Reflections from the road
Injuries already taking a toll; rookie QBs poised to get their chance
A 2,722-mile drive through the Northeast and Midwest offers plenty of time to reflect and think about NFL current affairs.
It was a great chance to see seven teams in seven days, doubling up twice. I saw four new head coaches and two quarterback battles.
Here are some thoughts from the first week of the tour.
• Explaining the high number of injuries. The new collective bargaining agreement creates too much time for the players to rest their bodies. As one front office exec told me, long rest helps joints, but long rest isn't great for tendons. The new work rules give players 14 weeks off from the end of the season, seven weeks to train with their teammates and then six to eight weeks off before training camp. If the players aren't doing enough running or training to keep the tendons constantly working, they are vulnerable to the ACL tears, Achilles pulls and other injuries that have hit teams. Many of these injuries have come in non-contact activities. The league and the union need to devote time to figuring out a better offseason strategy to help players stay away from these bad injuries.
• We might see rookie quarterbacks starting earlier than expected. Trips to the Jets and Bills opened my eyes to the possibility that Geno Smith and EJ Manuel might be starting early in their rookie seasons. In the first week of practice, Smith outperformed Mark Sanchez. Smith showed improved footwork and made plenty of good throws. Sanchez bounced back from a couple of shaky days early in the week, but Smith was more consistent. It's pretty clear the coaches are doing their best to speed up Smith's development. The Jets' job is officially open for competition, and while Sanchez might have the best chance, Smith is making this a ballgame. Meanwhile, in Buffalo, no one had a worse week than Kevin Kolb. He struggled in the first part of the week and had perhaps one good practice. On Saturday, Kolb hurt his knee after slipping on a rubber mat. Kolb has opened the door for Manuel to get a chance to start.
• The Percy Harvin injury isn't as devastating to Seattle as the injuries to Michael Crabtree in San Francisco, Rob Gronkowski in New England, Dennis Pitta in Baltimore and Jeremy Maclin in Philadelphia. The reason is Harvin is a bonus to the Seahawks' offense, while the other four are mainstays. Harvin works mostly out of the slot, and the Seahawks have a good slot receiver in Doug Baldwin. They could move Golden Tate to the slot at times, and they signed Early Doucet as an insurance policy. Plus, Harvin could be back for the final four weeks of the season if he recovers well from hip surgery. Gronkowski is one of the top tight ends in football and he's hard to replace. If he misses games, the Pats will suffer. The presence of Pitta gave the Ravens the option of trading Anquan Boldin. Crabtree and Maclin are outside threats and are hard to replace.
• Second-year players need more guidance. Things go fast for rookies. They get drafted, they have OTAs and minicamps and then they go on vacation again. Next comes training camp and the season. Everything is a blur. What needs to happen is a short period, maybe in mid-February or early March, in which coaches and trainers can get together with the previous season's rookies to test their level of conditioning and give them a structured individual plan to better prepare during the offseason.
Clayton's Camp Tour
• Browns: Still rebuilding
• Jets: Ryan's tough task
• Bills: Team in a hurry
• Colts: Easing Luck's burden
• Bears: Trusting Trestman
• Chiefs: Poised to surprise?
• Rams: The buzz is back
• Falcons: Super motivation
• Bengals: Roster is loaded
• Giants: Change is constant
• Eagles: Full of intrigue
• Of the four new head coaches I saw, Chicago's Marc Trestman gets the best review. Andy Reid has complete control of the situation in Kansas City, as he should. He has 14 years of top-level experience as a head coach. Rob Chudzinski of the Cleveland Browns and Doug Marrone of the Buffalo Bills have tough tasks, but few expect winning seasons out of those teams. They have time to build. Trestman has it tough. First-time NFL head coaches rarely get chances to take over 10-win teams, and the record often moves backward rather than forward when they do. Plus, Trestman has the difficult task of fine-tuning Bears QB Jay Cutler, who is coming off a great week of practice. The rollouts Trestman added to the offense seem to have helped Cutler.
• Having a hard time buying into the new Pro Bowl format. To promote a more fun product, commissioner Roger Goodell went with the players' wishes of having a draft of Pro Bowl players rather than having the AFC Pro Bowlers battle the NFC Pro Bowlers. Tell me how that is going to make for better football when a linebacker -- let's say Patrick Willis -- is coming up to tackle Colin Kaepernick? Plus, how bad would it be if a teammate injured another teammate just because he's on the other Pro Bowl team? A move such as this indicates the Pro Bowl is hoping to hit a Hail Mary to survive.
• What to do with Riley Cooper. I think this one is simple. The Eagles' organization needs to ask the players if they would take him back. Coach Chip Kelly has to make sure a leadership committee is created that can survey the team. If the players say it's OK to take Riley back despite his rash comments caught on tape, then he can be reinstated. If they say no, he needs to be released.
• Running isn't a forgotten art. Even though the league is trending toward more shotgun and more passing, a sense of importance is given to the running game. The Indianapolis Colts are going to more of a running format. Even though the Bills and Eagles are going to a fast-paced offense, running the ball is still a key to the success of those offenses.