John P. Lopez: 10 training camp storylines better than Favre - Sports Illustrated

Ten training camp storylines that have nothing to do with Favre, Vick

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Here then are 10 training camp stories better than Vick's; 10 football headlines fresher and more compelling than Favre's.

1) Darren McFadden: Fourth overall pick a third-stringer?

When the Raiders signed McFadden to a six-year, $60 million contract in 2008, apparently McFadden did not believe part of the job description was running between the tackles. In his rookie season, he became -- and this is not a compliment -- a poor man's Reggie Bush. He was explosive on the edge and showed brilliant ability and potential, but consistently left Raiders fans wanting more.

The Raiders need and want more for their money after McFadden's erratic, injury-plagued rookie season. Yes, he showed great flashes, but more often than not left Raiders coaches wondering if he was durable enough to handle the demands of being the featured back. As camp begins this week, it remains a big question. It is the biggest question.

The Raiders have three potential featured backs in Justin Fargas, Michael Bush and McFadden. They obviously want McFadden to be the man, as they ran him with the first-team throughout mini-camp. And certainly McFadden wants to prove skeptics wrong. But can he?

Fargas, who has 1,862-yards rushing the past two seasons, is a hard runner, unafraid of contact and a coach Tom Cable-favorite. It may be that Fargas did not run with the first unit during mini-camp because the Raiders were saving wear on the veteran's legs. Meanwhile, Bush may be the most physically gifted of the three.

The Raiders have done all they can trying to clear a path for McFadden to take the job. It's all up to him now. Al Davis isn't going to pay $60 million for a role player.

2) The $4.4 million question?

The Baltimore Ravens seem to be walking a delicate line between Super Bowl contender and the team most likely to disappoint in 2009. All things considered in the NFL's grand scheme, Derrick Mason's possible return in Baltimore could have a much bigger impact than Favre's possibly landing in Minnesota.

The Ravens are a hugely talented and proven team, but there are changes on the coaching staff, questions in the backfield, a young quarterback in need of his go-to man and a $63 million man that now must live up to expectations.

Who knows if Greg Mattison can fill Rex Ryan's shoes as defensive coordinator? Who knows if Ray Rice can steal carries from Willis McGahee? Will quarterback Joe Flacco suffer through a sophomore slump without Mason? And can Terrell Suggs live up to the richest contract (six years, $63 million) a linebacker has ever received?

It all gets better if Mason returns. He has that kind of an impact on the field and in the locker room. He commands that kind of respect.

Mason announced his retirement July 13. It was widely considered an emotionally-charged retirement, in the wake of the death of Mason's dear friend, Steve McNair. As Mason wrestled with shock and grief, he perhaps over-reacted announcing that he would leave the game, because he clearly has more left in the tank.

The Ravens hope Mason will return. Coach John Harbaugh put on a big recruiting pitch over the weekend. And Mason stands to make $4.4 million this year if he returns.

Tick, tock. The Ravens' season is waiting.

3) Wade "Mr. Mean" Phillips

Wade Phillips has been in coaching for about as long as Fred Rogers had his PBS Neighborhood. Mr. Phillips and Mr. Rogers forged reputations of being similarly likeable and kind, too. So would you really have expected Mr. Rogers to suddenly become W.C. Fields after 32 years of wearing the sweater and speaking with that soothing voice?

Get outta here, kid, you bother me.

That kind of transformation, in essence, is what Phillips promises in 2009. He will be meaner. Tougher. More Bill Parcells-like. And if you believe that, you're living in the Neighborhood Of Make Believe. After 32 years, people don't change. But that's what Phillips, in the final year of his contract, must at least try to do to save his job.

After the most disappointing and disjointed of seasons for the Dallas Cowboys in 2008, the football world fully expected owner Jerry Jones to change coaches. Instead, his head coach promised to change his style.

So far Phillips has held players more accountable and been stricter when it comes to making players sit out if they make mistakes. Phillips also says he will wield a bigger stick when it comes to fines.

It should be quite the soap-opera drama, as usual, in Jerry World as Phillips tries to be something he's not. Camp fun opens this week. Jones surely will be asked about his head coach soon thereafter.

Mr. Phillips as Mr. Mean? Not likely, but it will be fun to watch.

4) It's Geaux Time for Reggie Bush

It's now or never, Reggie. You've heard all the criticisms: Can't run between the tackles. Not an effective every-down player. Glorified punt-returner. The fact is, Pierre Thomas is a better running back than Bush. While four of Bush's nine touchdowns came on punt returns in 2008, Thomas entrenched himself in the backfield with a 4.8 per-carry average and nine touchdowns.

But that does not mean Bush cannot become a huge contributor and factor on every snap. The investment in the No. 2 overall pick of the 2006 draft is too big. The impact Bush could have on a much-hoped-for return to power for the Saints is even bigger. And yet questions abound -- none looming larger than Bush's durability issue. This is a huge camp for Bush.

His career has been remarkably inconsistent. Never has he rushed for as much as 4.0 yards per-carry. In three full seasons, Bush has had a TOTAL of seven carries of more than 20-yards. He has been electric at times returning punts and is a threat as a game-breaking-type receiver. But the Saints expected and need much more consistency. Bush went 14 games over the past two years without scoring a touchdown. He also missed 10 games over the same span because of injury.

Oh, by the way. Bush had microfracture surgery in the offseason on his knee. It's the kind of surgery that has ended some NFL careers. It may end this one sooner than the Saints expected.

5) Colts ... out to pasture?

Betting against Peyton Manning is like taking butter in a hot knife fight. Yet there are so many reasons the Colts could be the team most likely to take significant steps backward this season.

It will be one of the most compelling stories of 2009, watching a healthy and more-dedicated-than-ever Manning trying to keep the beat going, after the heartbeat and so much more has left Indianapolis.

Tony Dungy, the brilliant leader and calming influence, is gone. No matter how solid the organization -- and it is under Jim Irsay and Bill Polian -- that is a severe hit.

Dungy's replacement, Jim Caldwell, has no head-coaching experience. Offensive coordinator Tom Moore and offensive line coach Howard Mudd, reliable friends and confidants of Manning's, have had their roles reduced to consultant status. Longtime favorite target Marvin Harrison is gone.

The rest of the AFC South clearly has caught up to the Colts, with the Titans going 13-3 last year with Kerry Collins at quarterback and the Texans fancying legitimate plans of a playoff run. The Colts became one-dimensional last season with the league's 31st-ranked rushing offense, making things even more difficult on Manning.

And yet ... no one figures to be better equipped to should the load than Manning. He has had a healthy offseason and, by all accounts, has worked harder than ever. Manning is entering his 12th season. After a nine-game undefeated run at the end of the 2008 season, when he reached an even higher level of play, Manning may well be on the verge of redefining his own greatness.

He enters training camp with Indianapolis on his shoulders. He may be one guy who can handle it.

6) Is Ochocinco picking on a Tomato Can?

Chad Ochocinco is high on Twitter, if not brains. He's spent much of the offseason engaging in a war of words, picking a mega-pixel fight via Twitter with San Diego Chargers linebacker, wildman and sack king Shawne Merriman.

Why Ocho is doing this, is anyone's guess. I mean, Merriman's nickname is "Light's Out." As in, goodnight. But it does lead to a very big question hovering over San Diego as camp begins. Does Merriman have any NFL fight left in him? Or is he the proverbial Tomato Can opponent, coming off a serious knee injury that could hinder his speed and effectiveness?

Merriman is still just 25. But if you connect the dots and remember his four-game suspension in 2006 for steroids, which have been known to lead to repeated injuries and shortened careers, Merriman's return to full strength could be iffy.

All indications are Merriman has returned in terrific shape and looks healthier than ever as the Chargers enter camp. A fully-healthy and lights-out Merriman is pivotal to all Chargers hopes. But it's one thing to look great when no one's wearing shoulder pads. It's quite another to actually be great when the game becomes violent, the cuts are quicker and the physical demands brutal.

There clearly is concern within the organization over exactly which Merriman they will get this year. The Chargers drafted pass-rushing specialist Larry English this year, presumably as protection behind Merriman.

For the record, Ochocinco's Bengals face the Chargers on Dec. 20. The tweet battle between these two is sure to escalate. But maybe Ochocinco is banking on the same thing others worry about: Merriman may be out by then, anyway.

7) Analyze This III -- Vince Young

He has been enigmatic and bizarre. His work ethic, mental toughness and ability to command respect in an NFL locker room have been questioned. He has vaguely asked for a trade. And this summer, Vince Young lost a friend and surrogate father of sorts in Steve McNair.

Young, the No. 3 overall selection in the 2006 NFL draft, always has found respite and a safe place on the football field. The problem is, he won't see the field in 2009 -- perhaps not even if starter Kerry Collins gets hurt. The Titans have no plans to give the reins of a 13-3 team to a quarterback still lacking the pocket-passing and ball-protection skills necessary for Jeff Fisher's offense.

Young will play out his final season in a Tennessee Titans uniform holding a clipboard and wearing a ball cap. Given the salary and roster bonus escalations in 2010, the Titans would face a salary cap figure of $14 million after this season if they choose to keep Young. They won't.

How the one-time cover boy handles rejection could go a long way toward determining the kind of season the Titans have. We'll begin seeing signs during camp as pressure mounts and reporters hover. Young has not handled it well in the past, going MIA last season, causing Fisher and the Titans to worry about his health.

The Titans did not give Collins a two-year, $15 million contract to sit the bench. And backup Patrick Ramsey is perhaps the next-best option, should Collins have to miss action.

The last thing the Super Bowl-hungry Titans need is a distraction. Keep an eye on VY.

8) The "Bill Brian Shanagruden" Effect

There always are NFL head coaches on the hot seat during training camp. It is as much a training camp ritual as rookies singing their college fight songs in the chow hall. But this year it's especially likely that a great number of coaches already are looking over their shoulders as much as looking forward to the season. And for good reason.

Never have so many proven head coaches with thick Super Bowl resumes sat out a season: Bill Cowher. Brian Billick. Mike Holmgren. Mike Shanahan. Jon Gruden. Owners with itchy, you're-fired trigger fingers surely have taken note of the proven coaching commodities out there in 2009, if the urge strikes. And keep in mind, NFL owners haven't always been the most patient folks.

Add to the mix that up to 10 coaches, arguably, stand on shaky ground entering the season, and you've got yourself what promises to be a volatile year for NFL coaches. How long until the first rumor starts in Washington, Dallas, Buffalo, Minnesota, Cincinnati, Chicago, Green Bay or some other NFL locale that a Gruden or Cowher or Billick is on the owner's radar?

Some probably have started already.

9) Albert Haynesworth = fat and rich? Or Redskins will feast?

It happens all the time. A superstar talent gets superstar free-agent money and then it's all gravy from there. Usually, production and motivation plummets. In Albert Haynesworth's case, the concern is, perhaps it literally will be all gravy.

At 6-6, 320-pounds, Haynesworth was the league's biggest offseason ticket in so many ways. Ultimately, he earned a seven-year, $100 million contract from the Redskins, with $41 million of it guaranteed. Now comes the tricky part. Jim Zorn, whose job status is iffy anyway, must find a way to keep Haynesworth motivated and flying straight. If he can't, then the Redskins will falter and Zorn will be fired. Simple as that.

How Haynesworth looks coming into Redskins training camp and the motor with which he plays could be key to finding out what kind of impact he will have in 2009.

Making matters more complicated is Haynesworth's penchant for being less than a reliable character on the field or off of it. He has been fined and suspended for things like stepping on an opposing player's head and kicking a teammate in the chest. He's had a number of traffic offenses.

There are some in the Titans' organization who were not altogether distraught over losing the free-agent battle. Until his free-agent season, Haynesworth had earned a reputation for not always taking every snap seriously. With this guy, you get a mixed bag of greatness and frustration.

Phat Albert? Or Fat Albert? That's the question.

10) Honeymoon at Niagara Falls? Or T.O. falls off the cliff?

Terrell Owens will be 36 this season and already has proven that the first thing to go is the hands. Owens spent much of the offseason dropping the ball.

First, T.O. was punked on national television by a 125-pound runway model. "[He] calls himself an athlete?" Joanna Krupa said on the Superstars competition. "What does he get paid millions of do?"

Then, on something called The T.O. Show, he put on a performance that made Paul Blart: Mall Cop look Oscar-worthy.

If we know nothing else about the man, it is that a Terrell Owens reality show is the ultimate in oxymorons. But the fans keep showing up. Already, big crowds have attended Buffalo Bills training camp practices.

Owens will be a huge part of what the Bills accomplish in 2009, for better or worse. Dick Jauron's job could well rest in Owens' hands, and that is anything but a comforting thought.

Even surrounded by great talent with the Cowboys last season, Owens was a disruptive, underachieving force. He had exactly two games of more than 100 yards receiving. He had 10 games of less than 70 yards.

This Buffalo experiment has all the markings of a complete and utter failure. But it's still bound to be the best TV performance Owens will offer all year.