Snapshots from Week 1 on the annual NFL training camp circuit
Dez Bryant seems to be taking his popularity in stride
San Diego Chargers GM AJ Smith is making a big gamble
Sean Morey calls it a career; Brandon Marshall is lovin' Miami
Week 1 on the training camp trail ... From a very deep team in San Antonio (Dallas) to the Big Top in Kentucky (Cincinnati) to the NFL's men of mystery (Carolina) to the youngest veteran team in the league (Atlanta) to the team (Miami) determined not to let the AFC East become a two-horse race -- and, by the way, I like its chances. Along the way, three stories intercede: Albert Haynesworth, the business of football threatening to tear the San Diego Chargers asunder and the retirement of Sean Morey.
In some sort of chronological order, here goes:
Wednesday, 2:50 p.m., San Antonio
I experience Dezmania in a very personal way. Dallas director of public relations Rich Dalrymple and I are walking behind the end zone in the Alamodome, where the Cowboy receivers are warming up for the afternoon practice. "One of our doctors told me, 'The Dallas Cowboys are a blunt-force instrument,' '' Dalrymple says. As if on cue, I almost get blunt-forced as rookie receiver Dez Bryant turns to the crowd in the end-zone seats and waves his arms, as if to say, I'm here! Love me! And from the stands comes a small football and a Sharpie, followed by an official Cowboys helmet -- which, flung like a Frisbee, misses my head by eight inches and careens on the artificial turf toward the feet of the receiver group. "Whoa!!!'' I say, ducking, as if that would have done any good after the fact. A security guy fetches the helmet, which Bryant, chagrined, does not sign.
Such is the early love affair with Bryant, who, two days later, suffered a high ankle sprain that will cause him to miss the preseason. My first thought about the injury: Good for the Cowboys. Good for Bryant. First, the hype for Bryant was ridiculously out of control, so much so that when I sat with offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, he was already trying to figure out ways to shut down the Bryant Hall of Fame Express. Second, the Cowboys are practicing on artificial turf at the 'Dome -- sometimes twice a day -- which is never a good idea in training camp.
Bryant was practicing as if he were in an NFL playoff game, trying to win a starting job and to prove the Cowboys made the right decision by picking him in the first round when other teams were taking him off their draft boards. Dallas is lucky it was a high ankle sprain and not some season-ending thing.
Third, it's not like we're talking about a mature-beyond-his-years kid to begin with. It didn't appear as if the hype was going to his head, but who knows if all the pub eventually would have turned him into the kind of diva the guy on the other side of the field, Miles Austin, decidedly is not.
I just know this: Bryant has a chance to be a great player. But a little humble pie on the sidelines won't be such a bad thing for the kid.
Thursday, 4 p.m. Georgetown, Ky.
So many thoughts after experiencing Bengaldom for a day.
1. In 27 years covering the NFL -- year one as the Bengals' beat man for the Cincinnati Enquirer -- I have never seen the franchise be this aggressive and potentially sell-your-soul hungry in trying to win now. Pacman Jones, Terrell Owens, Antonio Bryant, with a young kid like tight end Jermaine Gresham in the first round and adding Gibril Wilson to a needy safety position ... Folks, this has never happened here.
2. Pacman, from one practice, looked a lot more mortal than he used to. He got singed two or three times by Chad Ochocinco in drills I saw, and then worked with Ocho one-on-one after practice -- at Chad's prompting. Pacman looks older than 26, that's for sure. He hasn't started a game in 21 months, and if he's going to win the starting nickel job, he'll have to re-adapt to the speed of the game.
"Coming here was the best thing I could have done,'' he told me. "It's been all football.'' Except, I learned, for the two times cops trailed his car and made him sweat, including once when they told him to stay out of the car while they ran his plates -- to see if it was stolen. Which it wasn't, and which, to Jones, seemed like a clear case of police harassment. "Back a few years ago, I might have gone after the cop,'' he said. "Now, I've grown up. I just waited 'til the situation was over, and I went on my way.'' Good for him.
After the practice I watched, he said, "Chad kicked my ass.'' He's got five weeks to play catch-up.
3. What Marvin Lewis has to get used to is being one of the ESPN pet teams. Get used to having Rachel Nichols or Bob Holtzman or Ed Werder on the sidelines every day at practice as long as Terrell Owens and Ocho are minicam-friendly, and God help the sanity of this team if Pacman reverts to even a bit of his divisive Tennessee self.
4. Andre Smith should never, ever, ever have been the sixth pick in the draft in 2009. The sixth pick overall didn't work hard to rehab his foot after February surgery, not even being a stickler about keeping the foot in a protective boot at times in the offseason.
5. Marvin Lewis told me a couple of interesting things about the pursuit of T.O. He pointed out that Owens and Antonio Bryant were being pursued simultaneously by the Bengals in March, both on visits to the Queen City at the same time. The Bengals made Bryant rhe first offer, and he accepted, and T.O. found out about it through a text message before the Bengals told him. Owens was peeved. Lewis had to soothe Owens.
"Then, the first thing after we signed Bryant, Carson [Palmer] says to me, "Let's sign T.O. too,'' Lewis said. The organization decided not to, and instead to draft a slot receiver, Jordan Shipley, in the third round. But as time went on, and spring turned to summer, Owens was still out there. He went to work out in Los Angeles with Matt Leinart, and Palmer was there. Palmer told him to lessen his demands, and he'd go to bat for him. "You're not going to make $5 million,'' Palmer said. "You've got to be realistic.''
He took $2 million, plus incentives, and last Tuesday, when he was trying to decide whether to take the Bengals' offer, Lewis called him and apparently clinched it. "My team wants you as a teammate,'' the coach told him.
6. Still don't know how the Bengals are going to have enough balls for everyone on offense. Last year, Cincinnati had 1,011 offensive snaps. Half --505 -- were run plays, and Lewis told me the offense was still going to be centered around the run. Ochocinco, Owens and Bryant, if I had to guess, will get 350 chances, collectively, if they're healthy most of the year. But what of Gresham? Shipley? Andre Caldwell, who caught 51 balls last year? And the forgotten 2008 draftee, Jerome Simpson of Coastal Carolina, who, according to personnel man Jim Lippincott, "is the receiver on our team with the most God-given talent?'' We'll see.
7. Of all the things you don't expect to hear at an NFL training camp, Frank Sinatra crooning on a hip player's portable Bose speaker would be one. But here it came, wafting underneath the stands of the football stadium at Georgetown College, the entrancing and melodic "It Was a Very Good Year.'' I couldn't understand where it was coming from. As players walked from the locker room under the stands to the cafeteria after Cincinnati's morning practice, I craned my neck to see the source, and it was Chad Ochocinco, with a hand-held Bose speaker box, with his iPod doing the job.
When I was 35
It was a very good year.
It was a very good year for blue-blooded girls
Of independent means ...
"I'm just so excited I can't stand it,'' Ocho said. "Carson's got to be out of his mind excited. Me, TO, Antonio [Bryant], the run game, Gresham, Shipley, our other young receivers ... How are they gonna stop us? The other guy who's got to be going nuts is Cedric [Benson]. They can't jam the box on him now.''
When I walked away from him, I said, "Have a good year.''
Chad quickly said, "No. Great year. I always have a good year. This is going to be a great one.''