Football has mercifully returned to quench our gridiron-starved souls.
While the NFL preseason naturally lacks the intrigue of real games, it's a vital time in which the coming regular season's elaborate tapestry takes form as potential stars emerge and teams around the league begin to show their quality.
Here are five of the biggest things we learned from the opening week of preseason action:
Jets have real QB competition
The Jets have historically struggled to find even one capable starting quarterback, so New York must be pinching itself after a preseason opener in which its two supposed backups, Teddy Bridgewater and rookie Sam Darnold, showed why it's foolish to think Josh McCown should be locked in as the Week 1 starter.
Bridgewater displayed few signs of trepidation with his surgically repaired knee as he smartly maneuvered the pocket, picking the Atlanta Falcons apart with short-to-intermediate passes. He finished the contest an impressive 7 of 8 for 85 yards and a touchdown.
The former first-round pick will need to prove he can stay healthy, but with odds stacked against the entire league getting to Week 1 without a starting quarterback going down with an injury, Bridgewater's trade stock could be set to soar.
As solid as Bridgewater looked, however, he was quickly turned into a side story by the No. 3 overall pick. Darnold flashed his star potential in extended action, tossing his first touchdown, hitting on 13 of his 18 throws, and playing with a poise and confidence beyond his years.
While Darnold's scrambling 14-yard scoring pass to Charles Johnson was the headlining play of his preseason debut, it was a far less flashy third-down conversion that should have Jets fans salivating.
— New York Jets (@nyjets) August 11, 2018
Under immediate pressure from his blind side, Darnold moved to his right to open up a throwing lane while resetting his throwing position away from the check-down option with a veteran-like quickness. The young pivot got the ball off accurately despite having bodies all around him, which allowed his receiver to get upfield immediately and fight for the first down.
It's a throw most knew Darnold had the skills to make, just not this early on.
The Jets will spend the rest of the preseason trying to figure out their quarterback conundrum, but after years of pain under center, it's a welcome problem for the AFC East outfit.
Mayfield is ready, but so is Taylor
And despite Mayfield's strong play in training camp, it has seemed like the Browns' mind was set on who would be under center. Instead of fiercely battling, the two quarterbacks are having secret meetings in an RV, for crying out loud.
But, Mayfield just isn't a bench-warming kind of guy, as evidenced by his head-turning 212-yard, two-touchdown performance against the New York Giants. The former Oklahoma standout was always a more developed passer than some gave him credit for in the draft process, and after a quick three-and-out to begin, he looked born to play in an NFL pocket.
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) August 10, 2018
Taylor isn't ready to give up his job just yet, though. The veteran passer looked just as comfortable in Todd Haley's new-look offense in more limited reps, hitting on all five of his passes and finding tight end David Njoku for a nice score.
Like the Jets, it's a new and welcome problem for the Browns. Taylor is still the odds-on favorite to lead Cleveland out in Week 1, but Mayfield has shown he's ready to pounce on the slightest opening. Strange as it may sound, don't take your eyes off the Browns for the rest of the preseason.
Luck officially out of the woods
That sound you heard Thursday night was a collective sigh of relief from the entire state of Indiana, as a smiling Andrew Luck popped straight back from his first NFL hit after 600 days on the sidelines and high-fived a teammate.
"There's a sense of get hit, get up, make sure you’re not broken and laying in half on the field ... That was probably the most excited I have been, and will ever be, to get hit," said the Indianapolis Colts' star quarterback after the game, according to Kevin Bowen of 1070 The Fan.
Most important play of the game right here. Andrew Luck takes a hit right on the shoulder and jumps right up and high fives Jack Doyle. He’s back everybody. He’s freaking back. pic.twitter.com/ZysCA6PlKn
— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) August 10, 2018
After such a lengthy layoff, shaking off the mental rust by taking a shot right to his surgically repaired throwing shoulder was likely the most important play of the night for Luck.
But the 2012 No. 1 overall pick also showed off his returning arm strength by leading two scoring drives and ending the night having completed 6 of 9 passes for 64 passing yards.
While Luck's road to recovery is far from done, it appears Colts fans can begin to accept that their long nightmare is coming to an end.
Helmet hits may be latest rules fiasco
Several questionable penalties were called for what were seemingly fair hits during the game, causing some to panic at the prospect of a regular season filled with football-killing flags.
— uSTADIUM (@uSTADIUM) August 12, 2018
A day earlier, Oakland Raiders' hard-hitting safety Karl Joseph was penalized for lowering his helmet to initiate contact with a Detroit Lions runner, despite seemingly having no other option but to attack the runner in such a manner.
This was penalized for “lowering helmet to initiate contact” Not sure how else 42 is supposed to position himself and tackle. pic.twitter.com/xQEs01Bxy7
— Melissa Jacobs (@thefootballgirl) August 11, 2018
Few would argue that the NFL needs to find a way to reduce head injuries, but blurring the lines even further as to what's acceptable for a defensive player could have serious implications on the game's balance between offense and defense.
Of course, it is just the preseason. The NFL often uses this time to test out the limits of new rules, so it's entirely possible the standard for helmet hits are recalibrated by the time Sept. 6 rolls around.
But after finally - hopefully - ridding ourselves of the catch controversies that have plagued the league in recent years, it's a bitter twist of fate that we seem doomed to be forever tortured by the league's confusing rulebook.
Guice injury hits hard, but other rookie RBs ready to take NFL by storm - again
The football Gods give with one hand and take with the other.
Last season was especially cruel for injuries to burgeoning stars. Then-rookie runner Dalvin Cook, in particular, was a painful loss as he looked set to take the league by storm before tearing his ACL in October. This year, the similarly hyped Washington Redskins first-year back Derrius Guice didn't even make it to the regular season before suffering his own season-ending knee injury.
But don't despair (except you, Guice fantasy owners), the NFL always has a steady stream of exciting backs coming out of a pipeline.
Saquon Barkley, of course, is the cream of the crop. The Giants' newest superstar showed why on a dazzling opening run against the Cleveland Browns, using his trademark agility to evade defenders in the backfield and compensate for the line's poor blocking before exploding downfield for a 39-yard gain. It's all Eli Manning has been able to think about since witnessing the tantalizing dash.
Fellow rookies Royce Freeman of the Denver Broncos, Chase Edmonds of the Arizona Cardinals, and Kerryon Johnson of the Detroit Lions all made the most of their first NFL opportunities, too, making up for disappointing outings by Ronald Jones, Rashaad Penny, and Nick Chubb.
Guice may be done, but this historically deep class of runners is just getting started.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)
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