The loneliest job in football belongs to the man who lets Tom Brady down. Patriots second-year tight end A.J. Derby learned the hard way Friday night, when his wide-open drop ended Brady's third drive of his brief preseason.
Brady headed to the bench with disgust, aware that he only had so many snaps until October. The ferocity Brady displayed in his four drives was unmistakable. He looked like a man who didn't enjoy coming off the bench or the notion that he'll have to watch Jimmy Garoppolo pilot his team for a month. He also made Garoppolo's respectable preseason efforts look pedestrian by comparison.
Brady wasn't the only suspended player who made a big impression over the weekend. Seeing Josh Gordon matched up against Bucs cornerback Brent Grimes was like watching Andy Reid taking on those Punt, Pass and Kick kids. Gordon's return to beast mode gives Robert Griffin III one of the most imposing receiving groups in football. Really.
While Gordon and Brady will have to wait until Week 5 to return against each other, Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell will be reinstated one week prior. Bell, who tore up his knee last November, returned to action on Saturday and immediately started doing Le'Veon Bell things, racking up 58 yards on eight versatile touches. A Steelers optimist could see Bell's time away as a chance for him to get even stronger and keep miles off his odometer before a potential playoff run.
Restless suspended players weren't the only ones who made a mark on a packed third preseason week. Here are our winners and losers from the "dress rehearsal":
A good week for ...
Dallas Cowboys rookies: This has nothing to do with the broken bone in Tony Romo's back. That injury will keep Dak Prescott in the spotlight longer than expected, but his performance against Seattle on Thursday night showed how the Cowboys can survive. Prescott showed he can stand tall against pressure, even if heat is rare behind the boffo Cowboys line. Prescott avoided big mistakes, ran the hurry-up like a veteran and got the Cowboys starters to halftime tied against a stout defense.
More importantly, Prescott will have the support of a strong running game. Ezekiel Elliott put more skills on tape (power, burst, vision, blocking, toughness) in 14 snaps than some NFL starters show their whole career. Even the Jones family couldn't overhype this kid enough.
Andre Johnson, WR, Tennessee Titans: Signed without a guaranteed roster spot, Johnson now looks slated for a starting role. Dorial Green-Beckham is gone and Justin Hunter could be soon behind. Johnson actually played more with Tennessee's first-team offense on Saturday than big free-agent pickup Rishard Matthews, catching three passes for 65 yards. Time will tell what he has left, but A.J. is getting a legitimate final chance to burnish his Hall of Fame numbers alongside a promising young quarterback.
Year 4 of the Andy Reid Chiefs: Reid and Alex Smith might never be appointment television. But the tedium of Kansas City's death-by-1,000-slants offense masks the reality that Reid has been coaching his ass off the last three years.
Watching the Chiefs' bloodletting of the Bears Saturday, it occurred to me that Smith has a new level of confidence and mastery of Reid's offense. He's playing with a cheat code. The return of Jamaal Charles gives Kansas City the deepest backfield in football. Chris Conley looks like he's going to add plenty as a No. 2 receiver. I don't know what the ceiling of this team is, but I know Reid has a great chance to hit it.
Jared Cook, TE, Green Bay Packers: After years of driving Jeff Fisher crazy, Cook has landed in tight-end heaven. Perhaps Cook's penchant for drops and mental errors will eventually drive Aaron Rodgers crazy, too, but it has become clear this preseason that Cook is going to be a big part of this Packers offense. Fantasy drafters take note.
Not a good week for ...
Existential dread about the Colts: Actual quotes said during Indy's television broadcast:
» "That flag is our best play."
» "Is there a woodshed to take these guys to?"
» "We're losing the edge. There is no edge."
Every year, we repeat the mantra: Don't overreact to the preseason. Don't overreact to the preseason. Don't overreact to the preseason.
And every season, at least one team looks so out of sorts that it truly does carry over into September. The Colts look like that team this year.
Offensive line struggles are a trademark of Chuck Pagano teams. Andrew Luck had to be taken out of Saturday's game against Philadelphia because he wasn't safe. High-priced left tackle Anthony Castonzo struggled. Left guard Jack Mewhort is out two to four weeks, while rookie first-round pick Ryan Kelly gave up multiple pressures from the pivot. Third-rounder Le'Raven Clark doesn't look ready for the NFL and will need a redshirt season.
It would be one thing if the line problem was isolated, but injuries have ravaged the defense, especially at cornerback. Chuck Pagano was asked if he could even set realistic expectations with so many players missing.
"I'd be lying to you if I said that," Pagano said. And later, about his injured players eventually returning: "It's hard. It's not easy to just roll the [ball] out there and just show up."
It's not all doom and gloom, because many of the injuries are short term. Luck looks sharper this year and has proven he can carry a team. Still, this Colts squad looks like a mid-November team taking on water -- and it's only August.
Kevin White's confidence: The Bears are trying to get last year's No. 7 overall pick involved, and it's not working. Over three preseason games, he has totaled three catches for 12 yards on eight targets. He had two drops against Kansas City and was not in the right position on the field a few times.
"I talked to him on the sideline and just told him, 'This is going to happen, and now you know and now it can't happen again. We can't have repeat mistakes,' " Jay Cutler told reporters. "He's a good kid. He's going to do well."
Cutler noted that White did not play much college football. Even at West Virginia, his route tree was limited. This could take a while, and the Bears might be forced to reduce his role.
Offensive lines in New Orleans and Houston: The Saints have finally rebuilt the skill-position talent around Drew Brees, and now the line is falling apart. All-world left tackle Terron Armstead returned from an undisclosed injury against Pittsburgh, gave up pressures, then left with an undisclosed injury. Perhaps all those Bizarro Saints practice reports about the defense "winning" each day were more about the team's offensive struggles.
In Houston, the excitement over Brock Osweiler's strong preseason finale and the rapid maturity of his rookie receivers must be tempered by the team's line troubles. Center Nick Martin is out for the season, while stalwart left tackle Duane Brown admitted he might not be ready for Week 1.
The starting chances of rookie quarterbacks not named Dak: No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff hasn't been able to finish two of his three appearances because of big hits. He's made a few nice throws but has also shown -- without a doubt -- that he's not ready to play yet.
No. 2 overall pick Carson Wentz is set to miss his third straight game Thursday. Broncos first-rounder Paxton Lynch throws screaming fireballs at unsuspecting third-stringers. He had a chance to put heat on Trevor Siemian before going through a six-drive stretch that featured only two first downs, with a six-incompletion streak thrown in. This week will be key for Lynch establishing himself as an option to start later in the year.
Cody Kessler, Connor Cook and Christian Hackenberg are other rookie quarterbacks who have learned about the harsh transition to the NFL. (On a positive note, Jacoby Brissett has played well enough in New England for fans to wonder if he should start over Jimmy Garoppolo.)
Latavius Murray's fantasy stock: Coach Jack Del Rio said that Murray's limited playing time against Tennessee was only because the Raiders know Murray and need to find his backup. That argument only works if Murray is clearly better than the players behind him.
Both DeAndre Washington and camp surprise Jalen Richard run with serious juice. Washington is great on passing downs and Richard has vision. Throw in underrated fullback Jamize Olawale's carries with the starters and Murray is staring at a diminished workload. Del Rio refused to guarantee Murray would be the team's No. 1 back early in the offseason, and Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie promised to get help. The team was hoping to reduce Murray's role and just so happened to find the right guys with a fifth-round pick and an undrafted free agent.