Blind Optimism In a whirlwind tour of training camps, SI's reporter found an extra bounce in the step of NFL players, who have renewed playoff hopes thanks to the Rams and the Titans

August 13, 2000

At every stop on a recent run through NFL training
camps--covering 16 teams at 13 sites, including two preseason
games, in 20 days--the prevailing feeling among players and
coaches is this: If St. Louis did it last year, we can do it
this year. More than in any other recent preseason, hope springs
eternal, because the perennially mediocre St. Louis Rams won it
all last January--and the Tennessee Titans, no better than a
.500 team for five years, were the Rams' Super Bowl opponent. As
New Orleans Saints general manager Randy Mueller put it, St.
Louis's drive to a championship was "the drug of hope."

Look at the Arizona Cardinals. Though 6-10 last year, they bound
around their breezy Flagstaff, Ariz., camp with all the
confidence of the Rams and the Titans. "The Rams helped the NFL,"
says Cardinals cornerback Aeneas Williams. "In the locker room we
talk about how far they came, and how we can do the same thing."

From the California wine country to the Louisiana bayou, from
the Arizona mountains to the Laurel Highlands of western
Pennsylvania, blind optimism was evident everywhere during this
seven-day segment of the grand tour of camps.

Friday | July 28 | Macomb, Ill.
St. Louis Rams camp

To get back to the future, the Titans flew into Peoria, Ill.,
then bused 76 miles through Middle America. Past hog farms in
Hanna City and the Odd Fellows Lodge in Farmington. Over the lazy
Spoon River, past a place called the Roseville Lanes and Diner
and Ice Cream Shack, and just beyond the endless cornfields in
Good Hope, onto the Western Illinois campus. There Tennessee
would scrimmage St. Louis four times in three days. Players
doubled up in cinder-block-walled dorm rooms with six-foot-long
beds. "This," says Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher, admiring the
surroundings over a school-cafeteria omelette, "is a perfect
place to get in some good work."

Perfect, too, for an exorcism. When we last saw the Rams and the
Titans, they were slugging it out in the greatest finish to a
Super Bowl in the game's 34-year history. St. Louis linebacker
Mike Jones stopped Tennessee wideout Kevin Dyson a yard short of
the goal line as time ran out, and when hearts began beating
again, the Rams had a 23-16 win.

Now, on the university's practice fields, the teams are at it
again, this time in a controlled scrimmage. Working against St.
Louis's first-team defense, Tennessee's starting offense takes
over at its 40 with 1:35 to go. The drive sputters at the St.
Louis 28. Third-and-10. "Eight seconds!" cries the back judge,
who is keeping the time.

Fisher walks by the Rams' huddle. "Whatever happens," he says
with a smile, "don't let this drive end at the one." Says St.
Louis defensive end Kevin Carter, "I know what you mean, Coach."
Four Titans wideouts line up for a Hail Mary pass. At the snap,
quarterback Steve McNair drops back and throws a rainbow spiral
through the blue Illinois sky to a pack of nine Titans and Rams
waiting in the end zone. Jones leaps and bats the ball to his
left. It winds up cradled in Dyson's arms.

"Bittersweet feeling," a sweating Dyson says a few minutes later.
"Nah, that doesn't make up for what happened in January. I beat
myself up about that for a few days, thinking about what I might
have done differently to score. But I'm 25. I've got a long way
to go in my career. I don't want that to be what I'm remembered
for."

Saturday | July 29 | Stockton, Calif.
San Francisco 49ers camp

In room 310 of Casa Werner on the University of the Pacific
campus, 49ers rookie quarterback Giovanni Carmazzi lies on his
bed after the team's morning practice, watching the tape-delayed
Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony on his 12-inch TV.
When it is Joe Montana's turn to speak, Carmazzi shakes his head.
"It's surreal," he says with wonder in his voice. "Look at him
smiling. You ever notice how sometimes in games he and Steve
Young both got caught smiling on TV? You have to be pretty
comfortable in what you're doing to smile under pressure like
that. Were they always like that? Or were they at some point like
I am now sometimes--tight, nervous, trying to learn this offense?
I wonder when it clicked for them."

Carmazzi's roomie, fellow rookie quarterback Tim Rattay, walks in
from a film session. "It's Joe," says Rattay. "Cool."

"This is what we have to live up to, man," Carmazzi says.

They watch Montana with admiration, though both are restless.
"Sometimes," Rattay says, talking over the TV, "when there's a
lull in practice, it hits you where you are and what you're being
asked to do. My first minicamp, I was throwing to Jerry Rice, and
the first one went 10 feet over his head. Coach [Steve Mariucci]
comes over to me and says, 'Well, you can tell your grandchildren
the first pass you ever threw to Jerry Rice was 10 feet over his
head."

"Me too!" says Carmazzi. "Throwing to Jerry at minicamp, I'm
nervous, I'm anxious. I throw a bad ball and I'm thinking, Man, I
just let Jerry Rice down!"

As soon as Montana is finished speaking, Rattay moves toward the
door.

"Going to watch film?" Carmazzi says.

"Yeah, and do some lifting."

"I'll be there in a few minutes."

Sunday | July 30 | Napa, Calif.
Oakland Raiders camp

Watch rookie Sebastian Janikowski kick a football, and you
wonder: Should the Raiders invite Tom Dempsey to their first few
games so he can be ushered to the sideline for a handshake and a
photo after Janikowski breaks the NFL field goal record (63
yards) that Dempsey set in 1970? (The Denver Broncos' Jason Elam
matched it two years ago.)

It seems to be only a matter of time before Janikowski puts his
name in the record book. During a field goal drill Janikowski
lines up three steps behind holder Rich Gannon, who takes the
snap, puts the ball down at the 40-yard line and twirls it so
that the laces are facing forward. Janikowski moves forward with
the ease of Ernie Els swinging a driver, intent but not trying to
kill the ball. The sound you hear when foot meets ball for most
kickers is sort of a thumpslap. When the 255-pound Janikowski's
left foot hits the ball, the sound is "like a cannon going off,"
says Oakland punter Leo Araguz. This kick flies, end over end,
through the uprights, 35 feet above the crossbar, over the
videographer in the tower that sits behind the goal posts. It
would have been good from 65 yards, easy. Now you know why the
Raiders--who lost eight games last year, all by seven points or
less, and missed 13 field goals--are so pumped about 2000.

"Sixty-five? No wind?" says Janikowski, the first kicker to be
drafted in the first round since the Saints took Russell Erxleben
in 1979. "It is realistic."

Monday | July 31 | Flagstaff, Ariz.
Arizona Cardinals camp

This is the hidden gem of NFL camps. Pine trees line the
fairwaylike practice fields, and a breeze off the San Francisco
Peaks blows down on a bucolic city 6,905 feet above sea level.
WATCH FOR ELK flashes on a highway sign just outside of town.
When the Cardinals emerge from the locker room for practice, 131
fans (and one mutt) gather on the sidelines to watch.

Defensive line coach Joe Greene is running his first practice in
four days--he had been in Canton for the Hall of Fame reunion--and
you'd think that returning to this mess of a line would be
depressing for him. But Mean Joe is smiling. Two years ago
Arizona appeared to have a front four coaches dream of: Bookend
pass rushers Simeon Rice and rookie Andre Wadsworth, along with
tackle Eric Swann, had been top 10 draft picks; overachieving
tackle Mark Smith rounded out this latter-day Fearsome Foursome.
But now Swann, who missed 21 games because of injury over the
last three years, is gone, released in July. Rice is a holdout
(and he remained so when SI went to press); as the team's
franchise player, he was offered a one-year, $4.25 million
contract, but he wants a multiyear deal in the $8 million range
annually, which is outrageous for a player who is soft against
the run. Wadsworth, who had seven sacks total in two
injury-plagued seasons, is out until late this month after
undergoing surgery on his right knee in July. Smith, due to make
$1.03 million this year, whines about being underpaid, despite
playing in only two games last year--just 3% of the defensive
downs--because of injuries.

So Greene coaches no-names Tom Burke, Jerry Drake, Tony McCoy and
Brad Ottis. "It's the best group I've ever had here, from an
attitude standpoint," says Greene, a Cardinals assistant since
1996. "When I played, you got as much [money] as you could
without destroying the team or putting your season in jeopardy.
Here, Eric got the big contract, and he was hurt a lot. Andre
held out till the last damn day his rookie year, and he's still
catching up. As for Mark, somebody told him he was a great player
after he played nine damn games. All of a sudden he's a star, and
they can't pay him enough.

"Most days, I really love the game," Greene continues. "But what
I don't understand is how you can play the game just for money.
When it gets down to the nitty, and you're fighting at the bottom
of a pile, there better be something else driving you, or you
won't be worth a damn. To be a champion, you've got to have the
desire to excel. I wish I saw more of that today."

Tuesday | Aug. 1 | Latrobe, Pa.
Pittsburgh Steelers camp

Benedictine monks in ankle-length black vestments walk the hilly
St. Vincent's College campus an hour east of Pittsburgh. If that
doesn't convey the sense of commitment of summer in the Laurel
Highlands, Steelers coach Bill Cowher will. "Stand tall!" Cowher
orders his offense near the end of the afternoon workout. Twenty
players line up, breathing hard under the broiling sun, midway
through a set of 20-yard sprints. "Don't pull up before the line,
or we'll start from the beginning! Spread out!"

Still sweating later, Cowher stands on the practice field and
explains why, just two days after a 28-point preseason win, he
had pushed his team so hard. "These are the days," he says, "with
a 94-degree heat index and the tired legs, that you create habits
that win games in the fourth quarter. This will be a hard camp.
This will be a camp where a young team will become a tough team.
One preseason win? Who cares? We haven't accomplished a frickin'
thing."

He seems to have the fire of the Cowher of 1995, when the
Steelers went to the Super Bowl, and he's determined to make the
most of the mulligan the club gave him after a disastrous 1999.
If the Steelers weren't the NFL's most embarrassing franchise
last year, they were close. They lost to AFC Central rivals
Cleveland, Cincinnati and Baltimore--all within a month, all at
home--and finished 6-10, their worst record since 1988. Cowher
took the blame for his team's sloppy play and denied rumors he
wanted to coach elsewhere for big money. He seemed distracted,
uninterested. "We lost our edge," Cowher admits. "I lost my
edge." So everyone in Pittsburgh was at least a little surprised
in the off-season when club president Dan Rooney took Cowher's
side in a power struggle with director of football operations
Tom Donohoe. Then Donohoe left.

"Mr. Rooney has been a father figure, a confidant and a friend,"
Cowher says. "When I talked to him after the season, I told him
I'd understand if he wanted to make a change. But I also said, 'I
want you to keep me. And if you do, I'll give my heart and soul
to put this team back on top.'"

Wednesday | Aug. 2 | Terre Haute, Ind.
Indianapolis Colts camp

The Colts retain 21 of 22 starters from a team that finished 13-3
a year ago, a rarity in a game increasingly marked by transience.
These guys are impatient. Quarterback Peyton Manning, usually as
guarded a quote as there is in sports, sits in a golf cart, feet
up after lunch, and makes it clear that it's Colt Time. "I really
feel the pressure to do something big this year," he says. "We've
had two years of building. The days of building are over. It's
time to win."

For that reason there might be as much pressure on the only new
starter, middle linebacker Rob Morris, as there is on Manning.
The team's first-round draft pick, Morris is a 250-pound run
stopper out of BYU and a devout Mormon. He didn't play football
in 1994 and '95 because he spent time in Toronto and in a
depressed mining town in Ontario doing missionary work. No TV. No
radio. No phone. A lot of door-to-door canvassing. A lot of work
at food banks.

He returned to BYU in '96, and after a redshirt season he earned
a reputation for playing every down as if it were his last. "You
have to push yourself on a mission, because it seems like the
work is never done," Morris says. "They say fatigue makes cowards
of us all. I can always push myself in a practice after what I've
been through."

The pressure? Morris feels it. "Definitely," he says. "But this
is a good team, and every good player on this team has been under
pressure and responded. I'm the kind of guy who can handle it.
It's still just football."

Thursday | Aug. 3 | Thibodaux, La.
New Orleans Saints camp

"What's great about training camp," says Saints offensive
coordinator Mike McCarthy, nodding toward the practice field 20
feet away, "is that once you cross that white line in full pads
and start working, it doesn't matter what you ran for the scouts
or where you got drafted or how much money you're making. There's
no hiding. Now we see if you're a player."

The player making the best impression in the Saints' camp is a
running back, but it isn't the Heisman-winning enigma with the
dreadlocks. It is the 5'8", 186-pound all-purpose tailback from
USC, Chad Morton, who is singing a Bell Biv Devoe medley during a
break in his drive to take this team by storm. Five nights
earlier, in his first preseason game, he sprinted and weaved
through the Jets' coverage on a 77-yard punt return for a
touchdown, brought back three kickoffs for 61 yards, rushed six
times for 30 yards and caught three passes for 22 more.

Now, during a workout in muggy weather, Morton shows why the
Saints are considering even a modest reduction in the load on
Ricky Williams. On one play during a no-tackling scrimmage,
Morton keeps churning his legs on an inside running play until he
gets through heavy traffic. Then he sprints to the goal line,
which is how he finishes every carry. A few snaps later he
catches a screen pass from quarterback Jeff Blake, dekes three
defenders and goes all the way. On another play he neutralizes
240-pound linebacker Donnie Spragan on a blitz pickup.

There is a Chad Morton in every camp. The profile: low-round
draft pick or undrafted free agent with an obvious physical
shortcoming who must climb over several players to make the
team. Being short killed Morton in most scouts' eyes, but when
New Orleans clocked him at 4.28 seconds in the 40 at a workout
in March and saw his desire, it took a shot with the last pick
of the fifth round. "He's going to fit in our plans for a long
time," says McCarthy. "Hell, I'll even throw him in the base
offense as a change of pace for Ricky."

All of which is stunning news to Morton, who is just happy to be
here. "I'm having the best time of my life," he says. "Playing
football--playing football for money--and hanging out with the
guys, it's incredible. I got chills putting on the uniform the
other night."

After going 3-13, New Orleans would appear to be miles behind the
Rams in the NFC West. But as first-year coach Jim Haslett says,
"What the Rams did gives us hope that it can be done fast."

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK [T of C] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL FRAKES Back at it No title was on the line at Rams camp, but Super Bowl XXXIV combatants St. Louis and Tennessee reconvened for four workouts. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Snake eyes Coming off a poor season, Jake Plummer puts the Cardinals in motion. COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Out of this world The sky's the limit for Janikowski, a first-round draft choice who has turned heads with his booming kicks. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Rookie jitters Morris (above, 94) is penciled in as a starter in Indianapolis, but the Saints' Morton (opposite, left) still has to show that he can play with the big boys. COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO [See caption above]

Mariucci told Rattay, "You can tell your grandchildren the
first pass you threw to Jerry Rice was 10 feet over his head."

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