So the Skins won in preseason.  Again.  Yes, that’s eight straight August triumphs for the Burgundy and Gold…as they force an incomplete pass on Cleveland’s potential game-winning two point conversion attempt to hold off the Browns 24-23.  Kudos to Cleveland for not kicking the extra point and potentially sending a Monday night preseason game into overtime.  The big question is in mid-August, what can you really put your finger on in the second of four dress rehearsals?  Outside of Johnny Manziel’s digital extension, that is. 

 

Johnny might not be able read…but he can certainly SIGN– and we’re not talking about autographs for cash.  Cleveland’s latest first round draft pick quarterback completed less than half of his passes–but did connect in his only attempt to hurl an obscene gesture at the Redskins bench.  Naturally just about every camera was on Mr. Manziel, so now in addition to bad decisions in the pocket the face of their franchise (who can’t start at his position) has that to answer for.  Which may be easier than answering why he’s not going to win the starting job from a journeyman.

 

RG3VER– the face of the franchise completes 6 of 8 passes for 112 yards…but his first drive ended with a fumble, the second ended with an interception in the red zone, and the third possession ended with an unsuccessful attempt at 4th and goal from the one.  Zero points over three chances against a Browns defense not scheming for you is less than ideal.

 

C & C Factory– after shining against New England in week one, the Cousins and Colt Combination looked a little shakier against the Browns– each tossing an interception.  Cousins’ INT could have easily been run back for a score as well… but he looked much better than Colt who needed a 30-yard touchdown strike to stay in the conversation.  The biggest backup disappointment?  No Rex Grossman on the field in Turnoverasaurus Rex’s return to Fed Ex.

 

For Alfred, it’s only August;  for Lache it’s August Only– Mr. Morris ran the ball 11 times for 29 yards… and got stuffed on 3rd and 4th down on the goal line in the 2nd quarter.  But it’s only August…and the man who’s gained over 2,800 yards over his first two seasons should be ready to go September 7th.  Lache Seastrunk once again led the team in rushing and is making a case for a spot on a roster here or elsewhere (if he doesn’t wind up on the Skins practice squad).

 

The Rare Rookie Receiver– while everybody was looking forward to and pleased with Desean Jackson’s play (2 receptions for 34 yards) but Ryan Grant was the wideout who stood out– tallying 4 catches for 44 yards and a touchdown.  Two other receivers made in-game cases for sticking– Rashad Ross made a 43-yard catch while Nick Williams caught a 30-yard touchdown pass.

 

Third and a Work in Progress– the team went 5-11 in moving the chains:  Robert Griffin III went 0-3, Kirk Cousins 3-5, Colt McCoy 2-3.  Play selection: 9 runs and 3 passes.  Distance breakdown:  3-4 on third and short (1-3 yards needed), 1-2 on third and 4-6, 1-5 on third and long (7+ yards).  Let’s see how they fare after a short work-week preparing for the Ravens.

 

Defensive Differences–  Ryan Kerrigan shined with 2 sacks…while Will Compton made his case with 6 stops (1 for loss) and Bashaud Breeland added something to his file over and above his marijuana bust by notching 5 tackles and 2 passes defensed.  Yes, the D gave up 23 points–but had held the Browns to 3 and out on five of their first six possessions.

 

Flying Flags– another night with a heavy laundry load…11 penalties for 100 yards is not ideal…even though the last four infractions were made by players on the roster bubble.  Five penalties were against the offense–including two false starts against Robert Griffin III.  Two holds came against lineman likely squeezed out (Maurice Hurt and Josh LeRibeus) of the regular rotation…and Andre Roberts’ pass interference was negated by a Browns defensive hold on the next play.  Defensive flags came against Perry Riley (facemask after 4 yard Browns gain), EJ Biggers (holding), Trent Murphy (roughing the passer after a 3-yard run), Chase Minnifield (defensive holding after 2 flags the previous week) and Rob Jackson (illegal use of the hands–led to a late Browns TD).  The costliest penalty?  While Jackson’s illegal use of the hands contributed to a Browns touchdown drive (turning a Cleveland 3rd & 12 at the Washington 43 into a 1st &  10 on the 38), Hurt’s hold pushed the team back from 1st and 10 at the 22 to 1st and 20 at the 12– and on the next play Colt McCoy threw a pick six.

 

Cobra Kai-Zach Attack Round II– minimal opportunities for separation this week:  Kai Forbath nailing the lone field goal attempt (from 26 yards out) and both kickers converting all of their extra point attempts.  On the kickoff front:  Zach Hocker was 3 for 3 in reaching the endzone while Forbath was 1/2 in getting the ball past the goal line.  A far cry from getting the bodybag…

College football is often about perspective:  Virginia Tech’s trying to recover from an 8-5 season while Virginia dreams of 5 loss campaigns.  The dominion duo have mostly traveled on separate tracks since the Hokies entered the ACC…and 2014 appears to be more of the same.  A regime salvaging season for Mike London is far below the standards of Frank Beamer…as the least suspenseful subplot of the Coastal Division (who wins the Commonwealth Cup Thanksgiving weekend?) plays out (Virginia Tech’s won every matchup since they joined the league in 2003).

Virginia Tech prepares for life after Logan Thomas– although fans in Blacksburg won’t be overly wistful of the three year starter’s era.  After leading the Hokies to an 11-3 mark as a sophomore, the team went 7-6 and 8-5 his final two falls on campus.  This coming after the program posted eight straight double-digit victory seasons.  Expectations aren’t merely to contend for a Coastal Division crown–they’re to win the league.  Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer completed over 70 percent of his passes during his two seasons in Lubbock–albeit in a limited sample (58 career attempts).  Regardless who plays QB, the running game needs to rank higher than 106th in Division I for the Hokies to avoid losing games against Boston College and Duke.

Virginia looks to pick up the pieces of a 2-10 season that began with an upset of BYU that was memorable just as much for the nasty weather that almost derailed the game in Charlottesville.  Sadly, the back-end of the season saw a bad situation get worse as the Cavaliers lost their last six games by an average of 22 points.  Fifteen starters return with a lot of optimism surrounding the Kevin Parks-led running game (the senior gained over 1000 yards last season)…as well as the hope that Greyson Lambert or David Watkins will lead the passing offense out of the stone age (UVa averaged under 10 yards per completion while tossing almost twice as many interceptions as touchdowns).  True freshman wide receiver Doni Dowling’s garnered quite a bit of attention.  Defensively?  Talk to me after the UCLA game August 30th.

Looking at the league– three ACC schools find themselves in the preseason top 25:  defending champ Florida State ranks 1st, Clemson’s 16th and North Carolina rates 23rd in both polls.  In fact, it almost appears as though the Associated Press studied the ESPN preseason rankings.  Sixteen schools are ranked exactly the same and only two schools are more than one spot away from where the other poll has them (#24 Texas in the AP and #24 Missouri in the ESPN are also receiving votes from the other poll).

Disputing the Divisions– if we’re stuck with the Atlantic and Coastal names (much better than Leaders and Legends)…can’t we at least group schools in the same region?  The idea to separate Miami from Florida State because one would block the other from the ACC title game has meant nothing (as Miami has yet to win a division) while making the Hurricanes-Seminoles matchup an odd footnote to the season because it’s not a divisional game.  If Maryland had stayed in the ACC, they’d continue to play Virginia Tech and Pitt (the schools closest to College Park after Virginia) only sporadically over the years.  Why would they want to do that?  Place former Big East schools Boston College, Pitt, Syracuse, Virginia Tech and Louisville with Virginia and Wake Forest in one division while keeping the Research Triangle schools (North Carolina, Duke and Wake Forest) in the same league with Clemson, Georgia Tech, Miami and Florida State.  Be smart, ACC.

Let’s be honest– the PGA Championship is the Ringo of Golf Majors.  Much like the Australian Open in tennis– the PGA is a Grand Slam event because you NEED four to have a grand slam (unlike the Champions/Senior Tour that has 5 grand slam events).  But even though Richard Starkey was not as talented as John, Paul or George he remains a Beatle for life.  Likewise–the winner of the PGA Championship gets to count that towards his major title total.  The Players Championship claims “fifth major” status–but really they’re just the Pete Best/Stu Sutcliffe/George Martin.  Close to greatness but not in the Fab Four.  Speaking of Fab Four–Rory McIlroy wins his fourth career major by one shot at 16 under par.  Other thoughts relating to Rory and Ringo…:

 

Boys— Rory’s win comes on a weekend dominated by youth:  he’s 25 as is Ricky Fowler who tied for third (after consecutive runner-up finishes at the US and British Opens).  Victor Dubuisson (24 years old) tied for seventh while Brooks Koepka (24) and Jason Day (26) tied for 15th.  Was this weekend the first page of a new chapter?

 

I Wanna Be Your Man— McIlroy’s victory was his second PGA Championship.  He joins notables like Lee Trevino and Gary Player in the group ahead of one-time winners but behind Jack Nicklaus (5) and Tiger Woods (4) in the stroke-play era (the PGA Championship used to be decided in match-play until the late 1950’s).  Rory also wins two majors in the same calendar year– a feat last accomplished by Padraig Harrington in 2008.  He also moves up the ladder with four majors–only 27 men have accomplished that feat (including both Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris from the 19th century).  The top ranked player in the world has every reason to believe there will be more majors.

 

Honey Don’t— despite not being as desirable a tournament as the Masters (tradition!), US Open (it’s our national championship!) or British Open (the birthplace of golf!)– the PGA is one tough tournament to win.  Tom Watson and Arnold Palmer never won the PGA.  Likewise for multiple-major winners Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and Ernie Els.  While many think Rickie Fowler will eventually break through at the major championship level–many were saying the same thing when a 19-year old Sergio Garcia finished second to Tiger Woods in the 1999 PGA Championship.  And we’re still waiting…

 

Act Naturally— McIlroy shot 66, 67, 67 and 68 en route to victory.  His back nine dominance helped him regain the lead Sunday after Mickelson and Fowler surged ahead…starting with an eagle on 10 (the same hole he double-bogeyed in the first round).  McIlroy finished 12 under par on the back nine (-4 on the front nine) for the tournament– taking a two shot lead with a birdie putt on 17.  It still wasn’t over though…

 

What Goes On— Phil Mickelson was THIS CLOSE to stealing the spotlight on what was the Rory Coronation Party (after two days of the Will Tiger Make the Cut Mystery)…barely missing a pair of shots on the 16th and 18th holes.  His chip on 16 holed out-robbing him of a birdie before Mickelson missed the par putt.  Phil’s chip on 18 almost went in–if it had he’d have carded an eagle and there would have been a playoff.  Which probably would have meant we would have finished the tournament Monday– just like in 2005 when lefty triumphed.

 

Yellow Submarine—  skies of blue they weren’t Sunday afternoon…as rain interrupted the final day of play and forced a semi-furious finish where McIlroy was battling darkness as well as Mickelson and Fowler.  (Beatle aside– Ringo always said the best drumming he ever did was on “Rain”–the B-side to “Paperback Writer”).  On the 18th Rory hit his approach shot while the duo had yet to putt.  Thank goodness nobody was hurt.  It did feel uncomfortable watching Rory watch Phil and Rickie before he could proceed with his round.  Made for solid TV…except for those complaining about the pre-emption of 60 Minutes.

 

With a Little Help from My Friends— Chris Wood had one memorable Thursday…and it wasn’t his first round 66.  The Englishman split the seat of his pants early in his round…and had to wear a pair of his playing partner’s rain pants.  But the pants didn’t fit well… so Wood got his own rain pants from his locker.  The water-repellent pants didn’t exactly breathe well in the Louisville heat…but before Wood melted in the August sun his manager showed up with a fresh pair.  Wood finished his first round with 5 birdies while wearing 4 different pairs of trousers.  After carding the 66, Wood shot 73, 70 and 74 in rounds he didn’t have to change his pants.  I’m not suggesting he should have torn his pants on purpose, but when it’s working…

 

Don’t Pass Me By— it appears as though Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 Major Championships appears safe.  Tiger Woods misses the cut by five shots after shooting consecutive 74’s.  It’s now been six years since his US Open title–and while he’s at the same age as Nicklaus was when he won his 15th major (1978 British Open) the odds of Woods enjoying the same sort of sunset Jack did (4 majors after turning 38) aren’t encouraging.  Whether it’s injuries, bad luck, off the course distractions or just getting old– some guys just simply stop winning majors after reaching their mid-30’s (Arnold Palmer was 34 when he won his last Masters and Tom Watson was 33 when he won his last British Open).  If Tiger shuts it down for the rest of the year– perhaps he comes back stronger in 2015.  Will his back issues ever go away?

 

Good Night— 2014 began with a Bubba bang– as Watson won his second green jacket in three years (and enjoyed another trip to a Waffle House).  Martin Kaymer conquered the US Open before the tournament really began…and then Rory McIlroy after ending an engagement over the phone dialed in one incredible summer.  Now every April the “can he win the Masters to complete the career grand slam” question will be asked.  After spending much of the last few years focusing on Tiger’s travails, it’s nice to think about what might be as opposed to what won’t be.

 

Octopus’ Garden— other storylines going to seed after Labor Day include the manufactured excitement surrounding the Fed Ex Cup Challenge Playoff… Tom Watson’s tough decisions regarding his Ryder Cup roster…the Rickie Fowler breakthrough question…will Phil Mickelson finally win a US Open?…Tom Watson’s last time playing the British Open (at St. Andrews–where none of his 5 wins came at)…who’s affected the most in the belly-putter’s final year?…and how many times will the Players Championship refer to itself as “golf’s fifth major”?  Sorry, Pete Best–your drums are taken.

There’s a dynasty developing in the DMV.  And I’m not referring to the half-smoke topped with crab cheese and ham they’re offering nowadays at Nats Park.  Since Bruce Allen joined the franchise in December, 2009 the team is 13-4 in the preseason.  Including last night’s 23-6 thumping of New England, the Skins have won seven straight dress rehearsals.  They haven’t lost at Fed Ex Field in August since 2010 (Ravens–and they can get their revenge in a few weeks at M&T).  John Beck and Rex Grossman have directed the team to victory.  There’s no stopping this juggernaut–at least for a few more weeks.  Like white pants, the Skins have not fared as well after Labor Day recently–going 13-19 over the last four regular seasons.  Truth be told;  my recaps peak in August as well.  So enjoy before my snarkiness, excessive alliteration and pop culture references become tiring.

 

RG3ver– the face of the franchise played just one series…completing 2 of 4 passes for 9 yards while directing the Skins to a field goal.  His third down pass to Aldrick Robinson fell incomplete in the end zone…but Grifin was able to get points out of the possession.  No major mistakes and no minor injuries– 2014 is already a world better than 2013.

 

Breakout the Bumper Stickers, Backup Version– it’s not Sonny vs. Billy… or even Jim Hart vs. Jay Schroeder… but the clash between Colt and Cousins for the #2 spot could be one of the more intriguing position battles this month.  Kirk Cousins completed 9 of 13 passes for 103 yards and a touchdown while Colt McCoy went 8 for 9 for 102 yards and a score.  Will the winner become late-August trade bait?

 

Alfred the Great–  Mr. Morris ran for 27 yards on 5 carries on that first quarter drive…extending the drive with a 3 yard gain on 3rd & 1 at midfield.  A good sign of things to come– the one thing coach Mike Shanahan’s team did best was run the ball effectively.  It’s good to see that the team’s ability to move the ball on the ground will make the transition between regimes. 

 

Reshuffling the Runningback Rotation– behind the team’s number one tailback there’s kind of a scramble:  Evan Royster and Roy Helu Jr combined to average a little over 3 yards a carry on 12 tries.  The backup backups fared better against lesser opposition in the second half:  Lache Seastrunk ran the ball 12 times for 63 yards while Silas Redd added 45 yards on 9 carries.  Royster’s injury past and Helu’s injury present (he hurt his knee against the Patriots) further open the window of opportunity for the two rookies.

 

Third and…HELLO?  This is August–  the Skins converted 6 of 12 third down attempts:  Griffin went 1-2, Cousins 3-5 and McCoy 2-5.  In addition, the team moved the chains once via penalty (Illegal contact on an incomplete pass) and had a first down taken away (holding wiping out a Silas Redd scamper).  Five runs called as opposed to nine passes.  Yardage breakdown:  4 for 5 on 3rd & short (1-3 yards needed)… 1 for 2 on 3rd and medium (4-6) and 1 for 5 on 3rd and long (7+ yards needed).  It’s nice to see that almost half of the team’s third down situations were short yardage– something that didn’t happen last year for the Shanahans and haunted them big-time.

 

Case for the Defense– the 3-4 almost pitched a shutout…holding the Patriots scoreless until late into the fourth quarter.  Bryan Orakpo not only tallied a sack but the refs noticed when he was held– that has to be some sort of victory.

 

Flying Flags– 10 penalties for 79 yards is less than ideal…even though it is early August and a good portion of the players on the field (37 of the 90–over 40%) won’t be on this roster September 1st.  Offensively (4) a pair of holds and two false starts didn’t torpedo drives (first down gains followed 3 of 4 flags).  Defensively (3) the frequent culprit was Chase Minnifield:  a pass interference gave the Pats first and goal while one defensive holding was declined and another DH was offset by a Pats flag.  The biggest penalties came on Special Teams:  a delay of game pushed a field goal attempt back from 34 to 39 yards (Forbath converted) and an offsides on a kickoff negated a Pats fumble that would have given the Skins the ball on the New England 24.

 

Cobra Kai v. Zach Attack, Round I– coach Jay Gruden says the Kicking Contest will likely last the entire preseason.  The summer showdown pits the Johnny Lawrence of specialists against Bayside’s Best…and unlike the episode where Screech got the former tennis pro Zach comes out ahead (let the record show that was during “The College Years” that became “the low-rated season”).  Zach Hocker made his first case for the job by nailing a pair of attempts (from 27 and 39 yards) while Kai Forbath made a 39 yarder before missing from 46 out.  Hocker has the stronger kickoff leg…time to sweep the leg.

If it seems like Maryland quarterback CJ Brown has been on the College Park sidelines forever, it’s because he has.  He was recruited by Ralph Friedgen to play on Chevy Chase Bank Field at Byrd Stadium to compete in the ACC.  Those all have gone the way of “Lost” and “The Office”. Brown redshirted the 2009 season that saw Chris Turner become a sacrificial lamb during a 2-10 campaign, broke his collarbone during the 2010 season that saw Danny O’Brien exceed expectations as ACC Rookie of the Year, came from out of nowhere to win the job away from O’Brien in 2011, tore his ACL in August of 2012 (setting the tone for Perry Riley, Devin Burns and Caleb Rowe going down with season-ending injuries as well), and rebounded in 2013 to lead the Terps back to the postseason.  After being granted a medical waiver for a sixth season, Brown concludes his Terps career by leading the team into a new era–the Big Ten Conference.

Brown was the X factor entering camp last year, and had a season to remember:  passing for 2242 yards and 13 touchdowns while running for 576 yards and 12 more scores.  Even after losing two-plus games to concussion, his top two receivers to season-ending injuries all while teams keyed on him, CJ persevered.  His game-winning touchdown at Virginia Tech was the signature highlight of 2013– and helped send the Terps back to a bowl.  Can he lead the program to consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 2002-03?

He’ll have Stefon Diggs and Deon Long back healthy.  While the junior Diggs is on most preseason watch lists after catching 34 passes for 587 yards and 3 touchdowns, the senior Long was enjoying a breakout campaign of his own (32-489-1) before going down to injury in the same game.  Marcus Leak is also back after missing 2013.  Levern Jacombs and Amba Etta-Tawo showed last fall they can produce if needed.  Brown says he’d like to continue to develop his feel for the deep ball– as this offense has multiple threats that can stretch the field. 

Brown’s roots are in the Big Ten:  his father Clark was a quarterback at Michigan State in the mid-1980’s (post-Kirk Gibson, pre-Lorenzo White) and now the preseason top-10 Spartans come to College Park November 15th.  As CJ prepares for a new league one wonders what sort of “conference play bump” he might experience in 2014:  last year Brown posted a passer rating of 170.62 against non-ACC foes (65% completion rate, 10+ yards per attempt, 9 to 2 TD/INT ratio) while notching a 109.0 rating against league opponents (54%, 6.3, and 4 to 5).  His average gain per carry also declined from 5.0 to 3.4.  Finding a higher ceiling with less dropoff in league play will go a long way to a successful inaugural campaign.

 

Positions of Contention– even though in the first week “every position is potentially up for grabs”…there are three spots on the offensive side of the ball that expect to be contested this month.  There’s a two-way fight at Left Guard, a three-way scramble at Tight End, and a four-way scrum at Tailback

Left Guard:  senior Silvano Altamirano (6-2, 290) played in three games last year after two years at San Diego Mesa…while junior Evan Mulrooney (6-4, 295) saw action in 7 games at center and special teams after starting 5  games at center the previous year.  Whoever emerges will have help…as he’ll be flanked by C Sal Conaboy (named to the Preseason Rimmington Watch list) and LT Michael Dunn (who started 9 games at RG and 4 at RT as a redshirt freshman).

Tight End:  Dave Steinbaugh’s departure leaves the position without any returning receptions from last year.  Sophomores PJ Gallo (6-2, 250) and Andrew Isaacs (6-2, 245) compete with redshirt-freshman Derrick Hayward (6-5, 235).  Last season only 15 of the team’s 230 completions went to the TE (all to Stinebaugh) and the previous year only 20 of the teams 165 catches were made by TE’s (16 to Matt Furstenburg).  Will this be the year that the tight end becomes a major factor in the passing game?

Tailback: Sophomore Wes Brown has potential interrupted by injuries and disciplinary issues, but when healthy he’s the difference-maker a team needs on the ground.  Junior Brandon Ross led the team in rushing (166 carries for 776 yards , a 4.7 AVG and 4TD’s) and the runningbacks in receiving (18 catches for 173 yards).  Junior Albert Reid  (294 yards rushing in 2013) and sophomore Jacquelle Veii (146 yds last year) provide slightly smaller (both are 5-foot-9) options.  The running game was a strength last year (take away the sacks and Maryland averages over 5 yards a carry) and should be again in 2014.

Case for the Defense– NINE starters return from 2014…with Alvin Hill (24 tackles and 2 passes broken up) and William Likely (led the team in punt and kickoff returns) far from green.  They have to replace leading pass rusher Marcus Whitfield (9 of the teams 37 sacks)…will a healthy Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil be the able to improve on his junior season (3 sacks in 6 games)?  After tallying only 21 takeaways in 2013, can the Terps D be just a little luckier this fall?

 

Maryland won more games last fall than they did in coach Randy Edsall’s first two seasons…and while nobody’s expecting a similar jump to 10 wins this fall, there are possibilities.  A non-conference slate features four opponents one can easily imagine the Terps topping (James Madison, South Florida, West Virginia and Syracuse).  They begin Big Ten play with Indiana and end with Rutgers.  Two more wins if this team plays well.  Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin reside in the preseason Coaches’ top 15 and may be too tall a task to sweep, but Penn State, Michigan and Iowa are beatable.  Can the Terps fare just well enough in the “swing games” while taking care of the teams it should beat?

 

Bowl or bust, 2014 will be the final chapter of CJ Brown’s career.  For the first time since setting foot on campus, there are no questions whatsoever the starting job is his.  From redshirt, to injured, to upstart, to cursed, to comeback kid…#16’s time as a Terrapin has been filled with thrills and chills (along with a couple of spills).   While he’s working on trying to make his arm as much of a game-breaking threat as his legs, CJ’s heart will probably wind up making the difference again at least once this fall.  Could there be anybody better fit to lead this program into an unfamiliar and sure to be demanding league?

 

Nothing beats beginning again in sports.  Yes, championships are fun…and watching great players excel is pretty cool, but a new regime is like that new car.  It’s a smell you can’t recapture no matter how many memorable trips you make.  This month the Redskins will enjoy that new coach smell– just like they did with Marty Schottenheimer (CAMP MARTY!  Finally a coach with backbone!), Steve Spurrier (OSAKA!), Joe Gibbs II (Back to the 80’s!), Mike Shanahan (FINALLY– they’re doing things the right way!) and even Jim Zorn (hey-Gibbs was an unknown assistant TOO!).  Jay Gruden– you will never smell so good as you will this month.  Enjoy.

Week One Thoughts– the first key was no major injuries.  Desean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Phillip Thomas all have dealt with hamstring issues but nothing that would ruin the glow that is the Preseason.  Rob Jackson had his shoulder wrapped.  Jerry Rice Jr’s run at the roster ends with a torn labrum.  Nothing to see…nothing to see…move along.

2013’s Triumvirate splits– last year’s DB version of the receiving firm Davis, Kelly & Thomas is having three different second camps:  CB David Amerson is vastly improved from his rookie campaign, Phillip Thomas has been on the shelf here and there with injuries, and Bacarri Rambo is not living up to the coolest name on the team.  Par for the course when you consider the 2nd rounder is a likely starter in his second season…the 4th rounder is on the backup/special teams track and the 6th rounder is headed to the roster bubble.

Kicking Competition…and Punting Possibilities–  So much for connecting on 35 of 40 attempts over two years.  Kai Forbath hears the footsteps–or at least the instep hitting the football– of 7th round pick Zack Hocker.  The rookie made all three of his kicks Saturday–and with Forbath’s kickoffs less than ideal, Hocker isn’t going away.  Something to focus on in the first preseason game…along with the competition at punter.  Last year the team finished 30th in the NFL in gross punting average…so Robert Malone and Blake Clinigan will begin a four-round bout.  Will they use stroke or match-play?

Speaking of Punters–finally.  Ray Guy takes his rightful place in Canton, Ohio as the first fulltime punter a full five years after I blatantly campaigned for his inclusion.  We know punters and kickers are special teamers who don’t really count in the minds of many–but Guy was the first punter people actually took seriously.  I said five years ago that unlike predecessors Paul McGuire and Bobby Walden, Guy actually resembled someone playing in the Pro Bowl as opposed to a pro bowler.  In the late 70’s an opposing team checked out the Raider footballs for helium–any time the periodic table is in question, the man belongs in the HOF.  Now I have to move on and start drumming up support for the Moody Blues and Marvin Miller.

The Nationals cross the 2/3 of the season threshold in first place of the NL East (one unexpected consequence of Washington’s team being named the “Nationals”– one tries to avoid the redundant feel of “Nationals lead the National League East”)…and when the trading deadline came and went the club made one major move.  Asdrubal Cabrera solidifies the infield as he can play both middle positions–freeing up Anthony Rendon to settle in at third.  Even though he’s hitting .246 with 9 HR and 40 RBI, that’s much better than Danny Espinosa (.221 with 101 strikeouts).  In a lineup that after a solid top 5 drops drastically, Cabrera should give them something.  After a Monday makeup game with the Orioles, the Nats play 9 games in 10 days against division opponents.  Time to create a little breathing room…

There’s always that magical week or weekend when the days get shorter…it gets chillier by the pool and football preview magazines begin to take precedence over the crossword/summer reading. While September 21st is almost two months away, late July marks the end of one season– and the beginning of the onramp to the marathon/sprint that is college and pro football. Is it really time- can’t I get just one more week?

The Redskins are in Richmond with a new regime; Jay Gruden sorts through a pretty decent cupboard left by Mike Shanahan. Say what you will about last year’s 3-13 descent from awesome expectations to awful execution…not all 3-13’s are created alike. And this team is one year removed from winning the NFC East. The major question is, which year was the outlier–2012 or 2013?

Prepare for the Positive– it’s almost fitting that training camp takes place when the skies are sunniest and the temperatures are highest. EVERYBODY is optimistic. Even teams that are in their 3rd “five year plan” since 2010. That’s the beauty of the NFL– worst to first is not an anomaly: you can almost guarantee that we’ll have 4-6 different playoff teams this winter. Last fall saw Kansas City go from 2-14 to the playoffs…so even a Houston that lost 14 straight can have hope. Or a Redskins team that crash-landed with 8 straight losses…

What to Watch For–OFFENSE:
Life begins with RG3–HOW healthy and ready will the face of the franchise be? How will the new Jay Gruden system maximize his strengths and limit his weaknesses? Will we see rookies Spencer Long or Morgan Moses push the starters on the offensive line or be routed into the “rookie year learning laboratory” that’s high on enrichment but low on game-snaps? And what’s the deal with Jerry Rice Junior? Is the undrafted rookie good enough to leapfrog Andre Roberts and Ryan Grant–or is he more Pete Rose Jr than Eduardo Perez? (if he were Griffey Jr he would have been taken first overall by Houston, set the world on fire, before eventually returning to San Francisco where he would’ve never been healthy)

What to Watch For–DEFENSE:
It’s Jim Haslett’s turn to shine. Year five of the 3-4 means execution and not excuses: of the projected week one starters only Kedric Golston and Bryan Orakpo pre-date his arrival– and if they didn’t fit his vision they’d be gone by now. Will Jason Hatcher recover from surgery in time to be a factor in September? Even healthy, Hatcher has to change from being a tackle in a 4-3 to a three-man front. How much will the linebackers miss the leadership of London Fletcher? Even at the end of his career, the John Carroll University product was averaging 7 tackles a game while holding together a unit under siege. The biggest questions aren’t necessarily about the 3-4…it’s the 4 behind them. Can Deangelo Hall, Ryan Clark and Brandon Merriweather still contribute as starters in this league? After losing his rookie season to injury, will Phillip Thomas be more rusty or ready? Can Bacarri Rambo live up to having the coolest name on the team? (sadly,
having an awesome name is almost a curse: Notre Dame’s Hiawatha Francisco, Baylor’s J.J. Joe and Nebraska’s I.M. Hipp never lived up to their names in the pros)

What to Watch For–SPECIAL TEAMS:
The kicking game can’t be the absolute disaster it was last year…right? From coughing up game-changing returns to allowing kicks blocked…2013 was a major nightmare for the Burgundy and Gold. Can they identify the right guys to be put in place on these units? Meanwhile, Saved by the Bell meets Karate Kid. Is there actually a kicking competition between Kai Forbath and seventh round pick Zach Hocker? Despite making 35 of 40 career attempts (numbers that would make Ali with an I swoon), the Johnny Lawrence of accuracy is Daniel LaRusso-like when it comes to kickoffs. Will Zach be accurate enough to make his kickoff length a factor in late August? (never count out a Zach–from fronting a band to a foiling diamond thieves to hitting on homeless girls at the mall)

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