The NFL preseason is a time when 2,800 players on 32 teams spend seven weeks competing for their professional lives while the rest of us talk about the same 10 players again and again.
There’s a reason why we ladle on the M-T-M (Manning-Tebow-Manning, not Mary Tyler Moore) treatment in July and August: Those superstars are compelling characters, and not every fan is waiting with baited breath to learn if Haruki Nakamura is taking reps with the Panthers’ first-team defense. Still, relentless coverage of the top 10 stories can make you feel like a force-fed goose after a while.
The good news is that there is no reason to dive into depth-chart minutiae or (heaven forbid) unplug from NFL news when you need a break from the M-T-M wall of sound. Here are some alternative camp storylines that are just as important as the designated “top stories,” may be more interesting and will generate a fraction of the ear-splitting gigahype — along with their more overblown counterparts.
Don’t Follow This: The Jets’ Quarterback Controversy
It’ll be like watching two preschoolers play musical chairs. Except that there are two chairs, the whole sports world is watching and the music never, ever stops.
Follow This: The Seahawks’ Quarterback Controversy
Seattle paid Matt Flynn $10 million in guaranteed money, then took out double indemnity insurance against the risk that he’s an alumnus of Rob Johnson’s One-Game Wonder Academy. Third-round pick Russell Wilson is fast, feisty and short, the kind of quarterback that fans love and defensive-minded coaches like Pete Carroll (who prefer QBs who act like linebackers) become enamored with. Incumbent Tarvaris Jackson is the only human who could actually survive a nuclear explosion by hiding in a refrigerator. Jackson has made a six-year career out of showing up on time, trying hard and not asking for too much money; if it’s possible to win a three-way quarterback battle by sheer perseverance, he’s the guy to do it.
The Seahawks were one quarterback away from making noise in the NFC West last year. They still may be one quarterback away, but this will be a fun mess to sort out.
Don’t Follow This: The Saints’ Defensive Rebuild
New defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and free-agent additions like linebacker Curtis Lofton will do a credible job rebuilding a defense that got too strategically funky for its own good last year. Meanwhile, all of the bounty-ledger-suspension-lawsuit intrigue will take place in legal offices and courtrooms. If you like Southern-style legal dramas, watch old episodes of “Matlock” instead.
Follow This: The Panthers’ Defensive Rebuild
The trouble began for the Panthers in the first drills on the first day of training camp last year, when free-agent defensive tackle Ron Edwards tore a triceps muscle. All-Pro linebacker Jon Beason tore an Achilles tendon in the season opener, and a week later, in what has become an annual event, fellow linebacker Thomas Davis tore his ACL. Soon even the backups and rookies who replaced the injured starters were injured, leaving Cam Newton to break records while Carolina lost games by scores of 49-35 and 34-29.
Beason, Edwards and Davis are all in various stages of convalescence, and Ron Rivera must balance the need to get them ready with the risk of another extinction event. Rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly, one of the most prolific tacklers in recent NCAA history, provides both an exciting new weapon and some supplemental health insurance. If the defense goes from nonexistent to average, and Newton stays Newton, the Panthers will be serious playoff contenders.
Don’t Follow This: The Giants’ Quest to Repeat
Watching the Giants prepare for a Super Bowl run is like watching a tiny creek erode the walls of a canyon: You know it’s going to happen, and the results could be spectacular, but the process itself is excruciatingly dull. No team goes about its business quite as methodically as the Giants, who have few new faces and no compelling storylines beyond “Let’s be good again.” And there will be little need for the New York media to manufacture Giants controversy when it’s far easier to blow up a paper bag and pop it in the Jets locker room.
Follow This: The Packers’ Quest to Return
What’s more interesting: watching a great team try to stay about the same, or an excellent team try to get better? The Packers are coming off a 15-1 season with a record-smashing quarterback, yet they aren’t generating much buzz; the Giants must be secretly jealous. Rookie pass rushers Nick Perry and Jerel Worthy arrive to bolster a defense that generated just 29 sacks, while new offensive coordinator Tom Clements is eager to pick up where Joe Philbin left off. The Packers have more interesting characters than the Giants: Aaron Rodgers is more fun on and off the field than Eli Manning, Donald Driver is a better dancer than Victor Cruz and the rookie defenders will make Clay Matthews fun to watch again by taking away the double teams.
Don’t Follow This: Peyton Manning’s Return from Injury
OK, you can’t help but watch. But how much Manning do you expect to see in camp? He will spend all but about 12 minutes of the Broncos’ preseason games sipping Gatorade on an air mattress surrounded by retired Secret Service agents. Manning will say, “I feel good” at so many press conferences that he’ll start to sound like the frontman for a James Brown tribute band. If you enjoy edited footage of Hall of Fame quarterbacks completing short passes during 7-on-7 drills while commentators speculate about their mental and emotional state, this is the preseason storyline for you.
Follow This: Matt Schaub’s Return from Injury
The Texans, like the Broncos, reached the second round of last year’s AFC playoffs with a running-and-defense philosophy, and both teams are hoping that a veteran quarterback can return from injury and upgrade their passing games. Unlike the Broncos, the Texans aren’t banking on a folk-hero-to-aging-legend transition; they just need Matt Schaub to pick up where he left off before suffering a foot injury in Week 10 of last season.
While the Texans will be cautious with Schaub, they probably won’t give him the full Manning polybag treatment, meaning that Schaub will see plenty of preseason playing time. And while all the other Broncos are just a chorus line in Manning’s musical, Schaub has a fascinating supporting cast led by running back Arian Foster, receiver Andre Johnson and perhaps the best offensive line in the NFL. Watch Schaub’s rehab, and you will also get a sneak peak at a team with more of a future than a past.
Don’t Follow This: The Dolphins on “Hard Knocks”
The potential for awkward comedy is here: No general manager channels Michael Scott quite like Jeff Ireland. But attention hounds threaten to turn HBO’s reality show into, well, a reality show. Chad Johnson’s shtick got old two years ago, Reggie Bush becomes cringe-worthy when the cameras roll, and as lovely a person as Ryan Tannehill’s wife Lauren may be, she could turn the show into “America’s Next Top Model” simply by being the only person at Dolphins camp worth pointing a camera at.
Follow This: The Lions on Twitter
Idle hands are the Lions workshop, and not just because the team can be counted on for an offseason arrest per week. Not even the Jets can match the Lions when it comes to being cantankerous on mass media. These guys have hair triggers, nimble thumbs and excellent connectivity. If sparks fly during camp — and you know they will — Twitter will be like the high school cafeteria after the big brawl behind the bleachers.