ITHACA, N.Y. -- Fun, rewarding and exhausting, all at the same time, being back out on the road for training camps. Travel-mate Ross Tucker and I got into Ithaca last night around 11:30, and I immediately began cleaning out the notebook from a remarkable first week of camps as we head toward the NFL's 90th season. Off we go:
Tuesday, 10:50 p.m. (Bills camp, Pittsford, N.Y.) Strange day. Sad day. Brett Favre surprises the football world by saying he's not playing for the Vikings, and in the same hour, word comes down that one of the great defensive minds in football history, former Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, has died from melanoma. The day is a mess of phone-calling, dictating from the side of practice fields and then, when I was settling in to watch some practice tape after 10 with old acquaintance John Guy, the director of pro personnel, up in his dorm suite, my cell rang. It was Favre, saying he just didn't trust his body to make it through 16 games, not given the way it felt after he worked it hard the past few weeks, getting it ready for the Vikings' grind. And he was pretty sure this was the end, but come midseason, if some team calls, who knows?
Favre was down. He just sounded beat, like he had nothing left to give, and a little depressed. "I'm sure I'll regret it down the road," he said.
I asked him about the toll this had taken on his reputation. "Two years ago you were 'Sportsman of the Year' and an American folk hero,'' I said. "Now there are kids and adults who are sick of you, who don't love you anymore. How does it feel?''
"Well, then they really didn't love me in the first place,'' he said. "Whatever. Nothing I can do about it. This whole situation, if I had it to do all over again, there're a few things I'd do different. But wouldn't we all? I don't expect everyone to like what I've done the last two years. That's life.
"For people who'd question why I did this, I didn't do it for any other reason than to try to play football for a team [Minnesota] I really wanted to play for. It had nothing to do with revenge against the Packers. Nothing. It wasn't about getting back at [Green Bay GM] Ted Thompson. How much more clear can I make it?''
Wednesday, 1:30 p.m. (Bills camp) For the second straight practice, the fans respond to everything Terrell Owens does. When he glances up at the bleachers at St. John Fisher College, the crowd cheers. Two teenage boys are bare-chested, one with a T painted on his chest, the other with an O. And I think: This is what it's like in the left-field stands at Dodger Stadium. Mannywood. I christen thee: T-O-town.
As with Manny Ramirez, the past is forgotten; what can you do for me today? The bitter voices from Boston don't matter to L.A. people, and in Buffalo, Dallas' loss is western New York's gain. OK. Fair enough. But if Owens stays longer than a year, you'll see. The volcano will erupt, and there will be collateral damage. Lots of it.
I talk to quarterback Trent Edwards about the risk involved (though T.O.'s track record is that Year One is always the honeymoon year), and he says: "Are you saying it was a desperation move?''
"If the desperate shoe fits, wear it,'' I said.
Thursday, 3:45 p.m. (Redskins camp, Ashburn, Va.) Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth looks very big and very happy after his first practice day in camp with the Redskins. He should be happy after signing a contract that will pay him $48 million over the next four years to be the centerpiece of the Redskins' D. But I've heard a few things recently about the crazy negotiating night that lead to Haynesworth going to Washington instead of Tampa Bay.
You might remember that first night of free-agency. The Redskins initially thought the price for Haynesworth was too high and arranged to send their team plane to pick up Chris Canty, the best defensive end on the market, at his home in Charlotte. Tampa Bay actually offered Haynesworth more money -- slightly more. But then Haynesworth heard the "R'' word from Bucs coach Raheem Morris. Rebuilding. The Bucs might go through a year or two of struggle before being back atop the division, and Haynesworth, already seven years into his career, wasn't signing up for that. So back the flip-flop went, talks were rekindled with Washington, and here he came.
He's moving well and looks in great shape. You know the whispers about Haynesworth -- now that he has the big money, Washington will never get the same value out of him that Tennessee got over the past two years, contract years.
Haynesworth is confident the money won't affect him. "Everyone says the contract's going to put all this pressure on me,'' he said, sweat pouring off him after the second practice of the first day of camp. "The contract puts ZERO pressure on me. I put pressure on myself. My challenge is to be the best defensive tackle in a great division.''
Oh, he can be that. If I were making up challenges for Haynesworth, my biggest would be to play a full season. He's done it once in seven years.
Friday, 11:30 a.m. (Ravens camp, Westminster, Md.) Ed Reed walks the autograph line. One reason I'm always so adamant about teams having training camp away from home is because I've seen how players can impact so many lives with the simple act of human kindness through an autograph or a handshake to a kid. I want to show you this, and the best way I know how is to walk with Reed and let you hear and feel what he hears and feels as he spends 37 minutes signing autographs and interacting with kids who, one after one, looked at him like kids used to look at The Beatles. The play-by-play of Reed on the autograph line, with the Reed words in italic:
"Ed! Ed! Mr. Reed!"
"I'll get there. Don't worry. I'll get there."
"Thank you. Thank you."
"You're my favorite player on the team."
"Ed, how's it feel to be a great player?"
"Pretty good! Thank you."
"Can I have one of your gloves?"
"No. I need them for the afternoon practice."
"How about your shirt? Can I have your shirt?"
"If I gave you my shirt what would I practice in?"
"Can I have one of your gloves? Please! Please!"
"No, I need 'em."
"Can I have anything?"
"You can have an autograph."
"Please keep signing, please please."
"Don't worry, I will. Just don't push."
"Can I have one of your gloves?"
"Don't ask him that! It's my question!''
"Eighty people have asked me for my gloves. I can't.''
"Take one to the house this year.''
"My brother can't be here today. Can you sign his helmet?"
"Sure. You got one too? Give it to me, little man."
"Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."
"Do you need your glove? Could I have a glove please?"
"Can I have your shirt then?"
"Can't have that either, but I'll sign for you."
"Can you sign my shirt?"
"Yes, sir. How's that?"
As this is happening, I'm looking over Reed's shoulder at the quasi-legible scribble that looks like "E Reed 20."
"I try to make it legible. I learned that from Arnold Palmer," Reed said. "I was watching the Golf Channel once and Arnold Palmer came on and was talking about autographs. He said, 'Make sure people can read it so they remember you.' So that's what I try to do, even on a long line like this. I want people to look back at that and know it was me and remember me."
"Bet you get 12 interceptions this year."
"Nope. 13. I'll get 13."
"Mr. Reed you're my favorite player!"
"How's the neck this year? Are you OK?"
"It's a little sore I'll be OK."
"You da man!"
"Hey, can I have one of your gloves?"
"I can't give you my gloves. I need 'em today."
"Best safety ever! Better than Lott!"
"I guess I'll take that."
"Ed! Ed! Ed! Mr. Reed!"
"Don't worry, I'll get to you. Don't push."
"How'd you get so good?"
"Practice. Like doing math in school. You like math?"
"Hate math. I like science."
"OK, science. The more you practice it, the more you study it, the better you get. That's like football."
"You're never going to leave us are you?"
"Good, we need you."
"I like those gloves. Can I have one of your gloves?"
"Mr. Reed! Mr. Reed! Can I touch your beard?"
"No. How do I know where your hands have been?"
"Ed! Ed! Right here! One more!"
Friday, 4:45 p.m. (Somewhere near Gettysburg, Pa.) Tucker rides shotgun and fires up Twitter, profootballtalk.com and whatever other news ports he has on his Blackberry. For a former player, he's a real sports junkie. He tells me someone's reporting that Mike Vick just worked out for the Patriots at 3 o'clock this afternoon in Foxboro. Immediately, I get a remember-where-you-heard-the-Vick-news-first text from Sal Paolantonio, who told the crowd at the Dr. Z benefit back in May that he thought the Patriots would be a major player for Vick. I'd been saying the Patriots were my best-guess landing spot for Vick too.
Five minutes pass. My phone rings, and it's Someone Who Knows, telling me absolutely, unequivocally the Patriots did not work out Vick, and there is no interest in signing him, and Bill Belichick likes Kevin O'Connell as Tom Brady's backup, and the team doesn't need the circus that Vick would engender.
It's a weird media world we're in right now. My allegiance, obviously, is to SI.com, but I know if I take 10 minutes right now to dictate the item to someone on the news desk, the story will get up in 20 minutes, and we'll probably be too late. So I decide to throw a couple of Tweets up, the first at 4:59 saying Vick wasn't in Foxboro, and the second that the Pats don't want Vick and like O'Connell. Sure enough, at 5:01 p.m., Adam Schefter Tweeted that Vick wasn't in New England either. It's a crazy media world. Forgive me, Time Warner.
Saturday, 6:55 a.m. (Eagles camp, Bethlehem, Pa.) You know how corny it sounds when someone dies and those closest to him say, "He'd have wanted us to go on and live our normal lives,'' or some such? That's the message from one of Johnson's best friends in a Lehigh University dormitory early this morning.
"If Jim knew we were all talking about him like this, he'd be chewing us all out, and I can guarantee you that,'' said Eagles coach Andy Reid. "Jim was all about the game. He was, to us, what we all wanted to be as coaches. No ego. Great teacher. Always open to new ideas. A strategist. Could look into the future and see the game. Every year he changed a little. Not only a zest for football, but a zest for life.''
I asked everyone I met during the week who might have something to say about Johnson -- a private man but not a rude one -- what kind of legacy Johnson leaves on football. The temptation is to say pressure, pressure, pressure. But one of his best friends, Washington defensive coordinator Greg Blache, said it was something more.
"He was the ultimate problem-solver,'' Blache said. "If there was a hole in your bucket, he was like water. He'd find it. There will be a generation of coaches now who will study what Jim did because he got pressure and was sound behind that pressure. That's hard to do.''
"At his essence,'' said Brad Childress, his old office partner with the Eagles, "he was about pressure. And different pressures. You know, quarterbacks can say they like to face the blitzes because it gives them a chance to make plays. But I can guarantee you very, very few liked the kind of chin music Jim Johnson sent their way.''
I remember watching the Giants-Eagles game in December next to Cris Collinsworth at NBC. The Eagles won 20-14. After getting gashed for 219 rushing yards in the first meeting of the year, Philly held New York and massive back Brandon Jacobs to 88 yards. And that's what won the game for the Eagles. Johnson moved Brian Dawkins down in the box as almost a fourth linebacker. Quick pass rush be damned. "We were going to be the more physical team out there today,'' he told me afterward. Johnson usually got what he wanted.
Saturday, 11 a.m. (Eagles camp) In practice this morning, new cornerback Ellis Hobbs -- acquired for two fifth-round picks from New England on draft day -- deflected a long ball down the left side away from a receiver and exulted, pumping his arms and exciting the crowd. "That's the first time I celebrated with pure emotion in a long time,'' said Hobbs. "In New England, they believe in keeping your emotions down. It zaps the life out of you. I remember standing on the sidelines in my first playoff game, home against Jacksonville, and getting all excited and I'm jumping around, and I feel this touch on my shoulders. I was told, 'Calm down.' I'm thinking, 'Wow, my first playoff game. Let's enjoy it.' But that's not the way it's done there.''
Hobbs wasn't happy about his contract, and he saw the Pats draft Darius Butler from UConn in the second round, and he knew it was over. Funny thing is, he's not bitter at the Patriots, even though he might sound as if he is. He's happy he had the chance to play there.
"I respect Bill as a coach more than anyone I've met,'' Hobbs said. "Bill was so smart. He went about it like the team we're playing is a building. You don't just throw a bomb at the building; it has to be strategically placed. Like against Dallas a couple of years ago. Everyone's analyzing the game and saying, 'We've got to stop T.O. to win.' Bill said to us that the key to the game for Dallas was [tight end Jason] Witten, not T.O. You stop Witten, you stop Dallas. We did, and we won.
"Early in my career, Bill called me into his office, and we sat there -- for a long time -- studying film. He taught me to look for the simple things, and not to make football so complicated. I got better. I realize I was with one of the best coaches of all time, and he helped me become a better player.''
Sunday, 3:25 p.m. (Steelers camp, Latrobe, Pa.) And now for something completely different -- Mike Shanahan on the sidelines of Pittsburgh Steelers training camp. The sight was so strange on Saturday that defensive player of the year James Harrison went over to coach Mike Tomlin early in practice and said something like, Hey, you aren't going to let the Broncos coach in to watch our practice, are you? News travels slowly up here, I guess.
Shanahan, traveling with his presumptive defensive coordinator of the future, Bob Slowik, will visit five teams for three or four days apiece this summer, the one year he'll be away from coaching. From here he goes to New England, Houston, Arizona and the University of Florida, where he'll get his first close look at Urban Meyer's spread.
Oh, Shanahan will be back in coaching in 2010. You can be sure of that. Until then, he'll study programs and sites. Here, he loves the Pittsburgh 3-4, the underrated defensive ends and the absolute flat-line qualities Pittsburgh has as a franchise. On the field with Slowik before this afternoon's practice, Shanahan was eating up the sights and traditions of the Steelers. "You look at things that are important for a franchise, and continuity is right up there. They've had three coaches [since 1969], and what teams have been more successful? No one. The whole staff's been intact on defense, I think for six years or more. They've won six Super Bowls. Then you look around this place. Beautiful. And it's all Steelers. Players can walk from their dorm to practice to film study to the dining hall. I think it has to be the best camp sites in the league, doesn't it? All of it adds up."
The week ahead: Jets today, Giants on Tuesday, then Vikes, Chiefs, the Hall of Fame and the Browns on Sunday. Let's get after it.
"For us, that's an academic problem, because we've got the No. 1 player at that position in the world as far as I'm concerned, and why would we ever want to do anything that would take him off the field for one play?''
-- New England owner Bob Kraft, on Sirius NFL Radio Saturday, saying the Patriots aren't going to have interest in signing Michael Vick.
"Last year, I talked to the team. This year, I'm talking with the team.''
-- Sophomore Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh, on the difference between addressing his team last year and this year.
"Hey T.O.! T.O.! T.O.! Way to stretch!''
-- A fan at the Buffalo training camp in Pittsford, N.Y., to Terrell Owens before a practice last week. Fans have been cheering Owens for the oddest things.
Tell me the big stars on the Philadelphia defense in this decade. Hugh Douglas? Brian Dawkins? That's it. "That's what's amazing about what Jim Johnson did,'' said his friend and former staff-mate in Indianapolis and at Notre Dame, defensive coordinator Greg Blache of the Redskins. "He made the most of what he had every year.'' How the Eagles fared league-wide under Johnson's tutelage since the new century dawned: Defensive category
Interesting. Douglas is the Eagles' leading sacker this decade with 40. Imagine he's the best pass-rusher you've had over the decade, and you get an idea of what good team defense Johnson orchestrated with the Eagles.
"Here we go with the meetings again ... the first week highlights fundamentals. So boring but essentail [sic].''
--vshiancoe, Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, time-stamped at 11 a.m. Thursday, when the team was in team meetings. That was followed by Shiancoe's next Tweet 46 minutes later:
"Zzzzzz zzzz zzzz zzz (in meetings) lol ... Introducing the staff.''
Sure hope we do better tonight in upstate New York than we did three weeks ago in Los Angeles, when a grand total of four people -- and a few crickets -- flocked to our Tweetup. Tonight at 6 at Joseph Bruno Stadium in Troy, N.Y., adjacent to Albany, we'll have a star-studded group of Tweeters to answer any and all of your questions. Go here for tickets.
The five current and former NFL coaches who spent a week in Iraq on a USO trip rallying the troops this summer -- Jeff Fisher, Tom Coughlin, Bill Cowher, Jon Gruden andHarbaugh -- stayed in the same large room, sleeping in bunk beds, for the week. Harbaugh said (as if this is a surprise) that Coughlin every night carefully peeled the edge of his blanket and sheet back, but only enough so he could slip in, and then pulled the cover over him, so it looked like the bed was made, with the form of a thin man the only lump in a perfect military-style bunk.
"Even when he turned over, he barely moved the covers,'' Harbaugh said. "In the morning, when he made the bed, there was not a wrinkle in it. But isn't that what you'd expect from a Tom Coughlin bed?''
One morning, when it was still dark out, Harbaugh couldn't sleep. He quietly slipped outside for a run, not leaving a note, and he got discombobulated, and he was out of the room longer than he'd planned. When Harbaugh returned, Coughlin was up, pacing, and said to him: "Where the hell have you been?! I was worried sick about you!''
"What a guy,'' Harbaugh said. "I think he kind of felt like my father over there.''
On the back of the purple T-shirt Terrell Suggs wore under his practice jersey Thursday were these words: "You Bet Your Sweet Ass I Hate The Steelers.''
For the first time, I've had a traveling companion for the training-camp trip. It's Ross Tucker, who played seven years on the offensive line in the NFL. Tucker joined me at Bills' camp in Pittsford, N.Y., last Tuesday and will be with me through the end the day tomorrow, when we part company after a day with the Giants in Albany. Miles I've put on the rental car as of this morning after the Boston-to-Pittsford-to-Ashburn-to-Westminster-to-Bethlehem-to-Latrobe-to-Cortland magical mystery tour: 1,243.
Tucker's a comfortable old shoe, and smart. A former Redskin, he's buddies with fullback Mike Sellers, and he said, "He's the baddest ass on the team, by far. If he challenged any player on that team to a fight, I guarantee they'd all try to find a way to get out of it.'' Watching new Raven center Matt Birk in drills wearing number 77, he said, "I guess Matt just didn't want to spend the money to buy his old number from Adam Terry.'' Terry wears 78, the number Birk wore for 11 years with the Vikings. (Though later, Birk told us, "It's not that. I just wanted a new number for a new start.'')
When a tornado warning and storms forced the Ravens inside the McDaniel College gym Thursday afternoon, Tucker said, "The players were high-fiving in the locker room when they got the news they were going inside. One less practice they have to hit each other.''
Tucker's still talking about rookie Eagles back LeSean McCoy's blitz-pickup ability. Offensive guard-turned-tackle Stacy Andrews is still rehabbing an offseason knee injury, and Tucker noted that on his pass-sets, he just doesn't look confident in the health of his knee.
So, it's been fun to have him along. Friday night was cool, in a few ways. We'd just gotten to the Lehigh Valley from Maryland, a 144-mile drive, and lo and behold, Tucker, who is a Blackberry bandito, discovered Pedro Martinez was pitching in a rehab start in Allentown, and his Lehigh Valley IronPigs announcer buddy Steve Degler could get us into the sold-out ballpark. Well, of course we were going to the game. You kidding?
We walked into the home-plate concourse as Pedro was finishing his warmups. Ninety seconds later, on his second pitch of the night, Pedro gave up a long homer to right. (Five innings, 84 pitches, none faster than 91. Lots of 86-mph fastballs and 71-mph changes. He's going to have to get by in this reincarnation on guile, and guile alone.)
Three other notes about the evening. One: In the top of the second, Tucker and I were standing down the right-field line, drinking cups of Shock Top Belgian White beer, when a woman walking to her seat with two cups of ice cream approached. "Excuse me,'' said Tucker, who is pleasant and absolutely not shy. "What kind of ice cream is that?''
"Moose tracks,'' she said.
"It looks fantastic!'' he said. "Can I have a bite?''
"No,'' she said. "You'll have to get your own.''
Two: The ballpark, designed by HOK, is fabulous. It's a mini-Camden Yards, roomy, comfortable and ridiculously creature-comfortable.
Three: When it was time to eat, Tucker found the Aw Shuck's Roasted Corn out in right field. Now, I've been to many ballparks in my 52 years, and I've never seen a roasted corn concession at a ballpark. But this corn was ... well, I'll just say if I had my choice between a Kansas City Porterhouse or an Aw Shucks ear, I'd take the corn.
Using locally grown ears of white-yellow Sweet Corn from Nazareth, Pa. (Get it? Nazareth? Bethlehem?), three kids bake the ears, not shucked yet, in a large roaster in the straight-away right-field concourse. The ears come out, roasted, and they're shucked, dipped in butter and sprinkled liberally with Parmesan cheese and a blend of spices (I'm told the recipe is a secret) that give the corn a Cajun/Southwest flavor.
We had two ears apiece, and Saturday morning, the first words Tucker spoke to me as we went out the door of our hotel to Eagles camp were: "Was that the most unbelievable corn you've ever had in your life last night?'' Yes. Without question. My only regret is I had only two ears, not 22.
That's a pretty good Friday night in Allentown, Pa.
1. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts of training camp week one:
a. Ray Rice made the best offensive play I saw all week. Circling out of the backfield into the right flat, he reached for a Joe Flacco pass thrown high and caught it one-handed, with the nose of the lasered ball nestling against the palm of his right glove. Rice never put his other hand on it. Happened so fast. For that reason and many others, I would not be surprised if Rice beats out Willis McGahee for the starting job.
b. Best defensive play: In Philly camp, free-agent running back Eldra Buckley burst through the right tackle-tight end hole and looked to be headed for a nice gain. But underrated defensive end Juqua Parker sloughed off a block and nailed Buckley at the last second, bouncing him to the dirt like they both were wearing rubber suits. The play amazed because it happened so fast, and Parker attacked the rusher with such brute force while being blocked.
c. Baltimore's practice was more intense than Buffalo's or Washington's.
d. Philly's practice was as intense as Baltimore's, and more spirited and hard-hitting than Pittsburgh's.
e. So strange to see a Pittsburgh training camp without Dan Rooney, who's in Ireland as our new ambassador.
f. Great sign for the Ravens: At his first practice with the vets in camp, rookie right tackle Michael Oher, the storied one, popped Terrell Suggs on a pass-rush drill so hard it staggered him. "Don't go making a big deal out of that,'' Oher said, looking worried when asked about it. "He'll make it so much harder for me.''
g. Ooops. Just made it harder for you, Michael.
h. Very big year for Turk Schonert. And he knows it. The Bills offensive coordinator has the greater Buffalo area breathing down his neck.
i. Now that Tony Dungy is out of football, Dick Jauron takes the mantel as the nicest man in football.
j. NFL quiz: Who's the only player in the league who has played professional football since he was a teenager? Answer below, in number 10.
k. The Eagles players have gotten a stern lecture from security director Butch Buchanico about sports betting in Delaware, which appears to be on the way to happening. He told them that under no circumstances are they to go into a Delaware casino and bet on sports -- because of the public perception and also because of the "interesting'' friends they'd encounter if organized-crime figures knew they were sports gamblers.
2. I think, in case you missed it, the Jaguars signed second-round pick Eben Britton, the 39th pick in the NFL draft, Sunday. That brings to mind the greatest quote in the history of the franchise. "Every team that passed on me will regret it for the rest of the history of their franchise,'' this calm, cool and collected fellow said after the draft. We'll be watching, Eben.
3. I think Sage Rosenfels was the Minnesota starter before Tarvaris Jackson went down with a strained knee at practice the other day, and he's still going to be the starter now, obviously. And I wouldn't be surprise if John David Booty beat out Jackson for the backup job.
4. I think all reports are that Tom Brady looks better than good coming back from knee surgery.
5. I think the people at Footballoutsiders.com quite possibly have outdone themselves this year, with Football Outsiders Almanac 2009. I am a huge fan of their book every year, and some of the nuggets Aaron Schatz and company have unearthed this year are going to make you run, not walk, to your computer to order this year's edition. The stats/story lines they've dug up that you can't find anywhere else:
a.Football Outsiders uses a stat called "Adjusted Games Lost" to measure injuries, based on how often starters appear on the injury list in the various categories. The 2008 Seahawks had more Adjusted Games Lost on offense than any other team going back to 1996. Now you know why they stunk.
b. For three straight seasons, the Arizona defense has been average against formations with the quarterback under center and one of the three worst defenses in the league against formations with the quarterback in shotgun. Ben Roethlisberger marched the Steelers down the field to win the Super Bowl using shotgun, and the Patriots blew out the Cardinals by using shotgun, even though there was a snowstorm. Asks Football Outsiders: "Why don't teams use shotgun against Arizona all the time?''
c. Tony Gonzalez Memorial Least Likely Stat To Continue in 2009: Atlanta threw only seven percent of passes to the tight end in 2008, 31st in the NFL.
d. Assuming that Brian Dawkins, Champ Bailey, Renaldo Hill and Andre' Goodman make it to opening week without injury, Denver will have the oldest starting secondary of any team in this decade.
e. The 2008 Colts were the only team of the last decade with no sacks by linebackers or defensive backs.
f. Two years ago, before he got hurt and began to decline, Leigh Bodden was pumped up by Football Outsiders before people knew he was good. This year, the cornerbacks to watch are William Gay of Pittsburgh and Orlando Scandrick of Dallas. Gay led the league in Adjusted Yards Allowed per Pass among corners with at least 40 passes attempted against them. Scandrick was 17th, but more important, played better as a fifth-round pick than fellow rookie Michael Jenkins did as a first-round pick.
g. And now for the projection that interests me more than any in the 2009 book: The Chargers have the strongest projection of any team in the six years that this book has measured preseason projections. Previously, the strongest preseason projection belonged to the 2007 Patriots. "However,'' said Schatz, "this does not mean we are predicting that the Chargers will go undefeated or even make it to the Super Bowl, because they are still coached by Norv Turner."
"The Chargers project to have the offense of the 2008 Chargers and the defense of the 2007 Chargers. They were the highest-rated offense by Football Outsider stats last year, in particular the best passing game in pretty much every possible fashion except, amazingly, when throwing to tight ends, because of Antonio Gates' injury. The defense is likely to rebound from last year's decline, especially given the level of injury it had last year. The Chargers also have excellent special teams and we project them with one of the easiest schedules in the league, partly because the projections have the rest of the AFC West as really weak."
h. The best "miracle season" possibility? St. Louis, believe it or not. Teams that draft offensive linemen high almost always improve. Teams that are horrible in the red zone almost always improve. Teams with that many offensive injuries (the Rams were third third behind Seattle and Cincinnati last year) almost always improve.
i. To order this annual gem, go to footballoutsiders.com. You can order the PDF version online for $12, and get a real book in the mail for $21.95. I can't recommend it highly enough. If you don't learn five things about your team that you didn't know, I'll guarantee -- well, I was going to say I'll guarantee your money back. But since it isn't my money, I'll just say this: Go get the book.
6. I think this is the second or third year in a row where People Who Know say the Houston Texans are going to be the team to make the big jump to the playoffs. I'm not sold. But what would really encourage me about this team is what's going on with running back Steve Slaton.
Most people who follow the game, particularly the Fantasy Football players, would be happy if just repeated his 2008 performance: 1,282 yards, nine TDs, a gaudy 4.7-yard average per carry. But Matt Schaub tells me Slaton's going to be markedly better -- potentially -- and his reasoning is solid. Not only are all five offensive-line starters returning intact, but Slaton's been paying attention to the small things in the lat six months.
"Go back and watch film on Steve,'' Schaub told me. "He had 1,200 yards or whatever, and there were so many more yards out there for him. When you have to adjust from zone blocking on your offensive line [at West Virginia] to our way, which is more man, it's tough to get used to. You've got to be sure your blocks are set up. I've seen Steve really grow in that job.''
Interesting stat about Schaub: Over the last two years, the three times he's been hurt to miss time, all three injuries came on hits that resulted in stiff fines against the defenders who hit him. "I am definitely not injury-prone,'' said the man who has missed 10 games due to injury over the past two years. He's going to have to prove it this year.
7. I think this is my favorite Matt Schaub stat of the week: Over the past two years, Schaub has completed 66.3 percent of his throws, Peyton Manning 66.2.
8. I think there is no team that is as good to its fans in training camp as the Ravens. When their two future immortals, Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, sign for fans for more than 30 minutes apiece at the same practice, that's class.
9. I think if you'd been with me Sunday in Latrobe, you'd have seen why the Steelers are so good, and why the R word -- repeat -- is on the mind of a few of their fans. With third-team units on the field at the end of team drills, Dennis Dixon led the offense downfield until the ball lay at the two-yard line. James Harrison, who was sitting in the end zone, stood up to encourage the defense, and James Farrior ran from the sidelines to the end zone to do the same. "Get us off the field, D!!!'' Harrison yelled. "We be foaming at the mouth today!!!'' And when the offense scored on an end sweep, the defenders were angry. I mean, angry. "I feel violated,'' said Ike Taylor. As Santonio Holmes said later, it's why they're good. One of the reasons, anyway.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. David Ortiz. Yes, 2004 and 2007 are tainted, but my problem in making judgments is I have no idea how many of the 104 players who tested positive in 2003 play for the teams Boston beat in the playoffs in those years. So what does it mean? I just don't know -- except I don't like it. And sorry, I don't buy the I-don't-know-what-I'm-taking argument.
b. Some guy named Reddick hit a homer for the Red Sox on Sunday. Never heard of him. Go away for a week and the world gets weird.
c. I agree with Bill Simmons. This is just a star-crossed year, a year that just doesn't feel right, for the Sox.
d. Coffeenerdness: Can't believe I'm praising Sheetz Coffee, but the dark roast there would give the Starbucks Sumatra a good run. It fueled me on two of these long jaunts last week.
e. Twitter is changing the news business before our eyes.
f. Answer to the quiz: Washington fullback Mike Sellers, who went to Walla Walla (Wash.) Junior College for a year out of high school, and, at 19, began playing professionally in Canada. (Amobi Okoye was 19 when drafted by the Texans, but turned 20 before signing.)
g. I miss news. I miss the New York Times crossword even more. Well, the Monday through Wednesday crosswords. Once we get to Thursday, I stink.