Football is back!
Each year, the first preseason game marks the return of the nation's favorite sport to the mainstream. Sure, it's going to be mistake-laden football, as the teams look to shake off the rust of a long offseason, and we won't be able to recognize the fourth-string roster fodder that takes the field in the second half. It's not even begin to compare to the excitement of the last football you watched—even if that was the Pro Bowl.
None of those caveats matter, however, because football is back!
As the Dallas Cowboys take on the Miami Dolphins at Fawcett Stadium in Canton, Ohio, millions will be glued to their local NBC affiliates, soaking in the old familiar dulcet tones of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth. The third member of their crew, Michele Tafoya, will take her usual spot along the sidelines.
The action itself won't feature the game's biggest name—Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo—as the Cowboys plan to sit him, via Calvin Watkins of ESPN, as well as a number of other stars. Dolphins signal-caller Ryan Tannehill does expect to play—if only for a dozen plays, via Chris Perkins of the Sun Sentinel.
As you anxiously prepare for football's glorious return, here are some things you need to know.
Fawcett Stadium sits next to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton and has hosted the Hall of Fame Game since its inception in 1962. Its current playing surface—FieldTurf—was installed in 2004 and is named "Hall of Fame Field" to honor its biggest annual event.
The capacity for Fawcett is one of the endearing qualities of the year's first preseason contest, as the stadium seats only 22,364.
It is, after all, a small-town municipal stadium which opened in 1938. That also means that there aren't any state-of-the-art massive video screens nor apps to tell attendees which beer line is the shortest.
Likewise, the stadium doesn't have any off-the-wall "twitpicable" concession fare—mostly hamburgers, hotdogs and funnel cakes—but the NFL does create a mini festival atmosphere outside. So, there is plenty to do, see, eat and drink before squeezing into the cozy stadium.
In addition to one NFL preseason game a year, the stadium also serves as home for two high schools—McKinley Senior High and Timken Senior High—as well as two NCAA Division II colleges—Walsh University and Malone University. It hosts a majority of the Ohio State High School Football Championship games and the "Victory Bowl," which is the championship game for the National Christian College Athletic Association.
Most importantly, it also hosts the annual enshrinement of the new inductees into the Hall of Fame.
This Year's Enshrinees
While the game serves as a meaningless contest between the Cowboys and the Dolphins, it is more notable as a shrine to all things pro football. So, as the starters leave and the game action becomes noticeably less intriguing, there will still be plenty for Michaels and Collinsworth to talk about—including the dozens of gold jackets milling about.
The NFL does not descend upon Canton for just any preseason contest. No, it comes to pay tribute to the game's best and to honor this year's class.
- Larry Allen, OG, Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers
- Cris Carter, WR, Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings, Miami Dolphins
- Curley Culp, DT, Kansas City Chiefs, Houston Oilers, Detroit Lions
- Jonathan Ogden, OT, Baltimore Ravens
- Bill Parcells, Coach, New York Giants, New England Patriots, New York Jets, Dallas Cowboys
- Dave Robinson, LB, Green Bay Packers, Washington Redskins
- Warren Sapp, DT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Oakland Raiders
Clicking on the hyperlinked names above will take you to career retrospectives courtesy of Bleacher Report.
Miami Dolphins Major Storyline No. 1: Will the Offense Start to Click?
Tannehill is playing in this game because he hasn't earned the right to sit out any action that might help his development. Moreover, he needs some game-time pressure alongside some of the free-agent help that general manager Jeff Ireland brought in for him this offseason.
Wide receiver Mike Wallace—chief among those acquisitions—is hoping to play through a minor groin injury in order to gain some much-needed chemistry with his quarterback. New tight end Dustin Keller, represents an upgrade for the Dolphins on paper too, but he will need to prove that is the case on the field as well.
Most importantly, Tannehill will need to take advantage of those weapons with little-to-no protection in front of him. While tackle Jake Long (now with the St. Louis Rams) struggled last season, Jonathan Martin has yet to show he will be much of an upgrade.
Miami Dolphins Major Storyline No. 2: What is Ireland's "Batting Percentage" Going to Be?
After years of underspending, misspending and drafting players who aren't very good, Ireland made noise this offseason bringing in a lot of big free agents and a solid draft class.
Now, spending money in the NFL can be a very good thing, and it's usually better than trying to "save" money by staying just above the cap floor. However, if the players don't hit, they can quickly become overpaid albatrosses strung around the neck of a franchise.
Dolphins fans, of course, are hoping that Ireland batted 1.000 this offseason, but simple odds (and even a cursory look at Ireland's decision making skills) point to the likelihood that at least a few of these free agents might cause regrets down the road.
Will it be one of the aforementioned offensive weapons? How about linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, now that he is outside of Baltimore and without other top-flight defensive talent around him? Or, could it be the other linebacker—brought over from Oakland—Phillip Wheeler? What about 30-year-old cornerback Brent Grimes, who is coming off of a major Achilles injury?
All of those talented athletes were top-notch free agents for a reason—they're good at what they do. The Dolphins' success in 2013 (and Ireland's continued employment) will ultimately depend on all of them continuing to be good alongside one another.
Dallas Cowboys Major Storyline No. 1: Can the Offensive Line Stop Anyone?
Last year, New York Jets tackle Wayne Hunter became a recurring joke because of the hilarious impression he put on of a New York City turnstile while quarterback Mark Sanchez ran for his life from opposing defenders.
Chuckle at Hunter all you want, Cowboys fans, but Pro Football Focus ranked him (paid link) 10 spots above Doug Free among all tackles overall last season. Tyron Smith, over on the left side, didn't fair much better in pass protection, collecting a minus-2.7 rating to Hunter's minus-3.9. In terms of just pass blocking, PFF has Smith ranked as the 56th tackle in the NFL. Hunter is 57th. Free is 59th.
The interior of the line isn't much better.
Even if the widely panned selection of center Travis Frederick works out like owner/GM/overlord/meddler Jerry Jones hopes, guard Nate Livings is still out after undergoing a second knee surgery, via ESPN's Todd Archer. That leaves the guard depth in Dallas as a bunch of guys you haven't heard of, and also whom Romo wishes he'd never heard of.
Let's all blame Romo and wait for Jones to draft another running back!
Dallas Cowboys Major Storyline No. 2: How is Monte Kiffin's New Defense Shaping Up?
Alongside their other top stars, the Cowboys are definitely not going to endear themselves to NBC and the audience for the game if they also sit defensive end DeMarcus Ware, who is coming off of shoulder surgery.
Ware, like teammate Anthony Spencer, will be converting to defensive end from linebacker this season in Monte Kiffin's Tampa 2 scheme.
Kiffin's last two stops—Tennessee and USC—were largely considered failures, but the coach has a long history of NFL success and helped revolutionize the way NFL teams played defense while defensive coordinator in Tampa Bay.
The front-seven talent of the Cowboys has never really been in question, and they'll receive an upgrade there in 2013 with the return of linebackers Sean Lee and Bruce Carter as well as the addition of linebacker Justin Durant.
It's the defensive backfield, however, that has been most problematic for the Cowboys in recent years.
They'll be counting on continued development from cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr—both played poorly in their first seasons in Dallas. The addition of safety Will Allen won't pay long-term dividends but should be an acceptable stopgap in 2013.
The Bottom Line
With many starters out and even more on tight play counts, this game is going to eventually come down to the backups—especially quarterbacks Kyle Orton (Dallas) and Matt Moore (Miami). While those aren't names anyone would want running their franchise, both are capable spot starters and can actually put up some numbers in the right situation.
For Dallas fans who may be hoping for a good omen in the preseason opener, it's unlikely to come as Orton gives way to backup passers Nick Stephens and Alex Tanney (yes, that Alex Tanney). Against a Dolphins defense that is pretty deep and may give their starters some extended action, things could go south in a hurry.
The real train-wreck matchup is going to be when Dallas' backup offensive linemen take the field against the Dolphins' backup defenders, which may include rookie first-round defensive end Dion Jordan on passing plays. Things could get ugly fast for whoever the quarterback is under center.
Overall, the defenses should rule the day as defenses often do in early preseason action. The final score will likely be decided by the depth of those defenses, and that will give this game to the Dolphins.
Final Score Prediction: Dolphins 23, Cowboys 17.
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.