Publish date:

Excitement is building in St. Louis; Texans are fighting for Cushing


• Sam Bradford aces his first test.

• Nate Kaeding sees a shrink.

• The Texans back Brian Cushing, and give a reason (excuse?) why he tested PED-positive.

• Roger Goodell and John Madden eat at a rest stop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. (I don't believe it was the Jeff Reed Memorial Rest Stop, however.)

• Vernon Davis needed a slap in the face, and his coach was the one to give it to him.

• At least one NFL star knows exactly how lucky he is to have the life he has.

• I'm not sure the Bucs have any players who shave yet. Well, Ronde Barber, maybe.

• The Most Valuable Coach on the Chicago staff this year? Not Mike Martz. Not Lovie Smith. Give you a clue: He bears a slight resemblance to Mike Stivic from All in the Family.

On with the show.


This is not the second coming of JaMarcus Russell

ST. CHARLES, Mo. -- On the Rams sideline Saturday night, during the club's first scrimmage of the summer, at woody Lindenwood University, all eyes were, of course, on rookie quarterback Sam Bradford, the first pick of the 2010 draft. "What's uncanny,'' said GM Billy Devaney, "is how he doesn't just complete the pass. He completes the pass most often where his guy can get it and the defender can't. Drives the corners crazy.'' On cue, Bradford took one of his 34 snaps of the evening, dropped back, and threw a spiral high and outside to 6-foot-4 wideout Jordan Kent at the goal line. Kent and the covering corner both jumped for it, but Kent had half a foot on him and won the ball easily.

A few minutes later, pressured, Bradford let one fly 45 yards downfield on a corner route to wideout Danny Amendola, in tight coverage. The ball floated perfectly into his arms before he got pushed out. Gain of 50. "The boy can throw that football!'' corner Ron Bartell exulted next to me. "You see that?!!'' Now that's a corner exulting when one of his brethren in the secondary got beat. Not a common thing for training camp. But when you've lost 42 of your last 48 games, and your passing game is probably the biggest reason why, you want any hope you can find. And in St. Louis, hope is spelled B-R-A-D-F-O-R-D.

You have to have a little perspective over what happened here Saturday night. On the first throw of third-string quarterback Keith Null's night, he rainbowed a bomb over corner Kevin Dockery to an undrafted free agent, Brandon McRae. The cornerback group, other than Bartell (Larry Fitzgerald calls playing Bartell his tough Sunday in the division), is a weak one, with injuries sidelining a couple of the presumptive members of the final roster. But I soon saw what my teammate Don "Donnie Brasco'' Banks was writing about when he watched Bradford at camp Friday. Bradford went nine of 12 with a couple of touchdowns and two drops in live periods, for something around 120 yards.

What I'd thought about Bradford in draft prep was that he was highly accurate, but a robo-QB. Watching him at Oklahoma, you'd see Bradford and his receivers and backs stare at the sidelines for the formation and play-call. Once they got it, they'd all jump to the line and snap the ball. Bradford didn't have to read much, if anything. He'd have a prescribed 1-2 progression to read and usually go to his first option. How would that translate to the NFL?

I still worry. A scrimmage where the quarterback is untouched and knows he's not going to get rapped around is no time to find out if a college phenom is the long-term answer. "I don't think the fact he's done it differently in college is setting him back,'' coach Steve Spagnuolo said on the bus on the way to the scrimmage. "From what I've seen of him so far, I'll be surprised if he's not able to grasp it.''

Walking off the Lindenwood field afterward (to the shrieks of every autograph-seeking kid within three miles), Bradford said he felt a little confused a few days ago with all that was being thrown at him during the offensive installation. "But I felt really comfortable tonight,'' he said. "The more second-nature it becomes, the more comfortable I'll be.''

Bradford said his surgically repaired right shoulder hasn't bothered him at camp. He said he was very happy with his accuracy in camp. Quarterbacks in the NFL need lots of traits to succeed, but none is more important than that last one -- accuracy. At the base of it all, that's why Tom Brady and Drew Brees and Peyton Manning have succeeded. And it's why JaMarcus Russell, Cade McNown and Kyle Boller didn't.

"So far he's been the perfect package,'' Bartell said. Key words: so far. But it's easy to be optimistic about the Rams for the first time in a while, watching this kid.


Introducing America to "Overtrained Athlete Syndrome."

HOUSTON -- The owner of the Houston Texans, Bob McNair, told me he believes his young linebacker, reigning NFL defensive rookie of the year Brian Cushing, is not guilty of taking a performance-enhancer called hCG. To that end, McNair plans to appeal Cushing's four-game suspension to commissioner Roger Goodell today in New York, according to Mark Berman of Fox 26 in Houston.

The NFL claims Cushing did test positive last September, and after a lengthy appeals process banned him for the first four games of the 2011 season. The NFL has been very clear about the rules of its program covering performance-enhancing substances, and I'd be surprised if the four-game ban would be adjusted by Goodell, regardless of McNair's arguments.

In an interview here Friday, Cushing said he thinks he knows why he tested positive for elevated levels of hCG. "Everything points to that overtrained athlete syndrome,'' Cushing said, walking back to the Texans' locker room after their afternoon practice. "I'm pretty sure it is. I'm pretty positive. I didn't take anything. It's not a tainted supplement. So all roads lead to that.''

The syndrome results from athletes training intensely for a long period, with the possibility of a testosterone imbalance resulting when an athlete stops training. I must stress the word "possibility,'' because no player in the history of the NFL substance-abuse program before Cushing tested positive for the higher level of hCG. The widespread belief in NFL circles was that a player who tests positive for hCG would be a steroid user trying to re-start regular testosterone production after it has been interrupted in a cycle of steroid use.

Rumors of steroid use have dogged Cushing since his high-school days in New Jersey, and followed him to USC. Despite the evidence against him, Cushing has denied that he took hCG. And Friday, his employer agreed.

"He shows no sign of ever having been on steroids,'' McNair said. "His weight hasn't changed appreciably since he's been with us. I've looked into it pretty thoroughly, and I haven't found anything that would lead me to believe that he has ever taken a performance-enhancing drug.''

Cushing said he is "well aware'' that the American public probably won't believe this claim. I think most people will view it as a dog-ate-my-homework defense. "It's tough when you know what kind of discipline you have, and what kind of work ethic you have, and the whole world doesn't believe you, and is against you. It's frustrating. But I know that the quickest way to answer all of this is by production on the field,'' Cushing said.

In other words, he needs to keep testing clean for any PEDs, and he needs to play well for the public to think he's playing clean. "The funny part -- well, not funny, really -- is that my worst month playing football last year was September, and that's when I tested positive. I had five or six tests after that. All negative,'' he said.

On Friday, Cushing sounded like he was resigned to playing a 12-game season and being the best player he could be for those 12.

"There is no question in my mind I'll be a better football player than I was last season,' he said. "I'm going into my second year. The plays I'm making on the practice field this year compared to last year, I'm so much more of a well-rounded football player than I was.''

I expect Cushing to come back possessed. We all do. Whether there's anything to this latest wrinkle is something I'll be following up on in the coming days, but the only way fans will look at Cushing as a great player is if he stays clean. For years..

Nate Kaeding still feels the effects of last January.

SAN DIEGO -- The most efficient kicker in NFL history is consulting with a sports psychologist for his failings. Nate Kaeding, who had previously seen a mental-health professional to help with his mindset and found it helpful, has seen the guy "about six'' times this offseason, he told me, to help him deal with the aftermath of a head-case performance in the Chargers' three-point divisional playoff loss to the Jets at home Jan. 17.

Kaeding went 0-for-3, missing from 36 (wide left), 57 (short), and 40 (wide right). The last kick was almost embarrassing. He punched the ball, instead of swinging his leg through it naturally, and it sailed way to the right. It was the classic kick of a man pressing too hard instead of naturally doing what he's been trained to do.

The psychologist didn't give any deep dark advice. "Keep the game in perspective,'' Kaeding said the message was. "Don't make it bigger than it is. There's going to be peaks and valleys, and just accept them.''

Six sessions, though. That's not the garden-variety pat on the back accompanied by a you'll-be-fine message. Kaeding is bugged by this, and my guess is the team, with one more disastrous January, could look elsewhere for a kicker.

Last season wasn't the first time Kaeding had gotten tight in the playoffs. In a wild-card game in 2004, he missed a 40-yard field goal in overtime that would have beaten the Jets; the Jets won, 20-17. He missed 45- and 48-yarders in the 2007 playoffs. Not easy kicks, but good kickers in the league have to make them.

Contrasting his playoff stat line with his regular-season one:

I asked Kaeding: Will there be a hangover this year?

"I don't know,'' he said. "I can't kick a playoff field goal in August, or October.''

A kicker has to be like a cornerback. Give up a long completion, corners are told, and you've just got to move on blindly to the next snap. Same with kickers, who can't carry one miss into the next kick. The problem against the Jets, Kaeding said, was carrying over the first miss, and you can tell, standing here on the field of the Chargers' practice facility, that it still bugs him.

"Mentally, I wasn't able to flush that first kick,'' he said. "As a kicker, you know you're going to miss. What disappoints me is not being able to put that one behind me.'' The second one was a long prayer. No harm, no foul. But the third one, in a tight game, was inexcusable.

"I was completely blindsided by that,'' he said. "Shame on me for ever thinking I've got this game figured out. I just didn't approach that kick right.''

And the fact that Kaeding can't make it right today or tomorrow is probably the worst part. It's going to eat at him until January, and there won't be a player in the NFL with more pressure on him entering the playoffs (if the Chargers make it) than Kaeding.

"Quite honestly, it still bugs the crap out of me,'' he said.


The players dig in -- and the commish gets a bite to eat too.

Roger Goodell spent three days with John Madden, now a league consultant, on the Madden bus, riding to five NFL camps last week. "We talked football nonstop,'' Goodell told me. Except for the stop at the rest area on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, where the bus stopped just before closing time for dinner at the little food court there. Goodell said there was a Chili's in the food court, and they went to order something, but because of it being close to closing time, everything on the menu wasn't available.

"I'll just take some chili, then,'' Madden told the kid at the counter.

"I'm sorry,'' the kid said. "We don't have that.''

Without a pause, Madden said: "Am I on Candid Camera?''

(I just realized a lot of you don't know what "Candid Camera'' is. Well, you'll have to google it. It was a funny show back when mastodons roamed the earth.)

Goodell and Madden got perspectives from players and coaches on, among other things, the 18-game-schedule proposal, the new player safety initiatives (about new helmets and the prospect of making pads mandatory), and what to do about the program of never-ending offseason workouts that have evolved in the league. "Clearly there's a cultural change going on,'' Goodell said, referring to the players' increasing awareness of the long-term effects of head injuries.

But Goodell was also challenged on his trip to camps when he met with players, with no coaches or front-office types in the room. This happened not only on this five-team trip, but on his visit to Chiefs' camp in St. Joseph, Mo., where one source said veteran guard Brian Waters, the reigning NFL man of the year, and union board member Mike Vrabel led a skeptical discussion about the looming collective bargaining agreement talks between players and owners. Waters, I hear, was particularly tough on Goodell. In Washington, DeAngelo Hall blistered Goodell after he left, telling the local press: "He just wants to say that the owners are over here, the players are over here and I'm in the middle, I'm for the game. But to ask him a question about anything, he couldn't answer,'' Hall said. "...We sat there and shot questions at him for 45 minutes, and pushed meetings back, and had to be here longer for nothing. A total waste of time.''

Goodell figured that was coming. It'll be coming a lot over the next year. "I said at the beginning of these sessions that there were a lot of things I couldn't address because we're in negotiations,'' Goodell said. "Overall, it was very valuable. I got to hear from players on a variety of issues.''

Was it awkward or chilly in those rooms? "No, not to me,'' he said. "I was comfortable. I wanted to get a real perspective, and I think I did.''

On my visits over the past two weeks, I've tried to ask players, owners and front-office people their view of the negotiations and whether they feel we're headed for peace or war. The view is overwhelmingly negative. I covered the 1987 strike, and my recollection is that a year before that three-game strike, there wasn't the rancor or negativity about the outcome of the talks. Things can change, of course, but owners and GMs, in particular, see some gaps that seem too hard to bridge without a sea-change of thought by one side or the other. The clear majority of those paying attention expect a lockout of the players next March.


The kids are all right, they hope.

TAMPA -- I always got the impression that the Jon Gruden Bucs were trying to scrub clean all Tony Dungy influences on the organization. Now Raheem Morris is trying to embrace what Dungy brought here.

When Dungy took the Bucs' coaching job in 1996, he and GM Rich McKay and personnel czar Jerry Angelo decided to eschew free-agency and build almost exclusively through the draft. Already in-house were linebacker Derrick Brooks, defensive tackle Warren Sapp and quarterback Trent Dilfer. They added Regan Upshaw, Mike Alstott and Donnie Abraham that year, Reidel Anthony, Warrick Dunn and Ronde Barber the next year, and the base of a very good Bucs team was built.

Morris and GM Mark Dominik are trying the same thing. Tampa Bay had a decent base on the offensive line when Dominik and Morris took over for Gruden and Bruce Allen. They got the presumptive quarterback of the future last year in Josh Freeman, and they could play as many as five rookies from this year's draft class in starting or prominent roles, and not just special-team roles.

Six hundred pounds of defensive linemen -- Gerald McCoy and Brian Price --could start opening day on the line. Fourth-round pick Mike Williams, barring injury, is favored to start at one receiver (last year's surprising seventh-round pick, Sammie Stroughter, could start alongside him), with this year's second-rounder, Arrelious Benn, possibly starting or playing 35 snaps a game as the third receiver. Rookie cornerback Myron Lewis eventually could start alongside third-year corner Aqib Talib, and next year might push Barber to safety if Barber still is able and willing to make play and make that move. The punting job is rookie Brent Bowden's to lose.

The Tampa Bay management is getting creamed locally for not spending money -- the prevailing theory is that the massive financial problem of the Glazers, who own the Bucs, with British football power Manchester United is siphoning money from the operation of the Bucs -- but I get the strong impression Tampa Bay wouldn't have spent in free agency this year anyway. "We want to build a team through the draft and keep it intact,'' Dominik said. "Like Tony said when he coached: 'I don't want a revolving door. I want to show loyalty to the guys we brought in and build a team the right way.' That's the way Raheem and I are operating now. Now, with two draft classes, I think we're on our way.''

I asked Dungy if he thought the two situations --Tampa in 1996 and Tampa in 2010 -- were comparable.

"I do,'' he said. "We got a lot of criticism back then with our plan at first, because we lost five in a row at the start, and eight of our first nine. They wanted us to bench the quarterback and make all kinds of changes. I read some of the same criticisms now -- the fans want to win now, which all fans do. If they're patient, I think it's going to pay off. I like the guys they've drafted.''

Dungy learned this from Bill Walsh (he was on Walsh's first 49er staff, when San Francisco went 2-14) and from playing under Chuck Noll. "Chuck always said stubbornness is a virtue -- if you are right. Fortunately for us, most of the guys we played early played well, and they became the base of a very good team.''

The first Dungy team went 6-10, the second 10-6. A period of good football was born. These Bucs have to be patient, the way I see it. There's no guarantee this rebuilding job with work, but there's no other way for them to win, at least right now.


Mike Singletary just might have saved Vernon Davis.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Always wanted to ask one of the best young tight ends in the game how he felt about being shown up/embarrassed/clapped in the face by his new coach, Mike Singletary, a couple of years ago. You remember Singletary banishing Vernon Davis from the sidelines during a game after a thoughtless Davis penalty, ordering him to the locker room and not to return.

"Best thing that ever happened to me in my life,'' Davis told me. "Woke me up. I was all about Vernon, not about the team.''

Davis also revealed Singletary told him if he wanted to fight, that was fine with him. They'd fight. "He pushed me to the edge,'' said Davis. "I needed that. When you're a first-round pick, and everyone's telling you how great you are, sometimes you need a guy to tell you that football's a team game. Here he is, one of the greatest players ever. So I had to change. Now, I'm all in.''

Davis caught 103 balls in his first three seasons, including that troubled third year, with nine touchdowns. Last year, he caught 78 passes with 13 touchdowns, most in the league for a tight end. When I asked Singletary about Davis, he smiled. "One of the most misconstrued guys in the league,'' Singletary said. "He raises the level in practice every day. He raises the work ethic. He's done everything I've asked.''

I've always thought this about the relationship between players and coaches: Most often, a player's going to respect a man who's been in the same arena more than one who hasn't. I don't think Mike Nolan, Davis' first coach, could have challenged him in any way approximating the way Singletary did. Singletary isn't the schemer of a Belichick or a Nolan, and who knows? Maybe he's lost out on jobs because the interviewers wondered if he could match wits with the smart guys in the game. But this story of challenging Davis and getting the best out of him illustrate that a coach who delegates can be just as strong as a coach who tries to do it all.


Is Matt The Man?

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- All off-season, since Kurt Warner retired, the Cardinals have given off a yeah-but vibe about their quarterback situation. Matt Leinart's our guy, but we're signing Derek Anderson for insurance. We're behind Matt all the way, but he's got to play well early to keep the job.

So the skeptics of a growing fandom made the two-hour drive up from Phoenix, from the 102-degree dusks, to northern Arizona and the more tolerable climes of 7,000 feet. It's beautiful here, for those who haven't found Flagstaff -- a vivid blue sky, pine trees dotting the hills around the practice fields at Northern Arizona University (home of the Lumberjacks and, for some reason, a little domed stadium), and the pretty San Francisco Peaks and Mount Elden just to the north of the fields. It's here that Leinart is trying to win over a team that loved Warner.

Watching Leinart practice, the one thing that's apparent is he doesn't have the accuracy Warner did. Warner was a 65-percent passer in his five Arizona seasons; Leinart, in 29 career games, has completed 57 percent. Watching him last Thursday, I saw him throw a couple in a row slightly behind Steve Breaston, then a low fastball to the ground to Early Doucet. But he also made two nice deep throws to Larry Fitzgerald. (Better than Anderson, at least on this day. Anderson was all over the place with his throws, continuing the bugaboo that prevented from taking the permanent job in Cleveland.)

We'll see. Leinart will get more than a little rope here, and he deserves it. "My time has come,'' he said, walking off the field after practice. "I'm going to play smart. I'm going to play efficient. I understand why people are skeptical of us. A lot of that's on me. I feel so much more ready than when I first came in the league. All quarterbacks want to play, but there's something to sitting for a couple of years and thinking, 'What would I do there?' I know watching Kurt and thinking about the game was good for me.'' We'll see how good in a relatively friendly September schedule (at St. Louis, at Atlanta, Oakland), against no killer pass-rushes.


You forget about the intensity of the Bear fan sometimes.

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- I left 15 minutes to get the three miles from my Fairfield Inn to Olivet Nazarene University for the Bears' Sunday night practice. Big mistake. Should have left 45. Lines of cars near campus, as always. Chicagoland loves its Bears like few other markets love teams. And its been clear, from the tenor of talk radio and the smart beat writers here and remembering last season, that the most important single thing to vault the Bears into playoff contention with the hated Packers and Vikings is fixing the offensive line. The sexy story lines have been the Mike Martz-Jay Cutler marriage and the boost Julius Peppers should give to a defense that needs to bring more pressure. But one of the handful of vital people to the fortunes of the Bears this season is the big 6-7 lug out joking on the field during warmup with center Olin Kreutz.

"Big year, Tice!'' one fan yells as the team stretches.

Mike Tice knows, too. The line was abysmal last year. Chicago, always a good running team, was 29th in the league in rushing with just 93 rush yards a game. The Bears allowed 35 sacks, middle of the NFL pack, but some of Cutler's 27 interceptions had to be attributed to being under the pressure that comes with an under-performing line. So the Bears went looking for some new offensive staffers. Martz came in as offensive coordinator. "This is what I probably should be doing,'' he told me last night, smiling. "I'm probably too much of a knucklehead to do the other thing (head-coaching).'' And Jack Del Rio let his good friend Tice out of his Jacksonville contract -- he was the Jags' tight ends coach -- to come to Chicago, where he could do the thing he probably did the best in his coaching career, which is coach the offensive line.

There's only one guy on the line no one has to worry about -- Kreutz, returning from an Achilles injury that robbed him of strength last year. Chris Williams takes over for an over-the-hill Orlando Pace at left tackle, Williams returning to his natural college position. He should benefit from going against Peppers in practice every day. Untested journeyman Frank Omiyale should win the right tackle job, with another unproven kid, Lance Louis, a seventh-round pick last year, likely to win the job at right guard. Veteran Roberto Garza moves to left guard after making 64 straight starts on the right side.

How Tice brings this group together, and how he fixes their errors weekly, will go a long way toward determining whether the Bears can contend. On this night, Williams looked feisty going after Peppers, with good quickness pushing him wide. But the group, obviously, is a work in progress.

"We're up and down every day,'' Tice said on the field after practice. "But I learned from some good coaches -- George O'Leary, Chuck Knox -- that on an offensive line, when you work hard, good things happen. These guys are working hard.''

I asked him if he felt the pressure of the Ditka crowd sure to let him know if his line isn't playing well. "I don't feel it at all,'' he said. "I'm having fun.'' For now.


Well, I missed the Sunday night preseason opener because of Bears practice. But reading about it and watching the highlights, there's one headline, and it has nothing to do with Terrell Owens. Dallas tight end John Phillips, who has played better that presumptive number two tight end Martellus Bennett, may have been lost for the year with a major knee injury. The organization (read: Jerry Jones) is in love with Bennett, but Phillips is the better player. That's a huge blow if he's lost. Tony Romo likes and trusts Phillips. It would put a premium on Jason Witten staying healthy for 16 games.

"I'm here to tell you that the fear of failure is the engine that has driven me throughout my entire life. It flies in the faces of all these sports psychologists who say you have to let go of your fears to be successful and that negative thoughts will diminish performance. But not wanting to disappoint my parents, and later my coaches, teammates and fans, is what pushed me to be successful ... The reason nobody caught me from behind is because I ran scared. People are always surprised how insecure I was. But I was always in search of that perfect game, and I never got it. Even if I caught 10 of 12 passes, or two or three touchdowns in the Super Bowl, I would dwell on the one pass I dropped ... If I have one single regret about my career standing here today, it's that I never took the time to enjoy it.''-- Jerry Rice, in his Hall of Fame speech Saturday night.

I don't know about you, but I found that poignant, and I think a little sad.

"They're here tonight, and I've got to tell you, that's about the highest compliment I've ever been paid in my life.''-- Former Lions cornerback and longtime innovative NFL coach Dick LeBeau, looking out at the 80 current Steeler players who bused two-and-a-half hours to Canton for his induction ceremony -- including several, like James Harrison, who wore LeBeau's Throwback number 44 Lions jersey -- and several former players, including Joey Porter, Rod Woodson, Clark Haggans and Alan Faneca.

That's the memorable moment of the weekend. I've never seen or heard of an entire team of 80 players -- some who don't know Dick LeBeau -- coming to a Hall ceremony, along with a former boss (Dan Rooney) who flew in from Ireland and some former players too. That's the Steelers.

"My goal is to be the greatest coach of all time.''-- San Francisco coach Mike Singletary to me Wednesday.

We were in his office at the 49ers training facility, and I asked him about what was on the wall behind his desk -- a list of every Hall of Fame coach in NFL history -- and why he had it there. Basically, he has it there to remind him how far he has to go to get to his goal.

SI Recommends

Now, you can laugh at or criticize Singletary (career record: 13-12), entering his second full season as a head coach, for an outlandish quote. Not me. What's wrong with having a goal to be the best at something and let everyone know that's what you're striving for?

"I kicked two calls in the fourth quarter and I impacted the game, and as an official you never want to do that. It left me with a lot of sleepless nights and I think about it constantly. I'll go to my grave wishing that I'd been better.''-- NFL referee Bill Leavy, talking to the Seattle media last week about two calls he feels he blew (a Matt Hasselbeck clip that was marginal, and a similar holding call on Seattle tackle Sean Locklear) that were big plays in Pittsburgh's 21-10 Super Bowl win over the Seahawks in Detroit four years ago.

"Tweeting and blogging. Five years ago that would have sounded dirty."

-- Kent Somers, Cardinals beat man for the Arizona Republic, asked by his wife one night last week what he was doing at Cards training camp in Flagstaff, Ariz.

This Week's Sign of the Waning Influence of the Once-National Pastime: None of the five athletic sons of Tony and Lauren Dungy owns a baseball glove.

The 49ers drafted Penn State linebacker Navorro Bowman in the third round of last April's draft. He was known as Navorro Bowman at Penn State, scouted as Navorro Bowman, and drafted by San Francisco as Navorro Bowman. But over the weekend, he informed the media covering the Niners that his first name is spelled "NaVorro.'' Asked Sunday by the club's PR czar, Bob Lange, if there was any significance to the capitalization of the "V,'' he said no, that it was the preference of his mother that the "V'' be capitalized, and she'd asked him to clarify with whoever asked that the "V'' is supposed to be capitalized.

Makes me wonder if Lefty and Phyllis King ever thought of naming me "PeTer.''

Emmitt Smith memorized his 2,495-word Hall of Fame speech. He didn't take as much as a note card to the podium with him. I was told he'd had it memorized for two months, and he worked with the same speech coach who trained Michael Irvin for his Hall address three years ago.

On consecutive days late in the week, I visited Cardinals camp and Texans camp. In Arizona, Larry Fitzgerald is a fixture, a happy man and the long-term cornerstone of Ken Whisenhunt's offense. In Houston, the locals were celebrating the signing of wide receiver Andre Johnson to a two-year contract extension through 2016. "I wouldn't trade Andre for anyone,'' owner Bob McNair told me. Good stuff. McNair wants to set up a program in Houston where he rewards franchise players with the kind of money New York or Dallas would pay players.

So I wondered: Who would I take right now if I were building a team and needed a wide receiver? And I looked at the numbers. Let's check.

Let's start with the ages: Johnson is 29. Fitzgerald turns 27 Aug. 31.

Average per game (All games)Johnson: 5.75 catches, 77.9 yards, 13.5 yards, .41 TD.Fitzgerald: 5.77 catches, 79.3 yards, 13.8 yards, .69 TD.

I like Johnson; who wouldn't? But Fitzgerald is two years younger. He has already had the best playoff season (arguably) by a receiver ever, two years ago. And he's been a more prolific scorer. Give me Fitzgerald.

This may give you some idea of the interest in the Dallas Cowboys. In the first 10 days of training camp, the Cowboys' PR staff set up 63 live interviews featuring 27 players at night, for five Dallas TV stations and three in San Antonio.

Before I get to my travel note, "Catwoman in Row 5,'' how's this for a miracle-of-modern-travel itinerary:

Monday, 7-9:45 a.m., Tampa: Interviews at Buc facility with coach Raheem Morris, GM Mark Dominik and players Josh Freeman, Gerald McCoy, receivers Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams and cornerback Aqib Talib.

Monday, 11:35 a.m.: JetBlue flight, Tampa to JFK.

Monday, 3 p.m., Manhattan: NBC Football Night in America meeting.

Monday, 7 p.m., Bronx: Yankees-Blue Jays.

Tuesday, 7:45 a.m.: Continental flight, Newark to San Diego.

Tuesday, noon, San Diego: 4.5-mile run on treadmill at local fitness place.

Tuesday, 4 p.m., San Diego: Chargers practice, preceded by an interview with GM A.J. Smith, followed by interviews with players Ryan Mathews, kicker Nate Kaeding and coach Norv Turner.

Tuesday, 8 p.m.: Virgin America flight, San Diego to San Francisco. (And may I say that was one of the most pleasant flying experiences I've had in a while.)

Tuesday, 11 p.m.: Arrive in Santa Clara, Calif., for Wednesday's day with the Niners.

Now, I can't pack much more into two days than that.

On to the Catwoman note. I had the aisle seat in a full three-seat row on the flight from Tampa to New York, and next to me was a pleasant woman, I'd say about 50, in a T-shirt and shorts. She noticed I had a photo of my dog, Bailey, looking posture-perfect, well-groomed and very obedient as the wallpaper on the desktop of my laptop.

"What a beautiful dog!'' she exclaimed. "You are so lucky!''

"Thank you,'' I said. "Yeah, she's a great dog. Almost 11 now.''

"I'm a cat person,'' she said.

"Oh,'' I said. "Cats are good.''

"She's 20.''

"Twenty,'' I said. "Wow. That's amazing. She must be very healthy.''

"Well, no,'' she said. "She's very overweight. I spoil her. I never had kids, and she's my baby. She's got diabetes and a bunch of other things we have to give her medicine for. But I love her so much. My husband and I, I don't know what we'd do without her. We just love cats. I live paycheck to paycheck, but every month I've got money automatically withdrawn for the cats -- the ASPCA, animal shelters, you know.''

"Oh,'' I said. "That's nice.''

"You want to see her?'' she said.

Not really. "Sure,'' I said, anticipating a wallet photo or a picture on the cell phone.

The woman angled her body toward me and lifted her left leg and twisted it so I could see the outside of her calf. From just below the kneecap to just above the ankle was a perfectly tattooed image of her cat's orange-and-brown round face with dark, piercing eyes. You couldn't see any leg there, just cat -- the tattoo enveloped the outside of her calf.

"I really love her,'' she said wistfully, putting her leg away.

So I see.

Flight Attendant of the Week: The dude on the Continental ExpressJet flight from Houston to Kansas City Friday night got on the PA and, in the midst of giving his spiel on safety and other things, said: "As soon as the ground crew finishes ripping the handles off your bag and tearing them to bits, we'll be on our way to Kansas City.''

No one laughed but me.

Tim Layden, my SI peer and one of the most versatile fine sportswriters in America (the horses, the Olympics, the NFL), has written a book about how the NFL game has gotten as sophisticated as it has: "Blood, Sweat and Chalk (SI Books).'' I am not writing about it here as a favor to Tim, a friend of mine. I am writing about it here because it's one of the most valuable contributions to the understanding of the game we all love to come along in the 26 years I've covered the NFL.

Tim set out to write a book about the different schemes and facets of the game we see every week but may not understand. The Tampa 2, for instance. Dick LeBeau's Zone Blitz. Don Coryell's influence on the modern passing game. The origin of the spread offense. And instead of just giving us a timeline of how the game got to be the game, he humanized the book. Best example: how the spread got to be in vogue -- and what made it that way.

"In 2006,'' Layden said, "I wrote a piece for SI on the Cover Two. But instead of just interviewing people and breaking down the workings of the defense, I decided to take a shot at profiling the people who created and evolved it. In that case, it was Bud Carson to Tony Dungy to Monte Kiffin and so forth. When I decided to write `Blood, Sweat and Chalk,' that's what I wanted to do: Give people not only a working knowledge of the offensive and defensive systems that they see on Saturdays and Sundays, but also to write about the coaches who created them. Honestly, I was afraid that a straight X's and O's book would be too dull and one-dimensional. But if I could also do some storytelling, and write about the people involved, maybe that'd work. So that's what I tried to do.''

Tim gives a timeline of the spread, starting with a frustrated coach in Middletown, Ohio, in the late fifties. This coach, TigerEllison, was a classic three-yards-and-cloud-of-dust traditionalist whose team had fallen on hard time. It was losing, and getting beaten up. So he figured he'd spread the field, add receivers, and make defenses designed to stop the run try to stop quicker guys throwing the ball instead. Over the next 45 games, Ellison's teams went 35-7, winning one game 98-34. They averaged a punt a game.

Mouse Davis, a young coach then, read a book by Ellison in 1965, loved the concepts Ellison espoused, and turned the spread scheme into the run-and-shoot, which he used to trample mid-level college football for years. The Houston Oilers later used it, and many colleges did as well. And it became the basic nut of an idea for the spread offenses in college and pro football today.

The great thing about this book, in my opinion, is it teaches us the geniuses of football didn't start with Bill Walsh. We do not respect history nearly as much as we should in covering and watching this game; too often, we all disregard football history and those who made it. We think of the the sixties Packers as prehistoric. But there were great thinkers, such as Tiger Ellison, with great ideas, before that. The stories Tim Layden tells in this book will peel back the layers of the game for you. If you love the game, or even like it, Blood, Sweat and Chalk is a must-read, and I don't say that because I work with the man.

Read an excerpt from 'Blood, Sweat and Chalk' here.

"I been drinking a lot of coconut water lately it's been helping not cramp up during camp my nfl buddies get on that coconut water asap''--@rayrice27, Baltimore running back Ray Rice, with interesting (and minus any punctuation) preseason advice to his boys of summer across the NFL.

Barring coming to my senses, as penance for an exaggerated piece of idiocy on Twitter last winter, I'm running the 13.1-mile New Hampshire Half-Marathon in Bristol, N.H., 100 miles north of Boston, on Saturday, Oct. 2 at 9 a.m. (Recapping: When Chad Ochocinco said the Bengals were going to sign Terrell Owens, I said I'd run an ultra-marathon if that happened. I'd already ripped Ochocinco for lying to Bob Costas on national TV when he said he'd change his name back to Chad Johnson if Darrelle Revis shut him down, and after Revis shut him down not once but twice in six days, he said he was just kidding, wink wink, and he had no intention of changing his name. So now, after Owens has the stripes on, I got called to put up or shut up, and the half-marathon was my attempt at fair compromise. Fifty-mile run, I die. Twenty-six-mile run, I'm hospitalized. Thirteen-mile run, well, we'll see. But I hope to be able to cross the finish line somehow.

I'm going to run the race for charity -- two charities, actually. And you're going to vote on which charities will benefit from me making the run. Here's how it'll work: I've chosen five causes (some that you have suggested, and two that I have a personal interest in). Between now and noon Eastern time Tuesday, send me a message on Twitter (@SI_PeterKing) with which two charities you think I should run for. Comments aren't necessary. Just give me your two choices. And next week in MMQB I'll reveal the winners, and tell you how you can support the two causes.

The five charities you can choose from (again, vote for two):

1. Feed The Children (

This Oklahoma-based hunger-prevention organization is trying to reach 200,000 families by the end of 2010. On Sunday, when I asked Ocho, he said this is the group he preferred to help. Many of you suggested that since Ocho was right and I was wrong, I should feature a charity he prefers. This is a good one.

2. Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund (

Identifies some of the most indigent former players, the players who sacrificed their bodies and minds and made a path to the multi-billion-dollar game that exists today, and helps them with bills and medical and mental-health issues.

3. Habitat for Humanity (

I wanted to choose one project to help those on the Gulf Coast recover from the catastrophes of the past five years, and I chose this one because of its continued efficiency in getting the important work done. In the five years since Katrina, Habitat has partnered in the building of 2,219 single-family homes. The work goes on.

4. Wounded Warrior Project (

This group helps the most serious of the wounded from the front lines of the battlefields transition from active duty military back to civilian society.

5. National Brain Tumor Society (

Several players in the league, among them Washington's Chris Cooley, have been active in the brain-tumor-cure movement; NFLPA czar DeMaurice Smith coached a young boy, Drew Neally, in baseball who lost his life to a brain tumor in 2006.

I did a Five For Fighting thing with the USO last year, asking for $5 per person for our troops, and you raised $204,000 for portable USO recreation centers for the troops in Afghanistan. I have to think of a clever title for this one (suggestions welcome), but I'm going to ask for donations of $10, to be split equally between the two charities. We'll figure the logistics and mechanics of how you can contribute beginning next week.

If I finish the 13.1-mile run, no matter the time, I will donate $1,000 to each of the charities. If I do not finish the run, no matter the reason, I will donate $2,000 to each charity.

As U2 might say, "MO-TIH-VA-SHUN.''

There is a third element to this. Prizes. Anyone who contributes will be eligible to win one of three prizes -- which I'm going to have to figure out in the coming days.

So follow me on Twitter, send me your vote by noon ET Tuesday (one vote per Twitter account -- we can't have poor Emily Kaplan counting these things 'til she's 40), and next Monday, in this space, you'll have the winners and we'll start the fun.

1. I think I disagree with Buffalo GM Buddy Nix, who said the other day in the wake of the release of defensive end Aaron Schobel, "Our fans should know that this decision was made in the best interests of the Buffalo Bills and Aaron Schobel.'' That's half true.

It was in the best interests of Schobel that the Bills released him; it gives a 32-year-old defensive end a chance to play for a winner, or to play for a team closer to his home near Houston. But it was not in Buffalo's best interests to release a guy, instead of waiting until a team in camp got desperate for an eight- to 12-sack player and would pay a draft choice to get him.

2. I think there's a black cloud over the Broncos. Elvis Dumervil (torn pectoral), out likely for the season. Knowshon Moreno (hamstring) and Correll Buckhalter (back), out for much of training camp. Rookie wideouts Demaryius Thomas (ankle) and Eric Decker (ankle), both hurt hurt in the Invesco scrimmage Saturday night. No wonder Josh McDaniels cancelled practice Sunday -- he has to do something to break the bad-luck streak.

3. I think I have a couple of book notes:

a. I think Tony Dungy is going to give John Madden a run for his money in the book department. Dungy's first two books have made The New York Times bestseller list. The other day, he rolled out his third, The Mentor Leader: Secrets to Building Teams That Win Consistently (Tyndale), with Nathan Whitaker. It focuses on the kind of leadership Dungy was famous for. That is, leadership without a holler guy leading. "It's about being an effective leader by putting the group number one, not yourself,'' he said.

Most good coaches in the NFL don't treat every player the same. Dungy was big on that. He used Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison as examples to me. It was easy to motivate Wayne. Dungy could challenge Wayne, throwing little barbs at him to make him work harder, and he'd find Wayne always striving to do more and play better. Not so with Harrison.

Early in Dungy's Colts' coaching tenure, he sidled up to Harrison at practice the week of a game and said a certain cornerback was really looking forward to covering him, and he chuckled, and he asked Harrison how he was going to respond. Later that day, Harrison sought Dungy out. With a serious look on his face, Harrison said, "Coach, you don't know me very well, but I do not joke about my game.'' Dungy was stunned. But that taught him something. When he had a message for Harrison, he delivered it in a plain brown wrapper. Nothing fancy. Nothing funny.

"As a coach, your job is not to seem like you're in charge all the time,'' Dungy said. "Your job is to get the best out of everyone. With some guys, you might need to go ballistic on them to get their attention. With Marvin, if you went ballistic on him, you'd lose him.''

Dungy always seemed like a great leader, yet he was the quietest man in the room. That way works too -- if the group's going to respect you.

b. On Sunday's New York Times bestseller list, nonfiction, the Saints had Drew Brees' Coming Back Stronger (Tyndale) at number six and Sean Payton's Home Team (Penguin Group USA) at 16. Remember your bet, boys. Brees and Payton have a bottle of Caymus Special Selection Cabernet and a dinner on whose book sells more copies.

4. I think, if you're in a 12-team fantasy league, Ryan Mathews should be a first-round pick. I stink at those things, of course, so take that advice with a shaker of salt. But if the question is whether Mathews will be one of the most productive 12 backs in the NFL this year (the first round is almost exclusively running backs in most leagues), I say he will be, barring injury.

5. I think I think one of the most improved position groups in the league could be the Kansas City backfield. Jamaal Charles made his case to be an every-down back with a 968-yard rushing performance in the last eight games. But the Chiefs didn't draft the 198-pound Charles to be an every-down guy, and they don't want to burn him out the way Larry Johnson got burned out by overuse in Kansas City.

The Chiefs were interested in San Diego restricted free agent Darren Sproles last winter, but Sproles re-signed with San Diego. So K.C. used an early-second-round pick on the Sproles-like Dexter McCluster. And the Chiefs signed the league's second-most productive back over the last five years, Thomas Jones, to share time in the backfield with Charles.

McCluster has been fabulous in early Chiefs practices, lining up in the backfield, in the slot and at receiver. Jones has been the strong-work ethic guy the Chiefs knew they were buying and will be a good model for Charles. It's not unusual to see Jones, after a two-hour-long practice in the western Missouri heat, going to the Chiefs' weight room to lift for an hour. I don't know what this all will translate to come opening night against San Diego Sept. 13 -- coach Todd Haley is on record as saying he'll play the hot guy between Charles and Jones -- but I do know that Matt Cassel is a lot happier with his backfield options.

6. I think Tim Tebow's a better man than I to take that haircut in stride. I'm told he laughed it off. I'd have gone postal.

7. I think I saw an awful lot of wobbly throws by Alex Smith when I watched the 49ers the other day. The attitude around the 49ers is basically this: We don't need Alex Smith to be a great quarterback, we just need him to execute the offense. Understood. But the 49ers led the NFL last year in a long-yardage category (third down and eight yards or more), which says to me that the 49ers quarterback is going to need to make a lot of accurate throws down the field. That's going to be the real test for Alex Smith: Can he throw an 18-yard out to Michael Crabtree on a line? Or a deep throw?

8. I think one of the most interesting things I have seen in my tour of (so far) 12 camps is the sight of rookie pass-rusher O'Brien Schofield working out without pads with some of the injured players on the Cardinals on a side field in Flagstaff. If you're a draft nut, you remember the sad story of Schofield. After playing well at Wisconsin last fall and starring in the East-West Shrine game in January, he went to Mobile, Ala., to solidify his likely second-round standing. In his first practice for the North team, Schofield got tangled with UMass guard Vladimir Ducasse and went down in a heap, screaming. The result: torn ACL, torn meniscus. Looked as though he'd be out for the year, and there was no certainty that he'd be drafted at all, and certainly not high. But the Cardinals were willing to risk a blown 2010 season because they think he has such good potential for the long haul.

The team has been pleasantly surprised with Schofield's rehab and his range of motion in the injured knee, and Schofield is determined to play in 2010 at any cost. Arizona has him on the non-football injury list, meaning he can sit and continue to heal for the first six weeks of the season; then the team will have until Week 12 to determine whether to activate him this year.

"My mindset is that I will be back and ready to play," Schofield said. "I won't come back unless I feel I'm totally myself. The last thing I want to do is come back and play soft." I asked him if he looks back on the Senior Bowl practice accident with any regret, seeing as it probably cost him about $1.8 million in salary and likely-to-be-earned bonuses over four years, compared to a mid-second-round pick.

"It's football," he said, shrugging. "Accidents happen. I actually look at it this way. I tore my ACL, there was a lot of doubt about me, and I still got drafted, and I got drafted by a team that's a really good fit for me. I get to learn from two guys who have had great careers at linebacker in this league -- Joey Porter and Clark Haggans. I could've made more money if I was drafted higher. I know that. But I also know it's better to be drafted by the right team a little lower than another team higher." You'd drive yourself crazy if you thought any other way.

9. I think these are my early odds on the 2011 Hall class:

When the five-man Seniors Committee meets later this month to determine the two other candidates to be considered by the 44 voters next February, the names with the most traction would appear to be one at linebacker -- Chris Hanburger, Chuck Howley or Maxie Baughan (did you know Baughan was voted to the Pro Bowl eight more times than Ray Nitschke?) -- and an offensive lineman ... maybe Jerry Kramer or Dick Stanfel. I hear lots of sentiment for Hanburger.

10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. Eighteen over in a tournament he owns ... Time to take some time, Tiger.

b. Great to meet you in Flagstaff the other day, Brennan Smith. Work hard at Arizona State and you'll have my job someday.

c. Anyone have any idea how incredibly dangerous it is to be outdoors in Russia right now? The smog, forest fires and intense heat in some areas mean that if you are outside for one hour, it's the equivalent of smoking 1-2 packs of cigarettes.

d. Excellent column by the Miami Herald's Dan Le Batard on media and the subjects we cover.

e. Coffeenerdness: Guy in an Army camouflage outfit comes up to me at the Houston airport Friday night and I expect him to ask, "How's my team gonna do this year?'' Instead, he says, "What's your drink at Starbucks?''

f. What can I say, other than, "Thank you, Mr. Onion?'' By the way, I write left-handed. You'll have to fix that photo.

g. Is it possible that a young Toronto catcher, J.P Arencibia, just had the best debut of a player in major-league history in the Toronto-Tampa Bay game Saturday? First pitch he saw: home run. First four at-bats: homer, double, single, homer.

h. Alan Schwarz of the New York Times is doing a fabulous job of illuminating the effects of head injuries on NFL players.

i. While we're praising writers, props to Ian O'Connor of ESPNNewYork (or however it's spelled) for his line on the New York Knicks reuniting with Isiah Thomas, who will do consulting work for the team: "It's like the Jets bringing back Rich Kotite.''