees and a total of 13 officials, the biggest turnover in more than a decade. New instant replay assistance from the league office will make the system more accurate and quicker -- by nearly 20 seconds per review, according to vice president of officiating Dean Blandino -- and officials will communicate better now via wireless headsets.

I still expect to see plenty of disputed calls, and I'm not sure how to quantify improvement. But there is no doubt this operation is moving in the right direction.

2. Russell Wilson will be elite . . .

By the time the season is over, the Seahawks' quarterback will no longer be the target of condescending compliments. He won't be known as a winner, a game manager or surprisingly strong-armed for his size. No, Wilson will be one regarded as one of the absolute best quarterbacks -- and passers -- in the NFL. Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees will have no choice but to let him into their club.

This preseason, Wilson looked like a Ph.D. student who has submitted his dissertation. Preseason results are to be taken lightly -- sorry, just expunging the final drops of condescension -- but Wilson was the best player on the field this summer. He accounted for six touchdowns in three games while completing 31 of 37 passes for 400 yards. Wilson looked for all the world like a player on the brink of an individual breakout, one that will force the Seahawks to place him among the league's highest-paid players when he's eligible for a contract extension this spring.

3. . . . and Johnny Manziel, uh, won't

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonJohnny Manziel seems destined to be more like Troy Smith than Russell Wilson.
Manziel (6-foot) has drawn plenty of comparisons to Wilson (5-11) because of their height, but the associations should end there. This summer, Manziel revealed a big-play attitude but offered no confirmation that he has the physical attributes to carry it out.

There's reason to believe Manziel's inaccurate passing (47.9 percent in the preseason) can improve over time. But what made him a special college player was his ability to break the pocket and pressure defenses on the edge. Those expecting him to play that way in the NFL saw good instincts but not the kind of speed that suggests he can make a living doing it. Instead, we were reminded that Manziel (4.68 seconds in the 40-yard dash) isn't nearly as fleet as players who have pressured defenses with speed in recent years. Griffin (4.41), Wilson (4.55) and Colin Kaepernick (4.53) were all considerably faster when drafted.

Manziel will get on the field, but he'll conjure more images of Troy Smith than Russell Wilson this season.

4. Texans will regret QB approach

The Houston Texans made the right call in bypassing Manziel at No. 1 overall, despite the pleading of some fans. But they'll rue both the day they allowed the Minnesota Vikings to leapfrog them for Teddy Bridgewater at No. 32 overall and the day after, when they passed up Derek Carr at No. 33.

There is no more important job for a new coach than to identify his quarterback, and Bill O'Brien almost certainly won't do that in his first season. Evidence of concern surfaced last week, when the Texans acquired the mildly touted Ryan Mallett to join a mix of journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick and could-miss prospect Tom Savage. In all likelihood, the Texans have pushed this critical question into O'Brien's second year. Texans fans should prepare to hear a ton about Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston and Brett Hundley, the quarterback trio that should lead the 2015 draft.

5. A big-time coach is in his final season

I'm just not sure who yet. Will it be Tom Coughlin, the 68-year-old New York Giants coach whose team might need a rebuild? Coughlin has won two Super Bowls, but he has also missed the playoffs four of the past five seasons. Would the Giants move on if that streak becomes five of the past six?

What about Marvin Lewis? In resurrecting the Cincinnati Bengals, Lewis has made the playoffs five times but now holds the NFL record for coaching the most games (176) without a postseason victory. The Bengals will have their hands full in a tougher AFC North, and Lewis will be coaching without two treasured coordinators, Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer. Is this the year Lewis must win a playoff game to keep his job?

[+] EnlargeJim Harbaugh
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezWill Jim Harbaugh's supernova personality explode in San Francisco?
Then there's Jim Harbaugh, whose contract negotiations with the 49ers have been put on hold until after the season. Plenty of smoke arose this offseason about internal discord and even a potential trade to the Browns. Some consider Harbaugh's personality to be a supernova -- burning brightly for a short time before it explodes.

Jeff Fisher might be facing the biggest challenge in St. Louis. After consecutive seven-win seasons in the game's toughest division, Fisher has again lost his starting quarterback for the year. Has he built his defense into a strong enough group to carry the Rams into the playoffs? Otherwise, he's headed toward his fifth consecutive non-playoff season. The most recent time a Jeff Fisher team won a postseason game? The 2003 Tennessee Titans.

6. Marc Trestman's reputation as a "quarterback whisperer" will swell . . .

. . . when Josh McCown goes back to being Josh McCown, when Jay Cutler continues his refinement and when Jimmy Clausen (!) survives as the Chicago Bears' backup.

McCown had an undeniably great season in 2013. He finished with the NFL's top Total Quarterback Rating (85.1) and threw 13 touchdowns with just one interception. That performance got him a starting job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but the Trestman blip in McCown's career is too obvious to ignore.

Before teaming up with Trestman, McCown was a 58 percent passer with a 13-20 career record as a starter and seven more interceptions (44) than touchdowns (37). What's more likely: that he suddenly figured it all out in his 11th season, or that Trestman found a special connection?

McCown's performance overshadowed what turned out to be the best season of Cutler's career (66.4 QBR, 89.2 rating). With a settled offensive line and the Brandon Marshall/Alshon Jeffery receiving duo, Cutler has every opportunity to continue blossoming under Trestman. And if Clausen -- who was out of football in 2013 -- proves anywhere close to a credible backup, as the Bears are counting on, then it'll be time to recognize Trestman as the NFL's top quarterback guru.

7. This will be the last season of the extra point as we know it

Enjoy it while you can. League officials were pleased with an experiment that called for 33-yard extra points in the first two weeks of the preseason. It resulted in eight misses, albeit in some cases by place-kickers who won't be in the league in 2014. At this point, however, the NFL wants something other than a sure thing moving forward -- and the past season's 99.8 conversion rate was pretty darn close.

One alternative to keep an eye on: Some coaches and players want to see the spot moved from the 2- to the 1-yard line. That shift, as the theory goes, would encourage more teams to go for two points -- a decidedly more exciting play than an extra point from any distance. In either event, start getting your autographed prints now. The closeout sale has started.

Inside Slant: Michael Sam's week

September, 2, 2014
Sep 2

Everyone has an opinion on why Michael Sam was not among the 2,016 players initially signed to NFL rosters or practice squads this week. Here's the boring truth: Everyone is right.

I can make a fact-based, football-only argument for why Sam didn't make the St. Louis Rams, and for why no other team has signed him to its 53-man roster. It's more difficult to explain the tepid interest he received on the practice squad market.

According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the Dallas Cowboys plan to add him to their practice squad Wednesday, but there is no concrete football answer for why it took so long -- or why 16 other defensive ends signed practice squad contracts before the Cowboys expressed interest in Sam. In this case, it seems nave not to consider the impact of his status as the first openly gay man to be drafted into the NFL.

Let's first tackle the 53-man roster issue before addressing some theories about his initial exclusion from practice squads.

I spoke with a veteran scout Tuesday morning who said the consensus pre-draft evaluation of Sam largely held up during the preseason. Despite the decision to drop 13 pounds before training camp to maximize his speed, Sam didn't prove fast enough to be an NFL-level edge rusher in a 4-3 scheme. And at 257 pounds, he's at least 20-25 pounds too light to fit into other roles: Either as a 3-4 defensive end or as a "swing" backup who can play both inside and outside. (It's worth noting that the defensive lineman who beat out Sam for the Rams' final roster spot, Ethan Westbrooks, can play all four line spots in the 4-3.)

Speed also proved a determining factor on special teams. Those who watched the Rams' preseason games mostly saw Sam used as a blocker for kickoff returns -- a position usually manned by backup defensive tackles and offensive linemen. It's one special-teams position where speed doesn't matter. Practice repetitions apparently made clear that he wasn't a candidate to cover kickoffs or punts, which require sustained speed and lateral movement over 50-plus yards.

So when the Rams waived Sam over the weekend, the rest of the NFL was left to judge whether it could find use for a player who isn't an ideal fit for either of its two dominant defensive schemes and also isn't likely to be much of special-teams contributor. In those terms, it's easy to understand how he passed through waivers.

Nothing about what you just read is unusual for a seventh-round draft pick in the NFL, a natural place to select marginal prospects. Over the past 20 drafts, 46.8 percent of seventh-rounders made a Week 1 roster, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Between 2010 and 2013, that figure was slightly higher at 52.8 percent. In essence, it's a 50-50 proposition.

Some might suggest that Sam's pre-combine announcement sunk his draft status, meaning his chances to make a team based purely on skill should have been higher. That sentiment would require a considerable expansion of conspiracy theory now that all 32 teams have passed on signing him. What's more likely: That 32 teams are knowingly ignoring a player who can help them win this week? Or that there is a football consensus that he cannot?

The answer seems clear to me. On the other hand, the wait for a practice squad spot proved a more difficult space to navigate.

The first thing to know is that most teams use their practice squad as a weekly revolving door of players brought in for many different reasons. There are hundreds of practice squad transactions in the NFL every season.

Some arrive to be evaluated as prospects. Others can provide practice depth at a position where a veteran is taking reps off. A few are signed because they look like or play similarly to an upcoming opponent. In other words: If you're healthy, if you're willing to be treated (and paid) like a scrub and you have even modest skills, you're a candidate to be an NFL practice squad player.

So why wasn't Sam among them prior to Tuesday's news? He is by all reports healthy. The Rams praised his effort through his tenure in St. Louis, and as a "tweener," he could actually provide a reasonable facsimile of upcoming opponents at multiple positions on the scout team. Why were the Cowboys reported to have spent much of Tuesday on "due diligence" on Sam, an unusual time investment when it comes to practice squad players?

We are left, then, to examine the impact of Sam's historic announcement here. As we learned in the divorce between the Minnesota Vikings and punter Chris Kluwe, the NFL's team concept -- fairly or unfairly, right or wrong -- frowns upon any attention a player receives other than for his performance on the field. None of us can get into the heads of general managers to gauge bigotry levels, but we can state with some confidence that, when given the option between relative equals, they are much more likely to make the decision that draws the least amount of public attention.

Fortunately, this story has concluded fairly. Sam received a genuine opportunity to make the Rams' 53-man roster. By consensus, he wasn't good enough. He'll now get a second chance to impress another organization, albeit after a longer-than-usual wait and with a franchise whose owner craves attention like no other. But all's well that ends well, I suppose.
An important development occurred in the final week of the NFL preseason: Calls for illegal contact and defensive holding -- two key points of emphasis in 2014 -- dropped significantly Thursday night.

The league still finished the preseason with a total of 271 calls (accepted or declined) for those two penalties, nearly five times the total for the 2013 preseason -- and almost matching the total for the entire 2013 regular season. Details are in the chart, provided by ESPN Stats & Information.

Earlier this summer, the NFL acknowledged it planned to use the 2014 preseason as a platform for rewiring techniques among pass defenders. Vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said the league wanted to accomplish two goals: Eradicate contact with eligible receivers after 5 yards and eliminate the grabbing of jerseys downfield. As penalty totals skyrocketed, Blandino made clear that he expected them to regulate as everyone adjusted to new expectations.

Hopefully, we saw the beginning of that normalization Thursday night. In 16 games, officials called a total of 41 penalties (accepted or declined) for illegal contact or defensive holding. That works out to a rate of about 1.28 per game. In the first 49 games of the preseason, that rate was 4.69 per game.

You might ask why the NFL went through this process if it planned all along to pull back when the regular season arrived. First, I don't think we can say for certain that the pullback has occurred. The final preseason game is hardly a template, given the number of backups playing and the desire to keep the clock moving and prevent injuries.

Second, players and coaches aren't the only people who needed to adjust. I think it's fair to say that officials might have overreacted a bit to their initial instructions and, simply, thrown too many flags over the first three weeks.

I would expect to see illegal contact and defensive holding called more often in the 2014 regular season than it was in 2013. But in all likelihood, those calls will be made closer to the rate of Thursday night than over the first three weeks of the preseason.
About three months ago, according to ESPN senior writer Don Van Natta, a friend of Jerry Jones put the Dallas Cowboys' owner on the phone with Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson. Per Van Natta's reporting, in that phone conversation Peterson said he would love to play for the Cowboys one day, a sentiment Jones carefully concurred with.

Whether that conversation constituted tampering, and no matter if it reflected a whim or a fervent desire on Peterson's part, its revelation opens the window for a real discussion about the remainder of Peterson's career. I believe he was genuine this summer when he said he plans to "let it ride" in Minnesota, rather than push to play elsewhere, but I think we are looking at his future through the wrong lens.

To put it simply, Peterson's departure from Minnesota isn't up to him. In the NFL, teams wield full power over player movement, be it a superstar like Peterson or the No. 53 man on the roster. No matter what Peterson wants, he won't leave until the Vikings decide they're done with him.

Such is the harsh truth of the NFL. Peterson is a future Hall of Famer who is two years removed from the second-best season by a running back in league history. Since the start of 2012, he has gained 3,363 yards and scored 22 touchdowns. But Peterson has also played seven rough-and-tumble seasons at football's most brutal position, and at 29 he is two years past the age when most running backs begin a production decline. (Here is an April post with more detail on that topic.)

.Though Peterson is the game's highest-paid running back in 2014 with a $12 million salary, he is essentially in a rolling deal with no future guarantees. As the chart shows, if the Vikings release him after this season, he would count just $2.4 million against their salary cap.

Put it all together and you have a player who should recognize that his future with the Vikings, at least at his current pay scale, is year to year. If his production decreases in 2014, will the Vikings want to pay him $13 million in 2015? That salary dwarfs the running back market, which is at an all-time nadir. In 2015, the average running back salary will be $1.3 million. Peterson would be one of only two running backs making as much as $8 million.

I can't say for sure that Peterson has contemplated that scenario yet, but I would bet the house that his advisers have. Peterson grew up in Texas, and if there is any owner who would overpay an aging running back for entertainment value, it's Jerry Jones. Whomever put Peterson and Jones on the phone, however reckless it might have been, surely understood those dynamics as well.

Both the Vikings and Peterson issued statements Wednesday afternoon, and they're notable as much for what they didn't say as for what they did. The Vikings noted they are "focused on the 2014 season," and Peterson said: "This was a casual conversation between NFL colleagues in which I never indicated I wanted to leave the Vikings. I have always said I understand the NFL is a business but that I would love to retire as a Viking."

Pointedly, Peterson didn't deny telling Jones he would like to play for the Cowboys someday. In his mind, no doubt, Dallas would be an ideal landing spot if he ever reaches free agency.

The Vikings, of course, hope that day never comes. They want Peterson to continue as an elite offensive player, one whose production matches the 11-digit salaries his contract calls for over the next four years.

If not -- if he succumbs to the NFL's near-inevitable running back decline -- then they will have a business decision to make. Peterson could well have trade value, but often in such cases, possible suitors sit tight and await a release. He could also agree to a pay cut, as painful as that usually is to the pride of most superstars.

Hall of Famers from Johnny Unitas to Joe Montana to Marcus Allen to the Cowboys' own Tony Dorsett have finished their careers with new teams. It's part of the business. No one faults Dorsett for playing with the Denver Broncos in 1988. Does anyone even remember it? I wouldn't be surprised, and it appears Peterson wouldn't either, if his name joins that list.
The Cincinnati Bengals' defense busted their coverage midway through the first quarter Sunday night. No one followed Arizona Cardinals receiver Michael Floyd down the right sideline on what should have been an easy 37-yard touchdown pass.

[+] EnlargeCincinnati's Terence Newman
Photo by Norm Hall/Getty ImagesTerence Newman returned an interception 54 yards for a touchdown against the Cardinals.
No matter. Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer's pass sailed far out of bounds and fell incomplete.

On the Cardinals' next possession, receiver Larry Fitzgerald got behind cornerback Terence Newman down the middle. Fitzgerald, however, had run the wrong route. Palmer's pass headed directly toward Newman, who intercepted and returned it 54 yards for the only touchdown scored before the teams removed their starters.

Veteran observers of the NFL preseason would hardly blink at that series of plays, which more closely resemble a full-contact practice than an attempt to compete. This, of course, is nothing new. For years, the league's preseason games have drawn scrutiny for their quality of play and minimal star power. This summer, a surge in penalty flags have added six excruciating minutes to the average game compared to the 2013 preseason.

One day, the preseason might be a chip in negotiations for an 18-game season. For now, however, the NFL is moving toward a unique strategy for perpetuating what seems to be a new vision for the preseason: Lowering expectations.

Fans who attended Sunday night's game at University of Phoenix Stadium bought tickets as part of the Cardinals' variable pricing plan. Season-ticket holders paid as low as $30 per seat. Depending on their location, some seats were discounted more than 50 percent from key regular-season games.

About a third of the NFL's teams have implemented this approach, one that is widely used in other sports, and they reflect a basic and fair acknowledgement from owners: Pretend games populated mostly by backup players shouldn't cost the same as the real ones played by the stars. And for those who still don't want any part of the preseason, the lower price point might make the tickets easier to re-sell.

"This variable pricing, some people feel like that's a way to solve the preseason issue," Green Bay Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy said, "in terms of quality of play and what you're paying. If you reduce the prices by 50 percent, people will feel better about it."

For season-ticket holders, of course, variable pricing is all about perception. The total cost of most season packages, according to Murphy, are unchanged. Games are now classified in cost tiers, and the loss in preseason revenue is recaptured by increases in key games during the regular season. The Cardinals, for instance, have three price points for each ticket: preseason, prime and premium.

Is it enough to appease fans and sponsors? Does a cheaper ticket recast the preseason in a more palatable way? That question might take a few years to answer. What we know now is that the league's teams and football operations arm have intensified their use of the preseason for experimentation and alternative approaches while increasingly protecting star players from injuries.

Murphy's Packers, for instance, did not use quarterback Aaron Rodgers in their first preseason game. During the next two weeks, Rodgers threw 33 passes in 69 snaps. The New England Patriots took almost an identical approach with quarterback Tom Brady (31 passes, 66 snaps). Both could sit out the preseason finale Thursday night, and Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson isn't expected to take a preseason carry for the third consecutive season.

Meanwhile, place-kickers spent the first two weeks of the preseason attempting 33-yard extra points. And finally, the NFL's decision to use the preseason as a re-training ground for legal pass defense has led to a five-fold increase in illegal contact and defensive holding penalties. The three-week sum for those penalties (230) is approaching the 17-week total from the 2013 regular season (285).

Overall, penalties (accepted and declined) are up nearly 30 percent compared to the 2013 preseason. The ensuing panic prompted vice president of officiating Dean Blandino to make the media rounds to reassure everyone -- players, coaches, fans, media members -- that the surge is temporary.

"As preseason continues and into the regular season," Blandino said on ESPN Radio , "those numbers will start to regulate."

The gush of penalties has lengthened these games, but the quality of play has probably made the games seem longer than they really were. The average preseason game in 2014 (186 minutes) has actually been shorter than the average game during the 2013 regular season (190), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

No one knows the future of the NFL preseason. It could well be truncated if the league moves to an 18-game regular season, and the emergence of dual training camp practices provides a lower-key alternative. The summer of 2014, however, has offered us a vision for future years: Cheaper tickets for dramatized practices, a stage for rule experimentation and a platform for adjusting style of play. Will you buy it? The NFL hopes so.




Thursday, 9/18
Sunday, 9/21
Monday, 9/22