With preseason almost over, some teams could use more time
Arian Foster joins the ranks of NFL types to criticize fantasy football
Cardinals believe they've finally found the replacement for Kurt Warner
Guess who I picked to win the Super Bowl and league MVP honors
EAST GREENBUSH, N.Y. -- My fourth and final week on the camp trail started in Houston (interesting Mario Williams stuff) and Dallas (Jerry Jones tried to sell me a very large stadium), continued with the transplanted Saints (that's a good-looking team) in California, veered south to the endless sauna that is Phoenix (Larry Fitzgerald is one happy Kolb fan), then red-eyed East into the path of Hurricane Irene, thus ending my month driving/flying to check out the post-lockout NFL. Stats of note about the journey:
Days on camp tour: 29. Camps visited: 23. Words written for SI, SI.com, including five MMQBs: 65,500 (approximately). Rolo McFlurries consumed: 2.
So why the East Greenbush dateline? My wife, dog and I abandoned ship in Boston Saturday, afraid our neighborhood would get blacked out by Irene, and so we drove west three hours to a hotel in this Albany 'burb, where we were fairly sure writing in large quantities wouldn't be interrupted by the weather. And it wasn't ... though our Boston neighborhood never lost power.
Anyway, it was an eventful week, full of Peyton Manning news, the Lions looking like the Patriots and the Patriots looking like the Lions, the Ravens buying a new left tackle 16 days before James Harrison comes to town to torment him, the Bears finally blocking someone, Cam Newton looking like he needs two months to polish his game instead of two weeks, and the Niners looking like they're the leaders in the clubhouse in the Andrew Luck Sweepstakes (and wouldn't that be ironic?).
So why are we starting with fantasy football? Because Arian Foster started it. Sort of.
From a strained hammy to an indictment of how we watch football.
In the Texans' 30-7 win over San Francisco Saturday night, 2010 rushing champion Foster hurt his hamstring. Coach Gary Kubiak pronounced him day-to-day, and it's not certain he'll start opening day against Indianapolis.
On Sunday afternoon, Foster, a thoughtful guy who writes poetry and doesn't buy into the idea that famous football players should be seen and spout only cliches, tweeted this: "4 those sincerely concerned I'm doing ok. 4 those worried about ur fantasy tm, u ppl are sick #nfl''
Foster, an MVP-type player in fantasy football, got hurt at the crucial time when some of the estimated 23 million people in this country will be drafting their fantasy teams. Hamstring injuries are unpredictable. A wealthy friend in a $1,000-entry-fee league emailed me Sunday asking whether he should use the third pick in his draft on Foster or steer clear. "Only God knows,'' I emailed back. Foster's injury, basically, threw the year's biggest curveball at a lot of the fantasy drafts in the nation.
I've been asking people in and out of the game about fantasy football this summer. It's just so big, and so odd because of its ability to change rooting habits from teams to individuals. For Kurt Warner, fantasy football actually played a small part in his decision to walk away from the game. "You just get tired of having a good game, and your team winning, and someone coming up to you and saying, 'Nice win. How come you only threw for two touchdowns?' It gets old,'' he said.
Todd Haley, in last week's MMQB column, said he got tired last year of being harangued by fantasy players about how he used his running backs, though the Chiefs had the top-rated running game in the league.
When I was in Houston the other day, I asked Foster his feelings about this national obsession. "It's good for getting the people who aren't normally into football -- they watch the games,'' he said. "But I think it's changing the way people watch the games. They're more interested in stats ... That kind of takes away from the reason we play this game, and that's to get a ring. Don't get me wrong -- I love my fans. I love our fans of the game... But don't get mad at a player because he doesn't perform for your [fantasy] team.''
Seems to me the NFL loves the multiplying numbers of people playing fantasy football. Sunday afternoons and evenings in many homes are spent in man caves, with a laptop out with the fantasy game in real time, and the TV playing either the local game or a bunch of games, or a bunch of touchdown plays. I wonder if more fans in a generation will root for their fantasy teams than the home teams.
I'd love to know how many people buy NFL Sunday Ticket or the Red Zone Channel for fantasy purposes. "Used to be you'd just watch the game for the game,'' Haley said. "Now you've got that crawl on the bottom of the screen with everyone's numbers. I don't know. So much is about the individual now.''
I don't know what's right or wrong. But it's interesting that Arian Foster is ticked off at a tributary of the NFL that is becoming more and more a fixture to the fans of the game.
Notes from the Trail ...
Bucs: "The governor is off'' for Da'Quan Bowers.
Tampa Bay has such a young defensive front; the six top rotational players on the line are 25 or younger. And Bowers is the youngest. He's 21, a legal drinker for only the last six months. He also was the riskiest player in the 2011 draft. A sure top-five pick in midseason had he entered the draft as a sophomore, he sank like a stone after knee surgery following his junior season at Clemson and went 51st overall to the Bucs. Stunningly, he was the 16th defensive lineman picked.
So far this summer, Bowers has missed one practice and complained of no pain in the knee, his left. "He's like any other player now,'' said GM Mark Dominik. "The governor is off.'' The big issue for him could well be beating out the surprise of camp for the starting left end job -- defensive end Michael Bennett, a waiver pickup from Seattle two years ago. They each had a sack Saturday night against Miami; Bennett added two more tackles for loss. Each will play at lot at left end, and Bennett's strong play will let Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris ease Bowers into the games early if that's how he chooses to play him.
Bowers is a quiet guy, but fervent about one thing: that he got a bad rap about his knee.
"I have 100 percent belief I'll play without any problems,'' he said. "Unless something tragic happens, I don't see anything happening to stop me. I'm not playing to prove anyone in the league wrong. That's not me. I'm just playing to help my team win.''
The Bucs' pass-rush coach, Keith Millard, wants Bowers built for speed. He was 277 early in the summer, but will play at 267. "He's got to run all day,'' said Millard, who envisions a Bowers/Adrian Clayborn rookie bookend rush on many pass-rush downs this year. He says there's no reason rookies can't rush the passer. "It's so hard to find two pass-rushers who can come off the edge,'' Millard said. "We got two -- and they were the two guys on our list.''
Time will tell if Bowers can stay on the field. If he does, the Bucs got a steal. If he doesn't -- if he gives Tampa Bay maybe three or four in-and-out years -- you can't argue with the risk at number 51.
One more item of interest from Bucs camp: Ronde Barber is at 183 straight starts -- the most ever for a corner -- and counting. He'll be at 199 if, at 36, he can make it through this season. Great line by Dominik about the Twin of Tiki: "He's our Cal Ripken. He's the most underappreciated Buc of all time.''
Texans: Mario Williams is dying to be confident again.
"This practice was soooo lame,'' said Matt Leinart's young son Cole, on the sidelines of training camp after a 75-minute walk-through. Interesting you should say that, young Cole. Lots of coaches would agree with you that the new way of practicing in training camp -- one walk-through in shorts and jerseys, one in helmet and pads -- is too restrictive. But not here.
"I wasn't happy when the new rules came out,'' said coach Gary Kubiak. "But I've found, especially in a year like this where we had no time in the offseason to teach because of the labor situation, that it's been good to come out here and work on things at a slower pace. We've got a lot of new guys and they need to learn. You don't always learn the most by going at full speed.''
Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine told me the same thing. A few times on my tour, the subject of the new practice rules came up, and other than coaches not liking being told what to do, it hasn't been as bad as I thought.
A couple of times during the walk-through on the practice field outside Reliant Stadium, new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips spent two or three minutes with Mario Williams, talking about the little things. Williams works with the linebackers in individual drills, because he is one. The switch from hand-in-the-ground defensive end to standup outside linebacker is still a work in progress, and a post-practice talk with Williams finds that he's not fighting it; he's just not comfortable in all the new mechanics, and he wishes he'd had an offseason to work with Phillips to learn the intricacies.
"It's much tougher than I thought it would be,'' Williams said. "At the end of the day, it's just rushing the passer, but I find myself thinking about things like my weight distribution, my body lean, the positioning of my feet. I will be able to adjust. I know that. I'm getting comfortable with the teaching of it, but the biggest thing is to be able to play and not to think, and that's tough right now.''
We talked about the adjustment of DeMarcus Ware in Dallas. Ware, a defensive end at Troy, has taken to the position change and told me Williams will eventually love it. "He'll see -- the whole world is going to open up to him, standing up,'' Ware said. "When you're down, you're basically concerned with the guy in front of you -- reading his stance, trying to beat one guy. Now, when you're up and can see how the play unfolds in front of you, he'll be able to read the formation and get a feel of what the quarterback's going to do. He'll be able to diagnose the offense so much better. Dropping into coverage was toughest for me to learn, but that's not something he's going to have to do much. After a while, he'll find the whole thing will become natural.''
Key phrase: after a while.
"DeMarcus was able to make the switch right out of college,'' Williams said. "I'm making it without any offseason work.''
Phillips has done this before -- with Simon Fletcher in Denver, Bryce Paup in Buffalo, Shaun Phillips in San Diego. He says he's sure Williams will be a great rusher when he gets the hang of the mental part of the game. Another very good defensive end, Kansas City's Tamba Hali, had to make the switch when the Chiefs went to the 3-4 in 2009. After struggling the first year, Hali had a 14.5-sack season last year. His reward: He signed a five-year, $60 million deal four weeks ago.
"Mario's already stood up some,'' said Phillips. Indeed he has -- on more than 100 snaps in 2010. "It's pretty simple really, and I don't think it's really that hard. We're going to take our best pass-rusher, put him on the open side and let him rush the passer almost every play.''
Sounds easy. The look in Williams' eyes says it's not that easy. He's already a good pass-rusher as a defensive end but he has the speed and the physical tools to be a great one, consistently. I wouldn't be surprised if he struggles for most, if not all of this season, but eventually he's going to get more pressure from the outside, with the ability to use his athleticism on tackles and tight ends.
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