RENTON, Wash. -- I'll get to the upstart Cardinals, the recharged Chargers, Drew Brees tsk-tsk-ing the commissioner, what Peyton Manning hates and the third-round pick who leads all rookies in charisma. I know what you want. You want football. You want to see what I've seen. Five quickies from my first five camps:
Play of the Week: Seattle wide receiver Golden Tate making a full-out diving catch at the eight-yard-line, bouncing up and diving into the end zone Sunday at Seahawks camp. "I got a lot of pressure on myself,'' Tate said Sunday night. "It's year three for me, and it's time. I need to be able to turn routine plays into explosive ones.'' Nothing but questions around the Seattle receiving corps. Tate needs to answer a big one.
Sign of the Week: In San Diego GM A.J. Smith's office is this gem in a frame, from Winston Churchill: "History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it." Question is, Is Smith's Charger book on the last chapter?
Fantasy Tips of the Week (which you should take with a shaker of salt): Five of them: Watch the Marshawn Lynch discipline case (still too early to call; he might get off with an NFL fine even if found guilty of DUI), and if he gets an unpaid vacation, pick up rookie fourth-rounder Robert Turbin, a between-the-tackles runner from Utah State ... In Denver, Eric Decker over Demaryius Thomas ... In San Diego, Eddie Royal over Robert Meachem ... Jimmy Graham, if healthy, will have the best tight end stats in football ... Wouldn't be surprised if, after Larry Fitzgerald, the Cardinal with the best receiving numbers will be Rob Housler. Get to know him. Tight end. Ken Whisenhunt loves him.
Idiot of the Week: Me, for thinking that driving from Flagstaff, Ariz., to San Diego was a good idea. Seven hours and one scary pitch-dark encounter with a feral cat in a Gila Bend McDonald's parking lot later (don't ask; I will only further embarrass myself), a dusty rental car pulled into the Chargers parking lot. This just in: Airplanes have been invented.
Why You Have to Go to Training Camp and Not Just Sit Behind a Desk: For these three scenes ... Philip Rivers looks out on the practice field after the first practice of the year and sees 15-year vet Takeo Spikes, who has never played in a playoff game, doing extra work. He's the last guy on the field. "That's why I want to win -- for guys like Takeo,'' Rivers said ... To see how quick in and out of cuts rookie Nick Toon is in New Orleans -- and to think, "Are you kidding? Another weapon for Brees?'' ... Peyton Manning taking coaching from offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and quarterback coach Adam Gase. He's going to be his own coordinator on the field -- we know that. But the way they talk on the practice field, you can see Manning respects his new aides. ... Antonio Gates running with no limp after a 2011 season spent with constant foot pain, and smiling almost every time he took his helmet off, and saying afterward, "I appreciate my health so much now that I've got it back."
Now onto what I saw on the road in my first week out:
Wednesday: Arizona (Flagstaff, Ariz., Northern Arizona University)
How the first day of camp can lift an entire organization.
If you blinked, you missed it. Or if you were gazing at the imposing San Francisco Peaks just north of the practice field in this lovely college town, you could have missed it too. Ryan Williams, who'd provided so much hope for the Cardinals' running game last summer before rupturing his patella tendon in a preseason game, took a handoff up the middle in the first practice of the summer. Then the second-round draft pick out of Virginia Tech in 2011 did something he hadn't done in 49 weeks: He juked one defender left while planting and cutting right, then did the exact opposite -- juke right, cut left. The crowd oooohed. "Go Li'l Sweetness!'' someone yelled, because that's what Williams likes to be called.
Two hard cuts. As heartbreaking as it was to lose Williams last year, that's how thrilling it was for the Cardinals to see that two-second cut-cut scene.
Quarterback Kevin Kolb and wideout Larry Fitzgerald were talking about the play afterward with a camp visitor. "Amazing,'' said Kolb. "Great. The comfort level you've got to have after whatever knee injury he had --"
"Patella,'' Fitzgerald said.
"Yeah,'' said Kolb. "But three, four cuts, after an injury like that. To trust your knee to make moves like that ... Wow."
On the field, Williams was reliving the play over and over, as reporters crowded around him. I asked if he'd heard the "Li'l Sweetness'' shoutout.
"I heard it,'' he said. "I heard it. Felt good.''
Thursday: San Diego (San Diego, Chargers' practice facility)
The Chargers are mad as heck, and they're not going to take it anymore -- or so they say.
Sometimes, I've seen the roll-the-eyes treatment from Charger players when they hear something blunt GM A.J. Smith says that they disagree with. So I'm in Smith's office before heading out to interview some players after a morning walkthrough, and he's talking about the differences in the 2012 team from previous ones. And he goes further than I thought he would, talking about the Chargers' 17-15, playoff-less existence over the past two seasons.
"We have lost our respect in the league and our credibility in the league,'' he says. "We were an elite team. You miss one year in the playoffs? OK. You miss two? You deserve everything that's being said about you.''
I thought it was strong. Very strong. There's no question Smith, who spoke passionately, as he often does, has thought about how inexcusable it is for a team with San Diego's talented pedigree to twice miss the playoffs with a quarterback as formidable as Philip Rivers and a supporting cast that was playoff-worthy. I was anxious to see how the players would react.
Maybe they didn't want to rock the boat. But listen to three vets respond to the we've-lost-our-respect-in-the-league line.
"Amen,'' said center Nick Hardwick.
"It's the truth,'' said tight end Antonio Gates. "It's not acceptable, not negotiable.''
"That's the mentality we have right now,'' said Rivers. "Not being in the playoffs the last two years, we've developed that feeling, and our feeling right now is we've had enough. We have a little edge about us now. But, you know, you've just got to go out and do it."
This is probably the first time since 2006 -- when the Chargers were coming off a third-place finish in the division -- that San Diego hasn't been locked into preseason Super Bowl contention. This is an odd year in the division. Denver has Peyton Manning. Kansas City has a formidable defense and a healthy quarterback. Oakland has a new everything. The Chargers like the pack. They've been the lead dogs for so long, and it's brought them nothing but lots of regular season wins and lots of January heartache.
Friday: New Orleans (Metairie, La., Saints' training facility)
Drew Brees has something on his chest.
If you think the mayhem around the Saints is going to send them to 5-11ville, you're nuts. Too much talent. Too good a triggerman. You've all heard about the huge, glaring Sean Payton banner with "DO YOUR JOB" hanging over the Saints' indoor practice field. Interesting enough. I watched them doing it Friday, led by Brees.
There's a drill the offensive skill players run early in practice, with quarterbacks getting the ball out to sprinting receivers and tight ends quickly. It's a nonstop, ping-ping-ping, one-throw-after-the-other completion-fest, and Brees, by my count, threw 18 balls in a row that his receivers barely had to reach for. Every one, right there. Just the way Sean Payton would have scripted it had he been there. But Payton is suspended for the year because of the bounty scandal, and the interim coach, Joe Vitt, will be gone for the first six games for his role in what the league says was a coverup of the scandal dating to 2009. No decision has been made on who will coach the team for the first six weeks of the season, but my money's on defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who replaced you-know-who last winter.
Obviously, removing the coach for the year and removing his aide-de-camp, Vitt, for the first 40 percent of the season is a crushing blow. Maybe it's naïve, and maybe I trust Brees too much, but I can't see the season going down the toilet with a quarterback as good as Brees putting up 28 or 30 points a week.
Regarding Payton, Brees said: "Even though he's not here physically, I hear his voice in my head every day.''
"How will it affect this team?' I asked.
"I don't know. I think about it a lot. The hard thing is, your head coach (snaps his fingers) is gone like that. He's just gone. We're very familiar with coach Vitt, very comfortable, and then he's gone for the first six weeks. You take the two strongest presences in the building and remove them, and it's like taking the president and vice president away from government. You had better have a pretty strong Congress, then.
"Our mentality is this: Move on. Find a way. We will. The teachings from your parents never leave you, and eventually you're going to leave them, but you're going to carry those teachings with you.''
Brees and I talked for 45 minutes or so about the severe league sanctions against the team, the 77 games commissioner Roger Goodell banned players, coaches and the general manager, Mickey Loomis. It's clear he's angry about the severity of the suspensions. He is angry that Payton and Loomis were summoned to the league office last winter before the league announced the existence of the bounty/pay-for-performance scandal and not told how much the league had on the Saints before they were questioned. (I'm not sure that matters, but he's not the only Saint who feels the league didn't share enough information with Saints officials before the February interrogations.) Brees has spoken about the subject at length in the past few weeks, but he said a couple of things I hadn't heard:
• On the 16-game Payton suspension: "I was utterly shocked. Shocked. And the way the suspension works -- it's like, You're cut off right now. We [the NFL] are going to tell you who you can and cannot talk to over the next year. [Payton is forbidden from talking to Saints players or front-office members.] That is completely ridiculous.''
• On NFL players' attitudes to Goodell: Brees got quiet and thought for a moment, then said: "Nobody trusts him. Nobody trusts him. I'm not talking about a DUI, or using a gun in a strip club, which are pretty clear violations. I think there're too many times where the league has come to its decision in a case before calling a guy in, and the interview is just a façade. I think now if a guy has to come in to talk to Roger, he'll be very hesitant because he'll think the conclusion has already been reached.''
I've heard this. I get it. But I can't see why players would go mute, if they'd been suspended and have the right to appeal, and they hadn't had their sides heard to their satisfaction. In a system where Goodell, through collective bargaining, has retained the long-held ability to hear appeals in discipline cases, why cede a chance to present evidence you believe will help cut down the sentence? Maybe the Vilma Four will win in a New Orleans courtroom. But why not use every avenue you have, not just the litigious one?
Now it was time for Brees to go to practice. "I feel it's all we've done here, overcome the odds. We're going to have to do it again.''
Saturday: Denver (Englewood, Colo., Broncos training facility)
Peyton Manning has six weeks to feel better.
Manning can hear what people are saying about him and read what writers are writing about him. Peyton's back to normal. Look at him throw. Look at his command of the Denver offense. He's back.
"I hate it,'' Manning said.
Because he's not. He's not all the way back.
Manning doesn't feel like he's near 100 percent yet. It's not his neck, which has undergone four procedures in the past two years, including the major surgery 11 months ago that caused him to miss the 2011 season. It's simply the regeneration of the nerve that affects his arm strength, particularly the area around the shoulder.
He's throwing the ball fine, and by that I mean if you watch a complete practice, you don't find yourself wondering why Manning is babying his throws, because he's not. He's just not ripping them. He's as accurate as ever, and it may be that this will carry him in 2012. As one former coach of Manning's told me over the weekend (not Tony Dungy), "If I were a Denver fan, I wouldn't be worried about Peyton physically, because if he can't zing the ball the way he used to, he'll figure out a way. He always does.''
(It's strange how we've already fast-forwarded past the weirdness of seeing Manning wearing another uniform, another helmet. After practice Saturday, he signed a load of autographs, a few of them for people wearing Manning Colts jerseys. To one such guy, Manning said, "Colts fan or Broncos fan?'' The guy said, "I'm a fan of yours.'' The fans came out in record Denver numbers for the first three days of practice, almost rubbing their eyes when the players came out from the locker room. Like, It's him. He's really here. Then he got to work, and it was just football, only with one of the greatest quarterbacks ever out on the field, with another all-time great, John Elway, the man who brought Manning here, watching in shades and shorts on the sideline. It's going to take some getting used to.)
As I watched Manning's first padded practice in 19 months on a sun-splashed field, I saw him throw efficiently and accurately. His best throw of the day, on a double-move by Eric Decker against Champ Bailey, was exactly the kind of precision intermediate throw Tim Tebow wouldn't have made. It had to fit in a tiny window around Decker's hip, and it did, and Decker ran for what would have been a long touchdown.
Suppose this is what Manning is -- his same accurate self, without the penchant for throwing deep very much, but only to keep the defense honest and to keep Demaryius Thomas happy. Will it work, as the former coach said? Decker's a potential star trolling the middle, sure to be among the league leaders in receptions if healthy for 16 games. Denver has added two young tight ends with good hands, Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen; Manning completed 67 balls to Tamme in his last healthy season, 2010. You can't count on 36-year-old Brandon Stokley to stay healthy, and it's no sure thing he'll even make the team. But if Stokley stays upright this summer and makes the team, Manning would have the wideout he calls the best slot wide receiver he's ever played with back as a security blanket. (It's a mistake to count on the brittle Stokley, however. I'm just raising the possibility that he could be a valuable piece for Manning.)
Theoretically, if Manning throws fewer balls downfield, his completion percentage will rise slightly, and his yards per attempt will fall, perhaps significantly. Before sitting last season, he'd had nine straight seasons of completing 65 percent of his throws or better. And only twice has he had seasons below 7.0 yards per attempt; last year, 17 passers were under 7.0, including three who made the playoffs. So if Manning completes 69 percent with seven yards per attempt, would that suit Denver? In a heartbeat. It'd suit most any team in the league, except perhaps for the explosive Saints or Packers.
Point is, I think if Manning has to become a chain-mover (which he's always been to a degree), he can do it. And he won't fight it, he'll adapt.
"Where I'll be, percentage-wise, I don't know,'' Manning told me. "I don't know if I'll feel the way I've always felt again. Everybody wonders, 'Can he get back to where he was?' That bar was set pretty high. Now, my goal is to feel as good as I possibly can -- right now.''
At his camp for college players this summer, he and brother Eli demonstrated the NFL route tree for the campers, all good throwers and some of them good prospects. When he got to a deep sideline throw, instead of patting the ball a couple extra times and letting a 65-yard bomb go, he threw it a little earlier, and it was on target, but not as far. Meanwhile a college player bombed away right after him, throwing the same route 15 or 20 yards farther. Manning wasn't offended. His ego wasn't punctured. It's just the way it is. And that could be an accurate metaphor for the 2012 Broncos.
I think the way it is might not be as electric, but I think it's going to be good enough for Denver to get its $18 million worth.
Sunday: Seattle (Renton, Wash., Seahawks training facility)
It's hard not to be impressed with rookie Seattle QB Russell Wilson.
Matt Flynn, Tavaris Jackson, Wilson one day. Jackson, Wilson, Flynn another. Wilson, Flynn, Jackson the next. This is a strange training camp. Most teams know their starting quarterback this morning. A few are having double-barreled competition for the job. But only one of 32, the iconoclastic Seahawks, has three men -- pricey free agent Flynn, incumbent Jackson and the 75th pick in April's draft, Wilson -- competing for the most important job on the field. "We know we're sacrificing something by doing this,'' coach Pete Carroll told me, "but we think the competition is worth it.''
Jackson was a marginal starter, at best, for Seattle last year, leading to the signing of Flynn (two years for at least $13.25 million), and followed by the surprise drafting of the 5-foot-11 Wilson. Most of the free world thinks Flynn -- who I'm guessing is just thrilled to be splitting reps three ways on a team he needs to work heavily with so he can get on the same page with his receivers -- is the likely starter, unless he stinks up camp and the preseason games this summer. That's logical. And if I had to put two five-stacks in Vegas on the outcome of the derby, I'd probably go with Flynn.
But the vibe I got here Sunday is that Wilson has a legitimate shot to win the starting job. Carroll loves him. GM John Schneider loves him. Plus, Flynn's not the kind of player whose arm is going to wow you in a training camp. He's got to have a chance to grow on you, the way he did on Mike McCarthy in Green Bay, to the point where McCarthy, by the end of last season, would have trusted Flynn running the Green Bay offense in a playoff game. But Flynn's just not going to come into a training camp and make people gawk.
That gives the charismatic Wilson a chance, which is all he's ever wanted. I spent 20 minutes with him Sunday, and I was ready to run extra routes for him after listening to him.
"I refuse to be average,'' Wilson said on the field after practice. "I refuse to be good. All I want to do is work to excel every day.''
It's very difficult to make any judgments on a player, or a team, watching a pad-less practice, with players in helmets and shorts. But Wilson's arm looked every bit as strong, and maybe slightly stronger, than Flynn's in this practice. On one snap, Wilson was flushed from the pocket, scrambled right ("He scrambles to throw; he doesn't scramble to run,'' Carroll said) and launched a slightly wavering 32-yard strike down the right side to a covered Ben Obomanu, who came down with the ball. Good play, the kind of play he's going to have to make in the NFL when the pocket breaks down.
That's what he told me he was happiest about at Wisconsin -- the ability to show scouts and NFL teams he could play in the land of the giants (the Badgers offensive line is annually one of the nation's largest) and get clear passing lanes to complete passes. The stuff about how Wilson's sure to have trouble completing balls in the NFL because they'll be batted down seems specious. In the NFL last season, according to Pro Football Focus, 1.9 percent of all pass attempts got batted down or deflected at the line of scrimmage. At Wisconsin last year, Wilson had two of 309 batted down -- 0.6 percent.
I asked sports statistician John Pollard, at Seahawks practice Sunday, to help me with college stats on batted passes. Pollard works with STATS LLC as general manager of its Sports Solutions Group. He came up with numbers that supported Wilson's belief that he'll find a way to complete balls in the bigger, faster NFL.
"I've been told a ton of times if I was just two inches taller, I'd be a great prospect,'' Wilson said. "But I played behind a huge offensive line last season, and I think what I proved is I'm not going to have any trouble getting the ball out.''
The obvious comparisons to Drew Brees will be there for however long Wilson plays in the NFL. "I really would love to get a chance to meet him and spend time with him,'' Wilson said. "That's my guy, the guy I really look up to. I've read his book two or three times. I've watched so much tape on him. Maybe I can get Nick Toon [a Wisconsin teammate drafted by the Saints] to help me meet him.''
Cool kid. The quarterback competition is the best story in Seattle's camp, and the charismatic Wilson makes it that way.
People envy NFL writers at this time of year because we get to see teams at camp with less of a filter than during the season. It's also fun to see teams go back to their roots at some of the college campuses they use. Here are my favorite training camp sites among the teams that go away from home.
1. Steelers (Latrobe, Pa.) Why do I love thee, Latrobe? Let me count the ways: 1. Rolling hills of Laurel Highlands make the place look a little Scottish, and occasional morning fog adds to it. 2. I once saw Joe Greene, alone, smoking an evening cigar at dusk while overlooking Chuck Noll Field. 3. I once saw the Bill Cowher Steelers practicing on a dry field with no fans, with a huge cornfield on one sideline, a few long spirals from the main field. Looked like Field of Dreams. 4. Fans on top of the action. Must be a Latrobe rule to wear black and gold to camp.
2. Cardinals (Flagstaff, Ariz.) About 15 feet from fans on the sidelines, Larry Fitzgerald was tiptoeing and catching sideline balls on Thursday. No fence. No rope. Just trust that fans will respect the lines. I once saw a fan, during calisthenics, walk up to Emmitt Smith and shake his hand. If you love majestic pine trees, cool afternoons and the San Francisco Peaks range of mountains overlooking the field, you need to visit this underrated spot.
3. Bills (Pittsford, N.Y.) Classic old-style football camp at a small college in a Rochester suburb. Fans on top of players in modern bleachers at St. John Fisher College. Because the fans treat the players like community treasures, the Bills treat the fans with the same respect. Great vibe there. And a very nice souvenir tent.
4. Eagles (Bethlehem, Pa.) If you like hills, you'll love the campus of Lehigh University. And though the practice fields are just flat fields with no great view, the feel of many practices are perfect Philly -- chants ("E-A-G-L-E-S! EAGLES!!!") and catcalls that make it clear these fans are in midseason form in late July and early August.
5. Panthers (Spartanburg, S.C.) I've always loved the feel of this place, in part because of the way the Panthers treat the fans who attend. Ten or 12 players sign until the last autograph, and you can walk around the Wofford College campus and see players if you pick the right time. Oppressively hot most of the time, but a postcard of a place.
GALLERY: TRAINING CAMPS OVER THE YEARS
6. Vikings (Mankato, Minn.) Another classic college campus hosting a team, with players who are accommodating, an hour south of the big Minneapolis airport. The real treat is Jake's Stadium Pizza across the street, with local Mankato beer on tap. The pizza's so good that players come in before curfew regularly.
7. Chiefs (St. Joseph, Mo.) I have always loved the Wisconsin-River Falls site, so this one, on the campus of Missouri Western State University, will take some getting used to. But practices are fan-accessible, and you can catch players around campus too. Good line of sight on the main practice field. For the team, rainy days are no issue because of a classy, modern indoor facility the Hunt family helped build.
8. Cowboys (Oxnard, Calif.) Weather's great on the Pacific coast, 90 minutes north of Los Angeles. Site's OK, a Residence Inn that's roomy and convenient for the players. Fans get good access and sightlines to practice, except if the team is working on a far field.
9. Bears (Bourbonnais, Ill.) It's usually roasting on the campus of Olivet Nazarene University, with little chance of shade. But the Bears do a good job of taking care of families with kiddie activities, and the fans are close to the action.
10. Giants (Albany, N.Y.) Weird, corporate-building-laden campus at University at Albany. But if you want to see position coaches fairly up-close and personal working with individual players, this is a good camp to do so. The players are friendly and reachable here also.
The week ahead, as EvoShield joins our merry band
Should be a fun week. On Wednesday, I change from a flying to driving journey, and we christen the 2012 SI-EvoShield Training Camp Trip and begin to ride around America in a cool van owned by the Georgia-based athletic protection company EvoShield. It's a five-year-old company that makes protective apparel and gear for more than 250 college and pro teams. Robert Griffin III will continue to use the ultra-light EvoShield padding this year in Washington. They've shown me the stuff, which is beyond what I ever thought I'd see players protect themselves with -- gel pads that mold to different bodies in minutes, then become part of what the players wear.
My buddy Will Carroll, the injury-expert maven, put me together with EvoShield's chief innovation officer, Justin Niefer, and EvoShield generously agreed to let us use its state-of-the-art van as we tool first around the southeast, then the northeast and midwest, over the next three weeks. We'll have a couple of SI staffers helping with the driving and the reporting, so stay tuned to Twitter and SI.com for the fun. Here's how this week stacks up, tentatively:
"You would have loved my daughter. She would have been at training camp, asking you some tough questions."
-- Sandy Phillips, the mother of slain Aurora, Colo. moviegoer Jessica Ghawi, to Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, when Manning called Phillips to express his sympathies for Jessica's death. Ghawi was a radio intern for sports station 104.3 The Fan in Denver and had a sports blog. She was an aspiring sports journalist.
"I am 1,000 percent a Steelers fan!''
-- Prospective Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam III, in a 2010 interview with Bob Labriola of Steelers.com. Haslam is a minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and if his purchase of the Browns from Randy Lerner does go through as league people have told me they think it will, he'll have to divest himself of the Steelers share.
Now, I'm not positive about this, but I have a feeling that 2010 quote might -- might -- not go over well in northeast Ohio.
AKA, Robert Griffin III Quotes of the Week
This guy's going to be fun. A sampling of his best stuff from his camp-opening press conference last week:
On being the face of the franchise:
"There's really no true face of the franchise because if we all just had faces, we'd all be dead.''
On tweeting during the season:
"As far as tweeting goes, probably not too much tweeting. We don't plan on losing that many games, but you can't tweet when you win, and not tweet when you lose, so you might as well just not tweet altogether."
On whether he has considered making a speech to the team:
"If I ever had to just sit back and tell those guys anything, it's you want to be certified. One thing I've talked to the rookies about before is if you're the baddest guy in your group, then you've got a problem. You don't need to be hanging out with guys that aren't as certified as you are, so we have got to make sure that everybody on this team is certified. And there's a word that comes after it, but I'm not going to say it in front of this mike. You have to be certified, and that lets everybody know that when you run up to the guy next to you, you're going to take care of business.''
Sounds quite certifiable.
"I think being a good football player is not necessarily how many good plays you make but how many bad plays you don't make. Anybody can make good plays. You wouldn't be in this league if you weren't capable of making good plays, but ... I think that you have to make the bad plays and then you learn from them. I've made plenty of those over the course of my career. You make them and you learn from them and you try not to repeat them. To be in the same system where we're running plays out here that I've run literally a thousand times, there's not a lot of mistakes that you make on those plays. Some of the other ones that you're trying new that you build on year after year, that's why you're out here practicing. I'm trying to eliminate mistakes just like everybody else.''
-- New England quarterback Tom Brady, who turns 35 Friday, on the key to playing good football late into a career.
"We brought Santonio here to be a receiver, not offensive coordinator."
-- Jets coach Rex Ryan, on wide receiver Santonio Holmes' public skepticism on the chances a two-quarterback system (Mark Sanchez/Tim Tebow) will work with the Jets.
Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy said last week that Charles Woodson will be moved on some downs to safety this season. But in checking with Pro Football Focus -- actually, it wasn't difficult to check, seeing that PFF poobah Neil Hornsby is traveling with me on the trip, and started tapping away on his HP laptop, and he had my answer in three minutes -- Woodson's "switch'' is not really going to be unusual for him. "We want him to play closer to the ball,'' McCarthy said. But he's already, in effect, played some safety for the Packers.
According to Pro Football Focus, Green Bay had 1,182 defensive plays in 17 games (including the playoff loss). Woodson played 1,068 of those plays. The breakdown of where Woodson played at the snap of the ball on those 1,068 plays is in the chart to the right. As you can see, the numbers say Woodson played safety last year, in the strict sense of the term, on 254 plays (198 at strong safety, 56 at free), a total of 23.8 percent of the defensive snaps. I'm not sure Woodson, at 35, is going to play an altogether different role this year than last.
The Arapahoe County (Colo.) Jail, where James Holmes is being housed in isolation, is 200 yards from the north end zone of the practice field where the Broncos hold training camp and where they practice during the regular season.
Last Monday, a couple of hours before Holmes was taken for his first court appearance in the case -- he is suspected of murdering 12 and wounding 58 -- Denver coach John Fox was driving to work at the Broncos training complex. He came upon a slew of police cars, lights flashing, and, he estimated, 40 TV satellite trucks. "I've been to Super Bowls, and I've never seen anything like the crush of people outside the jail,'' Fox said.
During training camp, the crowd noise from fans watching practice can be heard inside the jail facility, and sometimes during the season, when music or fake crowd noise is pumped onto the practice field, the inmates and guards can hear it.
I accomplished something relatively Olympian last week, on the same day of the Olympic opening ceremonies, that I do believe made Peter King travel history: I was in all four continental United States time zones in one 24-hour period. Elucidating:
Thursday, 10:15 p.m. Pacific Time: Depart Karl Strauss pub, San Diego airport, and fly east.
Friday, 6 a.m. Eastern Time: Arrive Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport. Have an oatmeal breakfast.
Friday 9 a.m. Central Time: Arrive New Orleans International Airport for day of Saints reporting.
Friday, 10:15 p.m. Mountain Time: Arrive Denver International Airport to report on Saturday's Broncos' practices.
Actually, that's a 23-hour period that I was mobile in the four time zones, seeing that it was 23 hours after leaving San Diego that I arrived on the ground in Denver.
"Nobody protects the punter like Tebow. Nobody."
-- @NYPost_Serby, needly columnist Steve Serby, on Friday, after watching Tim Tebow being used as the personal protector on the New York Jets' punt team. The up back, in other words.
" '@MichaelKoenen: Awesome day for an inspirational man in @team_gleason Half of me likes your statue;)' ...Very classy. From the 'punter' -- SG''
Follow me here, readers: In 2006, in the first game at the Superdome post-Katrina, Steve Gleason blocked a Michael Koenen punt and it was recovered for a touchdown, spurring the underdog Saints to a 23-3 win over the Falcons. Gleason now is struggling with ALS, and on Friday, owner Tom Benson (as I write about below) dedicated the statue he had commissioned to commemorate the blocked punt, calling it one of the keys to the revival of a team and the city. So Koenen tweeted at Gleason he was proud to be one-half of the bronze statue on the outside concourse of the 'Dome, and Gleason responded to Koenen that it was a classy move, which it certainly was.
"Brandon Moore teased Revis when he showed this morning in locker room: 'You're not supposed to be here.' #Jets"
-- @RichCimini of ESPN New York, the fine Jets beat writer, observing Moore, the Jets guard, chiding cornerback Darrelle Revis at the start of training camp Thursday. Revis had considered holding out with two years remaining on a four-year contract.
"If the President of the U.S. is saying I need to slide then I really need to start sliding. Lol. Thanks Mr. President!''
-- @MikeVick, after Barack Obama told Eagles teammate Nnamdi Asomugha at a recent event, "Tell Vick to slide."
1. I think the Mike Wallace story tells me one thing about the Pittsburgh Steelers: They compromise their salary and architecture principles for no one. I remember speaking with a person very close to the Steelers front office in the spring, and this person told me the Steelers valued receiver/returner Antonio Brown more than speed receiver Mike Wallace. "They'd rather pay Brown in 2013 than Wallace this year,'' the person told me. "Mike Wallace had better not overplay his hand.''
In the Steelers' eyes, he did. So Pittsburgh, convinced it didn't want to risk losing both men next year when Brown would be a restricted free agent, gave Brown the deal they'd offered Wallace, a six-year, $42.5 million extension. Not bad for a sixth-round pick in 2010 from Central Michigan. Now Wallace is in limbo, not having signed his franchise tender ... and the Steelers saying they have no intention of trading him.
2. I think Randy Lerner is breathing a sigh of relief this morning, if he's the Randy Lerner I've gotten to know during his ownership tenure. I've always felt Lerner, who lives in downtown Manhattan near New York University, was more of a music and soccer fan (he owns Aston Villa of England's Premier League) than a football fan, and he'd hoped Mike Holmgren would wipe away all his troubles when Holmgren came aboard the Browns two years ago. Maybe Holmgren's work, along with GM Tom Heckert's, will pay dividends this year; the Browns are certainly better.
But the new prospective owner, Jimmy Haslam III, a Tennessee businessman, will have to become more hands-on than Lerner was. I remember being around Lerner in New York when he was hiring a new coach early in 2009. He wanted to bring in Scott Pioli as GM and Eric Mangini as a package, and became smitten with Mangini over Pioli -- he couldn't have both because Pioli had hard feelings about Mangini dating to Mangini's departure from the Patriots. So Lerner, to the surprise of many, chose Mangini over Pioli, and Mangini went 10-22 in two seasons before being fired.
Lerner badly wanted someone to come in and just take the headache that was the reconstruction of the Browns off his hands. It's been 13 seasons since the Browns were re-formed in 1999, and neither Randy nor his late father, Al, have been able to do that in their collective ownership tenure. Now it falls to Haslam, unless there are skeletons in his personal or business closet the NFL doesn't know about yet. He's a heavy favorite to be approved.
3. I think my gut feeling is the Jags won't blink in their contract standoff with Maurice Jones-Drew. Gut feeling, but nothing is etched in stone. Shad Khan's a smart businessman, but he's also a fan who doesn't want to incur the wrath of his tenuous fan base.
4. I think the pool of available free agents is not bone dry yet. A good fullback, Ovie Mugheli, signed with St. Louis Saturday, and one GM told me late in the week: "We've got 150 guys on a ready list in case we have injuries. The reason a lot of these guys haven't signed yet is not because they can't make a team, but because they want too much, and it's a buyers' market.'' You saw it in the last two or three weeks -- teams like San Diego [Aubrayo Franklin] signing good players when their pricetag came down.
5. I think I give Saints owner Tom Benson credit for two things: putting up a statue of Steve Gleason blocking a 2006 punt and symbolizing the rebirth of the city, and trying to buy the New OrleansTimes-Picayune to save it from becoming a three-day-a-week paper, which is the plan of the current owners.
Benson told me he'd been to New York to meet with the owners of the paper, Advance Publications Inc., and urged them to sell. "We think it's worthwhile to try,'' Benson said. "Imagine New York without a daily paper. Or Atlanta, Houston. It's really going to affect the city adversely. Imagine you come into town for a meeting, the hotels are packed, and you go to buy a paper on a Monday to find out what's going on in town. No paper. You wake up Tuesday. No paper that day either. It'll set us back at a time this city is really starting to grow. You get out on the highways now, and you can't move half the time -- people are coming back to this city.''
As for the bronze Gleason statue, the Saints and Benson have done a terrific job -- way beyond what they needed to do -- to make the ALS-stricken Gleason feel like a part of the organization and an important leader in the community. His block of the 2006 punt against Atlanta was the kick-start to a stunningly improbable season that ended with a loss in the NFC title game. At a ceremony Friday at the 'Dome, the mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, praised Benson and said the following about Gleason: "That day, the day he blocked the punt, was when people started to believe in the team and the city again. That young man's heart is the greatest thing this city has to offer."
As much as the Saints have been in the news for the wrong reasons this offseason, Benson's gestures to the vitality of the city and the region, and to one of its genuine heroes, shows he gets it. He understands that as far as the team's troubles go, they too shall pass. But he's trying to do things that will leave marks long after he's gone.
6. I think my Hero of the Week is Steve Smith, the Carolina receiver who donated $100,000 to victims of the Aurora shootings -- a tremendous and selfless move by a complicated man with, apparently, a very big heart. Smith said in a statement: "As a father and husband, I cannot imagine the pain and suffering the victims are going through. I hope this contribution might assist in paying some of the medical bills that will help allow these families to move forward in this tragic circumstance."
7. I think this about Arian Foster's admission that he's a vegan: It doesn't matter. I know quite a few of them, and they get plenty of protein, and several work out as intensely as NFL players do. It's a silly myth that football players need to eat meat as part of a professional athlete's regimen.
8. I think this is the cost of doing business the way I think it should be done in NFL journalism these days -- and I tell you this because it may affect my ability to know as much about the Saints as I've known in the past few years. Joe Vitt and Mickey Loomis, the New Orleans past and future 2012 brain trust, are not speaking to me, presumably because of my reporting on the Saints' bounty case. Sean Payton told me earlier in the year he wouldn't speak to me either, because he didn't think I reported the story fairly. I'd had great relationships with Loomis and Payton. But that's how it goes. For the record, I regret nothing that I've written or said on the case.
9. I think one of the mysteries of this NFL summer is the continuing unemployment of Plaxico Burress. The man's good enough to contribute to an NFL winner, and at the right price ($1.5 million a year plus a heavy incentive for eight touchdowns is what I'd offer). I believe strongly he'd win a game for a playoff contender this year.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. Journalism story of the week: the Bruce Springsteen profile by David Remnick of the New Yorker. What I loved about this great piece is Springsteen admits to seeing a psychiatrist for the last 30 years. And how Remnick describes the band on the road: " ... Forget roadies hurling televisions and empty bottles of Jack Daniels from hotel balconies into the pool. The Springsteen road show is about as decadent as the Ice Capades. Band members talk about missing their kids, jet lag, Wi-Fi reception at the hotel.'' That's the real stuff right there.
b. Sally Ride, who died the other day of pancreatic cancer, is one of the greatest women of the last 50 years. A shame we didn't get to know her better. Imagine you're not long out of college, and you see an ad in the newspaper seeking astronauts, and you say, "I can do that!'' That's what she did. She went on two missions, ignoring cretins who wondered if a woman could succeed in space like men.
Johnny Carson said this as a joke, but behind it was seriousness and suspicion that women might not be up to the task: Her 1983 Challenger mission would be delayed, Carson said, because Ride had to find a purse to match her shoes. She is probably the most important role model today for young girls who want to crash the glass ceiling in professions like math, aeronautics and science fields.
"She inspired generations of young girls to reach for the stars and later fought tirelessly to help them get there by advocating for a greater focus on science and math in our schools," President Obama said in tribute when she died. "Sally's life showed us that there are no limits to what we can achieve."
c. Missing the Olympics. I hate it when that happens. I'm a sucker for the stories. The most I've seen is a clip of the opening ceremonies in the Broncos cafeteria Saturday. Sure looked colorful. Weird shot of the Queen.
d. I did see a photo of Ryan Lochte in the Seattle Times Sunday morning. Whatever that is in his teeth looks positively awful (said the 55-year-old dinosaur).
e. I love the A's. I don't know Jarrod Parker from Travis Blackley, but I hope I get to know both in October.
f. Someone should sit all the privately sniping Red Sox players and coaches in a room and tell them they look stupid, immature and ungrateful for the lives they have, and it has to stop.
g. Who is the Yankees' No. 2 starter in the playoffs? That would worry me a bit as the Angels load up, and the A's throw one great game after the next.
h. I hear The Newsroom has had two very good episodes in a row on HBO. Much needed. Will catch them on the DVR later in August.
i. Coffeenerdness: Cool sight in the Chargers' facility: In several spots, there are Starbucks coffee machines, with two different blends to brew fresh coffee with boiling water at the touch of a button. Makes a fella want to be a Charger.
j. Beernerdness: One of the fun things about the training camp trip is sampling the occasional odd beer in different parts of the country. Such as the Beaver Street Pine Cone Pale Ale in Flagstaff, Ariz. I like a bitter end to pale ale, and this one does. The Pine Cone was dry, with a fairly piney scent. Liked it a lot.
k. A special thanks to Two Beers brewery in Seattle, and to brewer Mark Satterly and our host Scott Persson for giving us a quick tour and sample Sunday. Seattle, as usual, is one of the most welcoming cities in America because of places like Two Beers.