The preseason is a conundrum.
On one hand, the sounds of football have returned. Men are once again grunting in the vanguard, applying mountainous strength to move each other. An official’s whistle. Vendors selling watered-down American beer. Jolting snaps of shoulder pads, built with a combination of foam compression and carbon fiber reverberates. Cadences of words, colors, and numbers, with no discernible pattern to the untrained ear echo in half-empty stadiums.
Football is back.
The sights were there too. Vontaze Burfict dropping an explosive shoulder to generate thunderous hits. Andy Dalton smiling, Jeremy Hill strutting, Dre Kirkpatrick watching, Adam Jones cursing (probably), cheerleaders dancing, and everyone holding their breath watching Tyler Eifert get tackled. All of this under fourth quarter fireworks from across the river; an amazing sight for a memorable preseason game, no?
Football is back.
We’re not talking about the excitable façade of training camp, where rambunctious cheers are the result of a handful of catches, quality defensive deflections, all under the shadow of injury reports. This is who is practicing today, who isn’t practicing, who hasn’t practiced, and who remains on the injury list. From a fan’s perspective, training camp is the unlit match before the fire.
Football is back.
Across the NFL spectrum, we’re conditioned to instinctively believe the preseason is meaningless when forecasting the regular season (this is usually regurgitated during preseason losses).
Despite charging 65 yards on 12 plays during Cincinnati’s opening possession, Dalton’s end zone interception is the type of error you’d expect from a rookie quarterback during his first preseason game. If lessons were learned, he won’t make that throw next month. AJ McCarron looked inconsistent with elevated throws and Jeff Driskel took the football and ran with it. Literally. Driskel, who led the team with 34 yards rushing, flipped a glorious eight-yard toss to rookie wide receiver Josh Malone to give the Bengals a 20-12 lead under the celebratory sky of fireworks across the Ohio River. It was pretty cool.
Cincinnati’s offensive line wasn’t as apocalyptic as pessimists would have you believe; especially if you exclude Russell Bodine from conversation. Excitedly, the offensive line, especially those facing battles for starting jobs or a spot on the team’s opening weekend roster, have cauterized any perceived bleeding after the departures of Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler. Yet, no Andre Smith. “Coach’s decision,” he said after the game via Bengals.com, claiming it wasn’t elbow stiffness that’s kept him grounded. “It’s OK. Nothing is going on.” How true. See you later, Andre. Trey Hopkins, it’s yours to lose. “It was a pretty good night,” Hopkins admitted.
Joe Mixon, who significantly bolsters a backfield loaded with second-round picks, hauled in an McCarron swing pass in the second quarter, dancing around defenders for an 11-yard gain. All four Tampa Bay defenders on that play will probably encounter a grim-faced coach for missing tackles this week. Mixon finished with seven touches for 42 yards from scrimmage; six touches on the ground for 31 yards.
Paul Guenther’s crew also served an entrée of optimism, from Andrew Billings disruptive nature against the run, Jordan Willis’ athleticism, and linebackers such as Jordan Evans and Carl Lawson sacrificing themselves against lead blockers while supporting players made the tackle. One could be concerned about the defense’s inability to get off the field in the first half, especially the first-team.
“Well, we let them convert some third downs,” head coach Marvin Lewis said Friday night. “We had them backed up and we’ve got to keep them backed up, and that’s a good lesson.”
Clearly, there were positives from Cincinnati’s 23-12 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Friday.
So, football is back.
But it’s not. Well, not really.
Preseason football is the initiator for excitement, but the reminder that none of this is real, yet. Players practice real-game scenarios, while coaches use these precious situations to gauge a player’s contributable prognosis. These Bengals are young, inexperienced, which makes for sloppy moments like dropped passes, missed blocks and tackles, overthrows, under throws, missed routes; though arguably those happen during the regular season regardless. However, preseason football focuses more on the individual performances, rather than the team result, in a fight for survival in a sport that’s become more ruthless off the field (i.e, cuts) than on it.
If the regular season opener is like the season premiere of a television show, then Friday’s preseason game was the first part in a four-part preview designed to summarize previous seasons. When the Bengals kickoff on September 10, then football is truly back.