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Training camp goosebumps, the prime-time draft, 10 Things & more

So here we go. The 28-week marathon to the Super Bowl is on. I leave for 21 days of camps tomorrow morning, and I'll try to set the table here with a few appetizers to get you ready for the 2009 season. Love this time of year.

Since 1984, I've been covering training camps, and I was just telling someone Sunday how vividly I remember my first camp season. Wilmington, Ohio, July, 1984, living down the dorm hall from Mike Brown in Bengals camp. Every night the players would come into my room to use the phone. One of the regulars was Boomer Esiason, the rookie quarterback. "You can expense it!'' he'd say, then he'd go to work on my rotary-dial GTE phone. I'd stand at practice every day with Paul Brown, trying to suck up one-hundredth of the knowledge he had.

Now I'll be out there with a new generation. It seems a more transient lot these days, and that point was driven home Sunday night. I was speaking with Stefan Fatsis, the esteemed writer who'd spent training camp in 2006 as a kicker with Denver so he could write about it. (His book, A Few Seconds of Panic, is out in paperback this summer, and it's good reading if you want to feel the innards of a team in training camp.)

He said that eight players from the '06 camp roster were left as of this offseason. That's eight of about 100 he ran across in camp or in workouts. "Every player who walks into one of these training camps this summer should know they're competing for one of the most impermanent jobs in our society,'' Fatsis said.

That's part of the fun. On some field this summer, a new James Harrison will be born. On another field, a rookie -- Pat White? LeSean McCoy? Brian Orakpo? Brandon Tate? -- will make crowds go nuts. Mario Manningham will see an opportunity and run with it, or run from it. Ditto Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez.

So much to be invented and decided. So little set in stone. That's why it's such a fun time of year. Over the next six weeks, starting with a Tuesday night Bills' practice in Pittsford, N.Y., I'll be on the road seeing about 23 teams either in practices or games. And I'll do the best I can on SI.com, in SI, on Twitter and occasionally on Sirius NFL Radio (Wednesday morning from 8-11 with Ross Tucker will be one show I'll do) to tell you everything I know.

Keep your e-mails and tweets coming, and I'll try to respond when I can. My Tuesday mailbag begins again tomorrow, so stuff it today. For all you Texans fans who sometimes feel left out on the national stage, I'll have some interesting thoughts from Matt Schaub to top the Tuesday column.

Before I begin, thanks to my sub columnists -- Trent Green, Matt Birk, Chris Cooley, Matt Light and Sean Payton --for filling in while I was gone. The bar's been raised. Birk already leads me in vocabulary. And I think Cooley really wants my job; I'm going to have to try to help him get a nice 15-year contract extension with Dan Snyder.

A few pre-camp snippets in a newsy time for football:

Michael Vick knows he almost wasted his career. I've spoken to people who have been in contact with Vick since he's been out of home confinement, waiting to find out what discipline commissioner Roger Goodell will levy on him. And the most interesting thing I heard came from one acquaintance, who said Vick is desperate to return to football "because he realizes he didn't even scratch the surface of his ability. He realizes he just didn't work at it enough.'' (Somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, Jim Mora and Greg Knapp are nodding ruefully.)

I'm told Vick is a changed man. Obviously, it's easy to be changed when you've lost $100 million and just spent two years in jail. I also believe Vick simply wants to be back on an NFL team (he views the United Football League as a last resort only) and will be fine for at least a year or maybe two with whatever role a coach wants to give him. Wildcat backup for New England? Or Oakland? We'll see.

We'll also see what Goodell thinks. I feel strongly that Vick should be given a suspension of at least four weeks because of his serial lying -- to Goodell, to Falcons owner Arthur Blank and then GM Rick McKay -- in addition to re-entering the league with two strikes against him, figuratively. That's what I expect, quite frankly.

Goodell always looks to give bad-boy players a path back into the game if they avoid their former pitfalls, and those close to Vick think that's what he tried to impress on Goodell. We'll see. I expect a ruling this week.

Then what? I don't know a team that wants Vick, but that doesn't mean a team won't sign him. No team is going to leak it likes Vick because of the PR-related headaches. I still expect a team to sign him if Goodell green-lights him. For Vick, a blessing would be going to New England, where Bill Belichick would give him the kind of structured existence on and off the field that would be best for him. Miami would be good because of the same kind of firm hand he'd have over him, as would San Francisco.

But the Dolphins picked Pat White in the second round of the draft; I'd be stunned if Vick ended up there. And the 49ers, despite the fact that Mike Singletary would love to mentor Vick, I think the public pressure and uncertain quarterback situation would put too much of a weight on Vick's shoulders.

As for Favre ... I'm told this could go either way, but that it's more likely than not he'll sign and be in camp with the Vikes next week. Because I don't know much more than that, no sense wasting your time or mine. I do find it interesting he hasn't worked out with his friend from Athletes Performance Institute, Ken Croner (more about him in a couple of paragraphs), or, apparently, with any personal trainer for any length of time this offseason. Croner got him ready for a physically strong season two years ago. Last year, without doing much in the offseason, Favre was spent by December. Maybe he's been more disciplined and worked out hard on his own. We'll see.

The Eagles have the biggest shoes to fill of any team in camp this summer: Jim Johnson's. Get used to seeing lots of Sean McDermott video, Sean McDermott quotes and players talking about Sean McDermott.

He's the 35-year-old replacement for Johnson, who is seriously ill with re-occurring melanoma. And I mean seriously ill. Johnson, one of the great defensive coaches in recent history, needs all of our prayers, and he needs them now. "You always look for a great opportunity like this,'' a solemn McDermott said when we spoke Saturday, "but to have it under these circumstances is very tough. Jim has meant everything to me. For the last 10 years in this organization, I've had a front-row seat with a Hall of Fame-caliber coach, and he's helped me develop a core set of values.''

The reason McDermott's job is so tough is that Johnson set such a high standard. He was the defensive sheriff in town, and he made the defensive game plans and the defensive playcalls. The Eagles, in the nine seasons from 2000 to 2008, are in the top five in the NFL in points allowed, total defense, third-down defense and sacks. And now they're without Johnson as well as the biggest leader the defense has had since Reggie White, safety Brian Dawkins, an offseason free-agent acquisition by Denver.

"There's no doubt there's a leadership void,'' McDermott said. "But that's what training camp is all about. Leaders will emerge.''

The biggest leader needs to be the new defensive boss.

MattHasselbeck is working out twice a day on vacation. That's a good sign. Last year, Seattle's season went down the drain when Hasselbeck's back acted up in the summer and never settled down. Now he's got Croner with him at his family vacation home in central Washington, on the Columbia River, and Croner's putting him through the kind of two-a-days that should serve him well.

This is the fourth year Croner has worked with Hasselbeck, who turns 34 in September, and the trainer said Friday, "He looks by far the best he's ever looked since I've been with him.''

Hasselbeck's eight pounds lighter now (at 234) than he was a year ago, and he said one of the things that has helped him this offseason is the simple length of it. Because he didn't play much last year, and because Seattle didn't make the playoffs, and because he had his back well-diagnosed by January, he's been in the weight room more, and longer, than in the past. "I'm not worried about my back at all,'' Hasselbeck said. "The only thing my back cannot do is sit in a three-hour run-game-install meeting without getting up and moving around. Of the things I'm worried about -- new coach, new offense, some new teammates -- I can promise you that health is not one of them.''

Grunge music to Seattle's ears.

Hey Ozzie Newsome: I've got Amani Toomer's number. You'll be needing it this morning. Loved the headline on profootballtalk.com just after 10 last night. "The Drew Bennett Era Ends in Baltimore.'' Bennett signed a one-year contract FRIDAY AFTERNOON AND RETIRED SUNDAY NIGHT. Add the two-week-old retirement that may not be a retirement by Derrick Mason, and the Ravens are left with only one wideout who caught 15 passes last year -- Mark Clayton (41 catches, three touchdowns).

Coach John Harbaugh still think there's a chance the 35-year-old Mason, who has a chronic shoulder problem, will play. Baltimore added Kelley Washington in free-agency from New England, but he was almost purely a special-teams player in New England; he caught just one ball in the last two years.

Seriously: I'd sign Toomer, who's almost at the end but could be a good veteran port-in-the-storm for Joe Flacco, over D.J. Hackett, who the Ravens also have some interest in.

And that's the way it is. Monday, July 27, 2009.

(I owe you a few, Walter. We all do.)

***

June 25, Foxboro, Mass. "How's Zim?'' says Tedy Bruschi, and I fill him in. Paul Zimmerman has had a bit of a setback, but he's fighting hard, and if anyone of advanced age can come back from three strokes it'll be Zim.

"It's the toughest thing to do,'' said Bruschi, who is doing what he can to help. He has auctioned himself off, along with me, to have a lunch to benefit Zim's long-term medical care, and we're at Davio's at Patriot Place, the Bob Kraft-invented mini-town adjacent to Gillette Stadium, so Bruschi can fulfill his end of the deal with a generous lawyer from Providence. We're at the restaurant almost two hours, and I can tell you this: Bruschi was so good, and so generous, that he never looked at his watch, and if the afternoon had stretched on another hour, he wouldn't have complained.

July 6, Brewster, Mass. I'm in the fourth row of the bleachers at the baseball field behind Stony Brook Elementary, with a cadre of football intelligentsia behind me. Bill Polian, GM of the Colts. Steve Spagnuolo, coach of the Rams. Chris Palmer, quarterbacks coach of the Giants. Chris Polian, assistant GM of the Colts. Brian Polian, special-teams coach at Notre Dame.

They'd gathered at Chris and Donna Palmer's summer home (and someday permanent residence) in Dennis, on Cape Cod, for an afternoon cookout, and now their eyes are glued to the Cape Cod League game between Brewster and Cotuit. It's so interesting to watch football people watch baseball, or any other sport; Bill Parcells was fascinated with how basketball players could transition from power forward, say, to tight end. Polian and son, Chris, are similarly fascinated with how baseball works.

They're tight with Cubs GM Jim Hendry and Red Sox GM Theo Epstein. And Bill Polian knows these players. "I love these games,'' he said. "It's pure baseball.'' On the field in front of us, two LSU players and two from Texas -- they'd been in the College World Series two weeks earlier -- are battling on a chilly night on a backwoods field with a kids' playground instead of a big grandstand behind home plate. Life is good.

July 11, Seattle. I meet maybe 400 or 500 Seattle Sounders supporters -- including Tod Leiweke, who helped bring this team here, and Gary Wright, the recently retired Seahawks PR maven now running the business side for the Sounders -- in Pioneer Square for the March to the Match. The Sounders, in their rookie season, are playing Houston in 90 minutes, and the team has started what it hopes will become a tradition in meeting the Sounders Band in midtown, getting fired up with a few soccer songs, and marching to the stadium.

"It was Drew Carey's idea,'' Wright said. The part-owner of the team had similar displays at European matches -- the bands and the marching to the stadium -- and wanted to bring that fervor stateside. Interesting.

The previous night, we'd been to see the Mariners in a fairly big game against the Rangers, and the crowd was supportive, to be sure. But it was nothing like the electricity we felt before and during this soccer game at Qwest Field with 32,404 people waving team flags and holding up team scarves. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe soccer can work here. I know it sure can work in Seattle.

July 13, Los Angeles. Two years ago, Andrea Kremer invited me to join the Los Angeles Sports and Entertainment Commission's annual venture to keep NFL interest stirred up at the L.A. Coliseum, and now I look forward to it as part of my summer calendar. (Free trip to LA! The Beverly Wilshire! Sign me up! For eternity!)

The setup: Fans mingle with players and club brass on the floor of the Coliseum, and there's a panel with NFL people moderated by Kremer -- under the stars, where the '32 Olympics happened. My two favorite nuggets from this year's panel:

Officiating czar Mike Pereira said the league is basically going to go back to the drawing board to try to find his successor; Pereira retires at the end of this year. "We thought we'd have someone in place by now,'' he says to the crowd, but the league doesn't, and now Roger Goodell wants a new process to begin. Pereira said he expects there to be 15 or more candidates interviewed and re-interviewed. Also loved Carson Palmer on the prospect of an 18-game sked: "I hate it. I hate it. Sixteen games is already a triathlon, and they want to add two to it?''

July 15, Lake Elsinore, Calif. You know what's great about minor-league baseball? You can hear everything. Tonight, it's the Stockton Ports and the Lake Elsinore Storm. Future A's and Padres on display. And the Lake Elsinore manager, Carlos Lezcano (here's how sick I am -- I remember Lezcano's cup of coffee with the Cubs 25 or so years ago), doesn't like what he sees of the strike zone from where he stands in the third-base coach's box, and he begins to walk down to tell the home-plate ump what he thinks, and I wish I could tell you exactly what Lezcano says because I heard every syllable, but I really can't in this venue. Suffice it to say, Lezcano invited the ump to toss him from the game, with six or eight expletives thrown in, and the ump obliged.

July 20, Boston. Trip to the urologist. Regular checkup. Two docs. First doc examines me, and I should say he examines me thoroughly. He leaves and the other doc comes in. Very nice fellow, just like the first one. He puts on the rubber glove. Whoa! Whoa! This, uh, already happened! Second urologist wants to check out the situation for himself. Examines me a little more thoroughly. Other than the self-inflicted left-hand bite mark, all's right with the world. Gosh, I love vacation.

July 21, Waltham, Mass. Over the years, I estimate that I've written "arthroscopic surgery'' in a story maybe three million times. Now I was having one. A month earlier, I'd wrenched my left knee stretching too aggressively after working out in a Boston Sports Club in my neighborhood. Since I live in a condo 63 steps up from the street, it's a fairly big disadvantage to have to take stairs by going up and coming down one at a time.

And now, just after 1 in the afternoon, I'm sitting on the edge of a hospital bed in Massachusetts General Hospital-West when my surgeon approaches. It's Thomas Gill, the Red Sox and Patriots orthopedist. He's the third person out of eight or nine who would ask me the same question that day: "Which knee are we operating on today?'' I tell him the left one, and he takes a marker and writes "YES'' above my left kneecap. "The reason we don't put an 'X' here,'' he says, "is because if you put an 'X' there, how do you know that's NOT the one to operate on?''

Gill's had much bigger fish to fry than this little meniscus tear, and he's so confident that it doesn't occur to me to be nervous. An hour later, I'm awake, and warned about the pain, and told I'd have crutches and Vicodin, and I shouldn't be afraid to use either. Happy to say I've not touched the crutches, have had to take but one Vicodin tablet and have aced the stairs all week. Don't tell Dr. Gill, but I also walked two miles home from Fenway on Saturday night.

I think I'm ready for the camp trail. And if you see me limping slightly, it's not because Terrell Owens bashed my knee with a baton or anything.

"Since I've been working in the league, I don't think the best team has won the Super Bowl any year. You get a ball bouncing the wrong way, a bad call from a ref, a windy day when you plan to throw a lot ... There are just too many things out of your control.''-- Eagles team president Joe Banner in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer.

That is an incredible statement. The '96 Packers tie for the best record in football, win their playoff games by 21, 17 and 14 points and aren't the best team in football? The Ravens have one of the best defenses of all time and win 12 games in 2000, win the Super Bowl by 27 and aren't the best team in football? The Bucs of 2002 win three playoff games by 69 and aren't the best team in football? None of the three Patriot Super Bowl winners is the best team in football that season? This has to be one Joe Banner would love to have back.

"I think the way the commissioner has handled it, I think it's unfair to Michael Vick. I think he's done the time for what he's done. I don't think it's really fair for him to be suspended four more games. That's almost like kicking a dead horse in the ground. I think a lot of guys around the league need to speak up. I think the players union needs to step in because the guy's already suffered so much. To add a four-game suspension on a two-year prison sentence, that's ridiculous.''-- Buffalo wide receiver Terrell Owens after the team's morning training-camp practice Sunday.

"I want to play quarterback ... and do I believe that I can do that? Absolutely. When I'm on a team I'm going to do whatever that coach asks me to do, which I think you see by watching me play at Florida. I'll be the biggest team player there because I just want the team to succeed and the team to win.''-- Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, on The Dan Patrick Show last week, confirming that he would play positions other than quarterback in the NFL.

"How can I help?''--Texas third baseman Michael Young, asked by the New York Times at the All-Star Game what he'd say to President Obama if he met him at the game.

What a selfless thing to say. By the way, kudos to Major League Baseball for a terrific show before the All-Star Game, not only recognizing 30 volunteers from around the country for their unselfishness, but also for having the players from each side mingle with the 30 people honored before the game. If it inspired one person to help one other person, the display did its job.

Let's start this exercise by saying the only teams that can logically compete for Team of the Decade in this decade are New England and Pittsburgh. Indianapolis (regular-season record: 101-43, 7-7 in the playoffs) does have seven more regular-season wins than Pittsburgh, but the Colts can finish this decade with two Super Bowl titles, and a two-time Super Bowl winner can't lay claim to Team of the Decade over a team with three. So it's either the Patriots (three titles as we speak) or Pittsburgh (two) who can wear history's crown.

You be the judge what history will say if the Steelers win a third after seeing the Patriots' and Steelers' records since 2000:

For my money, the Steelers would have to have a dream season -- say, 14-2 or better, with a Super Bowl win -- while the Patriots would have to stumble and miss the playoffs for Pittsburgh to win the fictional title. Whatever happens this year, the Steelers can't win more playoff games than New England, can't win more Super Bowls, can't appear in more Super Bowls, and, with 12 fewer wins entering the season, almost certainly can't win more games. Then there's New England's 16-0 regular season two years ago.

In other words, something really strange would have to happen for the Steelers to pass the Pats as Team of the Decade.

Curt Menefee, the Fox Sunday NFL host and a restless traveler, wins the award for best offseason vacation. He went to Antarctica.

"My seventh continent,'' Menefee said when I ran into him earlier this month at LAX. "Now I've seen them all.''

Aside from getting thisclose to a lot of cute penguins and 200-pound seals, one of the highlights was having a glass of scotch with glacial ice. "We were out in [a boat],'' he said, "and we heard this cracking sound, and we see this big chunk of ice fall into the water. Our guide took it into the boat, and later I drank the scotch with that as my ice. So I had a glass of scotch with ice older than the scotch.''

I hurt my knee during vacation and had to muddle through three weeks with it, and I found myself on a plane to Seattle, changing in Chicago, to visit our daughter Mary Beth. When we changed, I got up to get something out of the overhead, and the man across the aisle stumbled getting out of his seat, lost his balance, and his knee rammed hard into mine. The man, about 65, steadied himself. I bent over, saw a few stars, straightened up, and limped off the plane, with the man right behind me.

He never said a word. No "sorry,'' or "ooooops.''

"At least 5 teams made playoffs after missing year before for 13 yrs in row. NFL=you never know.''-- signoranfl, who is NFL media relations man Michael Signora. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why all of you read so much from those of us who cover this great game.

1. I think I truly dislike training camp at teams' home facilities. This is the one time of year when fans can be hands-on with the teams they follow 365 days a year, and the one way teams can say thanks to fans is to allow them to watch practice up close for a few days and to shake hands with players and coaches and maybe get an autograph. Butsome teams that hold camp at their home facility tend to hibernate and cut off most access between fans and players.

Go to the Ravens' camp in Westminster, Md., or the Steelers' camp in Latrobe, Pa., and you'll see what I mean about access at camps on the road. Last year, I watched Derrick Mason sign for 45 minutes after practice one day in Baltimore's camp; I mean, he quite literally signed an autograph for everyone who wanted one at the practice that day. Players should be exposed to fans more, not less.

2. I think one of the reasons for the move of the draft to Thursday, Friday and Saturday, obviously, is getting the draft into prime time. Understandable, on the surface. But I have this question for the NFL, now that the league has announced that Round 1 of the draft is moving to Thursday night, with Rounds 2 and 3 on Friday and Rounds 4 through 7 on Saturday: If you're so intent on maximizing the exposure of the league, why not move the Super Bowl to Thursday night?

This year, 36.7 million people watched at least part of ESPN's draft coverage -- according to ESPN -- and if those numbers are accurate, how much of a boost can the draft possibly get by moving? Will some of the draft buzz be neutered by moving from a time when the only competition is April baseball to a time when the competition is American Idol, The Office and other prime-time giants? I'm not crazy about this either way, other than the fact it drags out an event that fits nicely into two days.

3. I think Twitter America sends this message to the NFL: Moving the draft stinks. I asked on my Twitter account Sunday afternoon whether you favor the NFL moving the draft to one round Thursday, two Friday and four Saturday. In three hours, 462 fans responded. Of those with a yes-or-no opinion, 345 said no, 117 said yes. That's 74.7 percent of my Twitter followers against the move. (I'm not the only one who found this result. Mike Reiss of the Boston Globe posed the question on boston.com, and it was an overwhelming no.) A few comments to me from Twitter:

a.David Goodman: "Let's not water down something else in sports, please.''

b.Bigperm71: "No. The NFL Draft is something I will always think of as an all-day Sat. event with college roommates, pizza and beer.''

c.Harlen Coben (the real one): "Why not start right after Super Bowl and have two picks every day till start of season?''

d.Armen Keteyian (the real one): "Not me. One more example of milking and marketing; a league seeking desperately even more buzz. More like zzzzzz.''

e.Ricky Lacey: "Yes. I think it will create more action with trades and negotiations.''

f.Dale Walker: "Shortening the draft was progress in the right direction. Now they're going backwards.''

g.Shaun Gordon: "No. That Saturday was like another holiday, and the NFL took it away.''

4. I think I've got a few words about a book I've come across this summer while on vacation -- The Class of Football: Words of Hard-Earned Wisdom from Legends of the Gridiron, by Adam Schefter. Interesting concept. Schefter takes the speeches of the inductees to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the speeches of those who presented the inductees. The few that I read have some undiscovered nuggets that could inspire or simply inform the fans who love the game. I'll pick out a bit from Carl Eller's acceptance speech in 2004.

"Young men of African-American descent, hear me now. It breaks my heart, and it breaks all of our hearts. This is not the future your forefathers have built for you. This is not the future that we fought for in the '50s and '60s and '70s. What breaks our heart is to see you involved in gangs and selling drugs and killing each other. That breaks our hearts. We put our lives on the line so that you could enjoy the freedoms that we enjoy today. We put our lives on the line yesterday so that ... there could be a Barack Obama today. And there could be a Carl Eller today. And there could be other Hall of Famers sitting before you today."

How about that? Eller referring to Obama three or four years before America really knew him. A very good read.

5. I think it's tough to write Steve McNair's legacy thoroughly, 23 days after he was murdered. But the popular question after his death centers around whether he deserves to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

I've always found the five-year waiting period for players a valuable one, because it eliminates all the emotion from the equation. When Michael Strahan retired after the 2007 season, I read more than one "first-ballot Hall-of-Famer'' phrase attached to Strahan ... but upon further review, we noted that Chris Doleman, whose numbers suggest he was at least as impactful as Strahan as a pass-rusher, is thought to be a marginal Hall candidate. So it's a good thing Strahan didn't come up right away -- we need to let his career breathe so we can logically compare it to men of his era and before and so we can be sure that his career is truly over.

My feeling is that except for the true gimmes over the years -- Joe Montana, Barry Sanders, Dan Marino, John Elway -- I like to wait to make a definitive judgment on a player.

At first blush, the road for McNair will be hard. He played five 16-game seasons in his career. Some of that was bad luck; injuries happen. Some was a result of his aggressive style. Some also was because he was never a fitness nut, was often not in peak condition, was prone to be a few pounds overweight, and his career ended earlier than most good quarterbacks' careers, at 34.

He was broken-down when Brian Billick mercifully removed him from his last NFL game, an embarrassing home loss to Cincinnati. The woeful Bengals led 18-0 when Billick replaced McNair, who had a sore groin.

In his favor is the fact that he won an MVP and appeared in a Super Bowl. But here is a list of other quarterbacks who won MVPs and are not in the Hall (quarterbacks who won after 1998 are not included because most are still playing): Roman Gabriel, John Brodie, Ken Stabler, Bert Jones, Brian Sipe, Ken Anderson, Joe Theismann and Boomer Esiason. Keep in mind, McNair shared an MVP and lost his only Super Bowl appearance.

Theismann won one Super Bowl, lost another and won the MVP outright in 1983. Stabler won one, while Esiason and Anderson lost their Super Bowls, as McNair did. He's 28th on the all-time passing yards list, and 46th all-time in touchdown passes. By the time he's up for the Hall, he'll likely be 35th or so in yards and not in the top 50 in touchdowns. I liked McNair as a player and competitor and won't make final judgment on his Hall candidacy until he comes up that year, but as I said, it's going to be tough.

6. I think I can't believe the sentiment out there for Alex Smith to win the 49er quarterback job. Unless Smith has had an arm transplant with Jay Cutler, how can anyone who has watched the last two San Francisco seasons think he's better than Shaun Hill? I'm not saying he can't win the job. But the sentiment in the Bay Area is so strong that Smith enters camp with the edge. It's not based on what has happened on the field. At all.

7. I think these are my thoughts on the headlines of the month:

a. "Michael JacksonDies.'' Five observations: Best song, all-time, at a Super Bowl halftime show is Black or White, at the Rose Bowl 16 years ago when Michael Jackson was the greatest performer in the pop world. And this comes from a U2- and Springsteen-aholic ...

I was a kid when Elvis Presley died, but this man, and this death, reminds me of Elvis in so many ways -- the overuse of drugs, the sycophants around him not telling him what an idiotic figure he'd become, the outpouring of real emotion by fans who act like they won't be able to live without him ... I think he was the most famous person in the world at the time of his death. Think of it: Is Ali more famous? Obama? I don't think so ...

Brooke Shields made me laugh at the memorial service when she got all emotional about her deep friendship and ultra-close relationship with Jackson -- while admitting she had not seen him in 18 years ...

Why, when a famous person dies, do we feel the need to vastly overstate this person's importance to the planet? Jackson may have been -- probably was -- the greatest singer, performer and dancer of this era. A member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Sheila Jackson Lee, got up at his service and said a lot of politicians were in office directly because of Jackson. "He called us into public service,'' Jackson Lee said. Let me understand this. A man sings wonderfully and dances better, and that leads a cadre of regular citizens into public service? Why, why, oh why?

b. "Man Dies During Running of the Bulls.'' Maybe if this happened more often, the authorities in Spain would do what civilized people do with inhumane customs: Ban them forever.

c. "Alexis Arguello dies of gunshot wound.'' I covered boxing for a couple years at The Cincinnati Enquirer in the early '80s, and spent a day with Arguello at his home in Miami before his first big junior-welterweight title fight with Aaron Pryor in 1982. Great guy. Gentleman. Seemed bright and more interesting than your run-of-the-mill pug. We'll never know what was in that secret bottle that Panama Lewis kept in the Pryor corner that night, but to Arguello's credit, he never complained about it or, to the best of my recollection, never questioned Pryor's incredible staying power in that brawl. I mean, this was a Balboa-Creed night. Years later, I still can't believe how each man survived the incredible pummeling each took.

d. "Joey Chestnut Wins Hot-Dog Eating Contest.'' Whoever at ESPN thought of televising the Fourth of July contest from Coney Island and giving it some form of sporting glory ought to not only be fired but also sent to a class for education on world hunger. Here's a stat for you, according to world hunger organization Bread For The World: One in seven people on earth suffer from severe hunger daily. That's 963 MILLION people. The ratings suggest we are all guilty of promoting this grotesque custom. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves for giving ESPN reason for showing this.

e. "Legendary Iowa High School Football Coach Ed Thomas Murdered.'' Had a couple of conversations with Thomas after a tornado wiped out his town and his school 14 months ago, in part because he was the coach who started the careers of four current NFLers. What a class guy, a hard-working beacon for all coaches. Eerie thing: A couple of days after Thomas died, Casey Wiegmann, the Denver center and one of his NFL alums, told our Sirius NFL Radio show that Thomas seemed to have a feeling of his mortality this offseason, telling Wiegmann that wherever he was in the world when Thomas died, he wanted Wiegmann to be one of the pallbearers at his funeral. "It's almost like he knew what was going to happen,'' Wiegmann said.

f. "Walter Cronkite Dies.'' On South Road in Enfield, Conn., in the Sixties, Cronkite's word meant everything. My father and mother listened to whatever he said and bought it. And so I did -- and later I found out how right he was about so many things, Vietnam in particular. For those of you too young to know Cronkite only as a name, understand he was Anderson Cooper, Charlie Gibson, Wolf Blitzer and about 10 other news people, all rolled into one iconic voice.

g. "Armstrong Third in Tour de France.'' It's a great accomplishment that a man can sit out of such a competitive sport and then return as one of the oldest men in the race and finish third in the biggest bike race in the world. But as a teammate, Lance Armstrong strikes me as more Manny Ramirez than TomBrady.

On the day when Astana teammate Alberto Contador virtually clinched the 2009 Tour de France title -- quite precisely, minutes after the stage was over and Contador all but copped the Tour -- Armstrong announced on his Web site, on a Twitter page and on a corporate Web site that he was forming a new team for 2010 in conjunction with RadioShack. How distasteful. How selfish.

Why couldn't Armstrong wait a few days? This day was a day to congratulate Contador and give the champ his due; instead, the New York Times (and I'm sure papers and media outlets around the world) focused on Armstrong forming a new team in that day's story about the Tour, rather than on Contador.

h. "Ben Roethlisberger Accused of Sexual Assault in a Civil Suit.'' I don't know the truth. I don't know if Roethlisberger knows Andrea McNulty or not. None of us do. But if I were Big Ben, I'd be sleeping pretty easy. How does McNulty, the woman making the charges, not go to the police, wait a day before telling a superior anything, not seek medical attention, never file a criminal complaint, then wait a year before filing a civil suit? How are we not supposed to think this is a money-grab?

I hate to fast-forward to reality in a serious case, but two other observations: It's ridiculous for ESPN to not cover this story for two days because of the apparent flimsiness of it, seeing that it's a civil suit and not a criminal one. When a lawsuit is filed in a courtroom somewhere in the United States of America involving the Super Bowl champion quarterback, it's absolutely, positively news and must be reported.

Two: I don't buy that this will be much of a distraction to Roethlisberger this summer, or to his team. The preponderance of evidence just isn't there to make anyone think this is a serious issue for him.

i. "Michael Vick and Roger Goodell Meet in New Jersey." Hearty congrats to Don Banks for breaking the unusual story of Vick and Goodell meeting in a leafy suburb in New Jersey, hoping to avoid being noticed. Nice job, Brasco.

8. I think one of the guys we'll all have eyes on this summer is the first-round pick of the Raiders, wideout Darrius Heyward-Bey. Seems like a classic boom-or-bust pick. His college coach, Ralph Friedgen, is a huge fan of Heyward-Bey's, but he also says the wideout needs to improve his hands. "There would be times in practice he would really struggle,'' Friedgen said.

9. I think the one player I'm really looking forward to seeing under a new coach is all-purpose back Leon Washington of the Jets, whose head man, Rex Ryan, is certain to use Washington more liberally than he was used a year ago. I wouldn't be surprised to see Washington -- assuming he reports to camp on time, seeing that he's in a contract dispute with the team right now -- touch the ball 300 times this year. Last year, he had 76 rushes and 47 receptions, to go along with punt- and kick-return duties (77 returns total). He touched it 200 times last year, 123 from scrimmage.

That number from scrimmage has to get to 200, whatever the Jets choose to do in the return game; Washington is simply too explosive to let him touch the ball 7.7 times per game from scrimmage. "I hate defending against players like that,'' Ryan said last week. "He had six touchdowns on 73 carries last year. That number has to go up -- drastically. And it will.''

10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the month:

a. I give up on the Black Berry Storm. I was seduced into buying it when it was The Next Big Thing, but the weird and hard-to-use keyboard should make it the Edsel of mobile phone and e-mail devices.

b. Incredibly, I sat behind the man who invented the hard-to-use keyboard of the Storm at Fenway one day when I was off ... and ended up telling him what I thought of the keyboard. A tad awkward, but someone's got to address how hard it is to hit each key just so when you're trying to send a text. I need those upraised letters.

c. Tweetup sites in the near future: Aug. 3 (next Monday) in Troy, N.Y., adjacent to Albany, at Joseph Bruno Stadium, home of the Tri-City ValleyCats, at 6 p.m. ... Aug. 10 in downtown Indianapolis, at Victory Field, before the Indy-Columbus Triple-A game. You can get tickets for both games at the stadium the day of the game by asking for the Peter King section; in Indy, it's section 101. In Albany, I'll be there with football mavens Ross Tucker and Adam Schefter. In Indy, I'll be there with football/baseball man Will Carroll.

d. Coffeenerdness: I had a lot of coffee in a lot of places over the last month, but the coffee shop coffee, a dark roast, at the Edgewater Hotel in Seattle -- biting and intense but smooth, almost an Italian roast -- was easily No. 1.

e. I've seen a lot of John Smoltz over the last month. Doesn't look like the Smoltz we've all gotten to respect. The game looks too hard for him. He's gotten abused by three of the worst teams in baseball -- Washington, Oakland and Baltimore, including Sunday's stinker at Fenway against the Orioles. You give up 16 earned runs in 16 innings in three starts to the Nats, A's and O's, and you're punching your ticket out of town pretty quick. Six starts, 1-4, 7.04 ERA, 42 hits in 30.2 innings.

f. Not a good sign, either, for Mike Lowell that on dribblers or bunts he looks like Walter Brennan. The Orioles got two hits on those Saturday night. A few more nights like that in the field and Adam LaRoche at first and Kevin Youkilis at third will become a lot more commonplace.

g. Pretty amazing that the Red Sox aren't six or eight games out the way they've hit. Good thing the bullpen's been good. We might have to accept David Ortiz as a .225 hitter. As July dawned, he was batting .225 with a .321 on-base percentage; today, he's .227/.316. Where's the evidence that he's got a hot streak in him?

h. If it's true that Manny Ramirez had his street clothes on underneath his uniform when he hit his pinch-hit grand slam last week -- Nick Cafardo wrote that in the Boston Globe Sunday -- well, I'll just say this: The zebra doesn't change his stripes. Oh, let's all get a kick out of that wacky Manny. Just wait. The worm will turn. Maybe not this year. Maybe not next. But it's coming.

i. It's not the Yankees the Red Sox have to worry about. I've never felt that way the whole season. Yanks, playoffs, fait accompli. It's Tampa Bay.

j. HBO did one heck of a job on that Ted Williams documentary. As did CBS on its one-hour Cronkite special eight days ago.

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