Tuesday: Oakland (Napa Marriott, Napa, Calif.).
Three football nuggets: Darren McFadden, who's been hurt in all four of his NFL seasons, told me: "It drives me crazy. I want to go out there and prove I can stay healthy a full season.'' ... Matt Leinart is a solid No. 2 at quarterback. I'd be surprised if Terrelle Pryor dents the top two without an injury ... Dennis Allen, the new coach, went to school on the salary cap in a big cap-strapped year, a lesson taught by GM Reggie McKenzie. They went around and around trying to figure a way to keep Kamerion Wimbley, but in the end, keeping Wimbley likely would have cost them a more valued player in Tyvon Branch. "The pie's only so big, and I needed to learn about that,'' Allen said. "A head coach in the NFL needs to learn about those things.''
Life changes. Even the Raiders change.
The Raiders have had training camp on fields behind the Napa Marriott for years, and nothing much is different back here. Except for one thing: the small media tent, with Wi-Fi if they want to write out here, and a cooler of bottled water. Welcome, media! How can we help you? Then you see the media guide -- in living color for the first time -- and you look in the records section, and you see more signs of détente. Color photos of Mike Shanahan and Lane Kiffin! What else could there be on the premises? A statue of Al Davis and Pete Rozelle hugging?
Here's what else is new: drafting a wide receiver who ran a 4.68 in the 40 at the Scouting Combine. True fact. Arizona's Juron Criner, 6-2 ˝ and 224 pounds, ran glacially for a wideout at the combine, and the new general manager of the Raiders, Reggie McKenzie, saw past it and drafted Criner in the fifth round, the only wideout Oakland drafted this year. Al Davis drafted wideouts with sprinter speed; it was a Raider trademark. McKenzie likes sprinter speed, but good receivers who run in the 4.3s aren't going to be available with the 168th pick in the draft, as Criner was. So you improvise.
"I'm pretty sure this guy wouldn't have been on Mr. Davis' board,'' McKenzie said, chuckling before practice. "We kid around about that, because Mr. Davis' shadow will always be over this organization. And you know, I want 4.3 corners and 4.4 wide receivers. But they have to be good football players too.''
"I've heard that," said Criner, "and when I got here, people told me they were always a speed team. I see what's going on here -- I'm surrounded by pure speed. But I think there are things I can do, with instincts and angles, that make me a good receiver.''
Get the feeling Darius Heyward-Bey might not have been the seventh pick in the 2009 draft if McKenzie had been running the show?
It's unmistakable around here: There is respect for the late Al Davis -- reverence by some. But there's only one Al, and when he died, his way of roster-building and team-operating went with him. McKenzie hired a defensive coach, Dennis Allen, who will play some (a lot, probably) zone coverage. Davis had hired nothing but offensive head coaches over the last 40 years, and his defenses played man coverage.
In football, McKenzie and Allen stressed to me, reverence will get you nowhere. You have to be yourself and manage and coach your way, not with some homage to the strongest personality in NFL history.
"We're going to be constantly reminded, 'That's not an Al Davis pick,' or 'You've got to get back to Cover 1 [man coverage],'' McKenzie said. "We can't let that interfere with what we're trying to do, which is building a team the way we think is best.''
Said Allen: "The tradition here is second to none, and we obviously respect what Al Davis did. None of us here now are Al, or can be Al. But we have to coach football and run the football team the way we've been trained. We have to be ourselves and live with the results."
Allen's running a high-energy camp. His two most important players, Carson Palmer and Darren McFadden, have bought in. Palmer says he's never been more excited about a football season in his life, and Allen has rid the team of worrying about anything but football.
Imagine being Palmer, being told you're definitely not being traded by the Bengals last year, not doing any football training or much throwing after the season started, getting traded on the day of the deadline, and playing an NFL game five days later?
I'm not close to Palmer, but I've known him pretty well over the years, and when we met here at the Marriott, I saw an enthusiasm I hadn't seen since he entered the league. The Bengals years beat him down, and he didn't play well near the end, and he decided he wasn't going to play football anymore unless the Bengals traded him. Which, finally, they did.
Palmer told me offensive coordinator Greg Knapp is "a phenomenal teacher, a genius'' (someone call Terrell Owens for comment). Palmer also said running back Taiwan Jones "is the fastest man in the league,'' Darren McFadden "is as good as any running back there is,'' called back Mike Goodson "shockingly good,'' and added, "I know I can play as well as any quarterback in this league.''
On the field in the afternoon practice, Palmer was accurate and fast with the ball, throwing to his cadre of world-class sprinters. And Criner. Big target. Showed good hands. Around here, he's part of the new future.
Wednesday: Miami (Davie, Fla., Dolphins practice facility).
Three football nuggets: Cameron Wake had 39 sacks in two CFL seasons playing defensive end, which is a major reason the Dolphins aren't worried about Wake's transition from outside linebacker to defensive end as Miami switches from the 3-4 to the 4-3 ... Very impressive early in camp: offensive line coach Jim Turner, a former Marine who comes from college. Players love him ... The receiver position is very iffy. Chad Johnson has a chance to win a starting job (he'd better, or he may go X-rated on us, as you'll read below). What the Dolphins need is for one of their two or three young big receivers -- like 6-4 Roberto Wallace of San Diego State, who made a good catch of a long touchdown pass from David Garrard at the practice I saw -- to come through, or they'll be in trouble at the position.
I really like how the Dolphins practice.
I wrote about this in my Dolphins training-camp postcard (cheap plug ), but wanted to expand on it here. I've seen some interesting, fairly new things on this trip. The Jaguars' Big Uglies doing yoga in the locker room after practice, for instance. But the smartest thing I've seen so far is the practice regimen of Joe Philbin. He doesn't want to keep his players on the field for the full three-hour allotment for padded practice because of the south Florida heat. But while they're out there, he wants to max out the number of plays because he's trying to get the three quarterbacks competing for the starting job as much work as he can wedge into a two-and-a-half-hour practice.
Here's how he changes it up to get the play count up: On a full field, the coaches line up at the 50. One full team plays 11-on-11 heading north on the field; when I was there, David Garrard piloted the first offense against the defense. As soon as Garrard ran a play and the whistle blew, ending the play, the coaches turned around to see an entirely separate 11-on-11 play, the offense led by rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill. When that play ended, boom, the coaches turned around and Garrard was calling signals for his next play. And so on. Ten plays per period per 11-on-11 unit, so 20 in all -- in maybe four or five minutes.
In the first five practices this summer, Philbin's coaches scripted what he called 572 competitive plays. Because of the hurry-up concept, the players ran 657. That's an extra 85 plays -- 17 per day.
"I've never seen it before,'' said GM Jeff Ireland. "The tempo's earth shattering.''
Garrard was very good the day I saw him, throwing well on the run and hitting Wallace on a deep go. And very determined. "I've got a fire in my belly to finish my career the right way,'' said Garrard, released just before the Jacksonville opener last year. Which, by the way, still hurts. "They introduced me at the team luncheon as the starting quarterback, and as soon as we get back after the luncheon I'm told to go see [coach] Jack Del Rio, and he says, 'We feel it's best to go in a different direction.' They threw me under the bus, which I didn't appreciate.''
Now he has a chance to climb out from under the bus and get the last laugh. But he'd better be fast about it.