11 a.m., Wednesday (Rams training camp, Earth City, Mo.): This is going to be a longish year for the Rams, but if I'm a Rams fan, I like what I see. Steve Spagnuolo has the veterans who count -- Steven Jackson, Leonard Little, Marc Bulger, Will Witherspoon, Chris Draft -- on his side, and he's doing the cosmetic things new coaches do to change the attitude in a place. Here, it's taking down the individual photos and replacing them with all team-related things, and it's lots more padded practices and raw hitting.
This morning, Spagnuolo was supposed to have the players in pads again, two days before their preseason opener in New Jersey, but he backed off because of the physical toll and nicked-up players.
"Defensive coaches tend to want to build teams that way, with really physical practices,'' said Jackson. "He [Spagnuolo] took away our comfort zone.''
With the exception of the forgettable two-year run of Rich Brooks (who ran off Jerome Bettis) in 1995-96, the Rams hadn't hired a defensive head coach since Ray Malavasi in 1978. "I don't know who that is,'' Jackson said. You're forgiven, though Malavasi nearly led the Rams to a Super Bowl XIV upset of the Steelers.
GM Bill Devaney narrowed his coaching search to four men, and only one (Dallas offensive coordinator Jason Garrett) was an offensive coach. He chose Spagnuolo over fellow coordinators Rex Ryan and Leslie Frazier. "I wanted someone to jolt the building,'' Devaney said. "Defensive guys challenge you. They attack, they blitz. I just thought we needed someone to shake us up.''
Check out my Ram-related quote of the week later in this column and you'll see whether the leaders here agree with Devaney.
4 p.m., Wednesday (Rams camp): Leonard Little finds himself in the news again, tangentially, and it's not something he likes much. As a rookie with the Rams in 1998, he drove drunk one night and killed a local woman, Susan Gutweiler, earning a sentence of 90 days in jail, 1,000 hours of community service and four years' probation. The league suspended him for eight games when he got out of jail. In 2004, he was arrested and later acquitted of drunk driving and speeding charges. Little has long been held up as an example of what was soft about the NFL's system of punishing players for off-field problems. That system has turned hard under Roger Goodell. It's highly doubtful Little would have gotten eight games if his offense happened 10 years later. He likely would have been banned for a year.
It's hard enough to last 12 years in the NFL anywhere, let alone in a place where in your first year you killed someone in your new pro town. But ask anyone here about the leaders on this team, and Little's name comes up quickly. In fact, he's tutoring (and schooling on the field) first-round tackle Jason Smith in the tricks of how to joust with the top defensive ends in the game. "There is no let-up in Leonard, and he's the perfect guy to be working with Jason,'' said Devaney.
More about the education of a rich rookie by a 12-year vet in our upcoming SI NFL Preview issue (sorry for the tease, but I've got to hold some things back, people). For now, I said to Little it was amazing he's lasted in one place so long, considering how the first year of his career went.
"Something happened early in my career that I will always regret,'' he said, "but every since then, I've just tried to be the best player I can every day I come to work, and the best person I can be. That first year, I thought my career might be over. I was out looking for a job -- a real job, not in football. At first, I didn't think people would ever allow me to forget what happened.''
So how were you able to move on, I asked.
"Just realizing that we all make mistakes in life. We're all human," he said. "Bad decisions have been made since the beginning of time, and you have to work to make sure you don't make them again. But I truly believe you can make a positive out of a negative. It's what I tell kids. I just talked to a bunch of high-school students during prom season. I tell them my story, and I tell them, 'Please ... don't make the mistake I made.'''
I was curious -- I think we all are -- about his second arrest for drunk driving six years after the first. It's the kind of arrest that might have doomed his career and totally derailed his life, justifiably, had he not been acquitted. Many in the media and public have said over the years that Little should have been banned in 2004 after his second arrest, without the addendum of the fact that he was found not guilty of the charges, despite the arresting officer saying he failed three field sobriety tests.
Little wouldn't be specific about it with me, other than to say: "That case should never have been brought. It was not credible. It's sad. People make judgments about that arrest and that case when they don't know the story.''
He said he hopes Vick gets a chance to rebuild his life, the way he has rebuilt his. Reaching out to Little might be a good phone call for Vick to make one day.
6:55 a.m., Thursday (Bears training camp, Bourbonnais, Ill.): My favorite story from breakfast with Lovie Smith is not a poignant or dramatic one, but one that I thinks sums up just what Chicagoland feels about the events of April 2, when the Bears acquired Jay Cutler:
The day after the trade, Cutler flew to Chicago for a press conference and to meet his new team. Smith did not know Cutler. He asked him out to dinner, and they sat together, not talking much football at all, but about families, and how each grew up, and how Smith treats his players. Smith doesn't reveal much of himself in public, or at press conferences. But when he talks to you at a meal, in a setting like this, in the cafeteria at Olivet Nazarene University, he puts his utensils down and looks you in the eye, and tells you the way it is.
And that evening north of Chicago, he said to Cutler: "Chicago's been waiting for a player like you.''
I liked that he said that to Cutler instead of, "You'll be a piece of the puzzle, but don't worry, we're not going to overload you with pressure. We'll take a lot of that off you.'' Nope. He would have been lying. Jay Cutler, in Chicago, would have to win four Super Bowls to be [Michael] Jordan. But he's big enough to be on that very next level, and the pressure, like it or not, will come in waves. Smith knows that, and all he wanted to do with Cutler is state a fact. No surprises.
Noon, Thursday (Bears camp): Brian Urlacher is back. I am seeing it with my own eyes, right here in front of me outside the dining hall on a central Illinois scorcher. He looks buffed, bigger than last year and certainly better defined.
But I digress. Let's get to the important stuff, the People Magazine stuff, about Urlacher supposedly calling his new quarterback, Cutler, the 'P' word. (I'm not about to spell it out in a family column.) Anyway, former Bears receiver Bobby Wade says that while out socially with Urlacher this summer, the Bears leader called Cutler a p----. Urlacher immediately denied it. That led to all sorts of media speculation about the relationship of the Chicago football giants, that they'd had a physical fight somewhere, that they hated each other, that Cutler was dating Urlacher's former squeeze.
"Did you do it?'' I asked Urlacher. "You call him the P word?''
"Never said it. Guaranteed,'' he said, and he laughed. "As soon as this came out, I called Jay to tell him it was BS, and I said, 'Hey, what's up, p----?' That sort of broke the ice, and now we laugh about it. I don't now how these things happen, but by the time we got to camp, it was absolutely true, and I'd supposedly had fights with him in the locker room, out in a bar. It's so funny. Here at camp, somebody slipped a note under my door, and I look down and it says, 'P----.' So you can see how seriously we're taking it.
"Look, that's not the kind of thing I'd say about a teammate anyway. But you think I'd say it to a guy on another team? It was Bobby just trying to stir things up.''
Back to business. I said to Urlacher: "If anyone ever told me you'd play a season with no sacks and no forced fumbles, like you did last year, I'd never believe it.''
"I just wasn't around the football,'' he said. "Most frustrating year of my career. I had a couple of picks [interceptions], but you know, you just fall into those sometimes. The problem was, I haven't been able to train the last two years the way I normally would. Two years ago, it was my lower back. Last year, my neck. I get to camp, and I'm not nearly as strong as I need to be, and my play suffers. No excuses, that's just the fact. So this year, I trained all offseason, did plyometrics, did lots of power-cleans, ran a lot. I got to camp feeling like I need to feel to have a big year.''
I tell him he must hear what the masses are saying. It's his 10th year, he's 31, he's played the physical position of middle linebacker for so long that he's naturally wearing down. He nods.
"I know,'' he said. "But I've gotten to the point in my life where I only care what the people on this team and the people closest to me think. And what I think. I've been through the meat-grinder here. I don't know if Butkus and Singletary had to go through all this, but I doubt it.''
I walk away thinking: For Urlacher to truly make the Chicago-to-Canton linebacker connection, he's going to have to be classic Urlacher again, for a couple more years.
Interesting observation from Lovie Smith at breakfast about Urlacher. "What I see in Brian this camp is he's able to bend. He just hasn't been right the last two years,'' Smith said.
5:20 p.m., Thursday (Bears camp): The noise walking off the practice field at Olivet Nazarene is maybe at 70 decibels. A cacophony of sound. Like "JAYYYYYYJAYHEREHERE!!!COMEON!!!JAYJAYJAYJAAAAAAAAY!'' I sidle up to Cutler and shake his hand and he says, "Howyadoin!'' I quasi-yell that he never returned my calls or texts back in the spring, and I just wanted to tell him I ripped the crap out of him then for the way he left Denver, and if there's anything he wanted to say to me, here's the chance.
But I could tell he didn't hear everything I said. Maybe he heard nothing. How could he? And now he was being pulled in other directions, and so I just shook his hand again and said see you.
A couple of minutes later, the Bears' PR man, Jim Christman, came up to me. "What did you say to Jay? He couldn't hear it.''
I told him what happened. Just told Christman to tell Jay what I said, and we'd all move on. I bet that's a big concern in Cutler's life right now.
5:15, p.m. Friday (Denver-San Francisco preseason game, Candlestick Park): I haven't been here in years; I can't remember the last time I saw the 49ers live at the Candlestick wind turbine. (When I walked off the plane around noon today, it was 61 degrees with winds about 20 mph. Welcome to San Francisco.)
As I walk through the parking lot, I see a few RICE jerseys, a few MONTANAs, more than a few GOREs. Almost half the jerseys I see pay homage to the defensive cornerstone of the franchise, the number 52 worn by linebacker Patrick Willis. I do not see a single Michael Crabtree jersey.
Michael Crabtree, the receiver picked No. 10 by San Francisco, is in the middle of the dumbest holdout in the NFL in years. It defies logic. The NFL has a slotting system that is ever-so-slightly malleable, where a player who gets drafted one spot lower than another player occasionally gets a smidgeon of a better deal. And sometimes a quarterback gets an above-market deal. But position players and non-quarterback skill players are slotted, and despite the efforts of agents to break the slotting system when picked lower than the agent or player thinks he should be picked, the league mostly holds firm.
So this spring, most people told Crabtree he was either No. 1, or 1a with Jeremy Maclin of Missouri, at wide receiver in the draft. Crabtree was confident he'd get picked in the top five of the draft. On draft day, the Raiders, picking seventh, made a stunning choice, wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey. Then Jacksonville and Green Bay ignored Crabtree, who ended up going 10th overall, to San Francisco.
The Crabtree camp was stunned. First, they were stunned that he was not picked in the top five. And they were stunned about what this would mean financially. The third overall pick, Tyson Jackson, got $31 million guaranteed, about $13 million more than the estimated slot at number 10. So Crabtree thought he'd been jobbed, and he hasn't gotten over it. His camp has made it clear he won't accept a contract for less money than Heyward-Bey, and so he sits. Here's how his neighbors in the first round, above and below, fared in negotiations:
A couple of things to keep in mind: San Francisco ownership is not from the ownership school that says, "Let's throw money at the problem and make it go away.'' And GM Scot McCloughan is the same way, having learned much about football from his apprenticeship in Green Bay under old-school GM Ron Wolf. I spoke at length with McCloughan here, and I believe he would rather lose his job than pay a rookie $10 million more than his slot in the draft says he should be paid.
No one in the league likes the rookie-salary conundrum. The union says it likes rookies getting paid this money before they've ever played a down, but I've talked to scores of players about it over the years, and about the only ones who remotely support the Heyward-Beys of the world being handed $23 million before his career begins are NFLPA board members and maybe some player reps. It's a stupid system. But it's the system they're living with until a new one is invented. For Crabtree to think he's going to buck it is insane.
Now that's it has gotten to this point, and we're 27 days from opening day, and only two first-round receivers in the past decade have exceeded 60 catches in their rookie years, I don't expect the 49ers to be very aggressive in getting Crabtree in. An impact first year is now unrealistic if not highly improbable. So what's the pressure on them to up the offer to get a deal done? There is none. This holdout could be long, or it could end Wednesday if someone who understands how the NFL works can get to Crabtree. But for him to think he'll do better by entering the draft next year is even dumber than this holdout.
"I feel like Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ought to be in this story,'' one agent said to me the other day. "You know, it's dumb and dumber.''
7:50 p.m., Friday (Candlestick Park): All of a sudden, the Broncos have a crisis at quarterback. Remember the good old days of old Whatshisname? The guy with 4,526 passing yards and 25 touchdowns last year? Gone. But they won't be forgotten when Denver plays its first home preseason game two weeks from last night ... when Jay Whatshisname returns with the Bears.
Kyle Orton just threw his third interception in three first-half series. Add the two picks he threw in a scrimmage at home last weekend -- eliciting more than a few boos -- and you're starting to have a major problem. It's a good thing the Broncos play on the road against this weekend (at Seattle) because Orton does not want to step out on the field at Invesco coming off this performance.
I really liked how Orton opened -- just the way coach Josh McDaniels wanted. Move the chains, don't take high risks, put the ball on the numbers. None of his first seven passes traveled more than 11 yards past the line of scrimmage, and the 69-yard opening drive had Denver second-and-goal at the 49er 3-yard line. Then he made a ridiculous decision, trying to wedge a ball into tight coverage to Daniel Graham (with cornerback Nate Clements, San Francisco's best, on him) while 15 feet away running back Peyton Hillis was open at the side of the end zone.
Orton can't make those kinds of decisions and have a future in the NFL as anything other than a roster filler, and it's the kind of decision that, if duplicated enough this summer, is going to make McDaniels do what I believe he is loathe to do -- remove the more accurate Orton in favor of Chris Simms. The former Texas Longhorn, by the way, was terrific Friday night. Simms continued his admirable recovery from his scary splenectomy in Tampa Bay by going 11 of 17 for 142 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions ... and some excellent improvisation.
"We're not going to go into this thing after the first preseason game and start tailspinning and making knee-jerk reactions,'' said McDaniels after the game. Nor should he. This should still be Orton's job. But Bill Parcells, who'd often make interesting lineup decisions based on exhibition-game play, used to have this saying about August football: "I go by what I see.'' And if McDaniels sees much more of this, he'll have no choice but to seriously consider Simms.
7:50 p.m., Saturday (Seattle-San Diego preseason game, Qualcomm Stadium): The verdict after LaDainian Tomlinson played in his first preseason game since 2005 and Shawne Merriman played his first game, period, in 11 months: Tomlinson looked like the real Tomlinson in his cameo, making a move we rarely saw last year, bouncing one run outside for six yards. "We want to get in a rhythm running the football,'' he said after the game. "We would like to start fast this year.'' Thus, look for Tomlinson to run some more in the remaining three preseason games.
Merriman, in his first three series, didn't have the explosiveness we remember. He didn't make a play that made you say, "That was Merriman.'' Then again, he didn't get a chance, and there's absolutely no way in a meaningless game that I'd be selling out if I was coming off a major knee surgery.
The thing I noticed about both is they ran well, showing no signs of favoring their 2008 injuries. Because I saw the burst in Tomlinson and not in Merriman doesn't mean Merriman won't be good. He told me after the game he'll be better in 2009 than he's ever been because of his attention to the little things in offseason training and in this camp. We'll see.
Gut feeling: I believe in the defense, which is totally sold on coordinator Ron Rivera's schemes and the teaching of the Rivera staff. If Philip Rivers gets protected well, and the Tomlinson/Darren Sproles/Jacob Hester (the big back who hurts you when he hits you) combo platter stays mostly healthy, no team will come within four games of the Chargers in the AFC West.
Three other California notes after two games in two nights: Candlestick is crumbling and Qualcomm is very needy; I'm sure the Coliseum in Oakland is nearly as bad. The NFL has 31 stadiums, and with the possible (and I mean possible) exception of Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, numbers 29, 30 and 31 are the three California venues. Not that I think the state should be paying for them, particularly with the financial crisis California is in. It's a statement of fact, though.
Two: I know this is taking in a lot of ground, but I do believe the 49er and Charger crowds lead the NFL in tattoos. Walking through the parking lot tonight on the way into the stadium, on a beautiful night for anything, there was a 30ish man without a shirt, barbecuing behind his car. On his tanned back, stretching from outside shoulder blade to outside shoulder blade, was the Chargers' lightning-bolt logo, a good 20 inches wide.
Three: Shawne Merriman has a thin navy-blue Mohawk stretching from forehead to neckline, with no other hair on his head. I have to admit that's a hairstyle I have never seen.
Noon, Sunday (Denver International Airport): The results of my very unscientific Twitter poll are in. On Friday, I asked followers of Twitter account (there are 39,000 of you, incredibly): Yes or no -- did the Eagles make the right decision in signing Michael Vick? As of 1:45 p.m. Eastern on Sunday, 674 of you had responded, and your Tweets rang loudly in Vick's favor.
Your vote: 490 said give Vick a chance; 184 said he has no place in the game. That's 72.7 percent pro-Vick. Based on what I'd seen and heard the last few days, that surprises me. I thought it'd be much more split.
"That doesn't really surprise me,'' Eagles coach Andy Reid told me from his office. "Most people want to see other people do good. I think it's probably the same percentage here in Philadelphia.''
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