DENVER – The dog days of NFL training camps are giving way to the preseason slate of games that give fans their football fix until Labor Day rolls around and things really get serious.
The exhibition games might be meaningless in the standings, but they're the best gauge for coaches and general managers to determine which 1,696 players will survive roster cut downs to 53. Reputations of players and scouting departments alike are on the line this month.
There are plenty of changes that will take some getting used to: Peyton Manning swapping the horse shoe on his helmet for the horse head, Tim Tebow taking his buffed body and powerful but imprecise arm from the Rocky Mountains to the Big Apple. Chad Ochocinco changed his name back to Johnson, although he didn't change his ways. His foul mouth even drew coach Joe Philbin's attention during the opening episode of HBO's "Hard Knocks."
And seven teams switched coaches, plus Sean Payton has been banished for the 2012 season by commissioner Roger Goodell over the New Orleans Saints' bounty program.
Let's examine six of the top questions that will be answered in the preseason:
WILL PEYTON MANNING RETURN TO FORM?
The Denver Broncos won the biggest free-agent prize by landing the 11-time Pro Bowl QB who missed all of last season following neck surgery. He's shown no ill effects of the nerve injury that weakened his throwing arm. His strength is back and he's deciphering defenses and making the right reads like he always did. And his timing with his new targets gets better every day, thanks in part to Brandon Stokley and Jacob Tamme, old friends from Indy. The question is how he'll handle that first big blast, and he insists he'll be able to bounce right back up. If not, all bets are off because the backups are Caleb Hanie and rookie Brock Osweiler.
WILL TIM TEBOW PLAY SECOND FIDDLE ON BROADWAY?
Tebow could have gone to his hometown of Jacksonville and been a fan favorite while quietly working out the kinks in his throwing motion and his messy footwork that resulted in a 46 percent completion rate in Denver last year — 40 percent in the playoffs. But he wanted the bright lights of Broadway and asked John Elway to send him to the Jets instead. He got his wish. Now, we'll see if he can coexist with Mark Sanchez and handle New York's famously demanding fan base. Tebow's drawn more cheers for running shirtless in the rain than for running with the football so far. The Jets could have the makings of a mess on their hands if this doesn't play out like they hope.
WILL THE SAINTS SUCCEED DESPITE THE BOUNTY SUSPENSIONS?
Roger Goodell handed out his harshest penalties in connection with the NFL's bounty investigation of the Saints to Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma, banishing both for the season. Starting in Vilma's middle linebacker spot is Curtis Lofton. Filling in for Payton is assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who himself will be suspended until the Saints' Week 8 visit to Denver. Even though Payton is gone, his presence looms over the Saints: a massive mural of Payton's piercing pursed-lip, squinted-eye glare was quietly hung in the team's indoor field this summer. The mural also includes the phrase, "Do your job," which has become the unofficial motto of the club ever since Payton delivered those parting words before starting his season-long suspension.
HOW WILL THE REPLACEMENT REFS DO?
The NFL locked out players last year and officials this year. Usually, the crews tour training camps and teach teams about the new rules. This summer, they're the ones doing the learning. A few wrong calls and they'll certainly hear the cries of "Scab!" from fans and maybe players. Broncos safety David Bruton said: "Nobody wants to get locked out, nobody wants to see anybody get locked out. Everybody wants to see people earn what they're rightfully supposed to be getting or get better work conditions. And players got that. So, I see a parallel in that sense. But these guys, they're coming up from the college level. They see high competition, so it's not like we're going from elementary school referees to NFL referees."
HOW WILL THE CUTLER-MARSHALL REUNION GO?
Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall are together again. The duo was one of the NFL's most potent connections while they were in Denver. Marshall surpassed 100 receptions and 1,250 yards in each of his two seasons in Denver when Cutler was the primary starter. Neither one got along with former Broncos coach Josh McDaniels and got traded, Cutler in 2009 to the Bears and Marshall a year later to Miami. The Bears acquired the Pro Bowl receiver in the offseason, sending two third-round draft picks to the Dolphins to obtain the No. 1 target they have been lacking for years. The Bears will have to protect the quarterback better, however, if this reunion will be successful.
HOW WILL THE ROOKIE QUARTERBACKS COME OUT OF THE BLOCKS?
For the first time since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, there could be three rookie starting QBs when the season begins next month. Cam Newton put up outstanding numbers as a rookie in Carolina last year and several more are hoping to make an immediate impact this season, starting with Andrew Luck in Indianapolis. The Stanford star was the top pick in the draft. Two other teams have already entrusted their offenses to rookies: the Washington Redskins with Robert Griffin III and the Cleveland Browns with Brandon Weeden, a 28-year-old former minor league baseball player. Will Miami's Ryan Tannehill make it four? He'll have to beat out veterans David Garrard and Matt Moore.
We'll start to get the answers to all these questions this week.
Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton
Online: http://bigstory.ap.org/NFL-Pro32 and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL