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So here we go. The 28-week marathon to the Super Bowl is on. I leave for 21 days of camps tomorrow morning, and I'll try to set the table here with a few appetizers to get you ready for the 2009 season. Love this time of year.
Since 1984, I've been covering training camps, and I was just telling someone Sunday how vividly I remember my first camp season. Wilmington, Ohio, July, 1984, living down the dorm hall from Mike Brown in Bengals camp. Every night the players would come into my room to use the phone. One of the regulars was Boomer Esiason, the rookie quarterback. "You can expense it!'' he'd say, then he'd go to work on my rotary-dial GTE phone. I'd stand at practice every day with Paul Brown, trying to suck up one-hundredth of the knowledge he had.
Now I'll be out there with a new generation. It seems a more transient lot these days, and that point was driven home Sunday night. I was speaking with Stefan Fatsis, the esteemed writer who'd spent training camp in 2006 as a kicker with Denver so he could write about it. (His book, A Few Seconds of Panic, is out in paperback this summer, and it's good reading if you want to feel the innards of a team in training camp.)
He said that eight players from the '06 camp roster were left as of this offseason. That's eight of about 100 he ran across in camp or in workouts. "Every player who walks into one of these training camps this summer should know they're competing for one of the most impermanent jobs in our society,'' Fatsis said.
That's part of the fun. On some field this summer, a new James Harrison will be born. On another field, a rookie -- Pat White? LeSean McCoy? Brian Orakpo? Brandon Tate? -- will make crowds go nuts. Mario Manningham will see an opportunity and run with it, or run from it. Ditto Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez.
So much to be invented and decided. So little set in stone. That's why it's such a fun time of year. Over the next six weeks, starting with a Tuesday night Bills' practice in Pittsford, N.Y., I'll be on the road seeing about 23 teams either in practices or games. And I'll do the best I can on SI.com, in SI, on Twitter and occasionally on Sirius NFL Radio (Wednesday morning from 8-11 with Ross Tucker will be one show I'll do) to tell you everything I know.
Keep your e-mails and tweets coming, and I'll try to respond when I can. My Tuesday mailbag begins again tomorrow, so stuff it today. For all you Texans fans who sometimes feel left out on the national stage, I'll have some interesting thoughts from Matt Schaub to top the Tuesday column.
Before I begin, thanks to my sub columnists -- Trent Green, Matt Birk, Chris Cooley, Matt Light and Sean Payton -- for filling in while I was gone. The bar's been raised. Birk already leads me in vocabulary. And I think Cooley really wants my job; I'm going to have to try to help him get a nice 15-year contract extension with Dan Snyder.
A few pre-camp snippets in a newsy time for football:
Michael Vick knows he almost wasted his career. I've spoken to people who have been in contact with Vick since he's been out of home confinement, waiting to find out what discipline commissioner Roger Goodell will levy on him. And the most interesting thing I heard came from one acquaintance, who said Vick is desperate to return to football "because he realizes he didn't even scratch the surface of his ability. He realizes he just didn't work at it enough.'' (Somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, Jim Mora and Greg Knapp are nodding ruefully.)
I'm told Vick is a changed man. Obviously, it's easy to be changed when you've lost $100 million and just spent two years in jail. I also believe Vick simply wants to be back on an NFL team (he views the United Football League as a last resort only) and will be fine for at least a year or maybe two with whatever role a coach wants to give him. Wildcat backup for New England? Or Oakland? We'll see.
We'll also see what Goodell thinks. I feel strongly that Vick should be given a suspension of at least four weeks because of his serial lying -- to Goodell, to Falcons owner Arthur Blank and then GM Rick McKay -- in addition to re-entering the league with two strikes against him, figuratively. That's what I expect, quite frankly.
Goodell always looks to give bad-boy players a path back into the game if they avoid their former pitfalls, and those close to Vick think that's what he tried to impress on Goodell. We'll see. I expect a ruling this week.
Then what? I don't know a team that wants Vick, but that doesn't mean a team won't sign him. No team is going to leak it likes Vick because of the PR-related headaches. I still expect a team to sign him if Goodell green-lights him. For Vick, a blessing would be going to New England, where Bill Belichick would give him the kind of structured existence on and off the field that would be best for him. Miami would be good because of the same kind of firm hand he'd have over him, as would San Francisco.
But the Dolphins picked Pat White in the second round of the draft; I'd be stunned if Vick ended up there. And the 49ers, despite the fact that Mike Singletary would love to mentor Vick, I think the public pressure and uncertain quarterback situation would put too much of a weight on Vick's shoulders.
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