The Season of Hope
We tend to view the National Football League as monolithic, a fortified unit molding the Shield. In truth, outside the league office are 32 teams operating as distinct families, defined by rituals, dysfunction and personality quirks. I never truly understood this until visiting 14 training camps in 15 days, driving from North Jersey down to steamy Tampa, then back north through to a misting, gray Green Bay and across the southern edge of the Great Lakes. In a nine-seat van with Peter King and colleagues from The MMQB, we spent much of a day with each team before bolting town: two hours observing practice, the rest chatting with coaches and players, listening to what’s different in 2015 and weighing the odds when members of each team invariably offer some version of, “This is our year.”
Swept by the romance of August football, everyone harbors hope. At no time of the season that stretches from the ovens of July to the freezers of February are 32 fan bases as excited as they are now, when football doesn't count. The Browns think Johnny Manziel can still make magic, the Titans believe Marcus Mariota will never throw an interception, and the Niners delight in everyone doubting them. Even our four-stop stretch of bottom-dwellers (the Buccaneers, Jaguars, Titans and Bears) featured indelible optimism. NFL history says one of these teams will surprise and win nine games, maybe more. “How could you not love this time of year?” says new Bears coach John Fox who, despite moving from Peyton Manning to Jay Cutler, is perky, sun-kissed and ridiculously positive as he cruises through the small campus of Olivet Nazarene University on a golf cart.
By touring teams in succession, we can compare camps and people. In Atlanta, first-year head coach Dan Quinn hired a local DJ to blast hip-hop over drills. On a grass field in the shadows of Lambeau, 10th-year Packers coach Mike McCarthy allowed 30-second bursts of classic rock during timeouts. Washington, setting up camp in historic Richmond, close ranks after practice while the Jaguars welcomed us to their posh locker room, as they played ping pong and rounds of Madden on a 70-inch flat screen well past 9 p.m.
The camp-culture disparity was most apparent during a 24-hour span in which we observed the top two selections of the 2015 draft. On a sticky morning in Tampa, Jameis Winston threw two interceptions in his first three reps. Afterwards, hundreds of fans chanted “JAME-is! JAME-is!” and he plodded through chewed-up grass to sign autographs. Winston was then swarmed by more than two dozen reporters and camera crews. A Buccaneers employee escorted him off the field nearly an hour after the final whistle.
In Nashville the next day, Marcus Mariota was flawless for a fifth straight day; in a stat that truly does not matter, he had yet to throw a pick during camp. After practice, he goofed off with teammates, drop-kicking a punt 32 yards through the uprights. Mariota snapped photos with two VIPs—mid-level UFC fighters set for a weekend bout in Nashville—then returned to his locker room to watch two defensive linemen play craps.
The league’s breadth is overwhelming. T-shirt sales in towns like Spartanburg, S.C. (Panthers) and Anderson, Ind. (Colts) are cottage industries. Crowds assemble at tiny Division III colleges and sprawling team headquarters. Donning jerseys with faces painted, they cheer, even for a second-string running back’s 20-yard dash in a seven-on-seven drill. Those fans in Tampa arrived in droves, despite 21 straight days of rain, to watch a team that finished 2-14 last season. This is the only time of year when fans can reach out and touch their favorite players. Those players are approachable, they are human, they are unfiltered.
As the league continually builds partitions to limit access, you wonder, Why? During training camp, you can have a 15-minute conversation with Packers running back Eddie Lacy about his offseason stint on Family Feud, or find Bears tight end Martellus Bennett sitting under a tree writing a short story, and chat with him without borders. These men are funny and smart, and there is no reason for the NFL or its PR staffs to shield them after the relatively free-and-easy days of August.
As I traveled, and Zaxby’s became Waffle House and then became Culver’s, Americana was on display — from the gas station on I-75 in south Georgia carrying mounted alligator heads and chilled blueberry wine to the shoulder of I-65 in Battle Ground, Ind. as the sun sank below boundless cornfields. Somewhere along the 5,023 miles, I realized that the NFL is just like this vast country: varied, with deep-rooted differences but united by a common dream. A winning season is palpable, the playoffs are possible, and the Super Bowl just might happen—until all of the sudden the quarterback tears his ACL, a four-game losing streak kills momentum and you're looking forward to the draft. Wait until next August, when the American dream is born again in 32 places.
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