Five training camps down, and each visit has been revealing
Visits to Cardinals, Chargers, Saints, Broncos, Seahawks have been enlightening
Drew Brees isn't happy with Commissioner Roger Goodell: 'Nobody trusts him.'
My favorite training camp sites; Stat of the Week; 10 Things I Think I Think; more
RENTON, Wash. -- I'll get to the upstart Cardinals, the recharged Chargers, Drew Brees tsk-tsk-ing the commissioner, what Peyton Manning hates and the third-round pick who leads all rookies in charisma. I know what you want. You want football. You want to see what I've seen. Five quickies from my first five camps:
Play of the Week: Seattle wide receiver Golden Tate making a full-out diving catch at the eight-yard-line, bouncing up and diving into the end zone Sunday at Seahawks camp. "I got a lot of pressure on myself,'' Tate said Sunday night. "It's year three for me, and it's time. I need to be able to turn routine plays into explosive ones.'' Nothing but questions around the Seattle receiving corps. Tate needs to answer a big one.
Sign of the Week: In San Diego GM A.J. Smith's office is this gem in a frame, from Winston Churchill: "History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it." Question is, Is Smith's Charger book on the last chapter?
Fantasy Tips of the Week (which you should take with a shaker of salt): Five of them: Watch the Marshawn Lynch discipline case (still too early to call; he might get off with an NFL fine even if found guilty of DUI), and if he gets an unpaid vacation, pick up rookie fourth-rounder Robert Turbin, a between-the-tackles runner from Utah State ... In Denver, Eric Decker over Demaryius Thomas ... In San Diego, Eddie Royal over Robert Meachem ... Jimmy Graham, if healthy, will have the best tight end stats in football ... Wouldn't be surprised if, after Larry Fitzgerald, the Cardinal with the best receiving numbers will be Rob Housler. Get to know him. Tight end. Ken Whisenhunt loves him.
Idiot of the Week: Me, for thinking that driving from Flagstaff, Ariz., to San Diego was a good idea. Seven hours and one scary pitch-dark encounter with a feral cat in a Gila Bend McDonald's parking lot later (don't ask; I will only further embarrass myself), a dusty rental car pulled into the Chargers parking lot. This just in: Airplanes have been invented.
Why You Have to Go to Training Camp and Not Just Sit Behind a Desk: For these three scenes ... Philip Rivers looks out on the practice field after the first practice of the year and sees 15-year vet Takeo Spikes, who has never played in a playoff game, doing extra work. He's the last guy on the field. "That's why I want to win -- for guys like Takeo,'' Rivers said ... To see how quick in and out of cuts rookie Nick Toon is in New Orleans -- and to think, "Are you kidding? Another weapon for Brees?'' ... Peyton Manning taking coaching from offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and quarterback coach Adam Gase. He's going to be his own coordinator on the field -- we know that. But the way they talk on the practice field, you can see Manning respects his new aides. ... Antonio Gates running with no limp after a 2011 season spent with constant foot pain, and smiling almost every time he took his helmet off, and saying afterward, "I appreciate my health so much now that I've got it back."
Now onto what I saw on the road in my first week out:
Wednesday: Arizona (Flagstaff, Ariz., Northern Arizona University)
How the first day of camp can lift an entire organization.
If you blinked, you missed it. Or if you were gazing at the imposing San Francisco Peaks just north of the practice field in this lovely college town, you could have missed it too. Ryan Williams, who'd provided so much hope for the Cardinals' running game last summer before rupturing his patella tendon in a preseason game, took a handoff up the middle in the first practice of the summer. Then the second-round draft pick out of Virginia Tech in 2011 did something he hadn't done in 49 weeks: He juked one defender left while planting and cutting right, then did the exact opposite -- juke right, cut left. The crowd oooohed. "Go Li'l Sweetness!'' someone yelled, because that's what Williams likes to be called.
Two hard cuts. As heartbreaking as it was to lose Williams last year, that's how thrilling it was for the Cardinals to see that two-second cut-cut scene.
Quarterback Kevin Kolb and wideout Larry Fitzgerald were talking about the play afterward with a camp visitor. "Amazing,'' said Kolb. "Great. The comfort level you've got to have after whatever knee injury he had --"
"Patella,'' Fitzgerald said.
"Yeah,'' said Kolb. "But three, four cuts, after an injury like that. To trust your knee to make moves like that ... Wow."
On the field, Williams was reliving the play over and over, as reporters crowded around him. I asked if he'd heard the "Li'l Sweetness'' shoutout.
"I heard it,'' he said. "I heard it. Felt good.''
Thursday: San Diego (San Diego, Chargers' practice facility)
The Chargers are mad as heck, and they're not going to take it anymore -- or so they say.
Sometimes, I've seen the roll-the-eyes treatment from Charger players when they hear something blunt GM A.J. Smith says that they disagree with. So I'm in Smith's office before heading out to interview some players after a morning walkthrough, and he's talking about the differences in the 2012 team from previous ones. And he goes further than I thought he would, talking about the Chargers' 17-15, playoff-less existence over the past two seasons.
"We have lost our respect in the league and our credibility in the league,'' he says. "We were an elite team. You miss one year in the playoffs? OK. You miss two? You deserve everything that's being said about you.''
I thought it was strong. Very strong. There's no question Smith, who spoke passionately, as he often does, has thought about how inexcusable it is for a team with San Diego's talented pedigree to twice miss the playoffs with a quarterback as formidable as Philip Rivers and a supporting cast that was playoff-worthy. I was anxious to see how the players would react.
Maybe they didn't want to rock the boat. But listen to three vets respond to the we've-lost-our-respect-in-the-league line.
"Amen,'' said center Nick Hardwick.
"It's the truth,'' said tight end Antonio Gates. "It's not acceptable, not negotiable.''
"That's the mentality we have right now,'' said Rivers. "Not being in the playoffs the last two years, we've developed that feeling, and our feeling right now is we've had enough. We have a little edge about us now. But, you know, you've just got to go out and do it."
This is probably the first time since 2006 -- when the Chargers were coming off a third-place finish in the division -- that San Diego hasn't been locked into preseason Super Bowl contention. This is an odd year in the division. Denver has Peyton Manning. Kansas City has a formidable defense and a healthy quarterback. Oakland has a new everything. The Chargers like the pack. They've been the lead dogs for so long, and it's brought them nothing but lots of regular season wins and lots of January heartache.