Welcome to Camp Hope
Five months after the Super Bowl ended, football is finally back ... well, sorta. Training camps are getting started this week, and optimism is high in all 32 locales—including Buffalo, where playoffs have only been a rumor since 1999
PITTSFORD, N.Y. — Sunday night was precisely what the NFL wants out of the preseason. The night of the first practice of the NFL summer simply couldn’t have gone better. Hope was for sale everywhere on the St. John Fisher campus here, the same way it will be in 31 other camps starting with the Giants today in New Jersey, and there were thousands of consumers, happy to buy that hope.
There were fans, boisterous ones. About 4,000 fans jammed the stands on this football field in bucolic Pittsford, a southern Rochester suburb, for the 2.5-hour practice that ended as the sun was setting over the shade trees in the distance. One guy called me over to show me the Ralph Wilson tattoo he just had etched on his arm this off-season, in tribute to the late Hall of Fame owner of the team. “E.J. [Manuel]!! I love you!!” cried out one fan early on. Not to be outdone, another fellow yelled to the second-round Alabama tackle, Cyrus Kouandjio, who’d hoped to be a first-round pick last May, “Hey Cyrus! Prove everyone wrong buddy! We’re gonna road-grade people this year!!!”
There was the promising quarterback (the Bills hope), Manuel, getting the benefit of the doubt from the adoring crowd. He’d missed six games last year due to injury, and never played as well as the Bills had hoped, and he enters this summer with a giant question mark over his head. As Manuel goes, so will this team. You can say that for so many teams, but it’s especially true for a team that has playoff talent at running back, receiver, pass rusher and cornerback. It’ll be wasted if Manuel isn’t good, and he had some good moments on this night. In a team period, he hit exciting rookie Sammy Watkins on four throws out of four.
Speaking of Watkins, he’s the belle of the football here. They love him. And they love GM Doug Whaley for overpaying to move up to get Watkins in the first round last May. To move up five spots in the first round, from nine to four, Whaley paid next year’s first-round and fourth-round picks to Cleveland. “Hey Whaley!’’ a fan yelled. “Thank you for Watkins!” On night one, Watkins was as electric as advertised. Especially interesting was the way he got off jams at the line. He juked lightning-quick on some snaps, and powered into unsuspecting corners on others. “You can never let cornerbacks read you,’’ he said later.
There was a happy vibe because of music. The Bills, following the lead of the Super Bowl champion Seahawks, played loud tunes—U2, Macklemore, Eminem, Black Eyed Peas, House of Pain—for more than half the practice. Coach Doug Marrone’s a fan of practice music, which Seattle’s used in the Carroll era. (The Bronx-born Marrone, though, didn’t like one of the selections across a wide spectrum of the music world: “Sweet Caroline,’’ the last song of the night. You know, the eighth-inning fan anthem of the Red Sox.)
There were other reasons to be excited. Running back Bryce Brown, supposedly a spare part acquired in a trade with Philadelphia, ran like he had rockets in his shoes. Former first-round corner Stephon Gilmore covered like the franchise guy he was drafted to be. New linebacker Brandon Spikes played with passion. “I just wish we had pads on today,’’ he said. “I am so ready.’’
And autographs … two players were still signing 50 minutes after the session ended. As fans swooned.
Get the idea? The honeymoon idea? These people aren’t hungry. They’re famished. The Bills haven’t made the playoffs in this century. They’ve had nine straight losing seasons. Imagine not winning 10 games in the past 14 years. Fourteen!
I’ve been coming to Bills camp most summers since their decline began. This is a better team than most if not all of the teams the Bills have fielded since their last playoff season, 1999. It’s a group that can win now if the quarterback plays at a B-plus level. If Manuel’s a C player, Buffalo won’t win. It’s simple.
But there are other problems. Major ones, and they’re on defense. The defense is missing three of its top players from last year—safety Jairus Byrd (gone to New Orleans in free agency); linebacker Kiko Alonso, a revelation of a three-down player last year, who tore his ACL in an off-season workout and is gone for the season; and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, the talented but maddening player who might be too immature to ever be consistently great. In the last eight months, Dareus has been benched for a quarter in one game for violating team rules, a half in another game for violating team rules, been arrested in Alabama for speeding and possession of a controlled substance, been arrested again for drag-racing in the Buffalo area and leaving the scene of an accident when the racing resulted in a crash. And, on Saturday, he reported for the team’s conditioning run significantly out of shape, and failed it. The Bills placed him on the team’s Active/non-football injury list.
In other words, Dareus is a total mess.
Asked how troubling it is that Dareus didn’t report to camp in shape given how many strikes he already has against him, Marrone would say only: “He’ll be in shape, ready to play.”
Here’s the way I look at the Bills: Buffalo gave up 37 points to Cleveland last year, and 34 to infirm Atlanta. Their best linebacker and safety are gone. A star defensive tackle, potentially, cannot be relied upon. If this doesn’t put a mountain of pressure on the quarterback, I don’t know what would.
Manuel feels it. On the field after practice Sunday night, he said, “I understand. This is a quarterback-driven league. Even if we were an undefeated team last year, people would look at our team and think it comes down to the quarterback. I do embrace it, though. It doesn’t bother me. It’s just the job of a quarterback.
“At Florida State, we were so used to winning, it was customary. When I got here, you could just feel it, how much they want it. First day of camp, a Sunday night, you see the stands packed, you hear them for over two hours … People say Buffalo’s this, Buffalo’s that, Buffalo’s cold. To me, if you win, it’s the best place on earth. Like Tallahassee. It’s a college-town atmosphere here. All you have here is the Bills. Obviously the Sabres too. But if the Bills win, it’s a whole different city.’’
So we’ll see if Manuel and Watkins can hit the ground running together. The first team period was a start. Said Manuel: “I don’t know if you saw him out there, on a slant, stop on a dime—and he just turned the other way, on Gilmore, who I think could be an all-pro corner, and he made the play. The kid is special. I have thought that way since 2010. I was at Florida State, and he was a true freshman at Clemson, and we put our best corner on him, Mike Harris, plays in Jacksonville now. Sammy ran a stop-and-go, and he shakes loose and makes the play, and I said, ‘Who is this kid?’ So on draft day, I’m out at a restaurant with my father in south Florida, and when I saw on TV that we made that trade and drafted him, I jumped out of my chair. C.J. Spiller calls me right away and says, ‘We got our boy! We got our boy!’ Because we’d been talking about it since January. My phone went almost dead, because 18,000 people called me at one time. It’s going to be great to watch him grow.”
The hungry crowd thought so too, and told the man who reeled him in several times Sunday night. Early in practice, Whaley heard it.
“Doug Whaley we love you!” a fan yelled.
Standing in the end zone, Whaley smiled. “They love me now,” he said.
And tomorrow? They’ll still love him. It’s hope season for seven more weeks, for 31 other franchises. Just the way the NFL wants it.
The Fine 15, Pre-Camp Edition
Now this is odd. A Fine 15 some 46 days before the season starts. But there’s nothing like a little controversy to sell papers.
1. Seattle. I like the approach of the coach and the defense (“We’re going to win again, and we don’t care who knows it”) and, from being with Russell Wilson a bit this offseason, I know his approach. He’ll enter camp this week thinking he’s got to beat out Tarvaris Jackson for the starting job.
2. Green Bay. Aaron Rodgers has his weapons and his health, and the schedule’s friendly post-Sept. 4, with the Bills, Jets, Dolphins out of conference on the docket.
3. San Francisco. If I trusted Colin Kaepernick as much as I trust Russell Wilson, 1 and 3 would be reversed.
4. New Orleans. The rich get obscenely richer, and Brandin Cooks wins offensive rookie of the year, and the defense stays stout. Need to survive the schedule: three of the first away, three of the last five away.
5. Indianapolis. I’m buying the Luck hype, plus he gets back one of the great young tight ends in the game—Dwayne Allen. Colts will score loads of points, and could go 6-0 in the AFC South.
6. Denver. Having a hard time getting That Game out of my head.
7. New England. Good chance to start 7-0 before a pretty rough six-game stretch (Chicago, Denver, at Indy, Detroit, at Green Bay, at San Diego).
8. Philadelphia. Chip Kelly, with a year to study. That’s dangerous. Also think Nick Foles wasn’t a fluke.
9. Chicago. Marc Trestman’s acing chemistry class. He’s got Jay Cutler kumbaya-ing in the cafeteria at Halas Hall. And who’s covering those Olajuwon-sized receivers and tight end Martellus Bennett?
10. St. Louis. Might not show up in the record, but the Rams are going to be hell to play, and they’ll be a playoff team if Sam Bradford plays the way he was drafted to play.
11. Arizona. Might not show up in the record, but the Cards are going to be hell to play, and they’ll be a playoff team if Carson Palmer plays close to the way he played in his prime.
12. San Diego. So impressed with the jobs Tom Telesco and Mike McCoy did last year. That’s a tough D to play, and an explosive offense.
13. Cincinnati. Deep and talented, but let me be the 4,672nd guru to say in the last six months, “It all comes down to Dalton.”
14. Carolina. I’d feel better about the Panthers’ chances if the receivers all weren’t told to come to training camp this week wearing name tags.
15. Baltimore. A few too many questions on defense for my liking, particularly rushing the passer.
* * *
The 2014 Training Camp Tour
This is the tentative list of camps and teams I will see this summer. Tentative. Most years I have changed my mind during the trip for one reason or another, and I may do that on this trip too, depending on news events that surface. So here you go. Hope to see you somewhere on the trail. I will be doing some social-media things as I go, a couple of Tweetups (undecided where) and some webchats as our 30-foot RV (thanks, GoRVing.com) traverses much of the eastern 60 percent of the country. Thanks, too, to Microsoft, Bose and State Farm for their continued support of The MMQB and of this trip.
Dates, Teams and Locations:
July 21: Buffalo … Pittsford, N.Y.
July 23: New York Giants … East Rutherford, N.J.
July 24: Baltimore … Owings Mills, Md.
July 25: Washington … Richmond, Va.
July 26: Philadelphia … Philadelphia.
July 27: New Orleans … White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.
July 28: Carolina … Spartanburg, S.C.
July 29: Atlanta … Flowery Branch, Ga.
July 30: Jacksonville … Jacksonville.
July 31: Tampa Bay … Tampa, Fla.
Aug. 1: Miami … Davie, Fla.
Aug. 2: Tennessee … Nashville.
Aug. 3: “Serenity Now Day.” Writing day.
Aug. 4: Cincinnati … Cincinnati.
Aug. 5: Indianapolis … Anderson, Ind.
Aug. 6: St. Louis … Earth City, Mo.
Aug. 7: Cincinnati-Kansas City preseason game (focus on Chiefs) … Kansas City.
Aug. 8: Philadelphia-Chicago preseason game (focus on Bears) … Chicago.
Aug. 9: Cleveland-Detroit preseason game (focus on Lions) … Detroit.
Aug. 10: Minnesota … Mankato, Minn.
Aug. 11: Green Bay … Green Bay, Wis.
Aug. 12: Cleveland … Berea, Ohio
Aug. 13-16: Home. RV portion of the trip over. Now flying.
Aug. 17: Denver-San Francisco preseason game (focus on 49ers) … Santa Clara, Calif.
First game in new Levi’s Stadium.
Aug. 18: Seattle … Renton, Wash.
Aug. 19: Denver … Englewood, Colo.
Aug. 20: Houston (practicing against Denver) … Englewood, Colo.
Aug. 21: San Diego … San Diego.
Aug. 22: Arizona … Glendale, Ariz.
Aug. 23: Dallas-Miami preseason game (tentative, focus on Cowboys) … Miami.
(This could change. If there’s an important week-three game for whatever reason, I may shift here.)
As of now, but subject to change, I am missing Pittsburgh (though I will pine for Latrobe, my favorite camp site in the league), the New York Jets, New England and Oakland. Those are all teams I visited last year, and three of which, living in Manhattan, I’ll likely visit sometime in the first couple of months of the season. Jenny Vrentas will be in Latrobe (among other camps) and Cortland, N.Y. with the Jets. Greg Bedard will be in New England, and other camps. Robert Klemko will make his debut in Napa, Calif., to cover the Raiders, among other stops.
You’ll be able to find our stuff at TheMMQB.com. Just enter the site, click on the training camp hub, locate the team or teams you want to read about, and you’ll have the best we have to offer, in stories, in camp reports, and in video.
As usual, I will take your questions for my Tuesday columns, and I will interact with you on Twitter (@SI_PeterKing) often during the next five weeks as we prepare for the 2014 season. And you can follow the trip on Instagram at @TheMMQB and #TheMMQBTour.
Five Men, Five Pre Camp Thoughts
On Chris Kluwe. “Scorched earth” would best describe the approach of Kluwe in the wake of the Vikings-issued report that found, basically, one confirmation of a Mike Priefer knock on gays and no evidence to suggest Kluwe was waived for his political views or outspokenness. Kluwe rapped the team for what he felt was a light penalty on Priefer, and for cutting him last year when he’d played well the year before.
Now, Kluwe has written for the site in the past, and he is a smart and engaging person, and he fiercely defends the rights of the oppressed. But I do not see how he justifies poking fun at strength coach Tom Kanavy, who formerly worked at Penn State, by cutting out the seat of his pants and, in an apparent joking way, saying he was a Penn State victim and telling Kanavy to stay away from him while his buttocks were exposed. Kluwe said on Twitter, in justification, that “over half the team” chided Kanavy about the Jerry Sandusky pedophilia, some of them cruelly. That makes no sense to me. It’s justifying what you did the same way gang members do—everybody else was doing it, so why single me out? Kluwe so stridently fought for the right side on other issues, like gay marriage, and it’s just so sordid to join the crowd in making fun of a pedophile. Sounds like Kluwe is going to press a further suit against the Vikings. Laundry will get dirty, on both sides.
One last thing: The investigation’s clumsy attempt to paint Kluwe as a poor punter in 2012 was laughable. He wasn’t the best punter in the league, but judging the number of fair catches as a piece of evidence—which the investigation did—in any discussion of a punter is like saying Dan Jenkins wrote a bad story because it was 800 words long instead of 1,200. In 2012, Kluwe had the best net punting average (39.7 yards per punt) in his eight-year Viking career, and his third-best gross average, at 45.0 yards. He wasn’t a bad outdoor punter, as the investigation suggested. In fact, over his last two seasons, he had a better punting average—45.83 yards per punt—than when he punted indoors (45.30). So, at the end of the day, this is a story that’s not going to paint anyone with a glory brush.
On Mike Priefer. On a spring trip to Minneapolis, I passed through the Vikings’ facility and met Priefer. He was adamant that he was guilty of nothing Kluwe charged him with saying. Well, he tacitly admitted making this statement, which Kluwe and long-snapper Cullen Loeffler said they heard Priefer make on the practice field one day: “We should round up all the gays, send them to an island, and then nuke it till it glows.” Priefer told investigators he was not going to disagree with Loeffler’s memory of the event. And then he apologized Friday, saying, “I regret what has occurred and what I said.” I don’t care if Priefer was kidding, as he claimed. What he said was unconscionable, and he’s lucky to have gotten only a three-game suspension that can be reduced to two games if he completes sensitivity training. It’s an outrageous statement. What kind of message does it send if the coaches, the ones who are supposed to be the most mature, say garbage like that?
On Jimmy Graham. To me, four years and $40 million is eminently fair for Graham, a transcendent player at a suddenly complicated position. Tight end has become the NFL’s Prius position. The NFL tight end is a hybrid—heavier in almost all places than a wide receiver, but lined up all over the map the way a versatile wideout might be, as coaches look for matchup problems for the defense. I can appreciate tight ends being angry that the tight-end franchise number has been depressed ($7.04 million this year, compared to $12.31 million for a wide receiver), and the fair thing would be for the league and Players Association to negotiate a fair-market compromise for a higher franchise tag. But two points occur to me. I was in Seattle for the Saints’ final game of the season last year, a forgettable day for Graham (one catch, eight yards) as he was covered by a variety of Seahawks, including cornerbacks, and was a total non-factor. Something similar happened to him against New England when the Patriots matched cornerback Aqib Talib against him (zero catches) in October in Foxboro. You’ll never convince me Graham would be a great player if he was shadowed by the opponents’ best (and most physical) cornerback each week. As Greg Cosell of NFL Films said, a major strength Graham brings to the New Orleans offense is to be considered a tight end, matched against linebackers and safeties. He could be even more trouble this year if rookie first-rounder Brandin Cooks, as expected, threatens opposing secondaries and directs more coverage his way than, say, a Nick Toon. Finally, this intelligence from Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus: “Four tight ends last season saw a greater percentage of their snaps split out from the formation than Graham, including Tony Gonzalez, a sure-fire Hall of Fame player, but a guy who in 2013 had lost all of his athletic prowess and got by on a combination of veteran savvy and great hands.’’ So Graham wasn’t alone. Lots of tight ends are playing everywhere. It doesn’t mean they have the same skills as wide receivers.
On Aaron Rodgers. I think we’re taking Mr. Rodgers for granted a bit. I’m not a big fan of the traditional NFL passer rating, as you may know, but doing some research for the camp tour, I found Rodgers’ place among active quarterbacks highly, highly impressive. Check out where Rodgers stands among the active Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks:
Look at that: First in rating, second in completion percentage (by nine-hundredths of a point), first in yards per pass attempt, first in touchdown percentage, first in lowest interception percentage. He is 30 years old.
On Tom Coughlin. With his first win this season, the Giants’ coach passes Paul Brown (170) on the all-time list of NFL coaching victories. With his second win, he passes Joe Gibbs (171). Coughlin, with his two Super Bowl wins, is starting to get in yellow-jacket territory.
Quotes of the Week
“We haven’t done anything. We’ve got a lot to prove. We haven’t been to the playoffs in a long time and we owe it to the fans, our late Hall of Fame owner and everyone in this business to show we’re not the Bills anymore.”
—Buffalo GM Doug Whaley, as Bills’ camp kicked off over the weekend.
“They need to change the name. In this day and age, it’s just not right.”
—Jordan Wright, the granddaughter of the late Washington owner George Preston Marshall, who named the team the “Redskins” when he moved the franchise from Boston to Washington in 1937, to longtime football writer Len Shapiro, in a piece he wrote for Leesburg (Va.) Today. Thanks to Pro Football Talk for pointing out this piece by Shapiro.
“It was darkness. It was hell. I’ve learned from that experience and also from Katrina that when you’re in the midst of a tragedy where there’s loss of life, you’re in darkness. I’d compare it to hell. What is required by people outside the immediate area of devastation is leadership and hope. Hope can bring some light to that dark and seemingly endless experience.”
—Former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, in The MMQB’s NFL 95 series, talking about the aftermath of 9/11 and how the NFL responded.
“What I’m most excited about is the opportunity to play my whole entire career as a San Francisco 49er. That was one of my goals that I set out to do as a rookie coming into the NFL—make an NFL roster, become a starter, win a Super Bowl and play my whole entire career with one team.’’
—Niners tackle Joe Staley, who signed an extension that will keep him with the team through the 2019 season, when he will be 35 years old.
Stats of the Week
I was at the Pro Football Hall of Fame recently, and there’s a really interesting wall there with the year-by-year won-lost record of every team in pro football history. What really struck me was the progression of Cleveland Browns seasons. Check it out:
|First 10 Years of Franchise||Last 10 Years of Franchise|
|1946: 12-2 (won league)||2004: 4-12|
|1947: 12-1-1 (won league)||2005: 6-10|
|1948: 14-0 (won league)||2006: 4-12|
|1949: 9-1-2 (won league)||2007: 10-6|
|1950: 10-2 (won league)||2008: 4-12|
|1951: 11-1 (lost title game)||2009: 5-11|
|1952: 8-4 (lost title game)||2010: 5-11|
|1953: 11-1 (lost title game)||2011: 4-12|
|1954: 9-3 (won league)||2012: 5-11|
|1955: 9-2-1 (won league)||2013: 4-12|
|Record: 105-17-4, .849 winning pct.||Record: 51-109, .319 winning pct.|
|10 years: 7 league titles||10 years: 0 league titles|
|10 playoff seasons||0 playoff seasons|
|1 head coach||6 head coaches (not including current one)|
Tony Gwynn died while I was away. My favorite Gwynn stat:
Lifetime at-bats versus Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez: 143.
Strikeouts versus Maddux and Martinez: 0.
Batting average versus Maddux and Martinez: .350.
And yes, I know Maddux wasn’t a feared strikeout pitcher. But the man is 10th on the all-time strikeout list and averaged 6.1 K’s per nine innings.
Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me
Tom Brady will move into his new place in Brookline, Mass., the most exclusive of Boston ‘burbs, this summer.
The L.A. mansion he and wife Gisele built from the ground up on property they bought for $11.75 million five years ago? Sold to Dr. Dre for $40 million.
The L.A. place has a moat.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
I saw the Pirates play in Pittsburgh, with my wife and my brother-in-law and his boys, at beautiful PNC Park (“beautiful” or “breathtaking” should be the mandatory adjective every time PNC Park is discussed) in June. The day of the game, I was in line at a Starbucks in downtown Pittsburgh, a couple of blocks from the Clemente Bridge, the one connecting downtown to the area just outside the outfield at PNC.
And who do you think is in front of me in line? Andrew McCutchen. With his fiancée, Maria Hanslovan, in line with him, McCutchen ordered his drink. I didn’t hear what it was.
“Name for the cup?” the man on the register said.
“Andrew,” McCutchen said.
So they paid and went to wait for their drinks. We ordered, then went to wait for ours next to the reigning National League Most Valuable Player. In cases like this, I always think the famous person should be left alone, because the famous person I assume gets so few chances to be left alone. Thirty, 40, 50 seconds pass.
“Andrew,” the barista called. His drink was ready. He claimed it, and his fiancée claimed hers, and they went over to sit down on a couch in the store. One fellow came over and said hi and shook his hand, and McCutchen was pleasant enough, and that was that, and the MVP of the National League went to sit down and enjoy some private time—I think unbothered but I don’t know because we left—before he had to be at the ballpark that evening.
That was nice.
Tweets of the Week
The Steelers haven’t had three straight non-winning seasons since ’69-’71.
— gregg rosenthal (@greggrosenthal) July 20, 2014
Btw, officials were shown many plays regarding illegal contact and defensive holding. How many Seahawk plays???. None.
— Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) July 19, 2014
This is the former chief of officials (now with FOX, of course), on Friday, reporting from the NFL’s annual officiating clinic in Dallas. I found this interesting, that Pereira would see that the the league, which is team-blind when it comes to picking out plays to show the officials to illustrate what should and shouldn’t be called, couldn’t find Seahawks going over the line on defense.
Radio host just told me that Tony Gwynn was 4 for 5 vs me. Felt more like 5 for 4, can’t ever remember getting him out. Sad day in baseball.
— CJ Nitkowski (@CJNitkowski) June 16, 2014
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think I’d like my four Guest MMQB writers to take a collective bow. Thanks, Marc Trestman, for education us heathens about the CFL. Thanks, Vernon Davis, for taking us into the world of a holdout. Thanks, Khalil Mack, for telling us how you got from unknown high school player to being a high first-round pick. And thank you, Rich Eisen, for educating us about the Silly Season. I couldn’t have said it better, because there is so, so, so much wasted time and energy spent on the month off from football, which should be a month off from football because nothing at all happens in the month before camps open. Well, some things happen, as our own Andrew Brandt pointed out. But not many. And certainly not enough to jam all our Twitter feeds day after day after day of the dead month.
2. I think it’s smart to move the draft to a new site each year. Other than marketing, there’s no good reason for New York City to hog it. Let Chicago or L.A. pay through the nose for it. Give it to Jerry Jones one year and Bob Kraft the next.
3. I think the Giants did a smart thing over the past 15 months in stocking up on the offensive line. They had to know this Chris Snee news could be coming, and they had been weak on the line anyway. (Snee, the former Pro Bowl guard, will announce his retirement today, according to Dan Graziano of ESPN.) In signing both John Jerry (Miami) and Geoff Schwartz (Kansas City), the Giants could have two new free-agent starting guards, with a rookie center, second-rounder Weston Richburg from Colorado State, and a second-year right tackle, Justin Pugh. Richburg will have to hold off another free-agent newbie, J.D. Walton, but the smart money is on the rookie winning the center spot. That’s a lot of change for a short time, but the Giants needed it. As for Snee, he’ll always be a highly regarded player in Giant annals. He was a bulldog as a player, and what I always admired about him is the tough spot he stepped into as a Giant—he is married to Tom Coughlin’s daughter—and yet there was never a whiff of favoritism around the Coughlin-Snee relationship.
4. I think one of the most interesting teams this preseason will be Carolina. Lots of moving pieces there. An NFC South alumni team at safety (former Saint Roman Harper, former Falcon Thomas DeCoud). A grab-bag of discarded vets (Jerricho Cotchery, Tiquan Underwood, Jason Avant) plus rookie Kelvin Benjamin forming an all-new receiving corps. Cam Newton trying to do two important things in the next seven weeks: get his surgically repaired ankle in football shape and bonding with a bunch of guys not names Steve Smith. And finding a new left tackle. That’s a lot of work for one training camp.
5. I think I was always interested to chat up tackle Jordan Gross when he played for Carolina, because he was a good translator of complicated football to understandable English. Now he’ll be the sideline reporter on Panthers’ radio. Hope it’ll be good training for a media career, because the media can use smart people like Gross talking about the game.
6. I think because I was away when Chuck Noll died in mid-June, I never got a chance to say something about his impact on the game—and his was, as most of you know, a great football life, and a pure one. The first time I ever talked to him, I was a slightly nervous Cincinnati beat writer visiting summer camp four years after the last Super Bowl win. I tried to make small talk about his love of wine (the man loved wine) and he told me he had no idea what I was talking about. In other words, sonny, let’s get to the questions; I’ve got a team to run. That’s the way Noll was: Anything that interfered with his team he didn’t like much.
7. I think the Washington franchise will have a new team name by 2016.
8. I think the NFL needs to copy one thing from the Canadian Football League, and the NFL will hate adopting it, but it is only a matter of time: allowing coaches to challenge pass-interference calls—and calls that should be pass-interference. So many people have beefed about expansion of replay, saying it would make the game so much longer. Think of this, though: Coaches will not have their number of challenges per game increased, only the categories of plays that possibly can be challenged. The smart coaches are not going to waste a challenge on a first-quarter borderline interference call. The league should allow horrible calls and non-calls to be challenged.
9. I think Jay Glazer will be great at introducing Michael Strahan for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in two weeks, because no one on this earth knows Strahan better than Glazer. It’s cool to see a media person named for this honor.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. I miss the World Cup.
b. The World Cup should happen every two years, not four.
c. I agree with Rich Eisen: Ian Darke needs to do an NFL game on TV, for somebody.
d. Best story I read on my vaca: The New York Times’ Walt Bogdanich on a woman from Hobart and William Smith (N.Y.) College who reported being raped by some football players and the wringer she went through in the month following the attack—which was deemed by the school to not have been a sexual assault.
e. The piece is terrific reporting and a sad, sad story about what happens on our college campuses today, a story of excessive drinking and freshman pressure and what appears to be (and I stress the words “appears”) athletic privilege. You need to read it.
f. Reminded me of “The Accused.’’ Fair or unfair. I don’t know Walt Bogdanich, but I have great admiration for him after reading this story.
g. Second-best story from the past five weeks—and I would hate to call this story second-best at anything, because it is an awesome story about the relationship between fathers and sons. You are really good, Mike Sielski.
h. And a strong story by Kevin Armstrong of the New York Daily News on the Manning Passing Academy.
i. So Tony Gwynn died early on my vacation, and I just wanted to throw in my two cents about what a memorable person he was. I was assigned, back in the multiple-sport days at Sports Illustrated, a story on Gwynn and the Padres’ offensive attack a couple of decades ago, and I showed up around 2 on a Friday afternoon in the Pads’ locker room … and Gwynn gave me a bunch of time, and then told me to come back the next day—and he gave me, a total stranger, 90 minutes. Before I left town, he bumped into me and gave me advice on coaching my youth softball team in New Jersey. I’ll never forget him.
j. Hey Ed Bouchette: Congrats on winning the McCann Award, emblematic of great writing and great contributions to football journalism, given by the Pro Football Hall of Fame. You are one of the best people in our business, and I know scores echo my sentiments. So pleased for you, and I hope all who have learned so much about the Steelers from your writing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette take a moment to thank you in the coming weeks.
k. Still in mourning over another June death: Jim McDonald, one of the best youth coaches I have ever come across. He was one of my daughter Mary Beth’s softball pitching coaches in high school in New Jersey. A more empathetic man I have never met.
l. Dustin Pedroia’s just not the same as he was. Either he overachieved when he first came up (I am not a big “overachieving’’ and “underachieving’’ person, because how are you significantly better or worse than the norm over 1,000 at-bats) but, really, the numbers don’t lie. He’s an excellent fielder and absolutely average hitter. Daniel Murphy is better. Brian Dozier might be better. Sad, but real.
m. And after watching the World Series last year, in which David Ortiz was un-retireable, how is he hitting .250-ish and getting waylaid by the Danny Duffys of the world? Baseball is a funny game.
n. One of my vacation highlights, surprisingly, was seeing “Kinky Boots” on Broadway. A very good play, and the music made it transcendent. Cyndi Lauper’s music was so good, so memorable. Highly recommended.
o. Coffeenerdness: I’m not very good at keeping my Macchiato agreement, drinking three a week. Now that I’m going on this camp trip, I see more Macchiatos and fewer iced coffees in my next month.
p. Beernerdness: My three favorite beers from vacation: Starr Hill Brewery (Charlottesville, Va.) Northern Lights IPA, one of the most flavorful IPAs I have ever tasted. Had it with a turkey burger at Boylan’s in Charlottesville, Va., on a warm June day, my first-ever trip to the Virginia campus … Centennial IPA, from Founders Brewing (Grand Rapids, Mich.), which I loved because of its distinctive taste and memorably hoppy taste … Big Hop IPA from East End Brewing (Pittsburgh), a very drinkable and tasty IPA. Big fan in the hotel bar in Pittsburgh too.
q. If we don’t act against the Russian separatists for the downing of the Malaysian airliner full of innocents, when exactly would we act against anyone for anything?
r. You were cool, James Garner. Rest in peace.
s. Very hard to stop conjuring up this theme song.
t. Good to be back. You’ll have me for the next 47 weeks, and I hope I can give you more than 10 things to think about this season.
The Adieu Haiku
NFL camp time.
So optimistic out here.
League of hopes and dreams.