Lessons Learned on the Road
Thoughts on seeing 20 teams in training camps, seeing two preseason games, seeing America from a 33-foot RV ... and tasting that black raspberry milk shake in upstate New York.
1. I think, after flying 6,471 miles and driving 5,498 more (well, Andy DeGory and Dan Greene of The MMQB drove; I rode) in search of the NFL this summer, I realize again why the summer camp tour is so much fun: "Nobody’s lost yet." That’s what Buffalo coach Doug Marrone said, and he’s right. There’s legitimate optimism. In the last four years, four different teams have won the NFC East; and three different teams have won the NFC North and West, and the AFC North and West. The NFL has sold parity since before most of us were born. It’s on sale from San Diego to Foxboro this summer.
2. I think the single-best player we saw on our tour was St. Louis tight end Jared Cook. What a catch radius. How he caught only 44 balls last year in Tennessee I'll never know.
3. I think the best rookies we saw were:
a. Barkevious Mingo, OLB, Cleveland. Beat two left tackles with speed moves, and didn't even look like he was sweating. Just hope the lung injury he suffered Thursday night against Detroit isn’t serious.
b. Tavon Austin, WR/KR/PR, St. Louis. Saw him make Cortland Finnegan, a $10 million-a-year cornerback, look very mortal on an eight-yard curl. Preview of things to come.
c. Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh. Stands his ground in blitz-blocking drills against 250-pound linebackers, and he can juke safeties too. Hobbled with a knee sprain now. Steelers really need him.
d. E.J. Manuel, QB, Buffalo. Saw his eighth camp practice. Impressed by his poise and self-assuredness in and out of the pocket for a player so early in his first camp.
e. Kyle Long, G, Chicago. Played very well in the Friday preseason opener at Carolina. Poised and very strong. Looks like a 10-year pro.
f. David Amerson, CB, Washington. A feisty, combative corner, just what an aging secondary needs.
4. I think the best slice of Americana we had was in Chattanooga. I always like staying at the older hotels when possible on the road, and seeing new places I haven’t seen. So after seeing a morning practice at the Falcons, and before a night game at Nashville the next day, we stopped at the midway point in southeastern Tennessee, stayed the night, watched the Double-A Lookouts play Huntsville for a few innings, sampled the local IPA, and slept in at The Chattanoogan, complete with rocking chairs in the lobby.
5. I think I left Philadelphia with the requisite respect for Chip Kelly that I thought I’d have, and something a little extra. His emphasis on running a fast-paced, no-huddle offense is making football fun for his players. I didn’t see a huddle in two hours.
6. I think these are my camp tour awards:
Most intense practice: Pittsburgh (Latrobe, Pa.), Aug. 2. First tackling I saw—almost two weeks in—and a full-on blitz-pickup period between backs and linebackers. Lots of crunching. "Physicality is an asset of ours," Mike Tomlin says after practice. "In order to make it an asset, we’ve got to do it."
Best veteran: Robert Mathis, DE, Indianapolis (Anderson, Ind.), Aug. 14. Darted outside, crawled inside, got down on his hands and got through the gap to get to the backfield. "I still can’t believe I saw that," GM Ryan Grigson said a couple hours later.
Best new coach: Nathaniel Hackett, offensive coordinator, Buffalo (Pittsford, N.Y.), July 30. Bonded well, and quickly, with E.J. Manuel, and imagination oozes out of him. Book-learned before he really got into football as a kid, and his NFL knowledge doesn't just come from his genes (his dad is long-time NFL assistant Paul Hackett). He's learned from several stints on NFL staffs, and from a trial-by-fire with Doug Marrone at Syracuse.
Best arm: Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco (Santa Clara, Calif.), July 28. What a howitzer. Said to someone on the sidelines. "Now everyone can see why Alex Smith got benched last year. Look at this guy throw."
Best hands: A.J. Green, Cincinnati (Cincinnati), Aug. 15. He caught one bomb from Andy Dalton eight inches off the ground, and reached behind himself, gumbylike, to catch another. Believe the hype.
Strangest sight: James Harrison, in a striped helmet.
7. I think, in culinary terms, the highlights of the trip were:
a. The black raspberry milkshake at the Pittsford (N.Y.) Farms Dairy. Few ice cream items in American history can top it.
b. The four-way (spaghetti, chili, onions, shredded cheese), reliving the regular dinner of my 20s life, in Cincinnati.
c. The bison dog in the bleachers at Wrigley Field.
d. The pork barbeque at Hillbilly Red’s in Richmond.
e. Jake’s Stadium Pizza, Mankato, Minn. Please don’t tell my wife I had the pepperoni.
8. I think my worry spots from the trip would be, in no particular order: Oakland generating a pass-rush ... Oakland generating points ... The Niners finding a bookend receiver to Anquan Boldin ... the Jets at quarterback (surprise!), receiver, tight end and running back. Have I left anything out there? ... Baltimore’s intermediate receiving game ... Jay Cutler ... Percy Harvin’s durability and what he’ll be like for the final six weeks when he comes back from hip surgery ... Brandon Weeden and Christian Ponder keeping the wolves at bay.
9. I think the best night we had—and there were several, including an evening in the bleachers at Wrigley Field—was the night swapping tales with Indianapolis GM Ryan Grigson at Riviera Maya, a surprisingly good Mexican spot in Anderson, Ind. With live music.