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With two weeks of preseason games down, the plot thickens

Preamble to a busy week:

NASHVILLE -- One reason I love NFL camps and the proximity to the players I cover: I'm standing in the Titans locker room waiting to meet tight end Jared Cook late Thursday afternoon, and the TV is showing an ESPN story on the top 10 sports rivalries, counting down from 10 to 1.

"Wonder what one is,'' asked fullback Ahmard Hall.

"Gotta be Red Sox-Yanks,'' said returner Yamon Figurs.

Three or four other guys chimed in -- Ohio State-Michigan, Steelers-Ravens, Colts-Patriots, Duke-North Carolina. Then little return man Marc Mariani, the seventh-round smurf from Montana in 2010, said: "No! Montana-Montana State!'' Glares, howls ensued. Figurs was right. When ESPN showed Pedro Martinez grabbing Don Zimmer by the head and throwing that melon to the ground, the players loved it. Just another fun day in a locker room.

Before I get to my week on the road with another few teams in camp -- the offensively diverse but slightly troubled Chiefs, the retooled Josh McDaniels, the first JoePa alum to be an NFL head coach, the Chris Johnson holdout through the eyes of a very famous peer, what I like about the Jags, and the unprecedented youth of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- let's focus on the news of the weekend:

And the Terrelle Pryor winner is ... The NFL's Supplemental Draft will be held today, and it wouldn't be surprising to see several teams duel over quarterback suspect Terrelle Pryor of Ohio State. The three players most likely to be picked are Pryor, Georgia running back Caleb King and Lindenwood (Mo.) defensive end Keenan Mace.

Teams wishing to acquire a player in a supplemental draft put in a blind bid to the league office today, and the team that bid the highest round for the player is awarded him. So if the Bengals bid a fourth-round pick for Pryor and the Raiders a fifth-, Cincinnati gets him. My favorite to pick the controversial Ohio State quarterback is Cincinnati.

Tony Dungy has no doubt about Peyton Manning's Week 1 availability. Great quote from Dungy on the Dallas-San Diego NBC halftime show about Manning's availability for the Sept. 11 opener at Houston. It's 21 days from today. "Unless he's dead,'' said Dungy, his former coach, "he'll be under center opening day.''

I've always thought, as I said on NBC Sunday night, that the Gehrig-ian record of consecutive games played meant more to Manning than the Ruth-ian numbers (touchdowns, yards). Manning has 90 games to go to pass Brett Favre's mark. In regular season outings, Manning is at 208 games, Favre 297. Manning's 90th game from today would be game 10 of the 2016 season, with Manning approximately 40 years and 7 months old.

Cam Newton has to play his way out of the starting job in Carolina. When rookie coach Ron Rivera announced Sunday that Newton was his starter Thursday night in Cincinnati and would play about three quarters, the Panther was out of the bag. Unless Newton, who has been only moderately impressive in two preseason games, messes up big Thursday night, he'll be the opening day quarterback in Arizona Sept. 11. It's possible he could play poorly, of course, but it'd have to be really bad for Rivera to go to Jimmy Clausen or Derek Anderson, who are on the team right now to be seat-warmers unless Newton can't handle the job.

Votes of 30-2 don't get rescinded after two preseason weekends. Competition Committee chair Rich McKay told me from Los Angeles -- he dropped off his son for his freshman year at USC over the weekend, which had to be pretty emotional, considering the family's ties to the Trojans -- that he doesn't remember any new rule being rescinded before it had time to take effect for a season. This one won't either, even though there is rampant fan and media dissatisfaction with the new rule that has kickoffs at the 35-yard line instead of the 30-, to limit returns and, the league hopes, some of the devastating injuries on returns. So stop begging for the rule to die. It may next March. It won't now. "After the season,'' said McKay, "we'll see how it's affected the game and the injury numbers.''

The Chargers are not looking like L.A.'s team. All along, we've thought San Diego was the most logical team to go to the new Los Angeles stadium project, because the San Diego city fathers have balked at building the Chargers a new stadium -- or helping them significantly to build one. But the vibe between the Chargers and officials with the stadium project isn't good.

Chargers attorney Mark Fabiani told ESPN it would take a "miracle'' to break ground in the next year for the AEG site in downtown Los Angeles near Staples Center. To which AEG point man for the project Tim Leiweke told the Los Angeles Times: "I think the problem with the Chargers is, [Fabiani] can sit here and talk about all the things we need to go through, but the last time I checked, they've been doing it for 10 years and they're nowhere. And the difference between us and them is we've got a guy [Phil Anschutz] willing to write a check for a billion. They've got zero financing, zero entitlements, zero design, zero deal with the city, and zero property that ultimately is not contaminated. Good luck."

And he said the Chargers "are not the only belle at the ball."

Interesting, to see the sniping between the two sides so many thought would eventually become partners. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Raiders take San Diego's place as the leader in the L.A. clubhouse, though Oakland has a sordid business history in southern California, and the Chargers have one thing the Raiders don't have: a quarterback (Philip Rivers) to put on billboards throughout Los Angeles.

Now onto the places I've been and things I've seen for week three of my camp tour with the USO.

Chiefs, St. Joseph, Mo.: Finally, lots of options for Cassel.

The fantasy football nerds got to Todd Haley a few times last year. He'd be eating dinner somewhere in Kansas City, and a fan would come up and say hello, and, even after a win, would throw in a Great game, but I wish you'd give the ball to Jamaal Charles a little more. He's dominating out there, coach, and he only got it 12 times today ...

"We led the league in rushing,'' Haley said, "and all I ever hear is how we don't run the ball the right way because Jamaal's not getting it 25 times a game. It's anti-TEAM. The way fans looked at what we did on offense was so fantasy football driven. You know, the curse of the NFL -- the scroll on the bottom of the screen, with all the individual stats. Fortunately for us, Jamaal's such a good team player. He says, 'Coach, I get it. Whatever you want me to do, I'm here.' ''

The Chiefs led the NFL in rushing by 133 yards over Oakland. Charles, the wispy and explosive back, gained 1,467 yards, 6.4 yards a pop. Thomas Jones gained 896, for 3.7 a rush. Thus the hand-wringing. Haley's theory is he's eating the clock and keeping Charles healthy for 16 weeks, and he has zero regrets.

Now, to make the offense more explosive, he's focusing on the passing game. Multiple receiver sets, namely. And on this afternoon in humid western Missouri, the Chiefs' offensive versatility with Matt Cassel under center is on display.

Cassel had a good year last year, a B year, with 27 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. That part was great. The completion percentage, 58.2 percent, was just OK. Twenty-five NFL quarterbacks were better. This year, Cassel knows he has to be better, and the multiplicity of the passing game -- even after the late-week distraction of top pick Jonathan Baldwin -- is better.

I couldn't keep up with the different formations I saw in the afternoon practice, with Dwayne Bowe and Tony Moeaki the relative constants. Bowe's split wide right, mostly, and Moeaki is either tight to the formation, or in the slot right or left. On one set, third-down back Dexter McCluster is the single back, with Charles in the slot; on another, Charles is the single back and McCluster is off the field. Steve Breaston, the Arizona import, and another former Card, Jerheme Urban, are in the slot or split wide left.

One can see how much Cassel gravitates to Moeaki. He's Dallas Clark. The way Peyton Manning flexes Clark tight and wide and in the slot is the way Kansas City wants to use Moeaki, who had 47 catches a year ago but could have 80 in this offense if he stays healthy, which has been a problem at times for him in college and the NFL."You can make Moeaki whatever,'' said Haley. "You can make him Wes Welker if you want.''

And on one set, huge tight end Leonard Pope was a sixth offensive lineman, lined up next to the right tackle, and Moeaki was in the slot.

"I try to learn everything,'' Moeaki said after practice. "I want my position coach to have confidence that they can put me anywhere and have confidence in me to run the play right.''

I told him he looks like Dallas Clark, the way he was used in this practice. "I watch a lot of Dallas Clark film,'' he said. "We both went to Iowa, and so it's good to be able to see what he's been able to do in the NFL. I watch him to see how he gets open against all different defenses. That's helped me.''

Now for the Baldwin postscript. On Friday, word leaked that Baldwin hurt his hand or wrist in a fight with Thomas Jones and will be out for the rest of the preseason. (The team clammed up tight.)

Baldwin came in from Pitt in the first round with lots of questions; his character was widely questioned by NFL general managers, and Chiefs GM Scott Pioli went out on a limb to take him. Pioli has emphasized character so much that the Baldwin pick was a big surprise to his peers. Clearly, Pioli felt Baldwin's transgressions -- mainly, speaking out publicly against his coaches -- were overblown.

But when I heard about this fight, and heard that it was Jones, I felt sure it had something to do with the offense's most respected leader putting the immature kid in his place. The team had no comment about it, but here's the story with Baldwin now: He's got an 0-and-2 count on him, he just fouled a ball off, and he can't afford to have another strike against him.

Because he's a first-round pick, he'll get multiple chances to make it right. But if he screws up a couple more times, it could turn into a painfully costly mistake for the Pioli regime.

For now, the Chiefs have enough weapons to replace him. For now. But they didn't draft him, and they didn't draft him in the first round, to get into locker-room fights. The pressure's on him to wise up.

Before the fight, Haley said: "My philosophy is you put your best 11 on the field as often as you can. I like the options we're going to have to be able to do that, and to do it in different ways. When I think back to what we had in 2009, you throw up on your shirt a little bit. But now we've got the chance to do a few things.''

And now the focus will be on Cassel to be more efficient, and to extend drives.

***

Rams, Earth City, Mo.: The Boy Wonder is back.

Josh McDaniels is not chastened. He had his shot at a head coaching job in Denver, and it lasted two years, and to put it mildly, he crashed and burned. Denver was 6-20 in his last year and a half, and the franchise, frankly, was worried about things like season-ticket renewal and the continuing loyalty of suite holders. No one believed in McDaniels at the end.

You can say whatever you want about his errors, and much has been said. The Broncos should not have paired the strong-willed McDaniels with a first-time general manager (Brian Xanders) who was a good scout but didn't have the experience to stand up to a coach. A more experienced GM could take some bullets for him and tell him he was making some big mistakes, as when he hired his brother, Ben, out of high school football to coach the quarterbacks. It wasn't that Ben was a bad coach, but the clear perception in the locker room was that nepotism was at play. There are things a young coach shouldn't do, but no one in the organization told a first-time head coach who looked like he was 23 that he was making mistakes -- and he made plenty -- until it was too late.

"I think I know what happened,'' McDaniels said in his office here, "but I learned to understand there are things you can control and things you can't. Here, I can control this. It's a perfect place for me.''

I asked if his confidence had been shaken by the experience in Denver.

"Nope,'' he said. "Not one bit. I appreciate the experience. I appreciate what the Broncos allowed me to do, and it's made me a better coach. It made me a better person, I think. And it made me a little more aware of how an entire organization works. I can take a step back and see how different organizations function, and see how different structures work. I know when I got the interview here, Steve Spagnuolo was a guy I really wanted to work with, and when I left after spending 10 hours here, I called my wife and said, 'This is it. This is the place I want to be.'

"Not only did they have the quarterback in place, obviously, with Sam Bradford, a guy who has the chance to truly be special. But there was a structure in place that I could learn from, a coach I could learn from, a front office I could learn from.''

On the practice field, even in only the third week they've been together, McDaniels and Bradford look to work well together. "We're not going to just run plays,'' McDaniels said. "We're going to USE players. And Sam is good -- you can tell -- in using all aspects of this offense.''

McDaniels hasn't ripped up the departed Pat Shurmur's West Coast Offense. In the short period he's had to fold some of his concepts into the Rams' 2011 playbook, McDaniels has asked a lot of Bradford. Under Shurmur, the center made the line calls and identified the middle linebacker, for purposes of offensive symmetry. Now it's Bradford's job, and you can see him in practice, pointing out the middle 'backer ("53's the mike!'') and surveying the secondary pre-snap to get a good read of what he's going to do when the ball's snapped.

"Josh's mindset is, if the defense wants to play us a certain way, fine; we'll do something else to make plays,'' said Bradford. "What I like about the offense is there always seems to be an answer.''

Immediately, McDaniels will try to fold in some more downfield concepts. Bradford had the lowest average completion among starting quarterbacks last year -- Ram receivers had a 9.9 yard-per-catch average last year -- while McDaniels' receivers in Denver were at 12.9. Take a look at the Rams receivers, and you don't see a proven deep threat among them. But Brandon Lloyd was roster flotsam in Denver before last year, and he finished with an 18.8 yard average on 77 catches. It can be done.

"I couldn't care less about my average, about my stats,'' Bradford said. "I'd just like to score more.''

If the Rams are held to 20 points or fewer 13 times this year -- as happened last year -- I'll be stunned. McDaniels, for now in his niche, should be able to see to that.

Colts, Anderson, Ind.: The Pocket Protector.

I think the right move was to put first-round pick Anthony Castonzo in with the first unit at left tackle, and to put him in now. I saw him on one of his first practices with the first unit, and three times in a row he handled a speed-rush in one-on-one drills, twice from touted 2010 rookie Jerry Hughes.

He's already had his welcome-to-the-Colts moment from the fearless leader. "The first time I talked to Peyton at length,'' said Castonzo, "he said to me, 'You got any questions for me?' I really didn't know what to say, so then he started telling me a few things about specific plays and what he expected of me. I thought it'd be five minutes. It ended up about 25. The guy's attention to detail is amazing.''

Oh really. We hadn't seen that.

"It's a great honor to protect him,'' Castonzo said. "Regardless of who would be back there, I'm going to do everything to protect the guy. But with him there, I have to admit it adds a little motivation.''

"He's going to make some mistakes,'' club president Bill Polian said. "They all do. But you put him in there, let him make those mistakes, learn from them, and you hope you have your guy at a very important position for a while.''

With respect to Charlie Johnson, the gap-plugger at left tackle after the failed experiment with Tony Ugoh, Castonzo was the logical pick last April. The Colts know they should have taken Rodger Saffold to play left tackle last year. They picked Hughes instead. Castonzo, the most experienced left tackle prospect in the draft, and the Colts hope he'll be the blindside guy for the guy who succeeds Manning. In 2021, or whenever.

***

Titans, Nashville, Tenn.: The coach who came to dinner.

"Ask your parents if I can come to dinner tomorrow night,'' Joe Paterno said over the phone to Scranton (Pa.) High senior Mike Munchak in the spring of 1977.

"As if we're going to say no,'' Munchak thought. He was a well-regarded high school prospect, a rare one, who had called the Penn State football office to tell them he'd decided to go elsewhere to college and play football. The coach who answered said, "Hang on. Let me put coach Paterno on the phone.''

NOOOOOOOOOOOO.

The last thing a high school senior who's not going to go to Penn State wants to do is tell Paterno (bigger than the governor even then) why he was going somewhere else. That's when Paterno asked about dinner, and Munchak checked with his parents, and yes, it would be OK if Paterno came to dinner the next night, to hear the reasons why young Mike Munchak was going somewhere else to college.

(To Syracuse, by the way. With dogged recruiter Tom Coughlin, who set an unofficial record for most Scranton Central High games attended, to make sure the Munchaks knew he cared.)

So the dinner happened. The mom and dad and Mike sat with Joe Paterno for a couple of hours while he told his stories of Penn State and life, never once mentioning the sport of football. The parents were mesmerized. Then Paterno said to them: "Do you mind if I have five minutes alone with your son?''

Uh-oh. Now Munchak was going to have to tell him.

Syracuse.

"If you come to Penn State,'' Paterno said, "I'm not guaranteeing you'll ever play a single play of football. But I can guarantee you you'll get a good education that will serve you for the rest of your life. If you come, and if you play football, and if you have it in you, I can promise you we'll get it out of you. And if that's not good enough for you, maybe I shouldn't be here. Maybe you should go somewhere else. That's fine.''

Munchak went to Penn State. And the day I was at the Titans facility, I spoke to the first Paterno player from Penn State ever to be an NFL head coach. Isn't that odd? Wouldn't you think someone from Happy Valley would have climbed the NFL ladder to the top of the business in the two centuries Paterno's been the coach at Penn State? You'd think so, but you'd be wrong.

"I didn't know either,'' Munchak said, sitting in Jeff Fisher's old office. That's the only coach who's ever coached the franchise since it moved from Houston, and when Fisher and the team divorced last winter, GM Mike Reinfeldt had no intention of giving the job to Munchak. He'd never been anything but a line coach. He never sought out coordinator jobs, though he'd been asked a couple of time to interview for them -- once, in Cleveland, by the man he hired as offensive coordinator of this team, Chris Palmer, the former head coach of the Browns. He thought there were only two jobs other than line coach -- he was a Hall of Fame offensive lineman for the franchise -- he'd ever want: general manager or head coach.

So when Fisher left, he spent 48 hours preparing for the interview with Reinfeldt and club vice president Steve Underwood, which was tough. Some assistants have nice, glossy presentations prepared when they interview for a job. Munchak had nothing. "I'm not a networker,'' he said. "So when it came time for one of the important parts of the interview, identifying which coaches I'd try to hire on my staff, I didn't really know a lot of them. I just thought: Who did I have trouble going against over the years? And those are some of the people I'd try to hire.''

Still, the truth was, his was a courtesy interview. Never did Reinfeldt think of Munchak, the quiet line coach, as head-coaching timber -- until his five incredibly thorough hours in the interview were up. "Shocking,'' said Reinfeldt. "He had an answer for everything. And some great ideas. We had no idea that was coming.''

Not just the Paterno-spawned ideas either. Sports jackets on road trips. No hats in the building. No headphones while working out; talking and communicating was preferred. No TVs in the trainer's room; don't want it to be too comfortable in there. A 12-minute video presentation on the history of the Oilers going back to the old American Football League days "because you should always know where you came from,'' Munchak said.

But interesting football ideas too. Competition periods in practice, for instance. A corner against a wide receiver; best out of five, with the whole team watching, where your biggest fear is getting beat in front of the whole team.

"In my career, the worst thing was letting your teammates down,'' he said. "I wanted every player to be able to have the chance to do what he does best, and to be lifted by the competition. I firmly believe competition is what everyone on this team better. I've always believed that.''

Before my 80 minutes with Munchak Thursday, I didn't know him well at all. But I'll be watching this team very closely. I have a feeling, particularly in light of the $15-million-a-year contract Larry Fitzgerald signed Saturday, that Chris Johnson's holdout could last into the season; I don't know that, and I hadn't thought that until I saw the resolve of the Titans on this trip, and then listened to Maurice Jones-Drew on my next stop. Which brings us to ...

***

Jaguars, Jacksonville: A running back's view of NFL economics.

(I'll have more thoughts about the Jaguars in my Tuesday column. But I thought Jones-Drew's take on the Johnson contract situation was interesting enough that it belonged here. So bear with me, Jags people. Read the column tomorrow.)

Maurice Jones-Drew and Chris Johnson are not close friends. But Jones-Drew, who has been Jacksonville's running game since Fred Taylor left two years ago, has respect for Johnson the way people have respect for peers who are excellent at what they do. So I asked him to weigh in on the contract stalemate between Johnson and the Titans. Of course, I knew he'd come down on the side of the player, but I knew Jones-Drew would also have an interesting take on it because he's usually a thoughtful player who raises points I hadn't thought of. So as I sat with him at team offices on Friday, he didn't disappoint me.

"How many true game-changers are there in pro football? he said. "Six, seven? Let's figure it out. Manning. Brady. Brees. Aaron Rodgers. Roethlisberger. Let's see. Matt Ryan, maybe. And Vick, of course. Matt Schaub? Maybe. But let's say there are seven of them, guys who you have to account for and who can beat you almost by themselves. And you look at every other player in the game and tell me if there's anyone who changes the game like Chris Johnson. I don't think there is."

I said to Jones-Drew: "Even if you're right, and you probably are, Johnson's got two years left on his contract. You've got to take that into account. It's not like he's a free agent. Right?"

"I understand," Jones-Drew said. "But you have to understand too that Chris is an adamant guy. He's the kind of guy who, if he feels like he's not getting what he's worth, he just won't show up. So you've got to figure a way around this. In terms of the business of football, I'd rather have paid him last year than wait until this year. [Johnson was coming off a 2,006-yard rushing season.] When you wait you always end up paying more.

"I think the lockout made guys understand their power. Chris knows he has some power. He knows his importance to the team. He knows that he's responsible for all those '28' jerseys being sold. All of a sudden if he doesn't show up, it's like the Colts if Peyton doesn't show up."

Well, not really. I understood the argument until then, but I simply can't equate Johnson's importance to the Titans with Manning's importance to the Colts. I do agree with Jones-Drew about Johnson being able to tilt the field. And in the wake of Fitzgerald's contract, I absolutely agree with him that Johnson deserves more than the highest-paid running back right now: That is in the $8-million-a-year range. But with two years left on Johnson's contract, it's hard to argue with any stance that says those years should be thrown out the window.

I think a logical compromise would be somewhere around $11 million a year on average, without erasing the 2011-12 contract seasons. It's easy enough to put guaranteed money in the contract in the first two years to buttress Johnson's low numbers there. Whatever, there's a compromise to be made that will put Johnson back on the field for opening day. Coincidentally, against Jones-Drew's Jaguars on Sept. 11.

Given that scenario, Jones-Drew sounds like a Jaguar, not an admirer of another great player.

"Hopefully they meet in some middle ground ..." he said. "In Week 2, after we play them."

I've seen instances this summer of a player trying to make team, competing against another player trying to make a team, neither of whom I knew even remotely. See if you can do better than me. Match the following sights -- with at least one nondescript player (or coach) in each -- to the proper team. Answers in 10 Things I Think I Think.

Bonus Question From Way Out in Left Field Dept.: What coach has had to learn the following first names this summer: Mortty, Crezdon, Baraka, Da'Mon, Sunny, Weslye and Swayze?

"They're great. They're daily. They're constant. They're unbelievable.''

-- Raiders coach Hue Jackson, to Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times, on his conversations with owner Al Davis.

"I've never heard of one that hasn't.''

-- Giants coach Tom Coughlin, asked if Osi Umenyiora's knee surgery on Friday had gone well.

"I play for Belichick now.''

-- Patriots receiver Chad Ochocinco, when asked why he didn't celebrate or preen after scoring a touchdown at Tampa Bay Thursday night.

So central Indiana is having angina over Peyton Manning's rehab from surgery to repair a disk in his neck, wondering if he'll be back for the season-opener at Houston.

Owner Jim Irsay tweeted Saturday his quarterback might not be ready for the opener. Colts center Jeff Saturday told me last week Manning would be. GM Chris Polian said he didn't know if he would be. President Bill Polian said, "Only Mother Nature knows.'' We'll see.

But let's assume he plays. (I feel confident he will. As I wrote the other day on my training camp blog, this is a guy who wants to be Cal Ripken more than he wants to be Babe Ruth, in my opinion. He wants the consecutive game streak held by Brett Favre more than he wants Favre's TD record. Just my opinion.)

Let's go back to a very comparable time. In 2008, Manning hid out during training camp, the same way he's been hiding out this summer, because of an ugly burst bursa sac in his knee that required two surgeries before the season began. Before the season and early in the season, he had to rehab for at least two hours a day, and it affected his performance. He didn't work out much with the team before the season and it showed early on. "The rehab just sucked up my energy,'' he told me late that season. "My goal has always been to avoid the trainer's room, and now, for the first time in my whole career, I'm going in every morning before meetings, challenging my preparation time.'' Here's how his season was affected, comparing the first three games of that injury-marred 2008 season to the final 13:

One difference this year: Saturday is the center. In 2008, Saturday was out with a knee injury, and Manning had to spend significantly more practice time getting rookie Jamey Richard ready to play center competently.

In that late 2008 interview, Manning told me: "It's been my most rewarding regular season. Guys dug deep. I dug deep.''

I expect nothing different in the next 20 days, as Manning speed-rehabs to be ready for the Sept. 11 opener. I'd be very surprised if he didn't play that day. And as the above stats show, he may struggle early. On the agenda the first four weeks for Indy: at Houston, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, at Tampa Bay. Not particularly grueling, but certainly not easy.

For so many of you who wonder why the Colts have never gone after a better backup, Chris Polian told me a story at camp the other day about a quarterback they were interested in signing a few years ago. "If I come,'' the quarterback said, "all I'm going to do is rust behind Peyton for a year.''

That has to be a factor for backups. Manning has never missed a game in 13 seasons.

Three years ago:

• Josh Freeman was entering his junior year as the quarterback at Kansas State.

• Mike Williams was serving an academic suspension for the season at Syracuse.

• Gerald McCoy was entering his redshirt sophomore season at Oklahoma.

• LaGarrette Blount, fresh out of East Mississippi Community College, was practicing for his first year at Oregon.

Those are the four Tampa Bay Buccaneer players on billboards around Tampa-St. Petersburg now with the club's 2011 slogan, "Climb aboard!

Bill Parcells turns 70 today.

"That's pretty good,'' he said Sunday. "Considering I thought I'd be shot or hung before I turned 40.''

I asked him what he was going to do for his birthday.

"Nothing,'' he said. "Nothing at all.''

ESPN has just hired Parcells for 15 appearances on air this season. He'll be on the first Sunday and again the next night, commenting on two teams he used to coach, New England and Miami, who open in South Florida. I hope he has a few more lines like the one he had on a radio show the other day with Keyshawn Johnson and Cris Carter, both of whom said they thought Plaxico Burress was going to have a big impact on the Jets. When they started talking about how many catches he'd have, Parcells said: "Whatever you guys say, I'll take the under.''

Cornerback Brandon Carr and kicker Todd Carter, born 18 days apart in Flint, Mich., attended Carman-Ainsworth High in Flint together, then played at Grand Valley State in Allendale, Mich., together. Now they're trying to make the Kansas City Chiefs together. Carr's a starting corner. Carter's trying to unseat Ryan Succop as the kicker.

Part of the fun of driving across America is learning the geography of places you've never been. Take Thursday night, driving east-southeast on I-24 in southeastern Tennessee, a half-hour west-northwest of Chattanooga, on the way to the Falcons-Jaguars game in northeast Florida Friday night.

Seven miles north of the northern Alabama border, there's an exit for Tennessee-Alabama Fireworks.

Drive 15 minutes. "Welcome to Georgia.''

"You are now in the Eastern Time Zone.''

Drive six minutes. "Welcome to Tennessee.''

Drive 11 minutes. "Welcome to Georgia.''

Drive seven hours and 33 minutes (with a hotel stop in Atlanta). "Welcome to Florida.''

"Congrats to @LarryFitzgerald god is good.''

-- @ChrisJohnson28, shortly after the eight-year, $120 million deal for Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald was announced.

No contract could have helped Johnson's cause to be paid more on the level of all but the highest-paid quarterbacks than this one.

"Not my idea of a fantasy.''

-- @MikePereira, the FOX Sports rulesmeister and former NFL VP of officiating, asked by a fan on Twitter if he played fantasy football.

"Haynesworth briefly put on helmet today. Tired by the effort, then took it off and stood around for an hour. Like a Game Day with Redskins.''

-- @RonBorges, the Boston Herald columnist, watching the terminally inactive Albert Haynesworth on the sidelines at Patriots practice Saturday.

1. I think to cover as many little things as we can, here are a few thoughts about the preseason weekend:

a. Colts are 4-24 in their last 28 preseason games. They've lost eight straight.

b. Tennessee shouldn't get a false sense of security minus Chris Johnson, but the Titans have rushed for 6.4 yards a carry with Matt Hasselbeck and the first-unit offense on the field: 19 carries, 121 yards, one touchdown.

c. We're all talking about Julio Jones' impact on the Falcons' offense, and I write about it in the upcoming SI NFL Preview. But on Friday night, slot man Harry Douglas said, basically, "Don't forget about me." His 76-yard catch-and-run at Jacksonville showed his speed and also Jones' downfield blocking ability.

d. While everyone's focusing on Cam Newton in Carolina, it might be smart to put the spotlight on the defense. In the first half at Miami, the Dolphins rolled up 301 yards of offense. That's Miami's offense.

e. Third-down conversions by Cam Newton in two games (via Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer): zero.

f. Preseason fever. Catch it. There were 26 penalties in the Detroit-Cleveland game.

g. Colt McCoy's a 68 percent passer with four touchdowns and no picks in two games.

h. The flip side of McCoy strafing the Lions is that Detroit's secondary got burned consistently. That's the Achilles heel of the Lions, and it could derail any legitimate playoff chances they have.

i. So much for the quarterback competition in Washington. That's what a 14-of-17 start did for John Beck and the Shanahans. It's not over, because if Beck bombs this week (doubt he will) and Rex Grossman is great, it could give the coaching staff pause. But I sincerely doubt anyone but Beck starts against the Giants in three weeks.

j. All along we've thought Ryan Torain might be the biggest threat to Tim Hightower for carries in Washington. Turns out it might be rookie Roy Helu, who has been a perfect fit in the Redskins' one-cut-and-get-upfield running style.

k. I had never heard of Chastin West before seeing him on the highlights the other night for Green Bay, catching five balls for 134 yards. But the spare Packer wideout has the kind of hands and decent speed that have to be making Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy wonder if he can wedge his way on the roster as a sixth receiver and special-teamer.

l. When I visited Vikings camp, I thought what a natural fit it would be for Donovan McNabb to form a bond with his tight ends. The line would be a work in progress, with only wideout Percy Harvin there to scare defenses, and rookie Kyle Rudolph was the most impressive young receiver in camp. So that's what the Vikings did Saturday night in Seattle: target the tight ends and running backs. Smart.

When you're counting on Charlie Johnson to be your left tackle, it has to occur to you that the pass protection is going to be dodgy, and Raheem Brock did beat Johnson for a sack of McNabb Saturday.

m. Should be interesting to hear New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' quiet little fireside chat with his players today, when camp reconvenes in Oxnard, Calif., for a few days of cooler practices, away from the New Orleans humidity. The Saints allowed 323 yards to Houston in the first half Saturday night.

n. The Eagles were awful Thursday night. And in Week 6 of the regular season, you'll laugh about it.

o. Charlie Whitehurst completed 10 of his first 11 throws against the Vikings, and Tarvaris Jackson struggled again. For better or worse, the Seattle quarterback position is going to be a competition, and soon.

p. Great note by Vito Stellino in the Florida Times Union. He wrote the Jags, under character-conscious Gene Smith, didn't have a single player on the 90-man roster from scandal-plagued USC, Miami (Fla.) or Ohio State. But they did have two apiece from Mount Union (Ohio) and Norfolk State, where, presumably, $50,000 checks are not being written to star players.

q. I mistakenly had Bears tackle J'Marcus Webb with 15 penalties in 2010 in something I wrote last week. He actually was guilty of either 10, if you believe the NFL's numbers, or 11, if you believe those kept by ProFootballFocus.com, which also charts individual players' penalties. Either way, extremely sorry for the error.

r. Quiz answers: 1 e, 2 i, 3 f, 4 b, 5 j, 6 h, 7 d, 8 a, 9 g, 10 c. Bonus: Mike Tomlin.

s. That's right: Brian Ferentz, the Iowa center just a few years ago, is coaching Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Brian is 27. He turned down a scouting job in Baltimore . And Dave Ragone, who Tennessee offensive coordinator Chris Palmer thinks is a rising star in the coaching business, is trying to get Kenny Britt on the straight and narrow in Tennessee.

2. I think I'm not sure if the Raiders and 49ers should play in the preseason anymore if it's going to result in one man being beaten to the point of having life-threatening injuries, another man shot in the face after the game, and another man shot between two and four times in the stomach after the game. By the way, anyone still wondering why the Niners want to move to Santa Clara?

3. I think, on the Eli Manning "elite quarterback'' subject, I'd say this: There are about 25 quarterbacks, and their coaches, who'd say they're in the top five of NFL passers. Seriously. I mean, who wouldn't, other than unproven guys like Colt McCoy and John Beck. But if you ask Rex Ryan if Mark Sanchez is a top-five quarterback, he'd say yes; Lovie Smith would say it about Jay Cutler, Leslie Frazier about Donovan McNabb, etc. There's just too much time, and too much media, in the NFL now. We blow up silly stories like that all the time.

4. I think the quickest way to NOT get re-signed by a team as a 37-year-old safety, as Lawyer Milloy is, would be to tweet the following after a shaky performance by Tarvaris Jackson in the Seattle-Minnesota game Saturday night: "Charlie Whitehurst should be our starting QB opening day. #ImJustSaying. What u think #12s #12thman #Seahawks #seattle'' Milloy is very good at the use of hashtags. He is not so good at lobbying for a roster spot.

5. I think the Ryan Williams injury -- he tore the patellar tendon in his right knee Friday night against Green Bay -- is obviously a blow to the rookie from Virginia Tech because he was going to be at least the co-running back with Beanie Wells for the Cards. What a great opportunity for Williams, particularly after Arizona traded Tim Hightower to show how much faith the coaches had in the Hokies rookie.

It's as big a blow to the team. A month ago, the Cards had a stable of three runners plus a change-of-pace back in LaRod Stephens-Howling. Now Alfonso Smith, a 2010 free agent from Kentucky, is the nominal backup to Wells. This is a perfect spot for a look at Tiki Barber. Not necessarily a signing of Barber; a look. But GM Rod Graves told Barber's agent, Mark Lepselter, Saturday the Cards were looking in a different direction.

I just don't get why a team desperate for an experienced back wouldn't look at him. It can't do any harm to work him out. I realize there are some teams who need spare running backs to also play special teams. But teams like Arizona, Detroit and Tampa Bay have enough youth all over their roster to take on a veteran back and make him a runner only.

6. I think if you look at Cleveland's schedule -- the Browns play the NFC West this year -- you can see them winning eight games. At least I can. I mean, you look at the schedule in the first 11 games and you think: Somebody at 280 Park Avenue is very fond of Randy Lerner.

The slate includes one team, Indy, with a winning record in 2010: 1. Cincinnati, 2. at Indianapolis, 3. Miami, 4. Tennessee, 5. at Oakland, 6. Seattle, 7. at San Francisco, 8. at Houston, 9. St. Louis, 10. Jacksonville, 11. at Cincinnati.

Not saying they'll go 10-1, and you gotta think the other teams are looking at Cleveland on the schedule and thinking it's an eminently winnable game. But the point is, no other team in the league has the kind of chance to start strong and stay strong as Cleveland has. The problem with the first 11 weeks for the Browns is the season isn't 11 games. It's 16. And the last five games include two with Baltimore and two with Pittsburgh. But when you face one strong returning playoff team in the first 11 games (Seattle, at 7-9, will forever be asterisked, even with the decisive win over New Orleans), you think it might just be your year.

7. I think I forgot this pro-Randy Moss story from my note about Moss and Patriots owner Robert Kraft a couple of weeks ago. Moss has been a consistent supporter of former Patriot teammate Heath Evans' charity work, and he was at a golf tournament in Florida for the charity when he came upon a pregnant woman working a beverage cart on the course.

According to Evans, Moss said to the woman she looked too far along to be working a golf tournament; the woman said she was on the verge of giving birth, but she needed the money, so she had to work. Moss reached into his pocket, according to Evans, pulled out a wad of cash, handed her the entire amount and told her, "Go home. Please.'' And she did.

I tell the story not to say Moss is Mr. Wonderful; Lord knows he's had enough problems with the press and public in his career. It's just that those who know him are convinced there are enough stories about the good side of Moss that have never been told.

8. I think Plaxico Burress' first trip to the end zone since Nov. 9, 2008 -- against Cincinnati Sunday night in New Jersey -- was like so many of his previous TDs. He beat the corner, stretched out for the ball and made the catch as his body flopped to the ground. You had to expect Rex Ryan would try to make that happen, to get Burress a touchdown in his first game back. That's what Ryan does. It's smart.

9. The play of rookie running back Kendall Hunter (he had a 53-yard touchdown run against Oakland Saturday night) is the biggest reason -- unless someone in the organization flat-out promised Frank Gore a new deal -- it would be silly to risk what are becoming precious cap dollars on a back like Gore, who has been hurt so much. Hunter's only 5-7, but he can block and run well enough for the Niners to think he's Gore's heir.

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

a. Hilarious line on razzball.com, the fantasy baseball site. Called Kevin Youkilis "the Greek God of Back Pain.'' You may have to be a Moneyball person to get that one.

b. Heck of a job, Charles Robinson. Be proud of your work on the Miami Hurricanes story.

c. I would love to comment on something in the real world, like TV shows or movies or something other than football, Rolo McFlurries and the road. But this week I'm a little short on that. I read the New York Times once and USA Today two or three times (good work on the Matt Cassel feature, Jim Corbett), so I don't know much about anything right now.

I did read that incredible story about the three supposed killers released in West Memphis Friday after being imprisoned for 18 years for killing three young boys. Seemed like an incredibly complicated case and a story with raw nerves everywhere. Amazing part of the story is how one of the relatives of the murdered boys supported the release of the men.

d. Beernerdness: Thanks to Indianapolis buddy Will Carroll and Scotty, of Scotty's Brewhouse, for the good time at the Indianapolis Indians game the other night. Finally was able to try Bell's Oberon Ale, a pale wheat ale from Michigan that I'd heard a lot about. I'm sold. Terrific, light citrusy and bold flavor with a thick head. I'll be looking forward to my next trip to cover the Lions.

e. Coffeenerdness I: Terrific latte, right down to the foam artwork on the top of the drink, at Kaldi's Coffee Roasting Company in St. Louis. Espresso with no trace of bitterness is not common in many places, even Starbucks. But Kaldi's gave me a smooth but sufficiently strong drink.

f. Coffeenerdness II: In the Tennessee Titans press room Thursday, I mentioned I'd be stopping for a coffee on the way out of there, and one by one the writers said they didn't touch the stuff. Only John Glennon of the Tennessean said he had the occasionally coffee or latte, but it was no big thing for him. "What kind of press room is this?'' I asked. "No coffee drinkers! It's an outrage!''

g. Don't let me down, Ryan Lavarnway. I picked you up to keep my ninth-place standing in my fantasy baseball league.

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