The NFL preseason is designed to make us overreact to trivialities. The NFL wants our attention on football throughout the year, so the league (and those of us who write about it) will make a big deal out of pretty much anything it can. The Jacksonville Jaguars signed Tim Tebow to play tight end in an offseason stunt, then cut him after one preseason game? It’s a huge story. The Pittsburgh Steelers have a somewhat heated battle for their backup quarterback job? A big deal. An Indianapolis Colts running back gets a preseason taunting penalty? That’s massive.
Bluster aside, the 2021 NFL preseason does have a few storylines that will have a major impact as the clock ticks toward the regular season. Here are four of the biggest questions to be sorted out over the coming weeks.
Will 2020’s injured quarterbacks make a healthy return?
The Cincinnati Bengals might take significant steps forward this year. They’ve been slowly accumulating talent, especially on offense, and that should make it harder for them to remain one of the worst teams in the league. They even have fresh new uniforms to mark a new era. But the Bengals are not going to be any good if 2020’s No. 1 overall draft pick, QB Joe Burrow, doesn’t rebound from the ACL and MCL tears he suffered nine months ago.
.@JoeyB proved he belonged in 2020.
Can't wait for the comeback. pic.twitter.com/fG63MPTIVa
— NFL (@NFL) February 24, 2021
The Dallas Cowboys are a perpetual disappointment, but they do have lots of talent, and they play in a weak NFC East division that could be up for grabs this year. To win it, the Cowboys will need their QB, Dak Prescott, to be something close to his usual self. Prescott spent his offseason rehabbing from a right ankle fracture, and he’s now dealing with a shoulder ailment.
450 yards passing
1 touchdown pass
3 rushing touchdowns
— NFL (@NFL) September 21, 2020
If Burrow is healthy, the Bengals could be one of the AFC’s surprise teams. If Prescott is healthy, the Cowboys could win their division. If they don’t make full recoveries, though, then both of those scenarios become much less likely.
Will the Chicago Bears let Justin Fields play?
— NFL (@NFL) August 14, 2021
Fields is the quarterback of the Bears’ future. Is he also the quarterback of their present? The answer will go a long way toward determining if Chicago can make the playoffs in his rookie year. The assumption earlier in the summer was that veteran free agent signing Andy Dalton would start the season under center. But Dalton is no one’s idea of an inspiring choice, and at any rate, he’s currently keeping Fields’ seat warm. If Fields is ready to go immediately, the Bears’ upside climbs a bit higher.
By every account, Fields has had an encouraging training camp. He also looked great in the Bears’ first preseason game against the Miami Dolphins, completing 14 of 20 passes for 142 touchdowns and throwing in another TD as a runner. Reading into preseason results is not a great idea, but there are lots of other reasons to think Fields could be good quickly. Early excitement about him is more a reflection of his overall track record than his performance in one single game.
To what extent will the pandemic affect the season?
The NFL was determined to play every scheduled game in 2020 and did that despite COVID-19 forcing frequent postponements and rescheduled contests. In 2021, the situation should be quite a bit better. Fans will be allowed back—at full capacity—in every NFL stadium. In addition, the league says 90 percent of its players have been vaccinated, which should keep outbreaks to a minimum.
At this point, it’s easy to see the league playing an entire season as scheduled and doing it in a much safer way than in 2020. The preseason appears to be going well, even as some high-profile anti-vaccine players get headlines. Hopefully the Delta variant doesn’t alter the overall picture as the season ramps up.
What will the NFL and the Houston Texans do about Deshaun Watson?
There’s not much to say about Watson’s on-field situation at the moment, given that 22 women are suing him for sexual misconduct and the FBI has opened an investigation. The Texans seem committed to keeping Watson despite his wishes, which means he is still slated to be the team’s quarterback this season. But the NFL is also investigating Watson, and that will likely result in some kind of suspension—leaving the Texans to find a new QB.
The day is rapidly approaching when Houston’s management will have to decide if they’re OK with putting Watson on the field while he’s facing allegations from nearly two dozen women. It does not seem like a tenable situation, and unlike the course of COVID or teams’ on-field decisions, the NFL decides how it ends.