GATE 1, LAGUARDIA AIRPORT, NEW YORK -- Let the season begin.
This begins my 28th season covering the NFL, and the stories are endless. As I leave on my training camp trip -- 27 teams (give or take a couple), 31 days, beginning tomorrow in Flagstaff, Ariz. -- here are the 10 stories I'm most looking forward to documenting for you in the pages of Sports Illustrated, on SI.com in words and video, on Twitter and on my podcast, which will begin the first week of September:
1. The comeback of Peyton Manning. Really, it'd be better to see him after two weeks of camp, when he's thrown a lot, to see how his arm is holding up. But I'll see Manning on his first full day in pads with the Broncos at 8:50 a.m. Saturday. (Denver practices Thursday and Friday in what will be walkthrough practices, essentially.) Everything I hear about Manning at this point is positive. But everything to this point won't matter if he can't string a few hard, long practices together as he preps for his new life with the Broncos.
2. The strange year of the Saints. I see them Friday ... and before they practice under interim coach (for games seven through 16, which is part of the weirdness) Joe Vitt late in the afternoon, there will be what should be a stirring ceremony unveiling a bronze Steve Gleason statue on the concourse outside the Superdome. Saints owner Tom Benson, to his credit, commissioned the statue -- which, from what I hear, is a rendition of Gleason blocking an Atlanta punt in the first game at the Superdome post-Katrina -- and wants the eyes of America to be on it when camp opens this week and so many national media members are in town to cover that. Gleason, stricken with ALS, will be on hand, as will many players.
BANKS: ELI MANNING KNOWS GIANTS CAN'T DEPEND ON SAME TITLE BLUEPRINT
3. The Browns, in their first preseason game. An odd one, perhaps, thinking about the Browns so prominently. I'll see them in their first preseason game, at Detroit on Aug. 10. But think about all the newness on offense -- Brandon Weeden at quarterback, Trent Richardson at running back, second-round Supplemental Draft choice Josh Gordon at receiver along with a young corps there, Brad Childress as offensive coordinator, and, in a more under-the-radar deal, this year's second-round pick, Mitchell Schwartz, likely at right tackle. The Browns have won nine games in the two-year Mike Holmgren regime, so there's not likely to be much patience with the new kids on the block.
4. Buffalo, with new hope. I'll see, briefly I'm sure, Mario Williams chasing Robert Griffin III in the first games for both, Aug. 9 in Orchard Park. Looking forward to seeing that strong Buffalo defensive line and how it's meshing -- though I probably won't see them for longer than a couple of series.
5. Andrew Luck. How long have we been waiting to see Luck in the NFL? Two years? I'll see the Colts' final training camp practice in Anderson, Ind., on Aug. 17, and I'll be anxious to see his mastery of the Colts offense three weeks into camp.
6. Robert Griffin III. Luckily, I'll see his first live game (at Buffalo), and a full practice three days earlier in Ashburn, Va. It'll be interesting to see how the man under the second-most pressure in the District of Columbia responds to every eye being on him.
7. The three-ring circus that is the New York Jets. By the time I see them, in an 8 a.m. practice Aug. 8, the Jets ought to have all their lines down pat. Mark Sanchez: "Tim Tebow's a great help to our team. I welcome him." Tebow: "I'm just here to help the team however I can." Rex Ryan: "Yes, I'm on my way to Hollywood on the bye week to begin my modeling career."
8. The relatively silent attempt to repeat by the New York Giants. I'll see a full padded practice Aug. 7. Seems from the offseason that there's not much for the Post and Daily News to put on the back page with this team, which is just the way Tom Coughlin likes it. Seriously, what's the biggest question with this team, a question you're just dying to see answered this summer on the University at Albany campus? Bueller? Bueller?
9. The three-day swing through the newness of Florida. From Joe Philbin and Ryan Tannehill and Chad Johnson in Miami, to Greg Schiano and Dallas Clark and Vincent Jackson in Tampa to Mike Mularkey and Blaine Gabbert (OK, his second year, but with a new staff he's basically a rookie all over again) and Justin Blackmon, the first three days of August, when I see them all, will be fun. Like freshman year of Florida Football 101.
10. Russell Wilson. I'll see the Seahawks practice twice on Sunday, and I'll be most interested to see how Wilson -- who's been given a chance to battle for the starting quarterback job with Matt Flynn and Tarvaris Jackson -- competes and throws to his new receivers. Based on how quickly he adjusted to the new situation at Wisconsin, my guess is he'll be good early.
Now for your email:
GLAD YOU LIKE THE PAUL BROWN SPEECH. "When I read your teaser that you were going to put a 40-year old speech in your column I thought, 'Really? What a boring waste of space on your first column back.' I was just going to skip right over it. However, I started to read it anyway and I was enthralled by it. I loved how thorough he was in warning his players of virtually every pitfall that athletes run into, both on and off the field. You can tell that he was not trying to be a dictator or a football czar, but just someone who knew what he was talking about and only wanted the best for his team and for all of his players. You are absolutely right -- he was ahead of his time. He was the original rookie symposium and, hopefully, at least some of his players got something out of that speech. It was a great piece. I think it would be neat if you could contact a couple of his players from this team and send them the speech and get their thoughts on it all these years later.''-- From Mike Humeniuk, of Thunder Bay, Ontario
Beautiful wording by you, Mike . "He was the original rookie symposium." Thanks. Appreciate you and so many others writing to say they liked the speech.
THE NFL IS HYPOCRITICAL. "As Saints fans, the issue has never been whether the Saints did anything wrong; it has always been the hypocrisy of the punishments. With the rash of arrests this summer is more pressure on Goodell to serve harsher penalties than he has in the past? Vilma gets a whole year for hitting someone hard but legally and receiving $1,000 for his efforts. Comparatively, Dez Bryant should get at least two years for hitting (illegally) his own mother. This is Goodell's shot to show that he means business to maintain the image of the league and show that illegal activities by its members will not be tolerated. If he doesn't it's pretty apparent that these punishments were mostly linked to the pending concussion lawsuits rather than 'protecting the shield.' ''-- From Ray, of New Orleans
Goodell suspended Vilma for a year because he believes he offered teammates $10,000 to injure Kurt Warner and Brett Favre and knock them out of playoff games. If that's true, it's a little more serious than Dez Bryant getting into some altercation with his mother. But you're right: There's been a spate of bad incidents this offseason, and when they're adjudicated, Goodell will have to hand down sanctions to prove he's protecting the image of the league.
ON T.O. AND THE HALL OF FAME. "Love the column and read it religiously. As a voting member of the Hall of Fame committee, what are your thoughts on Terrell Owens getting in or being a first ballot? His numbers are certainly Hall of Fame worthy, second only to Jerry Rice in most categories. I think you said once that off-the-field stuff shouldn't matter when deciding on HOF candidacy. While Owens is actually a very good person (no trouble with the law) and participates in charities, it's his off-the-field "football" stuff that is important because his antics destroyed chemistry on the teams he played for and led to ugly divorces from the 49ers, Eagles and Cowboys. How important will all that factor in when it comes time to vote on him?''-- From Daniel Chardon, of Woodland Park, N.J.
Interesting question. I'm a believer that off-field stuff doesn't matter when it comes to voting for the Hall, but that's a tricky thing. I considered Michael Irvin's leadership and the importance of his influence on locker-room chemistry when I voted for him. So I would be hypocritical if I didn't consider Owens' influence on team chemistry. As far as the first ballot, who knows? Cris Carter and Owens had similar careers -- Carter with 23 more catches, Owens 23 more touchdowns� and Carter's failed to get in on five tries. We'll see what happens. Five or six years from now is a long time, and opinions can change.
MIKE BROWN IS NO PAUL BROWN. "Thank you for sharing the 1973 Paul Brown speech. I can see how it impacted another late great -- Bill Walsh, who, of course, was the offensive coordinator at that time. It also explains why today's Cincinnati Bengals continue to struggle to sell out games. I'm convinced that fans see a very clear difference between the late great Paul Brown and his son, who owns the team today, Mike Brown. We can say the Twelfth of Never all we want, but as long as a poor product and poor perception continues about within the Bengal team, Cincinnati citizens will continue to stay away from Paul's Stadium and the Bengals will never develop a consistency of winning. Paul Brown always got through to both his Bengal teams and to the Cincinnati public. Mike Brown has never articulated a similar desire to the Cincinnati fans. Mike Brown has a lot of adjustments to make if he wants to improve the standing of both himself as owner and of the team his dad gave him. Right now, these fans do not see the same character traits between Paul Brown and Mike Brown.''-- From D W Boegel Jr, of Dublin, Calif.
Well, Mike never coached or won championships the way his father did, so you're right there. I also think he hasn't been able to convince his players over the years that he's doing everything within his power to win the Super Bowl. But I'm not sure that applies only to Mike Brown in the heir department. There aren't many Paul Browns, and remember -- in his time running the Bengals, Paul Brown didn't win a Super Bowl either.
THE LIONS SHOULD DO MORE. "Re Aaron Berry. Wouldn't it have more teeth if the Lions cut a player who actually mattered?''-- From Kenny Looney, of Palestine, Texas
I doubt sincerely the Lions would cut a first-round cornerstone player like Nick Fairley for one DUI. Why would they?