07/20/2013 12:25 AM
Finally, training camps are here; now, here's what we want to know
July 18, 2013 6:38 pm ET
Dallas and Miami open training camps this weekend, and hallelujah. Maybe now we can move the conversation past Colin Kaepernick, the Pouncey brothers and DUIs.
A year ago, it was Bountygate that served as the back story to the season. Now it's the New England Patriots, Tom Brady, the receivers they don't have and the backup quarterback they do.
Neveretheless, there are story lines galore waiting to be played out this summer, and here's an idea of what to expect:
TEN BURNING QUESTIONS
1. What's going on with the Cleveland Browns? I'm not talking about their quarterback, head coach or Trent Richardson. It's owner Jimmy Haslam, who's under the magnifying glass, and that might be OK if it weren't the FBI doing the magnifying. Haslam swears he has no intention of selling the team, but it might not be his call -- particularly if a federal investigation uncovers evidence that implicates him.
2. Does Philip Rivers get back to winning? Chargers coach Mike McCoy said Rivers needs to "get back to basics," and I don't know about that. I think he needs to get back to protecting the football, and that doesn't happen if the Bolts don't protect him better with their running game, offensive line, tight ends, something, anything more than they've done the past two seasons. Rivers is a terrific quarterback ... when he gets time to throw. So give it to him.
3. When does RG3 return, and how long does it take him to find his mojo? Robert Griffin III said last month "without a doubt" he'd be ready for the start of training camp, and that's next week. But someone tell him there's no prize for getting back early. Some Redskins were quoted as saying they were "astonished" with his recovery, which is great. But this isn't a race, and this isn't Adrian Peterson. What's important is that Griffin does what he did not a year ago -- return only when he's healthy.
4. What happens to the read option? Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin called it "the flavor of the month," and while that seems extreme I found others who tilted in his direction. What seems apparent is that no one will be caught by surprise this season. Defensive coordinators spent the months huddling with collegiate coaches, hoping to discover how to defend the read-option and pistol and believe they have a handle on the scheme. "Just my opinion," said Cinncinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, "but if you're a disciplined football team you're going to play it OK."
5. Are the New England Patriots on the elevator going down? That seems to be the prevailing opinion, and it's easy to see why. Brady turns 36 next month and just lost four of his top five receivers from last year, including Wes Welker. And the fifth? That would be tight end Rob Gronkowski, and no one knows what to expect after four surgeries. So the Patriots did some heavy subtraction. What they didn't lose was Brady, and look what happened in 2006 when his best receiver was Reche Caldwell. The Patriots went to the conference championship game and were within a minute of the Super Bowl. As long as Brady's around, the Pats aren't headed south.
6. How much will San Francisco miss Michael Crabtree? They gave tight end Vernon Davis turns at wide receiver at minicamp. Does that answer the question?
7. What does New England do with Tim Tebow? Something the Jets did not: Give him a chance. I don't care where it is. The Patriots will find a role for him, and, just a hunch, it won't be quarterback.
8. How much better is New Orleans with Sean Payton back? Let's see, they were 13-3 with him in 2011; they were 7-9 a year later. That should put Atlanta on alert. While the Falcons have been loading up this offseason, so has New Orleans. It has its head coach back. The NFC South is a two-team race, with the Saints pushing the Falcons to the wire.
9. How will Chip Kelly's offense translate to the NFL? Not sure. One thing we do know, though: His players will be in shape. Kelly runs practices as if he were late for dinner -- with several drills going at once and all at a frantic tempo. Does that make the Eagles better? Nope. It just makes them a vastly improved fitness class. But I don't care how fast the Eagles practice; I just care how carefully they protect the football. Over the past 32 games they committed 75 turnovers, and look no farther when you wonder what happened to this franchise.
10. Who rediscovers winning first -- Oakland, Buffalo or Cleveland? The Raiders are the early favorite to make the first choice in the 2014 draft, and what's new? They've had top-10 choices in eight of the past 10 years (two of which they traded). But when do they get out of the bunker? Before Buffalo? Probably not. Cleveland? You tell me. All three teams have uncertain situations at quarterback, and that explains why they are where they are.
MY FIVE FAVORITE TRAINING CAMPS
This list took direct hits when the Cards moved out of Flagstaff, and the Giants abandoned Albany. They're part of a movement that has teams doing what seems sensible -- namely, running all practices at their own facilities. Fortunately, not everyone is there yet.
1. St. John Fisher College (Buffalo), Pittsford, N.Y. -- Everything is so accessible -- players, coaches, staff, facilities, you name it -- and the Bills are accommodating. Plus, you're a five-minute drive from the Erie Canal and the picture-postcard village of Pittsford.
2. Green Bay Packers at Nitschke and Hinkle fields -- Imagine a place where kids take the adults to work. You don't have to. Go to Lambeau Field, put your child on a bike and point him toward practice. He may come home with Aaron Rodgers.
3. San Diego Chargers at the team facility -- What can I say? It's San Diego.
4. The Oakland Raiders in Napa -- It's out the back door of the Marriott, so there's nothing extraordinary about the immediate surroundings ... until, that is, you start tooling up Route 29. Then you'll wish the Raiders trained here year round.
5. St. Vincent College (Pittsburgh), Latrobe, Pa. -- When the Steelers say they train on campus they're not kidding. They practice in the middle of the school, and their workouts are perfect for viewing -- good for the hordes of fans who make the drive.
FIVE (OK, SIX) PLACES TO CHECK OUT WHILE YOU'RE GOING
1. Pagliai's in Mankato, Minn. Stop by for the lunch special, then pick up a T-shirt when you leave. If these guys were in New York City, there would be no lines outside Lombardi's or Grimaldi's.
1a. Tav on the Ave, Mankato, Minn. It's not often you find two sure things in one training-camp stop, but that's what happens in Mankato. When I think of my favorite sports bars, this makes the cut easily.
2. Oxbow Public Market in Napa. It's on First Street and offers everything from wine to burgers to gourmet foods to raw oysters to Three Twins Ice Cream to Todd Humphries' Kitchen Door. In short, there's a choice of great food in an inviting venue. If you can't make it to the Oxbow district, stop in at the Bounty Hunter Wine Bar and Smokin' Bar-B-Q in downtown Napa and order the BH beer-can chicken. Warning: Bring friends or one helluva appetite. It's an entire chicken, and at $24.50 it's a bargain. Honest.
3. The Coal Tower in Pittsford, N.Y. If you haven't heard of this place, you haven't been paying attention. One reason to go to Pittsford is to see the Bills; another is to eat at the Coal Tower. Absolutely one of the best places on the planet. Nice people. Great food. Decent prices.
4. Big Dipper Bar-B-Q in Apalachin, N.Y. -- So it's 45 minutes from the Jets in Cortland. I go after every practice. You should, too. Trust me, you'll be happy you did. I've eaten a lot of BBQ chicken in my life and never, ever, ever had anything better than what's alongside Route 17. Plus, if you're still hungry after you're finished, there's an ice-cream stand across the parking lot.
5. Lil' Piggy's Bar-B-Q in Coronado, Cal. -- Notice a trend here? Yep, it's the ribs and chicken that keep me coming back. Plus, you're directly across the bay from downtown San Diego. The view is terrific; the food is better.
FIVE QUOTES YOU CAN BANK ON
1. "Aaron Hernandez is not part of this football team." -- New England coach Bill Belichick, on his former tight end.
2. "As I told you before, I'm in no rush to name a starting quarterback." -- Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly, on who starts at the most important position.
3. "I'm just trying to make this team." -- Tim Tebow, on his role with New England.
4. "It will take care of itself. I'm not concerned." -- Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler, on a contract extension.
5. "I'm not here to talk about the Steelers. -- Cincinnati linebacker James Harrison, on his former team.
FIVE GUYS WITH SOMETHING TO PROVE
1. Detroit quarterback Matt Stafford. He just got the big bucks. Now it's time he puts up the big numbers. He did that two years ago, and the Lions reached the playoffs. He tailed off dramatically last year, and they were 4-12. The Lions go only as far as Stafford takes them, and it's time he jacks up those numbers from a year ago -- particularly the victories.
2. San Diego running back Ryan Mathews. The Chargers traded up to make him the 12th pick of the 2010 draft, and Mathews hasn't lived up to expectations. Sure, he's been decent when he played, but he's missed 10 games in three seasons. New coach Mike McCoy has been supportive, saying Mathews is "the guy," and that's great ... except look at the competition: Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown? I'd hope he was "the guy." I'd also hope he stays in the lineup because then he might prove to be more than "an average back," which was how he recently described his career. You know something? He's right.
3. Tampa Bay cornerback Darrelle Revis. The Bucs surrendered a high draft pick to acquire him, then signed him to a whopping contract that pays Revis $16 million per. One hitch: None of it is guaranteed, which means it's pay-as-you-go. That means Revis must prove he's worth it, and that's not an issue for him. He believes so much in himself that he jumped at the deal. Still, he's coming off a torn ACL, though the Bucs say he should be ready for Opening Day. OK, fine. But people aren't sure how effective he'll be, wondering if "Revis Island" is still in business. Revis has nothing to prove to himself, but he might to the Jets -- namely, that they made a big mistake letting a premier corner walk in the prime of his career. If so, he doesn't have to wait long. The Jets open with Tampa Bay on Sept. 8.
4. Tennessee quarterback Jake Locker. The Titans made a commitment to him when they made him the eighth pick of the 2011 draft, but they just hedged their bets by adding Ryan Fitzpatrick as his backup. Yeah, I know, the job belongs to Locker, but I know several quarterback coaches in this league who think Fitzpatrick presses him.
5. Houston quarterback Matt Schaub. He's good enough to get the Texans to the playoffs. We know that. But can he take them deep into the playoffs? That's something that must be answered. Quarterbacks coach Karl Dorrell says Schaub needs to play better in "crunch time." GM Rick Smith said he needs to play better in big games. After watching Schaub flounder in last season's Monday night litmus test vs. New England -- or even the playoff defeat of Cincinnati -- I'd have to agree.
TEN ROOKIES TO WATCH
1. Philadelphia quarterback Matt Barkley. When I stopped by the Eagles in early June, I took an informal poll of local writers, asking them who starts for the Eagles in Week 17. The verdict was unanimous: Barkley.
2. Green Bay running back Eddie Lacy. He was the best running back in the draft, but he wasn't the first back chosen. He wasn't the second or third, either. Instead, he lasted until the 61st pick, and there's a division of opinion why. Some people said clubs were scared off by injuries; others said it was his lack of "passion" for the game. All I know is that Green Bay is the team that had Aaron Rodgers fall in its lap after 23 others passed, and look what happened there.
3. St. Louis wide receiver Tavon Austin. He was the most explosive player in the draft, and fireworks are something St. Louis hasn't had since Kurt Warner left town. Finally, the Rams find someone to play catch with Sam Bradford.
4. San Diego linebacker Manti Te'o. He was a tackling machine for all but one game last year. Unfortunately, that one game not only was his last; it was the most important one of the season. So which is he: The Heisman Trophy candidate or the guy who disappeared vs. Alabama? We're about to find out.
5. N.Y. Jets quarterback Geno Smith. Once we talked about him challenging Mark Sanchez. Now there's a report that he might serve the same role as Tim Tebow, which was no role at all. You can't make this stuff up.
6. Denver running back Montee Ball. Team exec John Elway compared him to Terrell Davis, saying the guy is "a gem," but slow down. He hasn't had a single carry. Davis ran for more than 2,000 yards in a season and punched Elway's tickets to two Lombardi Trophies. I understand Denver has been looking for a young running back for years, but let's give Ball a chance to exhale.
7. Buffalo wide receiver Robert Woods. He wasn't the best receiver in the draft, but he was one of its most productive. Buffalo was lucky to find him in the second round, and nobody should be happier than Stevie Johnson. Maybe, just maybe, Buffalo found another receiver to take the heat off him.
8. San Diego wide receiver Keenan Allen. The Chargers need offensive linemen like Mission Beach needs shade. So they took one with the first pick, then passed while they chose Te'o and Allen. I agree that Allen shouldn't have lasted until the third round, but where are the pass blockers Philip Rivers needs? Allen better be good. Real good.
9. Detroit defensive end Ziggy Ansah. He's been described as "boom-or-bust," which is how scouts labeled Jason Pierre-Paul when he was drafted -- and that turned out OK. "He does it all," said defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham. He may have to.
10. Oakland cornerback D.J. Hayden. I know he's talented. I also know his medical history, and that scared off potential suitors. But the Raiders spent their first pick -- the 12th overall -- on someone who nearly died a year ago, and talk about risk. It's impossible not to root for the guy, but it's also logical to ask: Why were the Raiders willing to gamble? "Because nothing's changed there," one scout told me. I don't believe it.
FIVE COORDINATORS IN THE LINE OF FIRE
1. Monte Kiffin, defensive coordinator, Dallas. He coaches the 4-3 Tampa-2. He has 3-4 material. Plus, he's been away from the NFL for four seasons. Tell me how this works.
2. Rob Ryan, defensive coordinator, New Orleans. This is his third job in four years, and it's his most challenging. The Saints weren't just bad on defense in 2012; they were historically bad, hemorrhaging a league-record 7,042 yards.
3. Marty Mornhinweg, offensive coordinator, N.Y. Jets. His head coach is a lame duck. There's a mess at quarterback. There aren't enough playmakers. There's no high-profile back. In short, he just drew the short straw. Keep that motorcycle running, Marty. You might want to leave practice again.
4. Ken Whisenhunt, offensive coordinator, San Diego. He's in charge of putting Philip Rivers back together again, and that's going to depend on his left tackle and running game -- neither of which distinguished themselves in 2012. Whisenhunt was a great hire for these guys. I mean, look what he did with Kurt Warner. He could do the same for Rivers ... if he finds someone to protect him.
5. Billy Davis, defensive coordinator, Philadelphia. The Eagles stunk last year, and no one stunk more than a defense that went through two coordinators, ranked 15th in yards and tied for 29th in points and dead last in takeaways (13). So Davis comes in with an advertised presnap 3-4 that might look different once the ball is in play, and here's hoping something's different. The Eagles were downright unwatchable for too much of last season.
10 STORYLINES TO FOLLOW
1. What's next for Miami. The Dolphins are desperate to win again and spent lavishly in the offseason to get there. One problem: They still have to pass Tom Brady and New England, and good luck there. Miami believes Ryan Tannehill is a franchise quarterback and just bought him what it believes is a franchise receiver in Mike Wallace. Wallace can stretch the field and will catch a lot of bombs. But he'll drop them, too. I saw it happen too often in Pittsburgh.
2. Bill Callahan as the Dallas playcaller. Giving him this job wasn't Jason Garrett's idea; it was Jerry Jones who made the call, and I can see why. The Cowboys need to be more balanced, making more use of the run and DeMarco Murray. But with Tony Romo more involved in game-planning, I don't know if that will happen. What I do know is that Romo can't survive if the Cowboys ... OK, Callahan ... don't dial Murray more often.
3. What Marc Trestman does for Jay Cutler's career. The Bears brought in Trestman from the CFL because he not only knows the passing game, he excels at it. Remember when the Oakland Raiders were a playoff team? Yeah, I know, you need a time machine. Well, Trestman was the offensive coordinator, and he threw so much then -- 65 times in the 2002 road opener vs. Pittsburgh -- that he turned Rich Gannon into a league MVP and the Raiders into a Super Bowl club. It worked then. Can it work now? Logic says it should. The question, of course, is: Can Trestman draw something out of Cutler others could not? Cutler's future depends on it.
4. The Baltimore Ravens' defense without Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and more than half the starting lineup from Super Bowl XLVIII. There are some people who think they'll be better, and I'm one of them. One reason: The bar isn't high, with the Ravens ranking 17th overall in defense and tied for 12th in scoring defense. Another: They have Terrell Suggs for an entire season, and while he may not be the same player he was two years ago he'll be better than he was the second half of 2012. Still another: They get their best defensive back, Lardarius Webb, back. And then there's this: Elvis Dumervil. The Ravens should send thank-you notes to Dumvervil's agent and the Denver Broncos.
5. Who quarterbacks Philadelphia. Michael Vick said he'd like it resolved before training camp. DeSean Jackson seconded that nomination, then said he's pretty sure it will be Vick. But it's what Chip Kelly says that matters, and he says he's in no rush to make a decision.
6. The impact of Andy Reid and Alex Smith on Kansas City. The Chiefs had a league-leading 37 turnovers last year, tying them with Philadelphia and the New York Jets. Reid coached the Eagles, so there's no guarantee the spigot gets turned off except ... except they just hired a quarterback who rarely makes mistakes. Smith had 10 turnovers the past two years en route to a 19-5-1 record, and I'll take my chances with that -- especially on a 2-14 team that had six players named to the Pro Bowl.
7. How RG3 changes his game after last season's knee injury. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan insists he has no intention of changing the Washington offense to protect his quarterback, saying "the zone read is something I feel, in the long run, helps the quarterback." There's no doubt it helped Washington last season, but it didn't help RG3. He spent the offseason recovering from a serious knee surgery. My guess is that the Redskins don't have Griffin take one-fourth of the carries as he did last year; teach him the wisdom of sliding; introduce him to the sidelines; school him on when and where to throw the ball away and encourage him to stay in the pocket. Does that mean he stops running? No. When you have someone like RG3 you take advantage of his talent. But you do it wisely. Using him as a pass receiver was not wise. Neither was playing him on one leg.
8. The role Gregg Williams plays in Tennessee. After Bountygate, the expectation was that Williams was finished in the NFL. Not so fast. Tennessee re-hired him, and he's working as a senior defensive assistant to coordinator Jerry Gray. Anyone who knows Williams knows he'll have an influence on the Titans' play, which will be aggressive, with ample pressure calls and corner blitzes.
9. The NFC West. San Francisco and Seattle are the prohibitive favorites, but beware of St. Louis. The Rams quietly are putting together a strong team that last year not only had the best division win-loss record in the NFC West but never lost to the 49ers. Now they've added an explosive receiver (Austin) and franchise left tackle (Jake Long) to the offense, with the expectation that Sam Bradford takes a giant leap forward.
10. How Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos handle Super Bowl expectations. The feeling at the end of last year's regular season was that Denver was the best team around. Then Rahim Moore happened. So the Broncos start all over -- this time with Wes Welker and without Elvis Dumervil -- and the expectation is that they're the team to beat in the AFC again. The reason: Peyton Manning is another year removed from his neck surgery, and he was good enough last season to finish as the MVP runnerup. Anything less than a Super Bowl will be disappointing for Denver, just as it was last year.
FIVE QUARTERBACK DERBYS TO WATCH
1. Mark Sanchez vs. Geno Smith. Sanchez is confident he'll be the starter, and the more I hear about Geno Smith the more I think he might be right. Now there's a report out there that the Jets are considering using Smith in the role they reserved for Tim Tebow last year. Except, there was no role. They acquired Tebow, then didn't know what to do with him. That's not what I'd call encouraging for Smith.
2. Christian Ponder vs. Matt Cassel. Ponder is the starter, and Cassel is the backup, OK? In fact, GM Rick Spielman says he believes Ponder was as responsible as Adrian Peterson for the Vikings' playoff run last year, but that doesn't make sense. Peterson was the league MVP. There's a feeling in some circles that Minnesota signed Cassel to push Ponder and serve as the safety net they could've used last year. Maybe. I'd just keep my eyes on this one.
3. Kevin Kolb vs. EJ Manuel. When you're a team that hasn't gone to the playoffs since 1999, hasn't had a winning season the past eight years and spent the past five as a division doormat, change isn't just good, it's downright necessary. So Buffalo rolls out two new faces at quarterback and hopes one of them does what Ryan Fitzpatrick, J.P.Losman, Kelly Holcomb, Trent Edwards, you name it, could not -- namely, win more than he loses. Manuel is the logical choice because the Bills spent their first draft pick on him. When you're coming off a 6-10 season and trying to energize the fan base, you don't spend your first pick on a backup. You expect him to start.
4. Blaine Gabbert vs. Chad Henne. This is supposed to be a make-or-break year for Gabbert, but I'm waiting for that separation between him and Henne. With a new GM and head coach, Gabbert is running out of security blankets. But the truth is: The team is invested in Gabbert, and he's the one with a future. Maybe. I expect he wins the job, but I don't expect he's the quarterback here a year from now.
5. Josh Freeman vs. himself. He's in the last year of his contract, and the Bucs are in no rush to extend him. More than that, they drafted Mike Glennon. Take the hint, Josh. It's now or never.
FIVE HEAD COACHES WHO NEED TO STEP IT UP
1. Rex Ryan, N.Y. Jets. He can outrun the bulls in Pamplona, but can he outrun the Bills in Buffalo? He better. He's in the last year of his contract, with a new GM and a roster short on playmakers. Oh, yeah, he's also working on his third offensive coordinator in three years and his second defensive coordinator in two. It's a mixed up, muddled-up, shook-up mess for Rex, with the expectation that he's the first to get cashiered.
2. Jason Garrett, Dallas. First, Jerry Jones talks about a "window of opportunity" that is closing. Then he takes away Garrett's play-calling, installing Bill Callahan as the guy diagramming snaps. Garrett is 21-19 as a head coach, never made the playoffs and never won more than eight games in a season. His window of opportunity is closing, too.
3. Jim Schwartz, Detroit. Yes, he put the Lions back in the playoffs. But that was two years ago. He's 22-42 overall and won no more than four games in two of his four seasons as head coach. I like Schwartz, too, and the attitude he brings to his team. But attitude is one thing, winning is another, and it's time to put the Lions back in black.
4. Ron Rivera, Carolina. He was pardoned a year ago when the Panthers made a second-half rally to win six of their last 10 starts. But his GM, Dave Gettelman, didn't hire Rivera, and that's never good for a coach's longevity -- especially when that coach is 13-19. He either wins or else.
5. Mike Munchak, Tennessee. He did a marvelous job in his first season, then succumbed to gravity. Not only did the Titans finish a disappointing 6-10, they allowed 30 or more points in half of their games. Now Munchak must prove himself all over again. The Titans loaded up in the offseason to take the pressure off quarterback Jake Locker and put it on running back Chris Johnson, but make no mistake: The pressure is on the head coach.
Always remember the 3 G's Girls,Golf, Gambling not in any particular order......:2thumbs: