Thursday, July 23, 2009
As usual, QBs getting all the attention
By John Clayton
Though it's often said that defense and good running games win championships, offense will be the key theme of 2009 NFL training camps, which officially open Saturday when the Buffalo Bills report.
It starts with the return of Tom Brady in New England. Brady, coming back from knee reconstruction, returns to the controls of one of the NFL's scariest offenses. It continues in Minnesota, where the Vikings await Brett Favre's coming out of retirement. The Bills reached out to Terrell Owens to fix an offense that was too easy to defend last season.
So much of camp will be about how well quarterbacks reestablish themselves. Carson Palmer is hoping to make a playoff run with the Cincinnati Bengals after avoiding elbow surgery and letting the nerve problem in his right elbow heal naturally. Matt Hasselbeck hopes to have put his back problems in the rearview mirror so he can give the Seattle Seahawks and new coach Jim Mora a chance to make a playoff run in the NFC West.
And this will be the first training camp of "tweet." Chad Ochocinco, Steven Jackson, Shawne Merriman and others will keep fans updated on their daily stories through Twitter. It should be a fun summer -- tweet, tweet.
1. Quarterback battles: This might be the best summer for true, legitimate quarterback battles. The best is in Tampa Bay, where Luke McCown, Byron Leftwich and rookie Josh Freeman are in a three-way battle for the Buccaneers job. You rarely see one of those. General manager Mark Dominik is hoping the decision will be to sit Freeman and give the first-round pick a chance to develop slowly. In Cleveland, Brady Quinn enters camp with the lead over Derek Anderson. Alex Smith might be catching up to Shaun Hill in San Francisco, but it's still Hill's job to lose during the preseason. New York Jets coach Rex Ryan still has to select between Kellen Clemens and rookie Mark Sanchez, but most people would be surprised if Sanchez doesn't win the job. It would take an incredible preseason for rookie Matthew Stafford to beat out Daunte Culpepper in Detroit, but Stafford does have an incredible arm.
2. Ever-changing training camps: For fear of injury, coaches continue to shorten training camps, cut down on two-a-days and try to keep teams closer to home. Seventeen teams are having their camps at their facilities, and that number could grow by a couple next year. In 2000, only four teams trained at their facilities. Ryan convinced Jets ownership it would be a bonding experience for his team to train away from home. The Jets open camp in Cortland, N.Y., on July 27, when the rookies report. The Saints decided to move back to their facility rather than training away from home. The Rams, who tried a fling in Wisconsin last summer, are back at their headquarters near the airport.
3. Late start: Because the season starts a week later, teams are reporting to camp later. The Bills will be the first to open when veterans and rookies arrive at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford, N.Y., on Saturday. Teams aren't allowed to bring veterans into camp until 15 days before the first preseason game. The Bills and Tennessee Titans open the preseason when they meet in the Hall of Fame Game on Aug. 9. Titans coach Jeff Fisher, however, is having his players report July 30, because they are playing five preseason games. That gives them a week to prepare for the Bills. Seven teams will have their full squads report July 29, seven on July 30 and 12 on July 31. The Dolphins open Aug. 1. Four teams -- the Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Giants and Carolina Panthers -- open camp Aug. 2.
4. New coaches, new tone: With 11 new head coaches, training camp could be much harder than in past years. New coaches usually use training camps to set a tone. That tone is usually effective in shaking up veterans and establishing the proper work ethic for rookies. The Browns' Eric Mangini might have the toughest camp among the new coaches. Steve Spagnuolo should have a tough camp in St. Louis. Mora had a bunch of intense OTAs and minicamps and is expected to follow with a tough training camp. After an 0-16 season, new Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz should push his players hard. Mike Singletary established a better, more physical work ethic after taking over as the San Francisco 49ers' interim coach last season, and he should push toward another level in camp.
5. Wide receiver scramble: A lot of things still need to be figured out at the wide receiver position. The Baltimore Ravens, Chicago Bears, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jets are at the forefront of teams needing to find veteran receivers. The Ravens tried to trade for Anquan Boldin and failed. They will be in bigger trouble if Derrick Mason follows through on his plans to retire. The Bears might not want to admit it, but they are shy of proven No. 1 and No. 2 receivers. The Bucs are looking for a third receiver. Still looking for jobs are Marvin Harrison, Amani Toomer, Matt Jones, Darrell Jackson and others. Their phones have been reasonably quiet. Plaxico Burress is an option, but teams are shying away because the criminal case related to his shooting incident in New York last year is still unresolved.
6. Even more of the 3-4: Expansion of the trendy 3-4 defense will be at the center of a lot of camps. The Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos are the latest to switch from the 4-3 defense to the 3-4 , expanding the number of 3-4 teams to around 13. The 3-4 conversion for the past couple of years hasn't been easy; just ask the Jets, Browns and 49ers. All three teams underwent head-coaching changes in the past year. Those teams' 3-4s didn't have adequate nose tackles during the first year. To have a successful 3-4, you need a great nose tackle who can draw double-team blocks. The Packers have a great chance of succeeding because Ryan Pickett could be a good nose tackle. It might be tough in Kansas City and Denver. It's not certain whether Glenn Dorsey of the Chiefs is the right fit at the nose. The Broncos will have the toughest time unless former 49ers backup nose tackle Ronald Fields can do what wasn't done in San Francisco.
7. The T.O. Show in Buffalo: The Bills sought receiver help and they ended up with a reality show. Terrell Owens comes to the Rochester-Buffalo area with his camera crews and unpredictable behavior. His reality show made its debut on VH1 this week, confirming his diva lifestyle and unpredictable moods. It was good TV and should make for incredible drama during camp. Bills coach Dick Jauron, a quiet gentleman, has to make sure the circus doesn't ruin the karma of his team so he can keep it focused on breaking out of the 7-9 rut it's been in for the past three years.
8. Life won't be the same for the Cowboys: Terrell Owens is gone, quieting the locker room. Tony Romo broke up with Jessica Simpson. Now, TMZ won't have to cover camp. Also gone are the HBO cameras that filmed "Hard Knocks" last season. Wade Phillips moves his Cowboys to the Alamodome to make one last stand at getting his team back on top of the NFC East.
9. Circus atmosphere: It's still hard to believe the conservative Brown family allowed HBO to film "Hard Knocks" at Bengals training camp in Georgetown, Ky. Ochocinco -- who dropped his trade demands, trained with boxers and became fixated on tweeting the world about his daily life -- should be the star of the show. Defensive tackle Tank Johnson, a former Cowboy who was one of the stars of last year's show, hopes to find quiet success in this crazy environment.
10. Evolution of the Wildcat: Experimentation with the Wildcat offense also will be on stage this season. The Miami Dolphins are the most advanced, so much so that they won't even let area colleges in on some of the new wrinkles in the direct-snap offense. The Dolphins drafted quarterback Pat White to see what passing elements he can add to the Wildcat. Now almost every team is expected to have some kind of Wildcat package. The experimentation will involve passing out of the Wildcat. Late last year, the Ravens found ways to stop the running elements. Defensive coordinators have had an entire offseason to watch tape and brainstorm.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.