The good news is that the second preseason games usually give us a longer view of the people who will actually play in the regular season. The bad news is that it's only Week 2 of the preseason and already the annual parade of gut-wrenching and, possibly, franchise-altering injuries has begun anew.
The pounding that Robert Griffin III took Thursday night behind an overmatched offensive line led to a concussion and spotlighted a considerable roadblock to Griffin's development as a competent pocket passer in what is considered a make-or-break year for him in Washington: He isn't even safe in the pocket. The Dolphins-Panthers game on Saturday night, which only a few days ago likely would have been about watching Cam Newton try to stay away from Ndamukong Suh, is now going to be about whom Newton can throw to, with No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjaminlost for the season to a knee injury, and how well the back end of the Dolphins' defense will fare with safety Louis Delmasgone with a knee injury, too. There will be other cases like this: How well is the Vikings' O-line going to hold up without right tackle Phil Loadholt, who tore his Achilles' tendon last weekend? What will the Bills' offense -- already mired in one of the only true quarterback competitions of the summer -- look like for the next few weeks while LeSean McCoy nurses a hamstring injury with hopes that he will be ready for the regular season opener? And with Ryan Fitzpatrick now getting all the starter's reps in the absence of Geno Smith, can the veteran QB stabilize the Jets?
This week's round of games does mean the regular season is closer. Here are some things to watch as they unfold:
1) All eyes on Jimmy G
On Thursday, Bill Belichick was quick to slough off a question about Jimmy Garoppolo's preparedness and whether it needs to be ramped up with a "We're all in the same boat." Fair enough, but the clock is ticking on settlement talks for Tom Brady, and with his availability still very much in doubt for the opener and beyond, it's fair to wonder about what Garoppolo will provide if he has to play. Until now, the Patriots have proceeded in practice largely as if Brady will be there for the opener -- and he has put on a clinic in proving that while his court case plays out, it is having no discernable impact on his football. But at some point, presumably, the Patriots will have to prepare for their worst-case scenario potentially becoming a reality. Garoppolo completed 20 of his 30 passes for 159 yards, one interception, no touchdowns and took a worrisome seven sacks in the preseason opener. Forget the throwing statistics; Saturday night in New Orleans, keep an eye on how Garoppolo rebounds and if his pocket awareness improves. And with the Patriots facing the Saints, it's also worth watching that rebuilt secondary -- if Drew Brees plays for any length of time, New England won't get many better tests.
2) How will Peyton look in Kubiak's offense?
Gary Kubiak has promised that Peyton Manning will play "quite a bit"Saturday night in Houston, so this is the first look at Manning in a somewhat-revised offense and behind a massively-retooled offensive line, the left side of which is anchored by two rookies (tackle Ty Sambrailo and guard Max Garcia). Kubiak and his staff have closely managed Manning with lots of rest, and the early scouting reports from practices have been that Manning's arm is fresh and lively. But what everyone wants to know is how much different this offense will really be from the ones Manning has run throughout his career and if it -- with the companion of a potent running game -- can lift Manning toward another Super Bowl in the twilight of his career.
3) Take 2 for Winston and Mariota
Let's just say that the dawn of the careers of Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota went about the way you'd expect for rookies: In their respective preseason openers, they were a mess early, throwing interceptions and incompletions and taking sacks. But both rallied late in their debuts, displaying the short memories that give coaches comfort. Winston even took to Tampa radio station WDAE-AM to tell fans not to panic -- and he's right. But the learning curve doesn't get any easier in Week 2 of the preseason, when the Bucs and Titans play the Bengals (Monday) and Rams (Sunday), respectively, giving Winston and Mariota long looks at good defenses.
4) The continuing fascination with Chip Kelly's scheme and personnel
It has come to this: We are analyzing whom Chip Kelly gives nicknames to in order to get a read on his roster intentions. Which means that if we get lots of "Timmy" on Saturday night, the Tebow hysteria will eclipse even the long-awaited debut of Sam Bradford. In Bradford, there are actually important things to watch: How that knee holds up without a brace on, how he functions in Kelly's fast-forward offense. DeMarco Murray is hoping to get playing time against Baltimore, too. But with the suggestion that the Eagles might alter their quarterback rotation to give all a chance with the top offensive playmakers, that means Tebow might get work with the second team. This could be Tebow's best chance to show he can operate Kelly's offense -- Kelly insists he is a quarterback and will not get special teams reps -- and should be on the final roster. Other teams are desperate for quarterbacking help, but the Eagles have Bradford as the No. 1, Sanchez as a backup whom several teams would be delighted to have as a starter right now, Matt Barkley as a very capable reserve and then the player everybody will be talking about when it's over. No bottom-of-the-roster spot has ever been so closely followed.
5) What should we expect from these largely unrecognizable 49ers?
The 49ers' offseason dismantling has been well chronicled, but that merely makes their on-field appearances all the more compelling. This week, San Francisco learned receiver Jerome Simpson will miss six games instead of 10, so that, in context, should be counted as good news. Still, that opens up the competition for the third receiver slot, which is probably nowhere near the top of the list of Jim Tomsula's concerns right now. The Niners host Dallas on Sunday, which should provide a good gauge for Tomsula's team because the Cowboys are a well-rounded squad with a spectacular offensive line, a good defense, intriguing pass rushers and a premier quarterback with special weapons. You can take a peek at what the Cowboys are doing at running back, but it might be better to spend all your time watching the 49ers try to reconstitute themselves on the fly. It is a work in progress that figures to run through the entire season.