Memories from the road.
One point from every camp/game I attended:
Dallas (Oxnard, Calif.). I got there on July 19th, in the afternoon. The team arrived around 6 p.m. But Tony Romo, who didn’t need to travel with the team because he was already in California, was there at 10 a.m., throwing on an empty field to a few Cowboys staffers who arrived early. Who knows how his season will turn out, but Romo was pretty anxious to get this camp started.
Denver (Englewood, Colo.). Felt like I was watching the old Raiders at the Broncos’ first practice of the year. Wes Welker (32), Stewart Bradley (29), Quentin Jammer (34), Shaun Phillips (32), Dan Koppen (33) and the youngster, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (27), all here to help Peyton Manning (37) drive Denver to a Super Bowl.
Seattle (Renton, Wash.). Music washes over the field, for the entire practice. This is the first camp on the trail to be alive with the sound of music. The reason: Pete Carroll wants players to get used to playing with constant noise as their companion, because that’s the way it’ll be during games.
Oakland (Napa, Calif.). GM Reggie McKenzie is not pleased with the public perception of his team—namely, that the Raiders have a 3-13 look about them. “We have better players than people think, and we’ll be better than people think,” he said. “It was bleak last year, but we see the light at the end of the tunnel now that we’ve fixed our cap.” Maybe the light will be bright in 2014. I’ll be surprised if this team approaches .500 this year.
San Francisco (Santa Clara, Calif.). Watched Marcus Lattimore, he of the devastating 2012 knee injury, work out on a side field. He’s running hard straight ahead. For a guy who was sure 10 months he’d never play football again, this is a significant moment. “If it’s over at any point now, and I don’t think it will be here,” he says, “I know I’ve left my mark on the game. I know I’ve done things the right way.”
New England (Foxboro, Mass.). Shane Vereen looks like the kind of multi-threat weapon the Patriots could use out of the backfield to take some of Aaron Hernandez’s touches. Soft hands, can break a tackle, makes linebackers miss. “This is going to be a year we really have to grind it out,” said Vereen. My other takeaway five days after the Bill Belichick press conference on the waived and jailed Hernandez: No one here mentions his name.
Buffalo (Pittsford, N.Y.). First meeting I’ve had with new GM Doug Whaley, who was heavily influenced by his Pittsburgh years—and by meeting vital Steelers scout Bill Nunn. “Bill taught me, ‘Be careful of guys who don’t love football, who aren’t smart, and who don’t have the heart for football,’ ” Whaley said. So that’s why E.J. Manuel’s here.
Cleveland (Berea, Ohio). Watching the defensive line against the offensive line in one-on-one drills, I gain healthy respect for nose man Phil Taylor. Twice he power-swats away interior lineman and gets into the backfield. Taylor’s about to make an impact in the AFC North, folks.
Pittsburgh (Latrobe, Pa.). Le’Veon Bell, the heir to the starting running back job, makes the most memorable play of the tour: Running upfield, he jukes cornerback Curtis Brown to the ground. I’m standing in the end zone, behind the play, and the speed and quickness of Bell is stunning. He’s been plagued by a knee strain, but when he plays, he’s going to be a major upgrade for Pittsburgh in the backfield.
Philadelphia (Philadelphia). I never saw a huddle in two hours and 20 minutes. I saw Mike Vick complete seven passes in a row in seven-on-seven drills. I have no idea if the Eagles can play any defense, but this is going to be a fun offense to watch.
Baltimore (Owings Mills, Md.). No Ray Lewis. No Ed Reed. And I will be very surprised if this defense isn’t better. Daryl Smith would have been a $7 million-a-year player in Jacksonville right now if he hadn’t gotten hurt, and Lardarius Webb was on his way to being a top-five NFL corner before shredding his knee last year. You watch. Those are just two of the guys who will upgrade this defense.
Washington (Richmond Va.). Feel like a broken record on this, because I’ve written and talked about it so much. But Robert Griffin III, on a side field, at the direction of Kyle Shanahan, is running and cutting the same way he will on opening night, Sept. 9, when he’ll take the field against Philadelphia. I wouldn’t get too excited about the Shanahan-RG3 tiff, or whatever it is. The kid wants to practice full speed. The coach wants to save him for the opener. Now, long-term, is it smart to move him out of the pocket so much? I’m still skeptical he’ll have a 15-year career that way. But we’ll see how it plays out.
Atlanta (Flowery Branch, Ga.). It’s a light workout the day before a preseason game, but Matt Ryan’s very accurate—and he doesn’t even have Tony Gonzalez on hand. Gonzalez has a few camp days off, part of his agreement about spending more time with his family during camp. No team’s going to have a skill-player roster like Atlanta’s.
Tennessee (Nashville). Chris Johnson, outside the Titans’ locker room after their first preseason game, is ebullient about coach Mike Munchak’s offensive plans. Namely, steamroll people in the running game. “Go back to 2008, when we were 13-3,” Johnson says. “People knew what we were going to do—just pound people—and it still worked.” I looked it up. Tennessee ran the ball 52 percent of the time that season. Johnson: 251 carries for 1,228 yards. (Where Have You Gone) LenDale White: 200 carries for 773 yards. I see a 320-carry season for Johnson, even with Shonn Greene in the house.
Carolina (Charlotte). For the Panthers to have a chance against the two top-tier quarterbacks in the division, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan, rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei’s going to have to cave in the middle of some lines. All the news is good so far—he’s had a good camp—and he’ll have to be an impact rookie, the way Luke Kuechly was last year, for Carolina to be an impact team in the division.
St. Louis (Earth City, Mo.). Very good practice for the Rams on offense. A year ago, the defense won most of the summer sessions. Not anymore. But the Rams were held to 20 points or less in 10 of 16 games last year, and there’s no question the pressure will be on Sam Bradford to form an instant bond with new weapons Jared Cook and Tavon Austin.
Kansas City (St. Joseph, Mo.). Funny set-up in the end zone after practice. Ball machines are set up next to each other, one throwing tennis balls, the other footballs, both at high speed to receivers. It’s part of Andy Reid’s receiver drills. He figures you work on your eyes with the tennis balls, and your hands with the football. And your concentration with both.
Minnesota (Mankato, Minn.). For twenty minutes, GM Rick Spielman talked about his uncomfortable breakup with Antoine Winfield, who’d been a Viking for nine years. Neither thought it would come to this, but Spielman had no idea six priority free agents would all re-sign with the Vikes, leaving Winfield, 36 and with some juice left, out in the cold. “Toughest decision I’ve had to make in this business,” Spielman said. “Antoine was a great player for us.” He’s got the kind of physical corner Winfield was, rookie Xavier Rhodes, to soften the blow, but Winfield’s the kind of missing link that won’t be easy to overcome.
Green Bay (Green Bay). The offense is sluggish in practice, and coach Mike McCarthy, colorfully and loudly, tells his offense to start the period over. Underrated part of McCarthy’s coaching game: getting his players to play hard, and not having players roll their eyes even now, entering his eighth season as coach.
Indianapolis (Anderson, Ind.). Best night of the trip: Three hours of football talk at Riviera Maya, a Mexican place in this town an hour northeast of Indianapolis, with GM Ryan Grigson. Who knows if it’ll work out, but Grigson is excited about his 6-5, 257-pound Adonis from Kenya, the professional rugby player Adongo mentioned earlier. The Colts are using training camp to try to make a pass rusher out of him. “Our sights are high,” said Grigson. “We have to be able to look everywhere for players, whether it be Canada, Arena ball, rugby, I don’t care. You never know who might want to play, and who might be able to help.”
Cincinnati (Cincinnati). Everyone from Marvin Lewis to the TSA guy in security at Greater Cincinnati Airport (no kidding; he brought it up with me) knows Andy Dalton’s got to play better for the Bengals to play deep into January. The Bengals are working on Dalton getting the deep ball out quicker, and with more trajectory. In the practice I saw, Dalton lofts one into the arms of A.J. Green far downfield. They need about 25 more of those when the games start counting.