N.Y. to TEN to CIN and back: Preview of our 2015 NFL training camp tour
I have to admit, Peter King and the rest of my good friends and colleagues at The MMQB always sound like they have a ton of road-tripping frenetic fun during their NFL training camp tours. But a van, bus, logo or entourage are not required to see and experience the best, most enjoyable weeks of the league’s annual calendar as they unfold every summer. And for the 16th year in a row, on behalf of SI.com, I’ll be out to prove that point when I launch my own camp tour later this week—just a man in his car, traversing the NFL landscape as football springs back to life.
Well, OK, two men, with a couple flights thrown into the mix. But that’s as complicated as we get, and I actually prefer it that way. Last year, when an SI.com editor proposed for the first time to send videographer Jim Butts with me for the majority of my camp tour, my only response was: “I hope he likes baseball on the radio and long drives at night."
But last year’s two-man-crew experiment went exceedingly well, with us combining to generate both video and written content at each of our camp stops, so Butch and Sundance are back for more (perhaps Thelma and Louise?). For the most part, we’re visiting different teams this year compared to 2014’s largely East Coast-based itinerary, even though we will start with the nearby Jets and Giants now that I have moved yet again, relocating to Brooklyn, N.Y. Since being hired in early 2000, I’ve lived in Minneapolis, Columbia, Md., Boston, Madison, Wis., suburban Philadelphia and now New York. And that geographic diversity has allowed me to see plenty of the NFL training camp scene, with a wealth of summertime miles and memories logged during my travels.
Here’s a brief preview of our tour this year, including a few things that I hope to learn and a look back at some interesting nuggets from that team’s camp stop in years past:
New York Jets, Florham Park, N.J., July 31
Two things I hope to learn—The Jets have historically loved to hire head coaches with a defensive background, but will the new boss, first-time head coach Todd Bowles, have any more of a handle on how to elevate New York’s offense to first-class status than the departed Rex Ryan, who never managed it? And can third-year QB Geno Smith perform well enough, early enough in Chan Gailey’s offense to relegate veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick to the role the Jets hope and pray he fills, that of a richly experienced backup/insurance policy? Once again, it’s your move, Geno.
A player I can’t wait to watch—Leonard Williams, DL: With Sheldon Richardson suspended by the league for the first four games of the season, the Jets need their wildly talented and uniquely-coiffed first-round pick to handle an even larger load than anticipated early in his rookie season. Big man, bigger expectations.
A memory from Jets camp—Three years ago, almost to the day, I happened to be at Jets camp in upstate Cortland when Tim Tebow decided to take his practice jersey off for a post-practice run in the rain, effectively crashing the internet. And I have never been quite so embarrassed to be a part of the media horde as I was that day.
New York Giants, East Rutherford, N.J., Aug. 1
Two things I hope to learn—Whether or not the Giants injury report dominates the narrative in camp. There’s Odell Beckham Jr.’s balky hamstring, Victor Cruz’s return from a torn patella tendon, Jason Pierre-Paul’s recovery from his fireworks accident, tight end Larry Donnell’s Achilles issue, and the question of whether rookie Ereck Flowers can hold down the fort at offensive left tackle until veteran Will Beatty is back from tearing a pectoral muscle in May. And big-picture-wise, the return of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo could be all-important. If Spags succeeds, the Giants defense succeeds, and New York’s Tom Coughlin era probably continues past 2015.
A player I can’t wait to watch—Landon Collins, S: The Giants need the ex-Crimson Tide play-maker to step right into the starting strong safety role and make an impact in a secondary that lost Antrel Rolle in free agency. Collins in coverage remains a question mark, but the second-round pick will be asked to play enforcer as a box safety and lend some instant leadership to the last line of defense.
A memory from Giants camp—Last year, on the first day of Giants camp at the team complex, New York had a rash of players who for various reasons couldn’t finish the opening practice of the summer, conducted in sweltering heat. And Coughlin, as is his wont, was not happy about it, telling me: “It pisses me off. After all this (meaning the long offseason 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 half?’’ Alas, only Coughlin was in mid-season form.
Kansas City Chiefs, St. Joseph, Mo., Aug. 3
Two things I hope to learn—If rookie first-round CB Marcus Peters appears ready to play almost immediately, because Kansas City now needs him to contribute in September thanks to the three-game league suspension veteran cornerback Sean Smith incurred last week. The training wheels must come off, and they must come off now. And can Jeremy Maclin be the No. 1 receiving threat he’s being paid lavishly to be, even outside of a Chip Kelly offense? It’s Maclin’s job to make sure touchdown catches are again part of the repertoire for a K.C. receiver.
A player I can’t wait to watch—Justin Houston, OLB: He should at least be in a very, very good mood this summer, because the Chiefs just handed him a deal worth more than what J.J. Watt is earning in Houston. And no defender in the league is worth more than Watt these days. But the franchise tag has been lifted and Houston is now a $101 million man, with his six-year deal making him the highest-paid linebacker in NFL history.
A memory from Chiefs camp—This goes way back, but I was in Kansas City’s camp in River Falls, Wis., in 1997, the day Tony Gonzalez signed his rookie deal and reported for work with the Chiefs. Back then I was covering the Vikings for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and the Vikings and Chiefs always held joint workouts with one another each summer in the so-called “Cheese League," alternating between their two training sites from year to year. I remember thinking Gonzalez looked like the most athletically gifted tight end I had ever seen, and that he could catch everything thrown his way. And now he’s 39, and retired. So that makes me officially ancient.
St. Louis Rams, Earth City, Mo., Aug. 4
Two things I hope to learn—Is Nick Foles a product of Chip Kelly’s passer-friendly offense in Philadelphia, or the guy to take the Rams where Sam Bradford and a cast of quarterbacking no-names couldn’t? I really don’t know what to make of Foles after his boffo 2013 season and underwhelming, injury-prone 2014. And will the specter of that potential—and I’d say very likely—move to Los Angeles in 2016 loom over, and affect, everything the Rams do this season? Coach Jeff 'Relo' Fisher has been through this sort of thing, of course, in his Houston-to-Tennessee days. But buying enough sets of blinders for everyone in the organization is probably cost prohibitive.
A player I can’t wait to watch—Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia: He’s probably not going to be all the way back from his knee surgery at any point during his rookie season, but 80% of Gurley could still be wildly entertaining and productive. A running back picked in the top 10. Imagine that. What will they think of next?
A memory from Rams camp—In the first week of August 2010, I witnessed St. Louis rookie Sam Bradford dissect the Rams defense in the most dazzling training camp practice I’ve ever seen a quarterback produce. I don’t think the ball touched the ground that day, and Bradford’s precision and arm strength had everyone in Rams-ville buzzing. “Today was definitely one of my better practices,’’ Bradford said, in understatement. “To come out there and have a day like that, it really does kind of give you some confidence. In your head, you’re like, ‘Okay, I can do this.’’ But that showing almost five years ago turned out to be something of a tease, because injuries and a poor supporting cast essentially ruined his Rams career. Bradford’s excellence never had any staying power in St. Louis.
Tennessee Titans, Nashville, Tenn., Aug. 6-7
Two things I hope to learn—Plenty of draft analysts and pundits predicted that Ken Whisenhunt’s offense is only suited for a pocket quarterback, and can’t be easily translated to a more mobile passer like No. 2 overall pick Marcus Mariota. Thus, it’s a bad marriage from the start, the theory went. Is it? I think Whisenhunt will adapt his offense to suit Mariota more than Mariota will have to adapt his style of play to suit the coaching staff. And then there’s Dick LeBeau, now wearing blue and white and helping coordinate his trademark 3–4 defense in Tennessee. Does the old master have a little dose of magic left for the nowhere-to-go-but-up Titans?
A player I can’t wait to watch—Dorial Green-Beckham, WR: Mariota, of course, but besides him let’s go with second-rounder DGB, a monstrous talent who must prove he has the maturity and judgment he lacked during his turbulent collegiate career. He’s a size-and- speed matchup nightmare waiting to happen for NFL cornerbacks, but he has plenty to learn before he can dominate at this level.
A memory from Titans camp—There used to be no more entertaining segment of my camp tour than stopping in Nashville and getting a little time to talk football, NFL-related gossip, and whatever he found amusing that day on the internet with longtime Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. I’d have 15-20 minutes in his office, and wind up laughing more than than interviewing. In those days, before he got and lost the Lions head coaching job (2009–13), I don’t believe he ever met a reporter he didn’t like.
Classic NFL training camp photos
Cincinnati Bengals, Cincinnati, Ohio, Aug. 8
Two things I hope to learn—In reality, these should be the glory days in Bengals history, with a franchise-best four consecutive playoff berths and five trips to the postseason in the six years since 2009. But it doesn’t really feel that way because of Cincinnati’s 0–5 playoff record in that span, and that’s why once again this season everything is about January in Bengals-ville. Is this the year that Andy Dalton elevates his game and gives Cincinnati a legitimate shot to make some postseason noise? He begins pushing that rock back uphill shortly. The Bengals are largely Team Status Quo, and that means we know who’s going to play where. But a large payday looms on the horizon, and it’ll be interesting to watch if four-time Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green is the league’s next big-money pass-catcher, after Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas got paid handsomely.
A player I can’t wait to watch—Jeremy Hill, RB: Dalton’s the easy pick, but let’s go with Hill, whose 1,124-yard rushing season made him one of the league’s most productive rookies of 2014. Including the playoffs, the second-rounder from LSU found the end zone 10 times last season. Giovani Bernard is still in the mix in Cincinnati, but Hill should be the main man in the Bengals backfield again.
A memory from Bengals camp—On a blistering hot day in August 2003 in Georgetown, Ky.—where the Bengals used to conduct camp before they joined the stay-home crowd in 2012—I got Carson Palmer to stand and chat in the shade in a walkway underneath some bleacher seats. It was his rookie year, and he had gone first overall in the draft out of USC, but he knew the plan was that he wasn’t playing that season. And he was okay with sitting and watching behind veteran Jon Kitna, who took every snap that year and won the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year honor. That probably wouldn’t happen these days. A No. 1 overall pick, with zero snaps as a rookie? Nope. That ship has sailed.
Indianapolis Colts, Anderson, Ind., Aug. 9-10
Two things I hope to learn—Can the Colts off-season decision to load up on 30-plus veterans like Andre Johnson, Frank Gore, Trent Cole and Todd Herremans pay off with the Super Bowl berth this talented team has inched ever closer to the past three seasons? And will those proven and longtime stalwarts be able to make a quick transition to a new organization after spending so many years with one team? Head coach Chuck Pagano gambling on himself and working out the final year of his contract also makes for an interesting backdrop this season. Just win now, baby. There’s no time for anyone to waste in Indianapolis.
A player I can’t wait to watch—Robert Mathis, OLB: Does Mathis still have anything left, and how much, after missing all of last season due to a suspension and an Achilles tear? He ripped off 19.5 sacks in 2013, but his speed was always his game, and now he’s 34 and coming off an injury that slows almost everyone down considerably. Can Mathis still be the Mathis of edge-rush fame after all that?
A memory from Colts camp—I can’t for the life of me remember what the commercial was for at this point, but about eight or nine years ago Colts QB Peyton Manning made some time for me one day at Indy’s camp at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind.—right before shooting some takes of a commercial in an indoor facility. Manning was pretty much flawless on camera, as usual, but I seem to recall his longtime center, Jeff Saturday, needed a few do-overs. Manning doesn’t like a lack of execution. Or to be kept waiting.
Cleveland Browns, Berea, Ohio, Aug. 11
Two things I hope to learn—Where Johnny Manziel’s future is headed. Is it in Cleveland, or elsewhere? The Browns seem intent on installing veteran Josh McCown as the unquestioned starter at quarterback and giving Manziel little to no chance to compete for the No. 1 job. While McCown gives you the best chance to win now, I’m not convinced Cleveland is a playoff contender with him, and you can’t kick the Manziel can down the road indefinitely. There’s another intriguing situation in the Browns backfield as well. At running back, there could be three viable options: Terrance West, Isaiah Crowell and rookie Duke Johnson. The rookie running back approach worked darn well in Cleveland last year. Isn’t that right, Ben Tate?
The player I can’t wait to watch—Dwayne Bowe, WR: Cleveland gifted $9 million guaranteed to a player who didn’t catch a touchdown pass last season, has had declining stats the past three seasons, and turns 31 in the season’s opening month. If this is the Bowe of his Kansas City prime, now would be the time to start showing it, DB.
A memory from Browns camp—After spending his first six years in Tampa Bay, former No. 1 overall pick Vinny Testaverde signed with Cleveland in the 1993 free agency period. I was covering the Bucs for the St. Petersburg Times in those days, and the paper sent me to Browns camp to do a long feature story on Testaverde’s new start in Cleveland. The Browns had a head coach by the name of Bill Belichick at the time, and in my first real introduction to his mindset in regards to questions about the past, I must have lobbed five or six queries his way, asking him to assess what he was getting in Testaverde and how he could fix what had gone wrong in Tampa Bay? And I got zilch. Nada. Nothing. “I’m not going to talk about anything that happened with the Bucs,” Belichick repeated stonily, in various ways. “We’re only interested in what he can do this year in Cleveland.’’ I walked away from that interview utterly surprised at his lack of cooperation, but looking back, I shouldn’t have been.
Pittsburgh Steelers, Latrobe, Pa., Aug. 12
Two things I hope to learn—What exactly does a Steelers defense look like when not under the watchful gaze of Dick LeBeau? Or without safety Troy Polamalu flying around in kamikaze fashion? Or with no Ike Taylor out at one corner? At least four new starters could dot new defensive coordinator Keith Butler’s side of the ball, and that level of change is rare in Pittsburgh. On offense, veteran running back DeAngelo Williams has moved from Carolina to the Steel City, and he’d better be ready for the early season work he figures to get when Le’Veon Bell serves his two-game league suspension. Williams needs to convince his new team that he has plenty of gas left in the tank.
The player I can’t wait to watch—Jarvis Jones, OLB: In year three, the pressure is most certainly on for the team’s 2013 first-round pick. With rookie pass rusher Bud Dupree on hand, and the ageless James Harrison still making his presence felt, Jones has very little slack left. Either he proves he was worth his draft slot in 2015, or he could be the next defensive change coming in Pittsburgh.
A memory from Steelers camp—I timed it well and was in Latrobe in Steelers camp at picturesque St. Vincent College (it’s a rule, you have to describe St. Vincent’s campus as picturesque) the day rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger signed and first suited up for a Steelers camp practice in the summer of 2004. You knew instantly the days of Tommy Maddox, Kordell Stewart, Neil O’Donnell, Bubby Brister and Mark Malone were almost over. The Steelers had found their quarterback, and he was going to be here a while. And he has been. Year 12 has already dawned for Roethlisberger and the early-arriving Steelers.
Washington at Cleveland preseason game, Aug. 13
Two things I hope to learn—Preseason games are not the same as a full-fledged camp stop, but I’ll be watching Washington closely in this one, after having spent the day in Cleveland at Browns camp on Aug. 11. I’m eager to see if quarterback Robert Griffin III is ready to take some positive steps in year 2 of the Jay Gruden coaching era in D.C. The team picked up his 2016 option at $16.2 million, but that still doesn’t mean it’s wedded to him beyond this season if he continues to struggle. On defense, there has been a huge makeover in Washington, with new coordinator Joe Barry and a projected five new starters. After the misery of Washington's 7–25 record in 2013–14, there’s an urgency to get something accomplished in D.C.
The player I can’t wait to watch—That would be Griffin. If he’s right, Washington is relevant. If not, see 2013–14 results.
A memory from Washington camp—In 2001, Marty Schottenheimer coached his one and only season in Washington and elected to hold training camp at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., the team’s longtime summer home from 1963 to '94. It was an old-school, no-nonsense setting for an old-school, no-nonsense coach. I made it for a visit to Washington’s camp that year, and though I didn’t personally witness the scene, I was told Schottenheimer started sewing the seeds for his demise when he was out early to practice one day, showing eventual Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green some pass coverage tips. Green was said to look a little unimpressed by his coach’s tutelage. Thanks for stopping by, Marty.
Carolina at Buffalo preseason game, Aug. 14
Two things I hope I learn—Again, this won’t be as fruitful as seeing the Bills and Panthers in camp, but the schedule worked out to pick off two more teams at once, and catch Rex Ryan’s much-anticipated coaching debut on the Buffalo sideline. I just hope someone helps me out in the pre-game hours and directs me to the statue they must have erected by now in Rex’s honor at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Right, right, I suppose we should let him win a game or two and end the franchise’s 15-year playoff drought before work starts on that. But you just know Rex will be revved up for this one. On the other side of the field, the Panthers’ top two draft picks—linebacker Shaq Thompson and receiver Devin Funchess—both generated very mixed reviews in the post-draft analysis. Can they cut it at the positions Carolina has them slated for? I like watching players in August who have a bunch to prove. You get more than the usual preseason performance level from them.
The player I can’t wait to watch—LeSean McCoy, RB: He probably won’t see much action against the Panthers, but how often does a star of McCoy’s stature change teams in a non-free-agent manner. McCoy hasn’t exactly handled his departure from Philadelphia with the greatest of ease, repeatedly aiming salvos in Chip Kelly’s direction, so it’s time to show the Eagles what they’re missing, Shady. Your move(s).
A memory from Bills camp—You might have forgotten, but Marv Levy returned to the Bills in 2006–07, during the Dick Jauron coaching era, serving as the team’s general manager. Always one of the most enlightening and educational interviews in the league, Levy chatted with me one day in 2006 at Bills camp at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford, N.Y. It was then, in that conversation, that I got to tell him he authored my all-time favorite NFL quote, bar none. During his Bills coaching tenure, Levy had been asked by a reporter if some upcoming late-season game against Miami was a “must win” game? Ever the historian and man of many interests, Levy coolly replied: “World War II was a must win.” Levy exploded with laughter, loving both my flattery and his own wittiness and sense of perspective. It’s not often you get to quote Marv Levy to Marv Levy, but when you get the chance, it sure beats the heck out of watching another football practice.