Musings, observations and the occasional insight gleaned from my tour of NFL training camps these past three weeks....
• I spent two days at Browns camp, where everyone knows Johnny Manziel just has to play and has to play right now, because, well, that’s what the people demand, and he was a first-round pick, for goodness sake. But call me crazy for thinking Cleveland should let Brian Hoyer lose at least once as its starting quarterback in the regular season before replacing him with the over-celebrated rookie from Texas A&M.
Is that too much to ask? Letting Hoyer drop from the ranks of undefeated Browns starters before he’s benched? I mean, how many of those can there be in franchise history? Small sample be darned, Hoyer started three games last season in Cleveland, and the Browns went 3-0, accounting for 60 percent of their win total for 2013. Dismiss that stat if you will, but if I’m Cleveland rookie head coach Mike Pettine, I’d at least be curious enough to find out if it was a fluke or if it was fate. Maybe he does have a late bloomer on his hands in Hoyer. Wouldn’t it be smart to try and know for sure? At the cost of only one lousy loss?
Hoyer has done nothing to lose the Browns' starting job this summer (he's slated to start Cleveland's second preseason game on Monday night), and Manziel to this point hasn’t done enough to win it. If there’s a jump ball possession arrow in this situation, I’d have it pointing toward the veteran, at least until he proves he’s not going to be the first Cleveland quarterback to win them all. Then, whenever that first defeat occurs, the Browns can start their Manziel era confident in the knowledge that Hoyer wasn’t perfect after all.
One loss. That’s all. Let Hoyer lose one game before he loses his job. Could we all just take a breath and find the patience to wait that long? Rest assured Manziel Mania will survive. Tim Tebow didn’t start until Week 15 of his rookie season in 2010, and there was still plenty of time for him to become a true national phenomenon after that (and no, I’m not comparing Manziel’s quarterbacking to Tebow’s). Manziel won’t be 22 until early December, so there’s plenty of time for his chance to come. This is not a 28-year-old Brandon Weeden we’re talking about, but of course, Browns fans are painfully aware of that.
Manziel is absolutely the future, but first, shouldn’t Cleveland find out if Hoyer’s hot streak is completely in the past? It may only take as long as Cleveland’s Week 1 trip to Pittsburgh to settle the matter. If Hoyer crashes and burns against the Steelers, you’ve got Johnny Football primed and ready for the Saints in the Browns' home opener in Week 2, and away we go. But if Hoyer wins, he’s 4-0 as a Browns starter, and those numbers should do his talking for him. As problems go, Hoyer winning and Manziel waiting is a dilemma Pettine would be lucky to have.
• By far the best story I heard on my camp tour involved Bills rookie wunderkind receiver Sammy Watkins and his choice, or non-choice, of wheels. No matter how big Watkins might blow up this season, Buffalo general manager Doug Whaley said he’s not worried about fame going to Watkins’ head, or him living life in the fast lane. For months, he avoided all lanes.
"On the field, he’s as advertised," Whaley said. "Off the field, he’s wise beyond his years. After we drafted him, we brought his mom and step-dad in, and his step-dad says, 'Hey, he may be a young guy but he acts like a mature adult.' I said, 'Why do you say that?'
"And he says, 'Because when he signed with his agent, his agent says what kind of car do you want? I’ll get you a car and you can pay me back after you get drafted and sign. And Sammy said, when I get drafted and I get my money, I’ll buy my own car. I don’t need you to buy me a car.' Most other guys can’t wait to start rolling around in these expensive cars, but not Sammy. I still haven’t found out what kind of car he got."
• Jets head coach Rex Ryan and I got to talking about must-win games in New York’s camp and he dropped this nugget on me: He said the 2011 season-opener at home against Dallas was the most pressure-packed game he has ever coached. Not the two AFC Championship Games he led the Jets to in 2009 and 2010 or the big road playoff upsets at San Diego, New England or Indianapolis. Here’s why:
"My biggest game that I thought I had to win and felt more pressure to win than any game I ever coached was the 10th anniversary of 9/11 game," Ryan said. "Because I thought the fans of New York deserved to win that game. I can’t tell you how much pressure I felt that night. It’s against Dallas, opening Sunday night of the season, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and Nick Folk hits that 50-yarder to win the game after we blocked a punt and come back, [Darrelle] Revis gets the interception, all that stuff. To win that game was such a relief to me."
The Jets beat the Cowboys 27-24 that night, as Folk's game-winner with 27 seconds remaining capped a 17-point rally after New York had been down by two touchdowns early in the fourth quarter.
• Before I saw former Steelers star outside linebacker Joey Porter doing his thing in Latrobe, Pa., as a defensive assistant on Mike Tomlin’s staff, I would never have pegged him as a future coach. It just didn’t seem like something that would be a great fit for his outspoken style. But he’s actually pretty good at it and getting rave reviews from the people who matter in Pittsburgh’s organization.
"Joey’s been awesome," Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. "He’s great. You knew he’d bring the energy, but his ability to teach and communicate with guys has really been impressive. I think Joey has a great future in coaching."
Porter, Colbert said, should be a boon for the second-year game of 2013 first-round pick Jarvis Jones, after the outside linebacker had a low-impact rookie season.
"To have Joey added to the staff I think will be a big plus for Jarvis," Colbert said. "Because we told Jarvis last year, 'Go back and watch some old tapes of Joey, because your height, weight, speed and athleticism is very close to Joey’s. Some of the things Joey was able to do, you might be able to pick up on, and you’re built more like Joey was.' And now he’s here working with him. It has to help."
• Giants general manager Jerry Reese isn’t known for pithy quotes and big, bold headline declarations. But I think he succinctly hit the nail on the head when I asked him if New York could end its two-year funk and return to the playoffs in 2014.
I concur. If New York’s two best players are really good this year, the Giants will be alive in January. But I’m not expecting it to happen.
• I’m not sure the Browns will have enough receiving talent to win with if Josh Gordon gets suspended by the league for half the season or more, but I do know new Cleveland receiver Nate Burleson won’t be going out for any late-night pizza runs this season. Burleson, of course, missed a good chunk of last season in Detroit after breaking his left arm in a one-car accident. He crashed trying to save his takeout pizza when it slid off the seat of his SUV.
"Let’s say I stay healthy this year," Burleson told me. "I leave the pizza alone. I go get the Hot Pockets and heat them up in the microwave, and I don’t have any accidents. With the guys we have, like Miles Austin, Andrew Hawkins, Jordan Cameron, I’m more than confident we will be able collectively to put together a very threatening receivers group."
They do deliver pizza in Cleveland, right?
• They replaced him in Pittsburgh with what the Steelers think is a considerable upgrade in free-agent safety Mike Mitchell, but Washington was more than happy to add 34-year-old Ryan Clark to its secondary. Clark is Washington’s free safety, allowing Brandon Meriweather to shift back to his more natural strong safety role.
I’m not convinced the addition of Clark to Washington’s secondary will be a difference maker, but defensive backs coach Raheem Morris has raved about the player he calls "Bristol," as in the headquarters for ESPN. Clark apparently likes to talk to the media, a penchant his teammates and coaches have noticed.
"He’s playing well right now, and I’m going to take everything he’s got left in the tank and use it up, until the wheels fall off," Morris said. "He’s an elite conditioned guy. He does a lot to get ready for practice, he does a lot to get ready for games. He takes his care of his body. His wife is like the MVP of that household. I saw him eat a turkey wrap the other day, without bread, it was just turkey, and some other stuff. His wife made it for him, put it in little dishes and everything. It was unbelievable. I’m jealous."
• I visited Jets camp two years ago in Cortland, N.Y., and it really did feel like a circus atmosphere with all the media attention Tim Tebow’s presence generated that summer. But the Browns seemed to be rolling with their own sideshow pretty well this year, Manziel and all. Browns tight end Jordan Cameron said being in the spotlight hasn’t gotten out of hand yet for his team.
"I don’t even really think about it any more," he said. "You just expect to see us on SportsCenter every day now. There was ESPN in front of our building in Cleveland, Ohio, in early May, but we got used to it. It’s crazy how it all works, but I don’t think it’s a distraction at this point.
"If you think about it, more attention is not bad for this football team. There’s more people at camp, there’s so much more energy around the building. It’s like Cleveland is the mecca of sports right now, and he’s part of that. You can’t ask for anything more than that."
Other than maybe, you know, winning.
• I won't attempt to name a 22-man all-camp-tour team, but here are a few superlatives I’m handing out after spending two days each with the Giants, Jets, Bills, Browns, Steelers, Saints, Patriots, Redskins, Ravens and 49ers:
Most impressive offensive rookie: Saints receiver/return man Brandin Cooks flashed so often during my visit to White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., that I was forced to wear shades at all times. I thought the Saints would miss the production of Darren Sproles this season. I thought wrong. And consider how good Cooks had to look to keep Buffalo’s spectacular Sammy Watkins from taking this honor.
Most impressive defensive rookie: Browns cornerback Justin Gilbert might be the most overlooked first-round pick in the history of the draft, and you probably know why. No one has Gilbert Mania in Browns camp, but I saw him drive all of Cleveland’s quarterbacks a little crazy with his tight coverage skills and ability to find the football. Baltimore inside linebacker C.J. Mosley is looking good, too.
Most versatile rookie weapon: Speaking of Sproles, he’s in Philadelphia now, and on the other side of the state, the Steelers have found themselves a Sproles-like threat in third-round running back/receiver/return man Dri Archer. He’s going to be an X-factor for Pittsburgh, lining up all over the place and tormenting defenders with his elite speed. As Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor put it: "You don’t want to do no chasing ... because once he gets in that open field, it’s night-night."
Coordinator who’s going to get the job done: I wasn’t ever all that impressed with Gary Kubiak’s work as Houston’s head coach, but I like his chances to rebound nicely as Baltimore’s new offensive coordinator. The Ravens are going to be better on offense than I realized, and quarterback Joe Flacco is going to quickly make people forget last year’s struggles and prove that his big contract wasn’t money ill spent. Put me down for Jim Schwartz keeping the Bills’ defense on the come as well.
Coordinator who’s not off to a great start: I liked the Giants’ hiring of Ben McAdoo as offensive coordinator when it happened, and I still do. But things haven’t exactly gone according to plan for New York so far, between David Wilson and Chris Snee’s retirements, and Odell Beckham’s struggle to stay healthy. The Giants' first-team offense didn’t complete a pass last week against the Steelers and that 70 percent completion rate goal for Eli Manning seems a tad unrealistic at the moment.
Back in the swing of things award: Giants head coach Tom Coughlin had just minutes earlier finished the team’s first practice of camp when I asked him if seeing four or five of his players fail to finish the workout due to injury or heat-related issues took the air out of his first-day sails. "Sure it does," Coughlin said. "It pisses me off. After all this (the long off-season program). Then all of a sudden we’re going to have guys that can’t stay on the field for more than an hour and a half?"
Going MIA award: I was in Saints camp for two days and didn’t once lay eyes on Champ Bailey, the 16-year veteran cornerback who signed with New Orleans this offseason after Denver bid him farewell. Bailey has been out since July 31 with an undisclosed injury, and there’s still no definitive word on when he’ll be back. At this point, it’s fair to wonder if he’ll be staying in New Orleans for long even when he does return.
Most motivated veteran: Baltimore receiver Steve Smith has impressed most everyone with how rejuvenated his game looks now that he and the Carolina Panthers have parted ways. Smith is as animated as ever, hell-bent on proving he can still create an impact and he’ll be a very handy option for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco all season long.
Running backs with the most to prove: The Jets‘ Chris Johnson said his legs are back and he can still run like he did in his Titans glory days. I’m dubious, and don’t see a big season coming for him in Marty Mornhinweg’s offense. On the other hand, the Saints‘ Mark Ingram looks primed to roll into his contract year and make himself some money next spring.
Most single-minded approach: It’s not a stretch to say the Bills are banking on Williams like never before this season. They started camp with seven players by that name and still have six of them, all of whom should make the final 53-man roster. Four of them are on defense: Mario is a defensive end, Aaron and Duke are safeties, and Kyle Williams is a defensive tackle. Two more are on offense: Mike is a receiver and Chris is a guard. Too bad the Bills don't still have Gregg Williams as head coach.