NFL Nation: 2014 NFL Preseason Week 3 TEN at NO

NEW ORLEANS -- Who’s winning the battle for the New Orleans Saints' backup quarterback job?

Depends on when you’re watching. Both players have taken full advantage of their increased opportunities to shine while starter Drew Brees has been sidelined by a strained oblique.

Second-year pro Ryan Griffin seemed to leap ahead during last week’s preseason opener, when he played great after entering the game late in the first quarter at St. Louis.

[+] EnlargeLuke McCown
AP Photo/Bill HaberLuke McCown sizzled for the Saints, tossing two touchdowns in the first half on Friday night.
But then veteran Luke McCown may have looked even better throughout the first half of Friday night’s 31-24 victory over the Tennessee Titans, throwing a pair of TD passes to tight end Jimmy Graham.

But then Griffin came out hot again, connecting on two deep balls to Joe Morgan and TD passes to Mark Ingram and Seantavius Jones. (Griffin should’ve had another deep TD pass to Brandin Cooks that Cooks couldn’t hang on to -- but then again, Griffin also should’ve had an interception that was nullified by penalty).

In other words, these quarterbacks aren’t making the decision easy or obvious for the Saints. It’s one of those things they love to call, “a good problem to have.”

“I thought both Luke and Ryan did a lot of really good things,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “I thought they both located the ball well. … I thought there were a lot of positives to coach off of based on … just first impressions.”

I’ve projected Griffin as the likely winner all summer, because I think his long-term potential gives him the tiebreaker. The way I figure it, the Saints have to keep three quarterbacks if McCown wins the backup job since they don’t want to let Griffin go. But if they can trust Griffin as the backup, they only need to keep two.

But I’ve got to admit, McCown made me doubt myself when he came out so sharp on Friday night -- and spoke so confidently after the game.

“Well, that’s our job,” McCown said when asked about the Saints’ crisp opening TD drive, which included four third-down conversions and completions to four different receivers. “I mean, look, I’m as confident as I’ve ever been playing the game. I thought as an offense we were very fluid, very smooth on that first series, communication was great, guys making plays, getting open. And they brought a series of a couple different pressures that we were able to pick up, capitalize on.

“That’s how you want to start every game. And I fully expect to start every series that way. That’s the kind of mentality you have to have.”

McCown, an 11th-year veteran, is pretty much everything you’d look for in a veteran backup QB. He may as well have come out of central casting.

The 6-foot-4, 217-pounder has bounced around with five different teams, starting nine games along the way. He’s got a strong arm, some veteran savvy. He’s great in the locker room. He’s a lot like the veteran journeyman backup who stepped in and became a surprise star for the Chicago Bears last year -- Luke’s brother, Josh McCown.

McCown’s second touchdown pass to Graham was gorgeous, tucked right between a linebacker and the back line of the end zone. His first TD pass came on the move after he escaped pressure. A third-down completion to Cooks earlier on that first drive came just as he was getting clobbered by a rusher. It might have been the best I’ve ever seen McCown look.

And yet, the one word that doesn’t get used often with the 33-year-old McCown is “upside.”

And that’s the first word you keep hearing when it comes to Griffin, who signed with the Saints last year as an undrafted rookie out of Tulane University, across town in New Orleans.

Griffin, 24, continues to show a combination of poise and confidence that belies his lack of experience. The 6-5, 206-pounder showed off his big arm with those pinpoint deep balls to Morgan (52 and 44 yards). And he should’ve cemented a monster night with a 46-yard TD pass to Cooks. But shockingly, Cooks actually failed to deliver for a change after he cruised behind the secondary and dropped a tough-but-catchable ball.

“He already told me, he came up to me, ‘Alright, I owe you one, I got you,’” said Griffin, who said those deep balls were part of the game plan. “I think Coach wanted to take a few shots early on. The first completion was that one to Joe, and he made a great catch. Then come down and throw it to Mark, I think he made a safety miss. So guys were making plays today.”

Griffin said he felt comfortable playing in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, which was also his home stadium when he played at Tulane. But that was about as close as he came to giving himself any credit.

“Some of those passes today that even were completed, I wish I had better ball placement,” Griffin said, according to the New Orleans Advocate. “... I feel like there’s a lot that I’m yet to show. I still have a lot of things I need to work on. It’s a process.”
NEW ORLEANS -- Sean Payton has talked in the past about the importance of "creating a crisis" to get his team's attention. It's something he learned from mentor Bill Parcells and a tact he used in the week leading up to Super Bowl XLIV when he gave some of his New Orleans Saints players a tongue-lashing for arriving late to a meeting.

Well, whether he wanted it or not, Payton got his crisis on Friday night in one of the uglier New Orleans Saints outings I can ever remember -- preseason or otherwise.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
Sean Gardner/Getty ImagesJimmy Graham was flagged twice for his post-touchdown celebrations Friday night.
The Saints committed 22 penalties, which led to a Payton postgame tirade that channeled some of former Saints coach Jim Mora's classic rants.

And the ugliest moment of all came during a sideline shouting match between Payton and star tight end Jimmy Graham after Graham was twice penalized for dunking after touchdowns.

It was a disturbing moment. Payton's reaction was expected -- players naturally get chewed out after penalties. It's why some of us were following Payton with our binoculars from up in the press box after Graham jogged off the field.

But Graham's emotional reaction was unexpected. As veteran teammate Zach Strief said, Graham had to know the tongue-lashing was coming. But as Strief also said, Graham is an emotional player who obviously feels strongly about protesting the new anti-dunking rule that took away one of his signature emotional outlets.

Graham chose to avoid the media on Friday night, exiting the locker room as reporters arrived. So I won't try to put any words in his mouth or even try to guess whether his frustration goes beyond his thoughts on the NFL's new penalty.

But I've always respected Graham as a player and a person, as a hard and determined worker and as a good locker-room guy and favorite of coaches. So I don't anticipate him allowing this issue to fester any more than it already has.

As for the issue of the Saints' sloppy play -- those 20 other penalties that had nothing to do with dunking -- I'll rank that as mildly disturbing.

It's not something we've seen from the Saints consistently in the past. They have a smart, veteran team for the most part, with a proven, veteran coaching staff.

And you can be absolutely certain that the players and coaches will be sent a message through more tirades to come behind closed doors.

"We'll find ourselves at the short end of a game and then wonder about our offseason goals and what happened. And we won't know exactly when it happened," Payton said, making it clear that there's nothing harmless about a crisis in Week 2 of the preseason.

"We'll say, ‘Hey, when we get to the regular season, it'll clean itself up,'" Payton said. "That's silliness."

Observation Deck: Tennessee Titans

August, 16, 2014
Aug 16

The Tennessee Titans turned the ball over five times at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and didn't do close to enough to offset the giveaways against the New Orleans Saints.

Tennessee lost 31-24 Friday night in New Orleans, despite the hosts' handing away 184 yards on 22 accepted penalties, including eight of the Titans' 28 first downs.

Penalties were the biggest story of a lengthy game, and the Titans made their own large contribution in that department, with 10 for 111 yards. The Titans didn't have a takeaway on defense or special teams to make up for their turnover troubles.

Here are some other thoughts on the Titans' second preseason game:
  • Receiver Justin Hunter was the offensive star, with a great leaping catch on the left side of the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown from Jake Locker. That one looked a lot like the sort of practice catch Hunter has been making regularly. Hunter also grabbed a pass in the middle of the field from rookie QB Zach Mettenberger and took advantage of a falling defender by taking off into space and coasting the rest of the way for a 64-yard score. He finished with four catches for 111 yards.
  • The penalties provided a couple of side benefits for the Titans. Kicker Travis Coons got to follow up a made 45-yard field goal with a make from 50 yards after the first three points were waved off by an illegal formation call against Tennessee's Karl Klug. Saints tight end Jimmy Graham's insistence on dunking the ball over the cross bar after his two scoring catches meant two kickoffs Marc Mariani got to field and return in his bid to beat Leon Washington for the returner job. Mariani took those two a combined 55 yards, though 21 were chopped off the second because of a return team penalty.
  • A week ago, Mettenberger lost a ball he held too low against the Green Bay Packers, and it happened to him again in New Orleans, when Cameron Jordan swiped a ball away from him at the Superdome. Mettenberger entered the game ahead of schedule after No. 2 Charlie Whitehurst suffered an injury to his throwing hand, and the rookie finished 20-of-25 for 269 yards with two touchdowns, an interception, the lost fumble and two sacks. His TD throw to Hunter was in the second quarter. Chase Coffman caught a 1-yard scoring pass right at the end, when Mettenberger's laser bounced off Marini and Coffman plucked it out of the air.
  • Rookie running back Bishop Sankey was nifty on a couple carries, as he took five handoffs for 31 yards and had at least one very good snap in pass protection. But he lost a fumble a week after a botched handoff counted against the quarterback trying to give it to him. It's been something we've seen at practice too. He's got to get that resolved right away. In addition to Mettenberger and Sankey, running back Shonn Greene and receiver Derek Hagan lost fumbles.
  • Per a tweet from Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean, Ken Whisenhunt didn't seem concerned after the game, even with injuries to Whitehurst, Greene (knee) or right tackle Michael Oher (arm).

NEW ORLEANS -- Although the New Orleans Saints beat the Tennessee Titans 31-24, coach Sean Payton will be seething over the stunning amount of penalties his team committed. The Saints finished with 22 of them (14 in the first half) and had at least four others declined. Payton was already upset when the Saints committed 10 penalties a week ago.

Two in particular stood out. Tight end Jimmy Graham drew 15-yard taunting penalties for dunking over the goalpost after both of his touchdown catches in the first half -- a celebration that was outlawed by the NFL this offseason.

Although Graham obviously felt like it was worth the cost during the preseason, Payton appeared to be upset when he chased down Graham to talk to him after the second one.

Here are some other thoughts on the Saints' second preseason game of the year.
  • With Drew Brees sidelined again by an oblique strain, both of his potential backups played great. Luke McCown completed 12 of 19 passes for 117 yards and both touchdown passes to Graham. He was especially impressive on the opening drive. Griffin, meanwhile, completed 13 of 20 passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns (though he was fortunate to have an interception nullified by a penalty). Griffin went big on a few throws, hitting Joe Morgan twice for 40-plus yards and nearly hitting Brandin Cooks for a deep score that Cooks couldn't reel in.
  • The Saints' defense was maddeningly inconsistent, allowing some big plays and long drives early (including a 64-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter). But it finally started to deliver some of those turnovers the Saints have been preaching about all offseason. The Saints finished with five takeaways (forced fumbles by Kenny Vaccaro and Cameron Jordan that were recovered by Rafael Bush and Akiem Hicks; opportunistic fumble recoveries by Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Brandon Deaderick; and an interception by Vinnie Sunseri). Vaccaro also appeared to force another fumble, recovered by Curtis Lofton, but it was overturned by replay.
  • No, Pierre Thomas has not become the odd man out in the Saints' three-way time-share at running back. After sitting out the first preseason game, he was heavily involved Friday -- especially as a pass-catcher and pass-protector on third downs. Thomas caught three passes for 27 yards. As I've been saying, I expected to see him in Darren Sproles' old role tonight. … The Saints' run game wasn't very effective Friday, but Mark Ingram did catch a 23-yard touchdown pass -- showing that he'll have a chance to play a more versatile role this year in the Saints' offense.
  • Cornerback Keenan Lewis left the field with trainers during the first half. The Saints didn't offer any specifics on his injury. He would be a huge loss if he's out for any regular-season games -- maybe as hard to replace as anyone outside of Brees. Rookie linebacker Khairi Fortt also left with an apparent injury.