Now for a trip through the camps I’ve visited in the past week:
Monday, July 29: Foxboro, Mass.
A side of Bill Belichick I’ve never seen.
The Patriots had their sixth annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony just outside Gillette Stadium, held a couple of hours before a night training camp practice. I’d never seen one before. It was terrific, Patriots alums there to support inductees Gil Santos, the longtime play-by-play man, and linebacker Tedy Bruschi. Thousands were there to watch and cheer. It’s great what owner Robert Kraft and his family have created at the stadium site, a Hall of Fame and museum that the region can be proud of. This was the kind of night Kraft dreamed about when he bought the team.
It got better when Bill Belichick stepped to the mic, after Santos and Bruschi accepted their red jackets from Kraft. I have heard Bill Belichick say some warm and grateful things about Harry Carson, about Bill Parcells, about Scott Pioli—those are the ones that come to mind; I’m sure there have been others. But I have never heard Belichick praise another person the way he praised Bruschi at the podium on this hot Massachusetts night.
“There’s great players and then there’s great players, and Tedy Bruschi was a great, great football player, because of his passion, his team attitude toward the game. All second to none,’’ Belichick said. “There is no player I’ve ever coached that epitomizes a football player … When I look at the words ‘football player’ in the dictionary, you see Tedy Bruschi’s picture there. That’s the best way I can put it.”
He talked about a tackle Bruschi made against the Raiders in the Tuck Rule playoff game that saved the Patriots’ season, saying without that tackle, there wouldn’t have been a Super Bowl win that year. On and on, great words about Bruschi.
I missed Bruschi after the event, and so I emailed him to find out what he was thinking when Belichick was saying those things about him. Seeing as, you know, Belichick just doesn’t do that.
“What was I thinking?!’’ he wrote back the next day. Next line:
“THAT’S MY COACH!”
A word or two about practice: Aqib Talib intercepted Tom Brady. Twice … I’m skeptical, as is everyone, about the Patriots’ skill position players, but Shane Vereen is going to get a lot of touches from the look of things … Take this for what it’s worth: Tim Tebow made three beautiful downfield throws that I saw, completions thrown 25 yards or more hitting receivers in stride. Tebow was also the personal protector on punts (kudos to you, Mike Westhoff, for getting him started on that last summer) and ran down on punts with energy. I bet the Patriots keep three quarterbacks, knowing they’re able to use Tebow as a utility player. Not necessarily a guy they’d have active every week, but a guy they could use in certain matchup situations against some teams.
Tuesday, July 30: Pittsford, N.Y.
Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett take a history lesson.
I wrote about the Bills last Wednesday. A couple of additional thoughts: I like when I go to a training camp and see a team that’s been down for a while have a legitimate reason to be optimistic. And that’s what I felt when I left Bills camp. I don’t know if the Bills will win, but I do know I’d trust coach Doug Marrone and coordinator Nathaniel Hackett to give the offense a chance to be good.
In fact, Hackett told me one of the best things he has done as a coach is study the Jim Kelly Bills offense of a generation ago, the K gun. That offense is a model for any era of football because it continually put pressure on the defense in both the running and the passing game. “I’ve talked to Jim, and he’s been very helpful,’’ said Hackett. “We’ve studied lots of offenses in the last few years, and one of the big keys to what we’ll do, I think, is for teams to not know what we’re doing. That was one of the great things about that Buffalo offense, and I enjoyed studying it and learning from it.’’
So how about that—E.J. Manuel winning the job (I’d say he’s in the lead, especially with Kevin Kolb’s weekend knee tweak) and becoming the quarterback the Bills have been seeking since Kelly left, running lots of the same stuff Kelly ran. Now that’d be a great story.
Wednesday, July 31: Cortland, N.Y.
Geno Smith has the look of The Man.
First pass I saw Smith throw in Jets practice on this day: a 25-yard back-shoulder fade down the left sideline, complete. His next one, also back-shoulder, was complete too. Look: I’m a victim of seeing one practice at most of these camps. I try to judge who is ahead at the competitive positions, and who the surprises are. Obviously, that’s tough, given that coaches will have 50 times more information than I would once the real decisions have to be made. But for one day in Cortland, Geno Smith, the rookie, looked better than Mark Sanchez, the fifth-year player with four playoff wins.
No one here is hand-tipping, of course. And it could be that Rex Ryan and John Idzik will do the safe thing and give the start opening day to Sanchez, figuring they can go to Smith in relief if Sanchez continues his erratic, buttfumbly type of play. If it’s close, I don’t think that’s a good idea. If Sanchez throws two straight incompletions in the opener Sept. 8, the crowd will shower him with boos. And is that really the way the Jets want to open the season, with that kind of negativity? I think not.
Watching the Jets at practice, you can tell a versatile, athletic and fast quarterback is going to be needed in this offense. Read between the lines. The Jets have mandated that writers at practice not write specifics about formations, patterns or schemes, and so (regrettably, because I think it’s a stupid policy that fans are able to tweet what the offense is doing at practice, but writers can’t write about it) I won’t. But Rex Ryan talked to the press about using the Wildcat the other day. He said he thought the team would use more of it this year than last. With the very iffy skill-position roster the Jets have, they’re going to need to use all the changeups they can.
So … if you use the Wildcat, you’d probably use either a versatile back like Bilal Powell or a versatile receiver like Jeremy Kerley behind center, and the quarterback would be either on the sidelines or split wide—if you’re using the traditional setup of the formation. With David Lee as quarterbacks coach now (he was the guy spurring the Wildcat’s use in Miami on Tony Sparano’s staff five years ago), it’s a no-brainer that the Jets would use it more than they did a year ago. When, by the way, they should have used it much, much more. Smith obviously is more athletic than Sanchez, and that’s one good reason why, if the battle is close, the Jets would be smart to use Smith early.
Last year’s five-game losing streak at West Virginia turned out to be good for Smith. He got used to what faces him here. “People say when I started with 24 touchdowns and no interceptions last year that it was my best football,’’ Smith said after practice. “I disagree. After that, I was something like 20 touchdowns and six interceptions, and I think it showed I could take the adversity. It helped me grow as a leader. I could have said, ‘I’m not playing bad. We’re averaging about 40 points a game.’ But we didn’t fracture. I didn’t get down on my guys. We were a team. That’s the test of a leader. It spoke volumes of what was happening when the world was on all our shoulders. That can only help me in the NFL.”
Maybe sooner than we thought.
Thursday, Aug. 1: Berea, Ohio
Well, at least the office is nice.
The Browns spent $5 million to re-do the second floor of their training facility—and their organizational personality. I’ve toured Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, and this floor reminds me of the Twitterverse: The Browns’ coaching, front-office, ownership and PR and broadcasting departments are all up here, wide open so that people see other people working. No one hides, and presumably no one loafs. Cameraderie is encouraged. Here, when a big group or luxury suite sale is completed, a bell is rung, and the sales team all claps. One day offensive coordinator Norv Turner ducked into the hall and clapped too.
It’s young, it’s bright, it’s energetic. Even owner Jimmy Haslam has an office in which anyone on the floor can walk by and see him through a floor-to-ceiling window wall. The Browns spent $65,000 soundproofing a state-of-the-art broadcast studio where a team-produced two-hour sports show is on the ESPN radio affiliate each afternoon. “It’s the energy of feeling like something’s happening, every day,’’ president Joe Banner said.
Everywhere, inspirational sayings from Roald Dahl to Mother Teresa dot the walls. Such as:
I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.
Or, on a mural featuring star cornerback Joe Haden:
Whatever you are, be a good one.
“Twitter attracts the youngest and brightest people, which is what we want to do,’’ said Banner. “But I don’t want to copy Twitter or Google. I just want to create an atmosphere where good people want to work, and good people want to stay and help build a winner. In my opinion, improving physical space is a great opportunity to help change the culture.’’
Is it close? Can the Browns finally turn the corner with a new coach, new GM, new president and new owner—and these shiny offices? My experience covering football tells me you’re close when you’ve got a quarterback. And the Browns don’t know if they’ve got one yet. Out on the field for the afternoon practice, former Yankees pitching prospect Brandon Weeden wound up and threw a BB straight into the picket-fence arms of two defenders, getting it batted down. The man who led the NFL in batted passes had better not do it again, or his Cleveland career won’t be much longer than Brady Quinn’s.
“We know at the end of the season we’ll still have work to do,’’ said Banner. “What positions those are, we don’t know yet.’’ I think they probably know about the most important position—and they’re hoping against hope Weeden proves them wrong.
Thursday night, Aug. 1: Canton, Ohio
The Hall of Fame community dinner.
The locals are mingling with the Hall of Famers, and it’s a great night to show off the new and improved Hall. In the back of the tented dinner area sit a couple of reminiscing HoFers, tight end Jackie Smith and guard Dan Dierdorf.
Dierdorf grew up here. He’s 64 now, walking with a cane from the years of football pounding his knees took. But he’s so immensely proud of the place, built a few short blocks from the house he grew up in.
“I remember riding my bike over here to check on the construction, and being so excited that such a great building was being built here, in our hometown. The day the construction started, my father and I watched them put the spade in the ground. You know who else was here that day? Another dad and his young son: Larry Csonka. He’s from near here.’’
The Hall turns 50 this year. I always find it sad that people love it for one week a year, and then for the rest of the year it’s rarely mobbed. Now that improvements have been made and it’s a more attractive, modern place, it’d be nice to see Dierdorf’s neighborhood get a few more traffic jams during the other 51 weeks.