At every stop on a recent run through NFL training camps—covering 16 teams at 13 sites, including two preseason games, in 20 days—the prevailing feeling among players and coaches is this: If St. Louis did it last year, we can do it this year. More than in any other recent preseason, hope springs eternal, because the perennially mediocre St. Louis Rams won it all last January—and the Tennessee Titans, no better than a .500 team for five years, were the Rams' Super Bowl opponent. As New Orleans Saints general manager Randy Mueller put it, St. Louis's drive to a championship was "the drug of hope."
Look at the Arizona Cardinals. Though 6-10 last year, they bound around their breezy Flagstaff, Ariz., camp with all the confidence of the Rams and the Titans. "The Rams helped the NFL," says Cardinals cornerback Aeneas Williams. "In the locker room we talk about how far they came, and how we can do the same thing."
From the California wine country to the Louisiana bayou, from the Arizona mountains to the Laurel Highlands of western Pennsylvania, blind optimism was evident everywhere during this seven-day segment of the grand tour of camps.
St. Louis Rams camp
To get back to the future, the Titans flew into Peoria, Ill., then bused 76 miles through Middle America. Past hog farms in Hanna City and the Odd Fellows Lodge in Farmington. Over the lazy Spoon River, past a place called the Roseville Lanes and Diner and Ice Cream Shack, and just beyond the endless cornfields in Good Hope, onto the Western Illinois campus. There Tennessee would scrimmage St. Louis four times in three days. Players doubled up in cinder-block-walled dorm rooms with six-foot-long beds. "This," says Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher, admiring the surroundings over a school-cafeteria omelette, "is a perfect place to get in some good work."
Perfect, too, for an exorcism. When we last saw the Rams and the Titans, they were slugging it out in the greatest finish to a Super Bowl in the game's 34-year history. St. Louis linebacker Mike Jones stopped Tennessee wideout Kevin Dyson a yard short of the goal line as time ran out, and when hearts began beating again, the Rams had a 23-16 win.
Now, on the university's practice fields, the teams are at it again, this time in a controlled scrimmage. Working against St. Louis's first-team defense, Tennessee's starting offense takes over at its 40 with 1:35 to go. The drive sputters at the St. Louis 28. Third-and-10. "Eight seconds!" cries the back judge, who is keeping the time.
Fisher walks by the Rams' huddle. "Whatever happens," he says with a smile, "don't let this drive end at the one." Says St. Louis defensive end Kevin Carter, "I know what you mean, Coach." Four Titans wideouts line up for a Hail Mary pass. At the snap, quarterback Steve McNair drops back and throws a rainbow spiral through the blue Illinois sky to a pack of nine Titans and Rams waiting in the end zone. Jones leaps and bats the ball to his left. It winds up cradled in Dyson's arms.
"Bittersweet feeling," a sweating Dyson says a few minutes later. "Nah, that doesn't make up for what happened in January. I beat myself up about that for a few days, thinking about what I might have done differently to score. But I'm 25. I've got a long way to go in my career. I don't want that to be what I'm remembered for."
San Francisco 49ers camp