Optimism is everywhere in the NFL with training camps cranking up
It is great to be back. The World Cup was terrific, my brother's death a punch in the jaw that still hurts, my vacation was needed but a little ... empty. Today is the start of football season for me, and it's a great feeling because this is as wide-open a season entering training camp as I can remember.
I expect a job action down the road, but it's not time for that today. (And I don't plan to be a negotiation-monger every Monday for the next 31 columns, because I don't believe much of great substance is going to happen before February.) Today is time for hope. I tweeted the other day the reason this is such a fun time is because 32 teams think they have a chance to make the playoffs right now, and I think about 28 actually do. (Scratch St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Buffalo and probably Cleveland, though I guess it's possible
So here goes, my 27th season covering the greatest show on turf, real and artificial.
Optimism everywhere. Rightfully so. The last three Super Bowl winners, in the year prior to winning it all, won 8, 10 and 8 games. (The Giants, Steelers and Saints managed that trifecta.) That means one of the following teams -- winners of between 8 and 10 games last year -- should feel very, very good entering training camp this week:
1. New England (10 wins).
That's 41 percent of the league with the same shot the past three Super Bowl winners had entering the year they won it. Take that to Vegas, put $20 on each team and, hey, you should make more than $260.
Unless what I think is going to happen happens. It's early, very early, but I haven't backed off a San Diego-Green Bay Super Bowl. Two teams knocking on the door pretty consistently (Packers averaging 10 wins a year over the past three years, Chargers 11 a year over the past six season), both with terrific young quarterbacks (
Kind of sounds like the Saints last year.
"You know I picked you guys to make it to the Super Bowl,'' I said to San Diego quarterback
"You know me,'' Rivers said. "I'm the ultimate optimist. I know what everybody thinks about the guys we might be missing. Of course we want
"We've never had 50 guys showing up with the 7:30 group [in strength and conditioning workouts] on a random Tuesday in April. It was almost like a full team workout at 7:30 in the morning, which we've never had. They just kept coming, day after day. Not that we haven't been hungry. But we've gained the knowledge of what it takes to win by coming so close so often.''
We'll see. But how Green Bay and San Diego come through training camp will be interesting, particularly in the cases of the stars with contract issues.
The stories I'll be watching the closest in the next six weeks:
Interesting that I've asked 64 important questions and haven't mentioned
"I wanted to see how our attitude was in mini-camps and OTAs too,'' Brees told me. "And this was interesting -- there were more fights, more jawing at guys on the other side of the ball, than I've ever seen in an offseason. There were times we had to cut back on offense-defense work, like, you know, guys were going to get hurt. I got the impression the mindset was on track, and I saw guys with their heads in the right place.''
I credit Williams, the pedal-to-the-metal defensive coordinator who challenged Brees and the offense every day in practice last year. You can be sure
The five rookies I expect to shine early: Miami pass-rusher
... The F word. I have no information for you, other than I, like all of you, think
... Contract crappola.
... Tebowmania. In case you missed my story on
... The Odd Couple.
I should be seeing 23 teams in person -- at least. Looking for a way to get to Green Bay at some point as well. I plan to file postcards for SI.com from most of the camps and include other nuggets in MMQBs.
• Tuesday night, San Antonio.
• Aug. 6, night, Houston.
• Aug. 17, night, suburban Virginia.
• Aug. 18, night, Baltimore.
Will let you all know when I might be able to do one -- if time permits. Follow me at
"I'm very disappointed in
Kiffin responded by saying he reached out to Pola on Friday to see if he had any interest in the job. If you believe the first contact between Kiffin and Pola was Friday, well, you're not really in touch with anything on this planet.
What exacerbates the problem of ripping off a coach under contract six days before training camp is that USC product Fisher is a Trojan through and through. Fisher has friends throughout pro and college football and now he's going to be in the position of telling them all: Be leery of Lane Kiffin.
I mean, how many more stupid things does Lane Kiffin have to do before he realizes you don't win by knifing good people in the back?
Pretty soon Kiffin's going to be so unpopular in the NFL that, should he burn his college bridges completely, only
Just a guess. But he may have already burned that bridge.
"It's time we all rise up. We've been knocking on the door. Now it's time to blow it up.''
Cute. Not sure that helps sell a ticket or win a game. But cute.
"The first step on that is to see how the cold-weather Super Bowl goes in an outdoor stadium. If the league has a good experience in New York, then there will undoubtedly be many communities to come back and ask for a cold-weather Super Bowl, and we would certainly be on that list.''
Hunt won't be alone. If it's anything other than a raging blizzard on Super Sunday 2014 -- when the game is played in northern New Jersey -- you'll have five owners knocking on
"Definitely my pillow. I'm funny about that. If I don't have the right kind of pillow, I have a hard time sleeping.''
One of the most difficult tasks I had in revising my list of the top 100 players in football in the spring (for the paperback version of
This year, I had a few dilemmas. How far to drop Roethlisberger because of his off-field problems and what that might portend for his short- and long-term future? How high to rank Brees after his amazing 2009 season? And this: Should I keep the royalty of the last decade -- Manning and Brady at the top, in some order -- intact?
I have to say I thought very long and hard about ranking Brees number one. At 31 years, seven months, he's younger than Manning (34 years, four months) and Brady (32 years, 11 months), and his shoulder problems of 2006 are very far in the rear-view mirror. Brees followed the most accurate regular-season a quarterback ever had with an incredibly accurate postseason (72-, 55- and 82-percent games), with eight touchdowns and no interceptions. At the same time, Brady (disastrous playoff loss to Baltimore) and Manning (outplayed head-to-head by Brees in the Super Bowl) took steps back at the end of 2009.
One of the things I considered was the recent playoff records of Brady and Manning. While Brees is 4-1 in his last five playoff games, the two kings are struggling. Look at the last five playoff outings of Manning and Brady:
Relate those numbers to the career marks of each man:
• Manning is 131-61 in wins and losses, Brady 97-30.
• Brady's a 63 percent passer, Manning 65.
• Brady's TDs and interceptions: 225-99, Manning's 366-181.
• Brady's yard per attempt in the regular season, 7.32, is much better than his recent playoff mark. Manning's (7.55) is about the same.
Though the numbers aren't all great, they're not disastrous either. At the end of my deliberation, I put Brees three, behind Manning and Brady, in that order. It has to do some with current production (each could throw for 4,500 yards and 30 touchdowns this year), some with résumé. I decided if I am eventually going to put Brees over the two kings of the position, I need to see one more year where he is clearly better in the regular season and postseason. But if you'd rank Brees over either or both, I'd respect the argument. Put it this way. If you asked me to pick one of the three for the next five years, it'd be a tough choice.
I had six quarterbacks in the top 12 this year:
The Westin Hotel/Michigan Avenue in Chicago has long been a hotel of choice for me, because of its proximity to everything in such a great city. Last week, on my last travel leg of vacation, it was also the scene of something I never could have expected: an argument that, in 10 seconds, almost escalated into a hotel-lobby brawl.
There are three elevators in the lobby of the Westin, and at rush-hour check-in last Tuesday, two were out of service. So when my wife and I got to the bank of elevators around 6 p.m., there were 15 or so people waiting for the one working lift. We waited two, three, four minutes. Now there were 25 or 30 people waiting. And then a 35ish man wedged in to the left of the crowd waiting for the elevator. He looked at the line of people and looked peeved. We all were, of course. Then the door opened and 10 or 12 people came off. And the 35ish man took three quick steps to the elevator.
"Hey, hey, hey,'' I said. "Come on, buddy. That's not right.''
The guy stopped, looked at me angrily and snarled, "Don't tell me what to do. I wasn't going on.''
"Yes you were,'' I said. "I saw what you were doing. That's not right.''
He took a couple of steps toward me and said angrily, "I'm a Starwood Preferred member.''
Like that made cutting the line OK.
"You're also an a------,'' I said.
I obviously shouldn't have said that, but he deserved it. Now Mr. Starwood Preferred walked the final three steps toward me and said. "You wanna step outside?'' He bumped my chest hard. "People who use that word are looking for a fight,'' he said. "People who use that word to me, I go outside with. You wanna go outside?''
Now the elevator was full, and the door closed.
"No, I don't,'' I said.
He was breathing hard on me. "You're a big talker,'' he said, stepping back a step or two.
"And you're still an a------,'' I said. Oh, so clever.
He stepped toward me again. Almost simultaneously, a front-desk gal near the bank of elevators chirped, "I can take a few people up the service elevator!'' So my wife sidestepped the guy. I walked toward the door, me staring at Mr. Starwood Preferred the whole way. "---- you, ------------,'' Mr. Starwood Preferred hissed at me.
"Have a nice day,'' I said, and boarded the service elevator.
I don't know exactly why -- it's not testosterone, I don't think -- but I almost wish Mr. Starwood Preferred had taken a swing at me. Even if he'd pummeled me (and he may well have), he'd have known that at least one person out of 30 sniffed out the real idiot in the crowd. Then again, I like my nose unbroken.
There are three engraved slogans on the inside of the Saints' Super Bowl rings, all significant things the Saints used last year on their championship run:
"We had to bail, pigeons s----ing in jareds mouth. Too unsanitary to continue.''
1. I think this is what I'll always remember about
The other point I'd make about Kaye Cowher has to do with skin cancer. I'm a melanoma survivor. I've still got what looks like a shark bite in my right forearm from having cancer cut out of there two years ago. I can't say it loudly enough, and I'm sure Kaye Cowher would want the same thing said if she could say it right now: Go get screened. I just had another mole cut off my back two weeks ago. Every four months I go to the dermatologist, and if you're fair-skinned like me, and you're pushing 45, I'd go get checked immediately. Kaye Cowher was a healthy, vital, tremendously fit person, but you can't beat skin cancer if you don't catch it in time.
Good luck to the Cowher family, Bill and the three girls, recovering from what will be a terrible blow. The family has asked that, if you wish, you may make donations to the Cowhers' favorite charity: Family Resources of Pennsylvania at www.familyresourcesofpa.org.
2. I think
3. I think I expect
4. I think there won't be a team in the NFC with more pressure every day this season than the Cowboys. You saw on their first practice day in San Antonio -- 19,237 fans in the house. I go to camps all over the country, and even the rabid fan bases don't get a third of that most days.
5. I think you might be wondering why I said "NFC'' in the previous item. Easy. There's going to be no team with more pressure, and it won't even be close, than the 2010 New York Jets. I hope Rex Ryan and
6. I think the Redskins have to sign Donovan McNabb long-term. The question is, at what price? I could see McNabb playing like the seventh-best quarterback in football in
7. I think
8. I think I love the fact that
9. I think these were the highlights of my vacation:
a. Read a couple of really good books.
b. Saw a game in the Wrigley Field bleachers. The last fun thing I did on my vacation was sit in the bleachers last Wednesday to see the Cubs and Astros play. I got to the game just as the park opened, to make sure I got a good seat; the bleachers are general admission. Turns out I didn't need to do that, because there were empty seats out there all game.
Went to the men's room in center field about 75 minutes before the game. In the middle of the empty place: a naked man washing himself, his pile of clothes off to the side. I did a double-take, and he was quickly soaping up his armpits with the hand soap out of the dispenser, then using a cup to rinse off. On a weirdness scale of 1-10, this was a 46. I said nothing. I looked the other way. For all I know, not another soul this far before the game entered the bathroom by the time this model citizen was washed up and dressed. I hope not. Good game, too, in the Midwestern broiler. Has
c. Saw Sox games with both daughters, along with a few home-brewed Watermelon beers at the Boston Beer Works across the street from Fenway. Wouldn't be summer without
d. Saw a couple of good movies. Loved
e. Ran into
f. Took a boat from Boston to Provincetown, on the tip of Cape Cod, with my wife on a beautiful summer day, on calm waters. Haven't been there in 30 years. Cool place.
g. Spent a few days in LA, culminating with the always fun "NFL 101'' deal at the L.A. Coliseum. Great to catch up with new civilian
"I miss it,'' Pereira said. "I figured this would be a good way to get back into it.''
How intimidated would you be to be reffing with Pereira, having him look over your shoulder on a close call? I'll tell you this, though -- he'd put you at ease from the first whistle. That's the kind of team player he is. The NFL will really miss him.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
b. I've got a sinking feeling that by the time
c. Amazing how many chances
Eight games out. There are only so many times you can play for tomorrow. Francona does it too often. Having said that, the hitting on this team is god-awful, and managing better is not going to vault them into the playoffs.
d. It's been a busy time for death. I really liked and admired
f. In Lakewood, a neighborhood in Dallas, the neighbors are doing one terrific job for the Siegel family.
g. Coffeenerdness: What is it about me needing hot coffee when it's 96 degrees and dripping humidity outside? I don't know, but I can count on one finger the number of iced coffees I've had this summer.
h. Caught a couple of episodes of