DAY BY DAY ON THE CAMP TOUR:
Monday: Washington Redskins; Ashburn, Va.
Everyone think this is a bit harebrained, handing the starting job to a guy who's never done it in the NFL, who surrendered three seasons of college football training to go on a Mormon mission. "I guess that's expected,'' the confident and exceedingly well-spoken John Beck said after the morning practice. "I don't take the time to think about it. I have so much respect for Steve Young [they're both former BYU quarterbacks], and he told me, 'Don't try to figure out the why.' It's mental quicksand.
"Nobody thinks the red-haired freckled kid who missed three years of football for a mission is going to make it. But finally I feel a system in the NFL is right for me. This offense relies on the quarterback to make quick decisions, to have accuracy, to use your legs to get outside and make plays.''
I'm not sure after talking to Mike Shanahan and his offensive coordinator son, Kyle, who likes Beck more. Kyle: "My first year as a position coach in the league, Houston had me scout all the quarterbacks coming out that year,'' Kyle Shanahan said. "That was the JaMarcus Russell year, with Brady Quinn, Trent Edwards, Kevin Kolb and Beck. So they asked me who I'd pick if I had the 10th pick in the draft. I told them Beck. They said he's not worth the 10th pick in the draft. I was standing on the table for him. I've never seen a guy play that well in college.''
Beck turns 30 in two weeks. Mike Shanahan has implied that he'll get the starting nod over Rex Grossman. Beck's had some rough practices this summer. But knowing the Shanahans, they're not going to cave if they think Beck's good enough. I think he'll start that emotional season opener against the Giants on 9/11.
Tuesday: Baltimore Ravens; Owings Mills, Md.
You want new? I'll give you new. Coach John Harbaugh was talking to his team after a long, hot practice this afternoon. Harbaugh's no softy, but he was about to be seen as one. But in the distance, the ting-ting-ting of ice-cream-truck bells could be heard, and two trucks rumbled out to the practice field. This had been owner Steve Bisciotti's idea, and now Harbaugh looked at him and yelled (good-naturedly), "You're trying to turn me into a softy!''
"Soft serve,'' Bisciotti shot back.
Some vets have left, though there hasn't been a wholesale turnover. Todd Heap has turned over the tight end job to 2010 draftee Ed Dickson. Terrence Cody takes Kelly Gregg's nose job. Derrick Mason (Jets), Willis McGahee (Broncos) and Josh Wilson (Redskins), valuable all, got better deals elsewhere.
I wish I'd been able to see Jimmy Smith practice, but he missed it with a groin strain. He's the kid from Colorado so many teams bypassed in the draft because of his off-field problems in college; Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported he failed three drug tests at Colorado. But the Ravens picked him 27th overall in April because of his toughness, cover ability and size (6-2, 211).
He seems like a safety when you meet him, all the way down to the physical attitude. "I think out of all the cornerbacks in the draft, I'm the most NFL-ready,'' he said. "I used to watch the NFL when I was in college, and I'd think how crazy it'd be to play for the Ravens. This is where I wanted to be.'' Starting opening day against Pittsburgh, he'll have a chance to prove he belongs.
Wednesday: New York Jets; Florham Park, N.J.
The Jets don't sit still. Look out on the field: Old-timer assistant coaches Tom Moore and Jim McNally were out at practice; Isaac Bruce, of all people, was due in camp in a few days to give pointers to the wideouts.
This year, when Damien Woody retired and left a hole at right tackle, the Jets gave the job to journeyman Wayne Hunter, who nearly misbehaved himself out of the league after being a Seattle draft choice in 2003. It's not the most important position on the field, but over the years, particularly because so many quarterbacks like to roll right and throw from their right, and so many teams have been investing in rush ends from the defense's left side, the right tackle has taken on added importance.
"This is the first time in my career where I actually have had some security in a training camp,'' Hunter said. "For the most part, I've been on the ropes every year in this league. Hanging by a thread. This is a good feeling, but I can't let up for a second because I know what's at stake.''
Mark Sanchez's health. That's what's at stake. Last year was uncapped, and the Jets could have pursued help outside the organization for a tackle to pair with D'Brickashaw Ferguson. But not this year. Hunter is expected to beat out second-year tackle Vlad Ducasse for the starting job on the right side. And with ace line coach Bill Callahan in house, it's likely he'll be able to figure ways to give Hunter enough help to prevent much leakage there -- even with a tackle who's not very quick.
Whatever, this is a big year for Hunter, who was rewarded with a four-year contract one day after the league and players ratified a new CBA. Every team needs some middle-class long-term players like Hunter, and most players on the bubble have one shot in their career when they can grab a job or see it float away, never to have the same chance again. This is Hunter's shot and he knows it.
Thursday: New England Patriots; Foxboro, Mass.
On the field and off, a very interesting afternoon.
On the field: All eyes on number 85, Chad Ochocinco, and number 92, Albert Haynesworth, at the first practice after the CBA got ratified, which meant every player could practice. Ocho must have been tight. He dropped a 50-yard pass from Tom Brady when he got two long strides on a corner while running a post route. "OhhhhhhhHHHHHHH!'' the crowd said. He clanged a 15-yard cross from Brady -- again, right in his hands. Leigh Bodden broke up another ball that looked like it was right in his hands. Tom Brady threw him one in the end zone, the offense practicing against air in the red zone. Boink. Another drop. Awful practice for the Ocho. But I doubt there'll be many of those.
Haynesworth played right tackle and Vince Wilfork left. After a few drills, Haynesworth jogged to his next one. One source in Washington had said this about Haynesworth: "You watch. He'll practice hard for Belichick, and he'll play great for him. I don't know where else he'd do that.''
It's way too early to make a single judgment about Haynesworth, good or bad. He's got to practice hard all camp, then play the way he played his last season in Tennessee, when he convinced Washington he was worth the ridiculous contract. Which, of course, he wasn't.
But I expect you'll see the Patriots do just what they did a lot in this practice during the season -- play a four-man front with Haynesworth and Wilfork inside. Will teams double both? One? And who will they double if it's just one? Wilfork has done it all on the line, but he's probably best suited to take on and occupy two blockers at the point, freeing Haynesworth to penetrate. There are many ifs, and another big one is Haynesworth, who has never been Jack LaLanne in the offseason conditioning department, staying on the field.
I asked Wilfork about the potential of the line if Haynesworth stayed on the right path. "I tell you what, if he doesn't, he's out of here, and he knows it. He knows he has some baggage, and he wants to turn it around,'' Wilfork said.
But having Haynesworth around will mean Bill Belichick can do what he does best -- design ways to use Haynesworth best, not forcing him into the middle of a 3-4 and ticking him off.
"Bill runs schemes based on the players he has, not the other way around,'' said Vinny Cerrato, the former Redskin personnel man who pushed Dan Snyder to sign Haynesworth. "When Albert was a free agent, he didn't talk to any teams in free agency who played the 3-4. He wanted nothing to do with it. Things have changed now, but Bill's smart. He'll know how to use him.''
Off the field: Still a tough time for owner Robert Kraft, mourning the death of his wife, Myra. But he got a boost when, sitting shiva several days after her death (shiva is the Jewish mourning period when friends and family come to the home of the survivors and share fellowship), he looked up and who walks through the door? Randy Moss. He flew up from Florida for one reason: to tell the Patriots owner how highly he regarded Myra Kraft.
"Randy is a good friend of mine,'' said Wilfork. "He called me and said, 'Vince, I'm nervous about coming up. But I want to come. I shared a bond with her. I really want to be there.' Guys who don't know Randy, they'll say he's arrogant. But if he could have retired here, he would have. He came here for one reason and one reason only: He wanted to support the Kraft family.''
When Moss signed with the Patriots, Kraft brought him into his office and told him if he played for the Patriots, he'd always be in the Patriot family. So when he opened Moss' sympathy card, he knew Moss remembered the family speech. Moss signed his sympathy card: "Randy Moss Kraft.''
One other note: Kraft does not wear rings or most other jewelry -- except for one thing. He wears a silver circular pendant with a photo of he and his wife on their wedding day and the words "Cherish Love'' engraved on the back. It was a gift from the Wilforks when they learned Myra Kraft had cancer.
"Mr. Kraft always liked it,'' said Bianca Wilfork. "When he told us Myra was sick last year, we called our jeweler and had it made. It had a lot of significance, because he always told us, 'Always keep what's important close to you.' You can have a million dollars, but if you don't have love, you're broke.''
Friday: Split day. Morning: Philadelphia Eagles
Early in the first 7-on-7 team work of the day, Nnamdi Asomugha lined up on wideout Chad Hall. Vince Young was quarterback. Hall juked the cornerback coming off the line, and Young threw the ball maybe 12 yards downfield. It was a little high for both men, but Asomugha, 6-2 and taller than the other cornerbacks the Eagles employ, leapt high and snared the ball cleanly, racing up the right sideline. Crowd went wild.
Interesting thing about Asomugha. He told me that last year in Oakland he played about 15 percent of slot corner, and the rest of the time he played outside. But when he got here last week, he talked to Asante Samuel and Dominique Rogers-Cromartie, the normal starters, and asked what they preferred to do. Both said they preferred to play outside. Now, of course Asomugha is going to start outside, almost certainly opposite Samuel. But in three- and four-corner situations, he told Samuel and Rodgers-Cromartie he'd be happy to play the slot and let them play outside. It may not be up to him, of course, but the fact that he did that says something about Asomugha the man.
Should he play the slot? Certainly, any corner with great cover ability is going to be better out wide, where he's less likely to get caught in traffic and get bounced around. But I have a feeling, barring a trade of Samuel (I can tell you with certainty the Eagles are not planning to trade him, and likely won't seriously consider it unless they get an offer of a first-round pick for him), you'll see a lot of Asomugha in the slot.
Friday Evening: Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement Dinner, Canton, Ohio.
The Friday night dinner at the Canton Civic Center is my favorite part of the weekend. If you haven't gone, you should. Old Hall of Famers come back and sit with the car dealers and insurance sales people and fans from all over the country.
I didn't expect Shannon Sharpe and his brother to steal the show. This isn't a night for speeches. It's a night when the old Hall of Famers welcome the new ones to the fraternity. Long-time enshrinees like Bob Lilly (who still looks like he could give the Cowboys 15 snaps a Sunday) and Paul Warfield and Willie Brown walk through the Civic Center and up on stage to be greeted by the Class of 2011. After that, the new class members get their yellow jackets. That's always a touching moment. And on this night Shannon Sharpe took his suit jacket off and brother Sterling helped him with the Hall of Fame coat. When Shannon Sharpe had it on he looked at it as if he couldn't believe it. How grateful he was.
Later, the two Sharpes hugged each other on stage in an embrace that must have lasted 30 seconds. I thought they were going to hug the wind out of each other, they were gripping each other so strongly. Everybody should have a relationship with a brother or sister like the Sharpes have.
I repeat: If you ever have a chance to go to the Friday night dinner at the Hall, you really should. It's not just a great night for the enshrinees and for football, it's a great night for football fans.
Saturday postscript: I loved my time at the Hall two years ago getting the writers' award, and Bob McGinn heartily deserved it this time. But if Jim Nantz gets to ride in the Saturday parade, the writers' winner should get to ride in it too, not sit in the crowd ... Tremendous job by Steve Sabol in presenting his dad. That could not have been an easy thing for him to do, after the brain tumor, the chemo and the radiation.
... I was a little uncomfortable, quite honestly, with Deion Sanders saying he was ashamed of his mother working her hospital job and saying one of his goals was to make sure his mother never had to work another day. A house, a car -- I get that. Never working again? Seems a little odd, unless she is ill ... Shannon Sharpe got me choked up when he voiced his wish for his grandmother: 'I want to go to bed one night. I want God to make it rain as hard as it possibly can. I want to wake up and not be wet.' All she wanted was a house that didn't leak.'' ... I would rather hear the Friday night honorees speak than see a video tape with them speaking.
Saturday: Pittsburgh Steelers, Latrobe, Pa.
When I last saw Aaron Smith, one of my All-Decade defensive ends for the last 10 years, he was sidelined at Steelers practice at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth before the Super Bowl. His recent run of injuries had been maddening. He'd missed parts or most of three recent seasons with biceps, triceps and shoulder injuries, and just when he thought he might be able to come back in time to play in the Super Bowl, he suffered a setback and was declared out for the game.
The Steelers have developed a good replacement and heir to his left end job, Ziggy Hood, but there's just something missing when the best 3-4 defensive end of the past 12 years is out of the Pittsburgh lineup. Quite honestly, I thought the frustration over always being hurt was going to knock Smith, now 35, out of the game forever. I thought he would retire.
But there he was Saturday afternoon with the first unit on defense, going up against Colon and not giving an inch. After practice, I asked him why. "I love playing football," he said. "I have no other explanation for it. There's nothing else I want to do with my life right now. It feels so good to be back out here."
Some 20 minutes after the Steelers workout ended on Chuck Noll field, Smith was almost glowing. When he talked, he smiled. I've always found him to be passionate about football and now you can see how much he's driven to play one more good season, at the least.
Several veterans had practiced Friday night when the Steelers made their annual trek to Latrobe High, and Mike Tomlin was giving them Saturday off. Not Smith. "I don't like missing practice," he said. "I never have. I have progressed faster than I thought I might have and I really don't need to be taking any time off right now.
No one knows how much Smith will be able to play or how effective he'll be -- or whether he'll survive the next month of the preseason so that he can make it to the opener at Baltimore on Sept. 11. I'm not betting against him.
"What do I expect?" Mike Tomlin said to me. "I expect him to be Aaron Smith. He's a shining example to everybody on this team about what a great football player is."
Sunday: Buffalo Bills, Pittsford, N.Y
Three quick practice observations on the Bills
1: Lots of teams can say when they spread the field that they're going to be difficult to handle. I saw it with my own eyes late Sunday afternoon. When the Bills line up in a five-wide formation, with Ryan Fitzpatrick in a shotgun, they go with Lee Evans and Stevie Johnson outside, David Nelson (second-year surprise from Florida), Roscoe Parrish and the heretofore unknown Donald Jones inside. (Jones, you can tell by being here, is a favorite of the coaches and the quarterback.) The reason this formation could be a major threat is because of the speed of Evans and Parrish, the over-the-top catching ability of Johnson and the physical nature of Jones and Nelson. Sometimes the Bills might use C.J. Spiller as one of the slot guys and they might line up Brad Smith in the shotgun instead of Fitzpatrick. Whatever they do, there are enough young weapons here to make the AFC East take notice.
2. Top draft pick Marcell Dareus might be one of the widest people ever to put on an NFL uniform. I was amazed to watch him from behind, next to one of my All-Pro defensive tackles from 2010, Kyle Williams. Williams, from the back, looks like 60 percent of Dareus, even though the weight difference is only about 50 pounds.
So far the two men whom the Bills hope will be playing alongside each other for the next six to eight years are getting along great. "I don't like guys who talk a lot before they do anything," Williams told me. "Marcell has come in with a great work ethic and hasn't asked for anything to be handed to him. Everybody here is really impressed with him. Plus, he's going to be very, very hard to move."
3. It looked to me like the Bills might be preparing to use Brad Smith more than the Jets did, if that's possible. Early on, the Bills have been highly impressed with the strength and accuracy of Smith's arm. "I don't know if he'll touch the ball four times in a game or 14," Chan Gailey told me. "All I know is he's going to get it a bunch."