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Game On!
August 06, 2007
As NFL camps cranked up and the heat bore down, the pressure was on the newcomers to show they're ready to make a difference
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August 06, 2007

Game On!

As NFL camps cranked up and the heat bore down, the pressure was on the newcomers to show they're ready to make a difference

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Last saturday afternoon, in the stifling humidity of western Pennsylvania, the football field at the Steelers' training camp was turned into a proving ground. Time to show what you've got, boys. First-year coach Mike Tomlin, dressed head-to-toe in black, lorded over the workout like Johnny Cash on a Nashville stage. And what this man in black wanted to find out was who among these 86 players loved the game and wanted to play for him the most. � In a seven-on-seven drill, involving skill players in a test mostly of pass offense against pass coverage, defenders were supposed to make contact with receivers, but tackling and kill shots were not allowed; all players were to be on their feet at the end of each play. A few snaps in, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hit wideout Willie Reid over the middle, and almost instantly Reid was leveled by a bone-jarring shot from safety Anthony Smith. While the crowd of fans in Latrobe went into a frenzy, Reid popped up and disgustedly threw the ball at Smith's feet; his teammates on offense jabbered at the defense. � "What's that prove?" Pro Bowl wideout Hines Ward yelled, walking menacingly toward Smith, a second-year player. "What's that prove? You want a trophy for that cheap shot?" � Smith, who's battling sixth-year man Ryan Clark for the starting free safety job, approached Ward and yelled back, "It's football! It's football!" A defensive player dragged Smith away, and his mates in the secondary gave Smith his props. He had violated the rules of the drill, but in this climate his intensity was not such a bad thing.

"You don't like to see shots like that taken," Tomlin said a few minutes later, "but we're developing a mentality, a toughness. Guys here have a lot to prove."

With all 32 teams reporting to camp last week, the NFL became the land of opportunity. From Foxborough, where a batch of new receivers led by Randy Moss competed for Tom Brady's attention, to San Diego, where Norv Turner took over for fired coach Marty Schottenheimer, the pressure to prove one's worth was felt among the ranks of contenders and pretenders alike. And the players' return to the field in pads came just in time for a league desperate to make news that didn't have Michael Vick in the headline. Hope abounds.

Which team--like the 1999 Rams (from 4-12 to Super Bowl winners) or the 2003 Panthers (from eight wins in two years to NFC champs)--will be the turnaround story of '07? Sometimes it's a new coach, such as Tomlin, who makes the difference. Other times it's a newly added veteran player, perhaps Jamal Lewis of the Browns or Matt Schaub of the Texans or Nate Clements of the 49ers, who changes a team's fortunes. Sometimes it's a rookie.

Hope would seem to be in short supply in Buffalo. The Bills are stuck in the AFC East with the three-time Super Bowl-champion Patriots and the resurgent Jets under coach Eric Mangini (a.k.a. Mangenius). Buffalo has not been to the playoffs since 1999, and the team has become a way station for players eager to find somewhere better. In the opening days of free agency two defensive standouts, cornerback Nate Clements and linebacker London Fletcher-Baker, set land-speed records for splitting town ( Clements to San Francisco and Fletcher-Baker to Washington). Leading rusher Willis McGahee was ecstatic about his March trade to Baltimore. The run stopper the Bills acquired in a March deal with the Eagles, defensive tackle Darwin Walker, told Buffalo he wouldn't report without a rich new contract. The Bills traded him to the Chicago Bears on Sunday, before he ever suited up for Buffalo.

So why was the merchandise tent at training camp in Pittsford, N.Y., swamped under threatening skies last Friday? And why is Buffalo on pace to sell 47,500 season tickets, more than in any season since 1994, the year after the Bills' fourth straight Super Bowl?

In western New York there is hope after all, and the reason is rookie running back Marshawn Lynch. He's the first-round pick out of Cal who, in the Bills' system, will get the chance to fill a LaDainian Tomlinson-like role. Buffalo was one of the few NFL teams that preferred Lynch to Oklahoma back Adrian Peterson heading into the draft, and that was mostly because Lynch was a ready-made receiver, who last season caught 34�passes, often split wide or from the slot. Bills offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, who coached Marshall Faulk while serving under Mike Martz in St. Louis, wants his feature backs to be in the Faulk mold--70% runner, 30% receiver.

At his first practice last Friday, shortly after signing a five-year, $18.9 million contract that includes $10.3 million guaranteed, Lynch showed the burst and the soft hands that the Bills had paid for. Watching from the sideline as the rookie quickly cut through a hole and sprinted past a cornerback, former Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly shook his head in respect and said, "Now this guy can run. He's just what we needed."

From Cookie Gilchrist to Thurman Thomas, running backs have starred in Buffalo, thanks to an emphasis on the ground game that is part coaching philosophy, part cold-weather necessity. Last year, however, with the discontented McGahee and a patchwork offensive line, the Bills averaged only 3.7 yards per carry (27th in the league) and struggled to a 7-9 finish. To upgrade the blocking, the club spent $74�million on free agents Derrick Dockery, a guard from the Redskins, and Langston Walker, a tackle from the Raiders.

"I think this offense is going to be perfect for me," Lynch said, following his first pro practice. "They want the back to sometimes line up in the slot, one-on-one with a linebacker, or split wide, getting into space--and those are looks I love. I've been catching the ball since I was in Pop Warner. I don't even consider it the second part of my game. It's who I am."

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