EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Even by preseason standards, Wednesday was tough to watch.
Almost no regular starters on either the Patriots or Giants suited up; the replacement officials reminded us why they're replacements; scoring was nearly impossible, yet the game still almost went into overtime.
Not exactly the most compelling of story lines.
However, as is always the case in the preseason finale, there was drama. The kind that can make or end the career of an NFL player. That alone made this 6-3 clunker worth watching.
We'll start at center, where incumbent Dan Koppen didn't see the field until the third offensive series. It turned out to be his only one of the game, but could it also have been his last as a Patriot?
Younger, more versatile Ryan Wendell started the contest, but lasted only two series himself. Dan Connolly then spelled Koppen, and for the first time this summer, a fourth competitor was added to the mix – Donald Thomas. He wound up getting the overwhelming majority of work at center after never having played the position before, at any level. His only experience, in fact, came in a few snaps this summer in practice.
So, what to make of this position battle? Did Koppen make a cameo because his job is secure, or for entirely the opposite reason? Did Wendell's start signify his emergence as Tom Brady's new snapper, or was it meaningless, seeing how the rest of the o-line that started the game (save one player – more on that in a moment) was at the bottom of the depth chart?
Does Thomas, displaying the versatility to play any of the five positions, now have a spot locked up on the 53-man roster, which gets picked by this Friday?
So many questions, so few concrete answers.
One question does appear a bit clearly than it did only a few days ago. Sebastian Vollmer, the lone returning starter from 2011's o-line, began the game at his customary right tackle position. Though his time in the game was limited (he was replaced by Marcus Cannon during the third Patriots offensive drive), the fact that he was able to play at all is a sign of progress.
Activated from the PUP list just one week ago, he suited up for the Tampa game and took first-team reps in warm-ups, but wound up just watching. Slowly working into game action this week against the Giants could be an indication that he'll be in the Patriots o-line's starting five come Sept. 9 in Nashville, when New England opens the regular season against the Titans.
Another intriguing competition on offense involves the backup quarterbacks. Second-year man Ryan Mallett started his second game of the preseason and lasted until midway into the third quarter, when last year's number two signal caller, Brian Hoyer, replaced him.
Mallett led New England on its lone scoring drive of the night, a field goal at the end of the first half, while Hoyer threw an interception in the Giants end zone with seconds left in the game, down 6-3. Both men threw 15 passes. Hoyer compelted nine, Mallett eight. Hoyer's 96 yards more than doubled Mallett's 40. Hoyer also was sacked three times to Mallett's pair.
Again, though, the picture gets blurry. Rarely does a backup QB get so little playing time in the preseason as Hoyer has this summer, but perhaps the Patriots coaching staff just wanted to give the younger Mallett as many opportunities as possible to evaluate his growth from his rookie season.
It's nearly impossible to determine which of these two understudies has outplayed the other. So, does a draw mean the depth chart at QB is status quo from a year ago?
Reading the tea leaves on defense is just as difficult.
In a game where starters and "roster-safe" players are allowed to sit it out, are we to assume that Marquice Cole has solidified a job on the 53, seeing how he was inactive along with left corner Devin McCourty and right corner Kyle Arrington?
At safety, with Patrick Chung injured, rookie Tavon Wilson started in his place for the second consecutive week. No surprise there, but fellow rook Nate Ebner was given the honor of lining up next to Wilson in place of Steve Gregory. Might that be a bad omen for veteran Sergio Brown, who's fighting for his roster life?
Even an established NFL vet like Niko Koutouvides can't feel secure about his job status. He did get the start at outside linebacker, and was even tasked with calling defensive signals – a promising sign for his prospects, you might think. But he had to leave the game in the second half with what looked like a right wrist injury and did not step back on the playing field (though he did return to the sideline in uniform).
On the d-line, Jermaine Cunningham finished with three tackles and two sacks, but in post-game remarks to the media, head coach Bill Belichick didn't exactly give his third-year player any votes of confidence.
On special teams, Julian Edelman was give the night off. He seems safe to be on the roster as a receiver and returner. Taking over for him on punt returns, and as a kickoff returner, was rookie Jeff Demps, who was given several opportunities as a running back as well.
Very late in the fourth quarter, however, Demps suffered what looked like a right ankle injury and was relegated to the sidelines for the remainder of the game. No lock to make the roster, obviously, having just joined the team a week ago following a seven-month hiatus from football (so he could compete in the Olympics as a sprinter), Demps' injury couldn't come at a worse time. It's not a death knell, by any means, but it certainly doesn't help his cause.
After weeks of practices and exhibition games, so many questions remain for the Patriots. The good news is, we'll know the answer to nearly all of them over the next two days. And then it will be time to shift the focus on the regular season opener.