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Snap Judgments: Pro Football Hall of Fame Game

  • Could two head coaches be any more polar opposite stylistically than they were Thursday night? Jason Garrett rarely says boo, and Bruce Arians rarely has an unexpressed (and colorful) thought. Arians seemed genuinely ticked off to have lost a game his team once led 15-0, preseason or no preseason.

"That's a game we should have won," Arians growled. "I don't care about who was out there on the field. We play to win. We don't play to lose. We missed two kicks (field goals). They're punters (who attempted the field goals), but they are also kickers. They should have made those two kicks."

Never change, B.A.

  • It's been 17 years since I last covered Hall of Fame weekend, and my how this event has grown under the recent leadership of Hall of Fame president David Baker. It has the feel of a small-scale Super Bowl with all the ancillary events and attractions they've added to both the Hall campus and the schedule this weekend. 

This was a high school stadium when I was here last in 2000, but now it's near an NFL quality stadium, shrunken down to size. The locker rooms can hold a whopping 120 players each, and renovation sounds like an understatement when that word is used to describe the makeover in Canton. Attendance Thursday night at the new $137 million Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium was in excess of 21,000.

  • Obviously the initial news could have been drastically worse for Dolphins starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill, but there's still reason for gloom in Miami. That's because there's no certainty the non-contact left knee injury Tannehill suffered in practice on Thursday morning won't end up shortening or wiping out his season. MRI results were reportedly "inconclusive," and Miami can't rule out surgery at this point when it comes to the same knee Tannehill hurt last December.

So naturally the Colin Kaepernick debate began in South Florida, as well it should if the Dolphins want to keep their lofty playoff hopes alive. But the other intriguing option if Miami goes the veteran starter option is ex-Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who played some of his best ball under Adam Gase when the Dolphins head coach was the Bears offensive coordinator in 2015.

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Cutler has retired and is preparing to be an NFL analyst for FOX this season, but he can get out of that commitment for a chance to return to the league as a starter, and would likely do so for a shot to play for Gase again. If the Dolphins have to replace Tannehill for the long term this season, my strong hunch is they'd go in Cutler's direction and thus avoid the entire Kaepernick decision. A trade for Brock Osweiler or merely elevating backup Matt Moore to starter are other potential options.

My druthers? A bidding war breaks out between Baltimore and Miami for Kaepernick's services, but that one is admittedly a long shot.

  • That was nice of Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill to rescue most of Kurt Warner's family, who got stuck in Chicago thanks to a weather delay while trying to reach Canton for the weekend's festivities. Then again, it's only seems fair because Warner rescued Bidwill's franchise not that long ago, leading the long-downtrodden Cardinals to a near-miss Super Bowl loss to Pittsburgh in early 2009.

Bidwill sent his private plane to pick up the stranded Warner family's party of 13 in Chicago, and delivered them safely to Ohio. That's just the kind of quick-strike action Warner was known for on the field.

  • Weirdly I ran into Tony Romo and Jim Nantz in the men's room (TMI!) before the game started Thursday night, and it did seem out of place to not see the ex-Cowboys quarterback on the Dallas sideline. As a practice run for his new CBS No. 1 analyst gig, Romo and play-by-play partner were doing a mock broadcast of the game. I'm guessing Nantz hasn't done one of those in a few decades, but CBS has taken a big gamble starting Romo at the top, so whatever it takes is the mantra.

But then, as debuts go, doing a "fake" broadcast in the backups-strewn Hall of Fame game isn't exactly starting out on top, is it?

  • The football wasn't as sloppy as usual, but the big winner Thursday night was clearly the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the NFL, thanks to the new turf that was installed here at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. It played true and problem free, which was mandatory after last year's debacle, when congealed paint in the end zone made the field unplayable and led to the late, late cancellation of the game for player safety reasons.

On the plus side in 2016, the Colts and Packers didn't have to play that dreaded fifth preseason game after all. 

  • The Cowboys and the Cardinals were invited to Canton this year in part because Dallas owner Jerry Jones and ex-Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner were two of the headline names in this year's seven-man Hall of Fame class. So who will be the next Cowboy and Cardinal to be donning the gold jacket?

Pretty easy calls on both fronts. There's 15th year tight end Jason Witten in Dallas and 14th year receiver Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona. In their first 27 NFL seasons combined, they have amassed 2,213 receptions and 167 touchdowns in 425 games. That'll play.

  • Pretty cool pre-game moment to see and hear Hall of Fame tight end Jackie Smith - the ex-Cardinals great and ever so briefly a Cowboy at the end of his career - deliver a rousing version of the national anthem at age 77. Even if his hands did fail him that one time in Super Bowl XIII, his pipes are still getting the job done. Mic drop?
  • Hey, did anyone realize Thursday was Tom Brady's 40th birthday? Yep, I looked it up. That milestone almost slipped past us, eh? That would have been embarrassing.

Now what happens when TB12 turns 50 and is still playing? What could possibly top live goats at practice?

CANTON, OHIO - Musings, observations and the occasional insight as the 2017 NFL season kicked off Thursday night with a surprisingly entertaining exhibition of football known as the Hall of Fame Game. (Alas, five weeks from now, we get the real thing)...

  • Critiquing a player's performance in the preseason opener can be like checking someone out in a funhouse mirror, with all its many distortions created by the level of talent lining up against him at any given moment. It's the preseason. Starters for the most part don't play. Still, Blaine Gabbert, a quarterback once upon a time drafted in the top 10 of the first round, looked like he still has an NFL job for very good reason in Arizona's 20-18 loss to Dallas.

Many have scoffed that Gabbert is still in the league while Colin Kaepernick, the man who beat him out for the starting gig in San Francisco last season, remains unemployed. But Gabbert showed he can still sling it a little bit, completing his first eight passes (for 140 yards) and winding up 11 of 14 for 185 yards and two long first-quarter touchdown drives against a Cowboys defense that did little to contain him. Playing the entire first half, Gabbert gave the Cardinals something to think about at their backup quarterback slot, with Drew Stanton perhaps not uncontested as the No. 2 behind starter Carson Palmer.

Gabbert dissected Dallas and made every kind of throw you could want him to make, and played efficiently and under control at all times. He even punched in a two-point conversion with a goal-line sneak. Who knows? The Cardinals might have some trade bait on their hands this preseason, with Gabbert or Stanton potentially on the move to a quarterback needy team.

Arizona head coach Bruce Arians didn't even try to downplay the significance of Gabbert's early August showing: "Hell, yeah (it was important)," Arians said. "It's his only shot. If you go out there and screw it up, you ain't going to be here very long. It's real important."

Gabbert, drafted 10th by Jacksonville in 2011, has won just nine of his 40 NFL starts, but the Jaguars and 49ers were dreadful when he was in town. The Cardinals are easily the best team he's ever suited up for. By leaps and bounds.

"It was fun, with this being the first training camp, the first preseason game in the system," Gabbert said. "We were clicking pretty well there for a few minutes. You can really see how this offense can get rolling... But it's the first preseason game, one of five this year. Some mistakes were made that we have to learn from."

It is early, but so far, signing Gabbert to a one-year show-me deal in free agency does not look like a mistake by the Cardinals.

  • I've got my concerns about the Dallas defense, and they were not alleviated by how the back-pedaling Cowboys played in the first quarter against the Cardinals offense. Dallas first-round defensive end Taco Charlton was basically invisible against Arizona, failing to even log a quarterback pressure on seven rushes, according to Pro Football Focus. Dallas generated no heat on Gabbert in the first half, and both Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli were critical of the defense's execution and effort. Arizona led 15-0 in the first quarter.

"There were a couple of specific plays by the defense on those first couple of drives - blown assignments on a big third-down conversion," Garrett said. "And it wasn't physical enough; it wasn't aggressive enough; it wasn't assignment sound." 

I still don't know where the pass rush is going to come from in Dallas this season, but then again, I said the same thing last year at this time and the Cowboys still managed to go 13-3 and comfortably win the NFC East. But Dallas and its high-profile Dak and Ezekiel Show isn't built to win shootouts, so the defense can't afford to get off to a slow start in September, when that unit has its fair share of league suspensions to deal with.

  • Unlike Charlton, Arizona second-year defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche flashed repeatedly and built on the momentum he has generated early in training camp. The 2016 first-round pick consistently showed up in the Cowboys backfield and gave the Cardinals hope that the light has gone on for him in year two.

"Robert was very explosive," said Arians, who was critical of Nkemdiche's rookie-season work. "I thought some young guys really showed up. Really pleased with some of them, not so with some others."

After the game, Nkemdiche acknowledged a night and day difference for him this year compared to last season.

"The game has slowed down for me," he said in the Cardinals locker room. "I'm healthy and feeling good and I'm paying attention to my details. I just really have that trust factor with the coaches now, and it helps. I'm doing things to get better as a player, and there's a lot of things I can still improve, with my hands and leverage and certain things like that. Tonight was helpful."

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  • Cardinals kicker Phil Dawson didn't play against Dallas, but I made sure I strolled by his locker in the post-game to see if the 42-year-old had any tips or advice for the newest member of the NFL's 40-or-older club: New England quarterback Tom Brady. Dawson is one of five players in the sub-set, with Brady joining Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri, 44, Dawson and Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant, both 42, and Texans punter Shane Lechler, who turns 41 on Monday.

"I'd tell him that you do hear about it (your age) in the locker room a fair amount, and that's fun," said Dawson, entering his 19th NFL season with a new team. "To get to hang out with the best athletes in the world, who are literally half your age, is pretty cool. But the one thing I've learned is there's no reason to give in mentally just because people say you're getting older. Just because maybe it hasn't been done before doesn't mean you have to be the person to follow in line. Approach every day like you did 20 years ago."

Dawson hitting 40 two years ago didn't get quite the same fanfare as Brady's milestone, but "I'm good with that," Dawson said. "Obviously Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback to ever play the game and with that comes more attention. Being a position player at 40 is a tremendous feat."

Dawson said he admires Brady's approach to diet, health and lifestyle, but he's not willing to go so far as the avocado ice cream regimen.

"I do think there is something to the wellness approach, the healthy lifestyle and getting your rest and being smarter about how you train," he said. "Obviously he's tapped into that. As you get older, where it may get tougher in one area physically, it gets a little easier per se in others. You know how to take care of things and maybe you don't stress about certain things as you did as a youngster.

"So with age and experience, taking care of yourself off the field and obviously  getting the ball out of your hand like he does, not taking unnecessary hits, when you mix that all together you can see why a guy like him can do it. But let's not forget he's a once a generation type player, too."

And the idea of Brady playing at 50? "Hey, I'll be watching," Dawson said.

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  • Could two head coaches be any more polar opposite stylistically than they were Thursday night? Jason Garrett rarely says boo, and Bruce Arians rarely has an unexpressed (and colorful) thought. Arians seemed genuinely ticked off to have lost a game his team once led 15-0, preseason or no preseason.

"That's a game we should have won," Arians growled. "I don't care about who was out there on the field. We play to win. We don't play to lose. We missed two kicks (field goals). They're punters (who attempted the field goals), but they are also kickers. They should have made those two kicks."

Never change, B.A.

  • It's been 17 years since I last covered Hall of Fame weekend, and my how this event has grown under the recent leadership of Hall of Fame president David Baker. It has the feel of a small-scale Super Bowl with all the ancillary events and attractions they've added to both the Hall campus and the schedule this weekend. 

This was a high school stadium when I was here last in 2000, but now it's near an NFL quality stadium, shrunken down to size. The locker rooms can hold a whopping 120 players each, and renovation sounds like an understatement when that word is used to describe the makeover in Canton. Attendance Thursday night at the new $137 million Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium was in excess of 21,000.

  • Obviously the initial news could have been drastically worse for Dolphins starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill, but there's still reason for gloom in Miami. That's because there's no certainty the non-contact left knee injury Tannehill suffered in practice on Thursday morning won't end up shortening or wiping out his season. MRI results were reportedly "inconclusive," and Miami can't rule out surgery at this point when it comes to the same knee Tannehill hurt last December.

So naturally the Colin Kaepernick debate began in South Florida, as well it should if the Dolphins want to keep their lofty playoff hopes alive. But the other intriguing option if Miami goes the veteran starter option is ex-Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who played some of his best ball under Adam Gase when the Dolphins head coach was the Bears offensive coordinator in 2015.

9a269081f04440c09253d1f803c6b94b.jpg

Cutler has retired and is preparing to be an NFL analyst for FOX this season, but he can get out of that commitment for a chance to return to the league as a starter, and would likely do so for a shot to play for Gase again. If the Dolphins have to replace Tannehill for the long term this season, my strong hunch is they'd go in Cutler's direction and thus avoid the entire Kaepernick decision. A trade for Brock Osweiler or merely elevating backup Matt Moore to starter are other potential options.

My druthers? A bidding war breaks out between Baltimore and Miami for Kaepernick's services, but that one is admittedly a long shot.

  • That was nice of Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill to rescue most of Kurt Warner's family, who got stuck in Chicago thanks to a weather delay while trying to reach Canton for the weekend's festivities. Then again, it's only seems fair because Warner rescued Bidwill's franchise not that long ago, leading the long-downtrodden Cardinals to a near-miss Super Bowl loss to Pittsburgh in early 2009.

Bidwill sent his private plane to pick up the stranded Warner family's party of 13 in Chicago, and delivered them safely to Ohio. That's just the kind of quick-strike action Warner was known for on the field.

  • Weirdly I ran into Tony Romo and Jim Nantz in the men's room (TMI!) before the game started Thursday night, and it did seem out of place to not see the ex-Cowboys quarterback on the Dallas sideline. As a practice run for his new CBS No. 1 analyst gig, Romo and play-by-play partner were doing a mock broadcast of the game. I'm guessing Nantz hasn't done one of those in a few decades, but CBS has taken a big gamble starting Romo at the top, so whatever it takes is the mantra.

But then, as debuts go, doing a "fake" broadcast in the backups-strewn Hall of Fame game isn't exactly starting out on top, is it?

  • The football wasn't as sloppy as usual, but the big winner Thursday night was clearly the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the NFL, thanks to the new turf that was installed here at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. It played true and problem free, which was mandatory after last year's debacle, when congealed paint in the end zone made the field unplayable and led to the late, late cancellation of the game for player safety reasons.

On the plus side in 2016, the Colts and Packers didn't have to play that dreaded fifth preseason game after all. 

  • The Cowboys and the Cardinals were invited to Canton this year in part because Dallas owner Jerry Jones and ex-Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner were two of the headline names in this year's seven-man Hall of Fame class. So who will be the next Cowboy and Cardinal to be donning the gold jacket?

Pretty easy calls on both fronts. There's 15th year tight end Jason Witten in Dallas and 14th year receiver Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona. In their first 27 NFL seasons combined, they have amassed 2,213 receptions and 167 touchdowns in 425 games. That'll play.

  • Pretty cool pre-game moment to see and hear Hall of Fame tight end Jackie Smith - the ex-Cardinals great and ever so briefly a Cowboy at the end of his career - deliver a rousing version of the national anthem at age 77. Even if his hands did fail him that one time in Super Bowl XIII, his pipes are still getting the job done. Mic drop?
  • Hey, did anyone realize Thursday was Tom Brady's 40th birthday? Yep, I looked it up. That milestone almost slipped past us, eh? That would have been embarrassing.

Now what happens when TB12 turns 50 and is still playing? What could possibly top live goats at practice?

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