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NFL Preseason Evaluations

   by Scott Spreitzer - 08/19/2008

Preseason football offers various chances to see coaching staffs implementing new wrinkles on offense and defense. It's all predicated on personnel, however, and one must need to approach these changes with a careful eye.

For instance, six years ago Steve Spurrier brought his Fun-n-Gun offense to the NFL with the Washington Redskins. Spurrier put on a show his first preseason, with trick plays and a wide-open offensive assault. It was impressive, with his teams winning and going over the total often.

However, that didn't hold when the games were played for real. His offenses were largely anemic in the regular season, against first-string defenses and blitzing attacks. I think about this watching the Redskins under first-year coach Jim Zorn. Washington has been impressive on offense with his uptempo, West Coast attack.

Zorn likes to keep defenses off balance with his play calling. In three games the offense has tallied 355 yards (156 rushing), 341 yards (155 rushing) and 359 yards (181 rushing), winning all three games. However, I see a bit of Spurrier in this, as well. The Redskins have had offensive line troubles and a lot of injuries. In Saturday's win over the Jets, running back Ladell Betts didn't play much because of an injury while RB Clinton Portis was given the night off.

The bulk of the yards were racked up by RBs Rock Cartwright and Marcus Mason. I can hear the collective echo of..."Who?" Cartwright is a 7-year veteran, so it's unlikely the Redskins found a gem of a back everyone else has missed the previous six years. The point is, I like what Zorn is doing with his offense, but don't make the "Spurrier mistake" of expecting this offense to be just as potent in the regular season, especially on the ground. After all, Washington was 20th and 15th in total offense the last two seasons under Al Saunders, a guy with an excellent reputation for running potent offenses.

One thing I did like, though, was the way Zorn has thrown rookie QB Colt Brennan into the fire. Trailing 10-6, Washington took over on its 20-yard line with 2 minutes 4 seconds remaining. Brennan had entered in the third quarter in Washington's first two preseason games but came in to start the fourth quarter Saturday. That's because Zorn wanted to evaluate the rookie in a late-game situation with the team either in a hurry-up mode because it trailed or trying to manage the clock with a lead.

The kid passed the test. On the drive's first play, Brennan completed a 37-yard pass to wide receiver Billy McMullen. After a sack, the Redskins went to a no-huddle offense, and Brennan teamed with tight end Jason Goode on a 33-yard touchdown pass over the middle with 1:09 to play. That's a significant part of preseason – testing the kids. Brennan might be a bit like Kurt Warner, an unknown who surprises in the pro game because of his quick thinking skills developed after playing in a hurry-up offense in college (or in Warner's case, the Arena League).

Speaking of evaluating styles of play, how about the Raiders/Titans game last week? Tennessee ran for 140 yards, Oakland ran for 224. Now this is a good example of what you could expect in the regular season – run first offenses.

The Titans have been that way the last two years with young QB Vince Young and limited wideout talent. Last year Tennessee was 5th in rushing, 27th in passing. I wouldn't expect that to change this season, especially with their RB depth (they took RB Chris Johnson in the first round). Oakland is turning the reigns over to second-year QB JaMarcus Russell and the kid has very little WR talent or speed to work with. You can't run a wide-open, spread offense if you don't have the personnel.

That's a mistake the Jets made last season on both sides of the ball. Eric Mangini wants to run a 3-4 defense but hasn't had the run stuffers up front to really make it work. And on offense, they haven't had a QB that can throw deep, which is what they prefer under OC Brian Schottenheimer. They've felt opposing defenses have cheated, bringing defensive backs closer to the line of scrimmage and jamming the run. NY ranked 19th in rushing and 25th in passing in 2007.

That's why they jumped to dump Chad Pennington and bring in Brett Favre. Look for NY to spread the field and for Favre to throw deep (which he will do whether you ask him to or not), as the plan is to have a better running game because they believe there will be larger seams for the RBs. This is the plan, that is. I wonder about Favre's arm strength at age 38, his propensity to throw into traffic, and the new-look NY offensive line.

A team that has looked positively brutal on offense is the Chicago Bears, a team less than two years removed from being NFC Champs. This offensive line hasn't look better (30th in rushing last season): they had 51 yards rushing Saturday at Seattle. Chicago produced 82 yards, three first downs and no points in 23 plays with Rex Grossman. That was one week after the first team offense got 3 points in the first half against the Chiefs.

"This will be my fifth year with this coaching staff. They've seen me for four years," Grossman said. "I think they should know." Unfortunately, Rex, we ALL know. What was it that former Bears WR Mushim Muhammad said? "Chicago is a place where wide receivers go to die." Or as General McArthur would add, to "just fade away." At this point, things don't look much improved for the Chicago offense in 2008, so that defense had better return to its 2006 form.

We're less than two weeks away from opening kick of the college football season. I'll return to the CFB grids with next week's update getting us all set up for a great 2008 season.

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