Friday: New Orleans (Metairie, La., Saints' training facility)
Drew Brees has something on his chest.
If you think the mayhem around the Saints is going to send them to 5-11ville, you're nuts. Too much talent. Too good a triggerman. You've all heard about the huge, glaring Sean Payton banner with "DO YOUR JOB" hanging over the Saints' indoor practice field. Interesting enough. I watched them doing it Friday, led by Brees.
There's a drill the offensive skill players run early in practice, with quarterbacks getting the ball out to sprinting receivers and tight ends quickly. It's a nonstop, ping-ping-ping, one-throw-after-the-other completion-fest, and Brees, by my count, threw 18 balls in a row that his receivers barely had to reach for. Every one, right there. Just the way Sean Payton would have scripted it had he been there. But Payton is suspended for the year because of the bounty scandal, and the interim coach, Joe Vitt, will be gone for the first six games for his role in what the league says was a coverup of the scandal dating to 2009. No decision has been made on who will coach the team for the first six weeks of the season, but my money's on defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who replaced you-know-who last winter.
Obviously, removing the coach for the year and removing his aide-de-camp, Vitt, for the first 40 percent of the season is a crushing blow. Maybe it's naïve, and maybe I trust Brees too much, but I can't see the season going down the toilet with a quarterback as good as Brees putting up 28 or 30 points a week.
Regarding Payton, Brees said: "Even though he's not here physically, I hear his voice in my head every day.''
"How will it affect this team?' I asked.
"I don't know. I think about it a lot. The hard thing is, your head coach (snaps his fingers) is gone like that. He's just gone. We're very familiar with coach Vitt, very comfortable, and then he's gone for the first six weeks. You take the two strongest presences in the building and remove them, and it's like taking the president and vice president away from government. You had better have a pretty strong Congress, then.
"Our mentality is this: Move on. Find a way. We will. The teachings from your parents never leave you, and eventually you're going to leave them, but you're going to carry those teachings with you.''
Brees and I talked for 45 minutes or so about the severe league sanctions against the team, the 77 games commissioner Roger Goodell banned players, coaches and the general manager, Mickey Loomis. It's clear he's angry about the severity of the suspensions. He is angry that Payton and Loomis were summoned to the league office last winter before the league announced the existence of the bounty/pay-for-performance scandal and not told how much the league had on the Saints before they were questioned. (I'm not sure that matters, but he's not the only Saint who feels the league didn't share enough information with Saints officials before the February interrogations.) Brees has spoken about the subject at length in the past few weeks, but he said a couple of things I hadn't heard:
On the 16-game Payton suspension: "I was utterly shocked. Shocked. And the way the suspension works -- it's like, You're cut off right now. We [the NFL] are going to tell you who you can and cannot talk to over the next year. [Payton is forbidden from talking to Saints players or front-office members.] That is completely ridiculous.''
On NFL players' attitudes to Goodell: Brees got quiet and thought for a moment, then said: "Nobody trusts him. Nobody trusts him. I'm not talking about a DUI, or using a gun in a strip club, which are pretty clear violations. I think there're too many times where the league has come to its decision in a case before calling a guy in, and the interview is just a façade. I think now if a guy has to come in to talk to Roger, he'll be very hesitant because he'll think the conclusion has already been reached.''
I've heard this. I get it. But I can't see why players would go mute, if they'd been suspended and have the right to appeal, and they hadn't had their sides heard to their satisfaction. In a system where Goodell, through collective bargaining, has retained the long-held ability to hear appeals in discipline cases, why cede a chance to present evidence you believe will help cut down the sentence? Maybe the Vilma Four will win in a New Orleans courtroom. But why not use every avenue you have, not just the litigious one?
Now it was time for Brees to go to practice. "I feel it's all we've done here, overcome the odds. We're going to have to do it again.''
Saturday: Denver (Englewood, Colo., Broncos training facility)
Peyton Manning has six weeks to feel better.
Manning can hear what people are saying about him and read what writers are writing about him. Peyton's back to normal. Look at him throw. Look at his command of the Denver offense. He's back.
"I hate it,'' Manning said.
Because he's not. He's not all the way back.
Manning doesn't feel like he's near 100 percent yet. It's not his neck, which has undergone four procedures in the past two years, including the major surgery 11 months ago that caused him to miss the 2011 season. It's simply the regeneration of the nerve that affects his arm strength, particularly the area around the shoulder.
He's throwing the ball fine, and by that I mean if you watch a complete practice, you don't find yourself wondering why Manning is babying his throws, because he's not. He's just not ripping them. He's as accurate as ever, and it may be that this will carry him in 2012. As one former coach of Manning's told me over the weekend (not Tony Dungy), "If I were a Denver fan, I wouldn't be worried about Peyton physically, because if he can't zing the ball the way he used to, he'll figure out a way. He always does.''
(It's strange how we've already fast-forwarded past the weirdness of seeing Manning wearing another uniform, another helmet. After practice Saturday, he signed a load of autographs, a few of them for people wearing Manning Colts jerseys. To one such guy, Manning said, "Colts fan or Broncos fan?'' The guy said, "I'm a fan of yours.'' The fans came out in record Denver numbers for the first three days of practice, almost rubbing their eyes when the players came out from the locker room. Like, It's him. He's really here. Then he got to work, and it was just football, only with one of the greatest quarterbacks ever out on the field, with another all-time great, John Elway, the man who brought Manning here, watching in shades and shorts on the sideline. It's going to take some getting used to.)
As I watched Manning's first padded practice in 19 months on a sun-splashed field, I saw him throw efficiently and accurately. His best throw of the day, on a double-move by Eric Decker against Champ Bailey, was exactly the kind of precision intermediate throw Tim Tebow wouldn't have made. It had to fit in a tiny window around Decker's hip, and it did, and Decker ran for what would have been a long touchdown.
Suppose this is what Manning is -- his same accurate self, without the penchant for throwing deep very much, but only to keep the defense honest and to keep Demaryius Thomas happy. Will it work, as the former coach said? Decker's a potential star trolling the middle, sure to be among the league leaders in receptions if healthy for 16 games. Denver has added two young tight ends with good hands, Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen; Manning completed 67 balls to Tamme in his last healthy season, 2010. You can't count on 36-year-old Brandon Stokley to stay healthy, and it's no sure thing he'll even make the team. But if Stokley stays upright this summer and makes the team, Manning would have the wideout he calls the best slot wide receiver he's ever played with back as a security blanket. (It's a mistake to count on the brittle Stokley, however. I'm just raising the possibility that he could be a valuable piece for Manning.)
Theoretically, if Manning throws fewer balls downfield, his completion percentage will rise slightly, and his yards per attempt will fall, perhaps significantly. Before sitting last season, he'd had nine straight seasons of completing 65 percent of his throws or better. And only twice has he had seasons below 7.0 yards per attempt; last year, 17 passers were under 7.0, including three who made the playoffs. So if Manning completes 69 percent with seven yards per attempt, would that suit Denver? In a heartbeat. It'd suit most any team in the league, except perhaps for the explosive Saints or Packers.
Point is, I think if Manning has to become a chain-mover (which he's always been to a degree), he can do it. And he won't fight it, he'll adapt.
"Where I'll be, percentage-wise, I don't know,'' Manning told me. "I don't know if I'll feel the way I've always felt again. Everybody wonders, 'Can he get back to where he was?' That bar was set pretty high. Now, my goal is to feel as good as I possibly can -- right now.''
At his camp for college players this summer, he and brother Eli demonstrated the NFL route tree for the campers, all good throwers and some of them good prospects. When he got to a deep sideline throw, instead of patting the ball a couple extra times and letting a 65-yard bomb go, he threw it a little earlier, and it was on target, but not as far. Meanwhile a college player bombed away right after him, throwing the same route 15 or 20 yards farther. Manning wasn't offended. His ego wasn't punctured. It's just the way it is. And that could be an accurate metaphor for the 2012 Broncos.
I think the way it is might not be as electric, but I think it's going to be good enough for Denver to get its $18 million worth.
Sunday: Seattle (Renton, Wash., Seahawks training facility)
It's hard not to be impressed with rookie Seattle QB Russell Wilson.
Matt Flynn, Tavaris Jackson, Wilson one day. Jackson, Wilson, Flynn another. Wilson, Flynn, Jackson the next. This is a strange training camp. Most teams know their starting quarterback this morning. A few are having double-barreled competition for the job. But only one of 32, the iconoclastic Seahawks, has three men -- pricey free agent Flynn, incumbent Jackson and the 75th pick in April's draft, Wilson -- competing for the most important job on the field. "We know we're sacrificing something by doing this,'' coach Pete Carroll told me, "but we think the competition is worth it.''
Jackson was a marginal starter, at best, for Seattle last year, leading to the signing of Flynn (two years for at least $13.25 million), and followed by the surprise drafting of the 5-foot-11 Wilson. Most of the free world thinks Flynn -- who I'm guessing is just thrilled to be splitting reps three ways on a team he needs to work heavily with so he can get on the same page with his receivers -- is the likely starter, unless he stinks up camp and the preseason games this summer. That's logical. And if I had to put two five-stacks in Vegas on the outcome of the derby, I'd probably go with Flynn.
But the vibe I got here Sunday is that Wilson has a legitimate shot to win the starting job. Carroll loves him. GM John Schneider loves him. Plus, Flynn's not the kind of player whose arm is going to wow you in a training camp. He's got to have a chance to grow on you, the way he did on Mike McCarthy in Green Bay, to the point where McCarthy, by the end of last season, would have trusted Flynn running the Green Bay offense in a playoff game. But Flynn's just not going to come into a training camp and make people gawk.
That gives the charismatic Wilson a chance, which is all he's ever wanted. I spent 20 minutes with him Sunday, and I was ready to run extra routes for him after listening to him.
"I refuse to be average,'' Wilson said on the field after practice. "I refuse to be good. All I want to do is work to excel every day.''
It's very difficult to make any judgments on a player, or a team, watching a pad-less practice, with players in helmets and shorts. But Wilson's arm looked every bit as strong, and maybe slightly stronger, than Flynn's in this practice. On one snap, Wilson was flushed from the pocket, scrambled right ("He scrambles to throw; he doesn't scramble to run,'' Carroll said) and launched a slightly wavering 32-yard strike down the right side to a covered Ben Obomanu, who came down with the ball. Good play, the kind of play he's going to have to make in the NFL when the pocket breaks down.
That's what he told me he was happiest about at Wisconsin -- the ability to show scouts and NFL teams he could play in the land of the giants (the Badgers offensive line is annually one of the nation's largest) and get clear passing lanes to complete passes. The stuff about how Wilson's sure to have trouble completing balls in the NFL because they'll be batted down seems specious. In the NFL last season, according to Pro Football Focus, 1.9 percent of all pass attempts got batted down or deflected at the line of scrimmage. At Wisconsin last year, Wilson had two of 309 batted down -- 0.6 percent.
I asked sports statistician John Pollard, at Seahawks practice Sunday, to help me with college stats on batted passes. Pollard works with STATS LLC as general manager of its Sports Solutions Group. He came up with numbers that supported Wilson's belief that he'll find a way to complete balls in the bigger, faster NFL.
"I've been told a ton of times if I was just two inches taller, I'd be a great prospect,'' Wilson said. "But I played behind a huge offensive line last season, and I think what I proved is I'm not going to have any trouble getting the ball out.''
The obvious comparisons to Drew Brees will be there for however long Wilson plays in the NFL. "I really would love to get a chance to meet him and spend time with him,'' Wilson said. "That's my guy, the guy I really look up to. I've read his book two or three times. I've watched so much tape on him. Maybe I can get Nick Toon [a Wisconsin teammate drafted by the Saints] to help me meet him.''
Cool kid. The quarterback competition is the best story in Seattle's camp, and the charismatic Wilson makes it that way.