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The Preseason Wrap

From the Jets' QB situation to the Arizona OL, the injury bug seems to be sweeping through the NFL

The third weekend of NFL preseason action is traditionally the most meaningful, as starters get the most action they’ll see before the real deal kicks off and the first significant cuts begin to come down. These past few days have been no exception. Injuries befell a number of notable players, including a quarterback who may never suit up again, while one passing job that appeared to be safe went up in smoke. Longtime terrifying traditions were renewed, and a number of players with pedigrees hit the street after what might have been their final NFL action. In all, enough happened that it’s worth taking a trip around the league to break down some of Week 3′s1 more notable events.

Saved by Zero

Bill Barnwell: This weekend, Mark Sanchez’s run as the long-term Jets quarterback seemed to come to an end. Rex Ryan essentially benched Sanchez for Geno Smith, who threw three interceptions and Orlovskied his way out of the end zone for a safety. Sanchez then came in with the B team and suffered a shoulder injury, leading to bizarre hyperbole from the New York media.

But what happened to Sanchez? Two years ago, he was feted as a big-game quarterback, a guy who would struggle during the occasional regular-season game but come up with a big drive when his team really needed him to pull one out. He was that scary six-letter word: clutch. He started his career 19-12 with a 4-2 record in the postseason, having beaten Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer, and Philip Rivers. The numbers were bad, but I’d read comments from people who knew better than to trust the numbers:

The stat guys are idiots. I mean it very strongly … Believe what your eye tells you. I have never looked at one QB ever on tape through all the years and then when it’s done, I have never even thought, ‘what were his numbers?’ I never have.

That was noted Internet troll … oh, sorry, that was Phil Simms. And, as part of that same interview detailing the importance of the eye test, here’s Boomer Esiason:

All I can go by is what I see. I don’t worry about dropped interceptions. There are just as many dropped passes as dropped interceptions. Nobody seems to use that argument in favor of Mark. All I can tell you is that when you’re hitting big play after big play on the road in NE, road in Pitt, road in Indy when the game is on the line … that’s all I need to know. All of those guys who write about those stats have never been in that situation and can never truly understand the pressure that is associated with it. When the pressure rises, he calms down and he seems like he’s in control.

Maybe the problem with Sanchez is that regular-season games just aren’t enough pressure to justify playing well. I’m not pulling up a pair of old quotes about Sanchez to point out that these two ex-quarterbacks missed the boat, but instead to illuminate the way people thought about Sanchez at his peak and how people used his context to ignore his actual level of production. Stats don’t mean anything in a vacuum — those guys are right about that — but they do attempt to reflect a player’s actual level of performance. In this case, Sanchez’s level of performance wasn’t good enough, even back then, to justify the hype.

It’s pretty clear now to see what was happening then: Sanchez was being dragged to success by a great defense and, at times, an excellent running game. When the defense fell apart and a creaky offensive line couldn’t keep Sanchez or the running game going, his ability to win football games seemingly disappeared. But you know all that already.

Let me play devil’s advocate for a second, because I think there’s an interesting argument to be made on the other side. Are we 100 percent sure that Mark Sanchez will never be a successful NFL quarterback? Certainly, the numbers haven’t gotten any better, his confidence is shot, and he’s not going to be a starter on his next NFL stop, whenever that comes. But allow me to point out that it hasn’t exactly been very easy for Sanchez these past couple of years.

During Sanchez’s first two seasons with the team, he had a number of notable receivers to throw (admittedly often-inaccurate) passes to. He had Jerricho Cotchery and Braylon Edwards at wideout during the majority of his rookie season, and a year later he added Santonio Holmes, who was being called an ideal teammate for Sanchez as recently as January 2011.

Since then, the receiving corps has dropped off. Holmes was a disappointment in 2011 and injured for virtually all of 2012. Cotchery and Edwards left, with the primary replacement becoming middling target Plaxico Burress, who has caught three passes since leaving New York. Erstwhile tight end Dustin Keller even missed half of the 2012 campaign, meaning that Sanchez’s receivers were Jeremy Kerley, Chaz Schilens, and Jeff Cumberland. The only notable investment the Jets made in a target for Sanchez over that time frame was 2012 second-round pick Stephen Hill, a massive wideout with far more raw talent than actual receiving ability. Does that sound like the kind of player Sanchez, himself not exactly a polished stone, would work well with? The supporting cast around Sanchez has been pathetic.

And there is a guy who was actually worse than Sanchez through his first four years who ended up becoming a winning quarterback. Trent Dilfer’s first three years with the Buccaneers were downright abysmal: In 34 starts, he completed 54 percent of his passes and threw an incredible 43 interceptions against 17 touchdowns. He was better in his fourth season, posting a TD-to-INT ratio of nearly 2-to-1, but Sanchez’s first four seasons, taken on the whole, were still better than Dilfer’s. Of course, Dilfer would leave Tampa two years later, end up as a backup in Baltimore, and then serve as the starting quarterback alongside an even better defense, which made him a Super Bowl winner for the 2000 Ravens.

The word I avoided using there with regard to Dilfer’s tenure with the Ravens is “lead,” and it’s important to consider. We just typically think of quarterbacks as leading their teams to the Super Bowl because it’s the thing the truly great ones do, but the reality is that there are plenty of Super Bowl teams that lead their quarterback to the trophy as opposed to the other way around. That was the case with Dilfer and Baltimore in 2000, or Ben Roethlisberger with the Steelers in 2005, or Eli Manning with the Giants in 2007, and it will probably end up appearing to be the case with Joe Flacco and last year’s Ravens. We think about Super Bowl teams as perfect creatures without any flaws, but the reality is that those teams always have flaws. Sometimes, those flaws end up as quarterbacks.

OK. Enough devil’s advocate. Think for a moment about what would have happened if the Jets had pulled out either of those AFC Championship Games they made and actually won the Super Bowl. It’s not that unreasonable to imagine; they were competitive in both those losses, and they wouldn’t have been huge underdogs in the Super Bowl against the 2009 Saints or the 2010 Packers.2 Let’s say that Sanchez played his typical brand of football in those two wins, but then he (and the Jets) play the same exact way in 2011 and 2012 that they have in reality. Would the Jets be benching Sanchez now? Would he still be a failure of a quarterback? Or would his label as a “winner” simply stick so hard that no amount of subpar performing could scrape it off, the way that these past two years seemingly have?

I think there’s a slight possibility that Sanchez could go somewhere else with a very good quarterbacks coach and above-average receivers and succeed as an above-average backup/below-average starter type. And that was always the case with Sanchez from day one, but we let the things around him dictate our perceptions of his level of play. That, in the long run, is what you should take away from the Mark Sanchez era. Evaluate a guy for what he is and be realistic about the help (or lack of help) he gets from the people around him. And remember: Players don’t win. Teams do.

The Quarterback Shuffle

Barnwell: Sanchez wasn’t the only quarterback to see his job security fluctuate over the weekend. Three other passers lost their jobs, including two likely starters, one of whom might never play again.

That’s Kevin Kolb, who suffered yet another concussion during this weekend’s game against the Redskins, an injury that caused the Bills — already without rookie EJ Manuel for the remainder of the preseason — to frantically call around for quarterbacks of yesteryear. Matt Leinart! John Beck! I actually created a LinkedIn account for J.P. Losman in the hopes of getting a callback from the organization. Alas, they settled on Leinart by the time the weekend was up, and he will compete with Thaddeus Lewis (acquired via trade) and rookie free agent Jeff Tuel for the starting job in Week 1 against the Patriots if Manuel can’t go.

For whatever strengths Kolb had as a passer, his inability to handle an NFL pass rush appears to have doomed his career. It’s one thing to be prone to concussions, as Kolb appears to be, but part of a quarterback’s job is knowing where to step and how to move around in the pocket to avoid taking hits. Kolb never developed that in any of his pro stops, and the Cardinals certainly didn’t help things by playing him behind the league’s worst offensive line last year. If the Bills are going to start Manuel from Week 1, chances are they will probably just put Kolb on injured reserve or come to terms on an injury settlement and release him. In any case, it seems exceedingly likely at this writing that Kolb will never take a regular-season snap for the Bills.

Speaking of blasts from the past, Vince Young made his way back into our football consciousness with a pretty impressive display for the Packers, as he went 6-of-7 for 41 yards with a passing touchdown and three carries for 39 yards against the Seahawks. Sure, the one incompletion was a dropped pick-six, but you’ll live with that from a guy who wasn’t even in the organization a couple of months ago. It was enough for the Packers to release Graham Harrell, who had been the primary backup to Aaron Rodgers for the past two seasons. I’m pretty skeptical of Young, who was the only quarterback during the Andy Reid era in Philadelphia to look better elsewhere than he did under Reid’s stewardship. He’s probably better than Harrell, but I wouldn’t feel safe about the backup spot if I were a Packers fan.

This time next year, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Green Bay backup was the guy who preceded Harrell, Matt Flynn, who appears to have lost his job in Oakland to Terrelle Pryor. It’s the second consecutive training camp in which Flynn has walked in with a clear path to the starting job and walked out as the (likely) backup, having lost his job to Russell Wilson in Seattle last year. Here, the case for Pryor is far iffier. Flynn looked bad in the loss to the Bears, going 3-for-6 with two picks, but preseason performance shouldn’t be enough for a starting quarterback to lose his job, especially to a player whose career NFL performance has seen him go 14-for-30 for 155 yards. Could the Raiders have really turned on Flynn that quickly?

Well, maybe. Consider what Oakland’s goals for this season are, something that Robert Mays and I addressed on Friday’s NFL Preview podcast: to wipe the salary slate as clean as can be for the future while, hopefully, finding some young building blocks along the way. Its other goal, presumably, would be to get as high of a first-round pick as possible so it can draft either once-in-a-decade pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney or likely franchise quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who are expected to be the top two picks in the 2014 draft. The Raiders aren’t exactly benching a superstar by moving Flynn to the second string, but make no mistake: They’re tanking, and rotating two ineffective quarterbacks in and out of the lineup won’t hurt their chances.

Can Jonathan Cooper Avoid the OL Curse?

Robert Mays: When I heard the news about Jonathan Cooper’s broken leg — suffered Saturday in the Cardinals’ game against San Diego — I thought the worst. And the worst, at least recently, is Derek Sherrod. Like Cooper, Sherrod was picked in the first round by a team looking to solidify its offensive line, but he hasn’t played since breaking both the tibia and fibula in his right leg late in the 2011 season. The Packers — and Sherrod — have said little about the reasons for his slow recovery, but last week, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s Bob McGinn spoke to members of Sherrod’s family about the events of the past 20 months. Apparently, complications from Sherrod’s initial surgery led to a lingering ankle problem that caused him to miss the entire 2012 season and need another surgery this past spring. Sherrod remains on the PUP list.

Comparing the two injuries upon hearing the Cooper news was really as simple as “offensive lineman and broken leg,” but in reality, there are likely several factors separating the two situations. Sherrod broke both bones and needed emergency surgery, while Cooper appears to have broken only his tibia. The severity of the injury, and if Cooper will miss the entire season, isn’t yet known. The connection was enough, though, to cause some curiosity about whether broken legs tend to have more lingering effects for offensive linemen than, say, ACL tears.

Some deep Googling — from both Bill Barnwell and me — yielded mixed results. Since 2000, about a dozen NFL offensive linemen have missed time with broken legs, starting with the Patriots’ Max Lane. Lane broke his leg in Week 6 of that year after starting at two positions for New England over the first five games. Lane had spot-started for the Patriots for the past couple of seasons after being a full-time player earlier in his career, but following the broken leg, he never played again. The same goes for Jerry Ostroski, who started seven games for Buffalo in 2001 before breaking his leg and never playing again.

A more recent example of the lasting impact a broken leg can have is former Giants guard Rich Seubert. We remember Seubert now as a starter on the 2007 championship team, but four years earlier, he suffered a broken tibia, fibula, and ankle against Philadelphia that nearly cost him his career. Tests revealed a spiral fracture that required five surgeries, and Seubert missed the next season and a half before working back into the lineup late in 2005.

Again, Cooper’s injury appears to be less severe, and with that in mind, there are also several examples of players breaking a leg and making quick, full recoveries. The Jaguars’ Maurice Williams broke his leg early in the 2002 season and managed to start all 16 games the following season. Matt Light went to three consecutive Pro Bowls in the three seasons following his broken leg, and the Panthers’ Jordan Gross was back on the field by Week 1 the year after his.

The severity of Cooper’s injury seems to place him among the latter group, but that’s likely not something we’ll know until his surgery. What we do know is that there have been more complications with broken legs than might arise with the typical knee ligament injuries with which we’re more familiar, and that for the duration of Cooper’s recovery, the Cardinals will be without a player they valued enough to take seventh overall in this spring’s draft. One of Arizona’s central problems on offense last season was the performance of offensive linemen forced into duty because of injury, and before Week 1 has even begun, it’s starting again. Chilo Rachal, who couldn’t crack a Bears offensive line that’s been wholly remade this offseason, stepped in for Cooper on Saturday night. Cooper was supposed to help rebuild the Cardinals’ offensive line and possibly help usher in a new era of how guards are viewed as draft commodities. It looks like each of those are going to have to wait at least one more season.

Get Us Away From Here, We’re Dying

Barnwell: Finally, a simple request: Stop playing the Giants-Jets preseason game. It’s cursed. In addition to the Sanchez injury, this weekend saw Giants starting safety Stevie Brown tear his ACL on an interception return, which will end his season before it even started. Brown becomes the third notable Giants player to suffer a season-ending injury in this game during the past 15 years. In 1998, the Giants decided to use starting cornerback Jason Sehorn as a return man for some reason, leading to Sehorn tearing an ACL while returning a preseason kickoff. He was never the same player and would later be torched by Brandon Stokley for a touchdown during Super Bowl XXXV. In 2008, Osi Umenyiora suffered a torn meniscus that cost him the entire campaign. Heck, this one has even hurt the Jets, who lost Chad Pennington to a fractured wrist during the 2003 game between these two teams. (The Bills just read this and called Chad Pennington.) Just go play somebody else already.

Brown’s injury will hurt the Giants more by the absence of anybody behind him than by his own inability to take the field. His eight interceptions last year masked a number of notable mistakes and frequent targets from the opposition. Interception totals that high never stay at the same level year-after-year, so 2013 was likely going to yield more of the ugly plays than takeaways. With Antrel Rolle already missing time because of a sore ankle and notable hard man Will Hill suspended for the first four games of the season, the Giants are scary-thin at safety at the moment, with Steelers castoff Ryan Mundy starting alongside 2011 sixth-rounder Tyler Sash. The Giants could turn to some recently departed players for assistance; long-time nickel safety Deon Grant was out of football in 2012 and recently retired as a Giants player, and former starter Kenny Phillips was released by the Eagles on Sunday. If you’re a Giants fan and you think this isn’t an issue, all I need to do is whisper one name: C.C. Brown. Somebody go get help, please, somebody go get help.

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell