Optimism is everywhere in the NFL with training camps cranking up
The past three Super Bowl winners won between 8-10 games the year before
My training camp tour has me seeing at least 23 teams over the next month
An update on my top 100 players, vacation highlights and 10 things I think I think
It is great to be back. The World Cup was terrific, my brother's death a punch in the jaw that still hurts, my vacation was needed but a little ... empty. Today is the start of football season for me, and it's a great feeling because this is as wide-open a season entering training camp as I can remember.
I expect a job action down the road, but it's not time for that today. (And I don't plan to be a negotiation-monger every Monday for the next 31 columns, because I don't believe much of great substance is going to happen before February.) Today is time for hope. I tweeted the other day the reason this is such a fun time is because 32 teams think they have a chance to make the playoffs right now, and I think about 28 actually do. (Scratch St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Buffalo and probably Cleveland, though I guess it's possible Jake Delhomme can be reborn and the Browns could eke out nine wins.) Detroit? Kansas City? Seattle? Not dead at all. They can all throw the ball, and all have made some defensive progress.
So here goes, my 27th season covering the greatest show on turf, real and artificial.
Optimism everywhere. Rightfully so. The last three Super Bowl winners, in the year prior to winning it all, won 8, 10 and 8 games. (The Giants, Steelers and Saints managed that trifecta.) That means one of the following teams -- winners of between 8 and 10 games last year -- should feel very, very good entering training camp this week:
1. New England (10 wins).
2. New York Jets (9).
3. Cincinnati (10).
4. Baltimore (9).
5. Pittsburgh (9).
6. Houston (9).
7. Tennessee (8).
8. Denver (8).
9. New York Giants (8).
10. Atlanta (9).
11. Carolina (8).
12. Arizona (10).
13. San Francisco (8).
That's 41 percent of the league with the same shot the past three Super Bowl winners had entering the year they won it. Take that to Vegas, put $20 on each team and, hey, you should make more than $260.
Unless what I think is going to happen happens. It's early, very early, but I haven't backed off a San Diego-Green Bay Super Bowl. Two teams knocking on the door pretty consistently (Packers averaging 10 wins a year over the past three years, Chargers 11 a year over the past six season), both with terrific young quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers 27, Philip Rivers 28), both with suspect defenses.
Kind of sounds like the Saints last year.
"You know I picked you guys to make it to the Super Bowl,'' I said to San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers the other day. "But I'm a little worried about the guys you might not have.''
"You know me,'' Rivers said. "I'm the ultimate optimist. I know what everybody thinks about the guys we might be missing. Of course we want Vincent Jackson, Marcus McNeill and Shawne Merriman [unhappy with their contract offers] with us for the whole season, but I've been thrilled with what I've seen in the offseason program. We've had great work with our receivers -- Antonio [Gates], Legedu Naanee, Malcom Floyd, Buster Davis, they all look great. They're ready. And this is the best offseason we've ever had.
"We've never had 50 guys showing up with the 7:30 group [in strength and conditioning workouts] on a random Tuesday in April. It was almost like a full team workout at 7:30 in the morning, which we've never had. They just kept coming, day after day. Not that we haven't been hungry. But we've gained the knowledge of what it takes to win by coming so close so often.''
We'll see. But how Green Bay and San Diego come through training camp will be interesting, particularly in the cases of the stars with contract issues.
The stories I'll be watching the closest in the next six weeks:
1. Ben Roethlisberger's re-acclimation to the Steelers. I think everyone -- not just Steeler Nation -- is anxious to see if Roethlisberger is genuinely chagrined and humbled by his BMOC stupidity of the last couple of years. I hear mixed reports on this, but not a lot of people who have spoken to Roethlisberger are leaking the contents of those discussions. The best thing Big Ben can do is come to training camp, say all the right things (whether he believes them or not), sign every autograph (while smiling), and become the leader and good citizen a franchise quarterback for such a great franchise should be.
2. Sexy Rexy and the Jets. Can Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards -- both in contract years -- co-exist? Is Jason Taylor washed up? Will the best non-quarterback player in football, Darrelle Revis, be happy with his contract? Can Rex Ryan keep a lid on all these high-strung personalities? Can Mark Sanchez keep peace in the huddle? Will the unceremonious dumping of Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca impact the best line in football? Can anyone here rush the passer? Can Antonio Cromartie have some discipline on Friday nights, if you know what I mean?
Interesting that I've asked 64 important questions and haven't mentioned LaDainian Tomlinson, but remember this: I think Shonn Greene's the genuine item and will exceed 1,400 rushing yards if healthy. That leaves scraps for Tomlinson. He's not going to like scraps. Stay tuned. Stay tuned to a lot with this team, actually.
3. Gregg Williams needs to keep the Saints' D feisty. I like something I heard from Drew Brees recently. We all think the same thing about the Saints -- namely, that it's hard enough to repeat (in the past 12 seasons, only one team, New England, has won back-to-back titles) without the never-ending celebrations the Saints have gone through over the last six months. We'll be looking for signs that the Saints aren't complacent when we take their temperature in training camp.
"I wanted to see how our attitude was in mini-camps and OTAs too,'' Brees told me. "And this was interesting -- there were more fights, more jawing at guys on the other side of the ball, than I've ever seen in an offseason. There were times we had to cut back on offense-defense work, like, you know, guys were going to get hurt. I got the impression the mindset was on track, and I saw guys with their heads in the right place.''
I credit Williams, the pedal-to-the-metal defensive coordinator who challenged Brees and the offense every day in practice last year. You can be sure Sean Payton will keep the heat on the offense to produce. Williams needs to keep the intensity coming on defense for the Saints to have a chance to win again.
4. My surprise teams, and people. I like Carolina and Seattle to surprise. I think Matt Moore (last three starts last year: 3-0, 69.7 percent passing, 7-0 TD-to-interception ratio) will hold off Jimmy Clausen and be a good NFL starter. In Seattle, I think Pete Carroll's hope will sell early, when they have three winnable games in the first four. Who knows? The Seahawks have talent, and there's not a great team in their division.
The five rookies I expect to shine early: Miami pass-rusher Koa Misi (a grinder Tony Sparano will figure a prime role for), San Diego running back Ryan Mathews (should get 275 carries inside and outside), Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (will be helped by Corey Williams taking heat off him at the nose), Cincinnati tight end Jermaine Gresham (great athlete Carson Palmer needs desperately) and Kansas City multi-purpose back Dexter McCluster (Chiefs wanted Darren Sproles in free-agency, missed, and will give Sproles' role to this guy). I love Dez Bryant too, but I'm not sure how immediate his impact's going to be. Darkhorse rookie: Houston running back Ben Tate. Gary Kubiak's going to play the best guy back there, and Tate might be that.
5. The rest: ... Kevin Kolb's going to be a compelling story. I like his moxie, and I like the moxie of Andy Reid trading Donovan McNabb with three or four relatively prime years left to give Kolb his long-term shot. Why not? With McNabb, it was been there, done that. With Kolb, there's a freshness to training camp, an excitement that hadn't been there. Unless Kolb chokes and fails miserably, I won't rip the Eagles for making the move because they'd already seen everything they need to see from McNabb
... The F word. I have no information for you, other than I, like all of you, think Brett Favre's going to show up in time to play the third preseason game (Aug. 28, Metrodome, Seattle in town). Too many clues, like Favre saying how much more can he hurt his wounded ankle, and like the clear affection he has for his teammates in Minnesota
... Contract crappola. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning and Drew Brees all enter the last year of their contracts, singing for their respective supper. They are the three best players in football, in my opinion. And we're going to get beat over the head with this story over the next six months, but the reality is -- even though one or more of these players will get his nose bent out of joint over how much he's making -- none of these guys will let the money have any impact on how he plays
... Tebowmania. In case you missed my story on Tim Tebow and the Broncos quarterbacks in SI six weeks ago, you might want to take it for a spin here. I expect Josh McDaniels to find a role for Tebow in something resembling a Wildcat (the Wild Horse, perhaps?), taking a few snaps a game as a changeup to the defense. Every practice in Bronco camp will be important to challengers Tebow and Brady Quinn
... The Odd Couple. Jay Cutler and Mike Martz are united in the city of United (Airlines), and there are many jobs at stake. Coaching jobs. Front-office jobs. Cutler will have to play differently than he ever has; he now has to trust his receivers to be open before he actually sees them open. That's a big part of the Martz scheme. It'll be fun to watch in Bourbonnais, Ill., site of Chicago camp, to see how quickly Cutler catches on.
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