Dallas is the site of this season's Super Bowl, but it's also the site of this season's first NFC training camp. You heard me. The Cowboys resume practices this weekend, and if you can't be at the head of the line for the Lombardi Trophy, why not be first in line to work?
The Cowboys will, following the AFC Cleveland Browns into camp when they start throwing footballs Saturday. The Browns welcome their rookies on Friday, one of four clubs -- including Dallas -- in business this weekend, and I think I speak for most of us when I say, "It's about time."
I mean, it's the most wonderful time of the year, right? Coaches are relaxed. Players are talkative. Nobody has lost a game. And there's no sign of a "schism" yet in the Vikings' locker room.
Beautiful. All's well that ends in August, which is why we're here to celebrate the next five weeks in the NFL.
My five favorite camps
|The Cardinals have some scenic views while they train. (Getty Images)|
2. Buffalo Bills at St. John Fisher College, Pittsford, N.Y.: Not only can you get up close and personal with the Bills, but players and coaches routinely stop to talk to fans and sign autographs after practices. The setting is perfect, a small town in western New York that is so picturesque Marriott put a combination hotel/spa here. After practice, tool on down to the Erie Canal, rent a bike and enjoy the view. Then stop in at the Coal Tower and send me the postcard.
3. Seattle Seahawks at Renton, Wash.: It's so close to Lake Washington that when the Seahawks recruit high-profile free agents (T.J. Houshmandzadeh, come on down) they fly them in by seaplane. The Seahawks have a state-of-the-art building, with the best of everything at their disposal ... except, maybe, their roster. It's time to find players who can return Seattle to the top of the NFC West, guys.
4. Oakland Raiders in Napa, Calif.: It's the wine country, and it's gorgeous. Cool mornings. Hot afternoons. St. Helena and Calistoga to the north, and Healdsburg to the far, far north. Sonoma to the west. And the Napa Running Company in the heart of downtown Napa. If you're hungry, the Red Hen Cantina is less than a mile down the road. There is nothing missing here ... except Ken Stabler and Cliff Branch.
5. Green Bay Packers in Green Bay, Wis.: I promise that one of these summers I'll have my daughter join the crowd and ride her bike with one of the Packers to Ray Nitschke Field. It's a time-honored practice and one of the most cherished rites of summer training camp. To appreciate it, you must see it. Then you know why Green Bay loves its football team. There is no other camp in the world like this, and hallelujah. When you're in Green Bay in August, all is right with the world. The Pack is back, every day is Take Your Kid to Work Day, and the only thing you have to shovel is another brat down the spout.
Five best camp competitions
|Will Trent Edwards emerge as the Bills' starting quarterback? (Getty Images)|
2. Jimmy Clausen vs. Matt Moore in Carolina: Moore is the starter, and he should be. He won five of his last six starts last season and is 6-2 overall. So that puts him in the front seat ... for now. But Carolina didn't make Clausen its first draft pick so he could serve as Moore's caddy. Sooner or later, he starts. It's up to Moore to make it later.
3. Finding a MLB at the New York Giants: For the moment, it's Jonathan Goff, but that could change this summer. Gerris Wilkinson and Phillip Dillard are the challengers, but it was Goff who ran with the first team in OTAs and minicamp. No matter who winds up starting, the Giants must find something here that was missing a year ago. Antonio Pierce tried to hold down the middle before he suffered a season-ending injury, and, frankly, he failed. He couldn't run. He couldn't tackle. He couldn't make plays. So the Giants must upgrade the position. The next month will tell us if they have.
4. Kyle Orton vs. Tim Tebow in Denver: Maybe I should throw Brady Quinn in here, too. For the life of me, I'm not sure what Denver was doing by acquiring Quinn and Tebow. Orton is the incumbent, but follow the bread crumbs, people. If your team acquires two young quarterbacks, you're on the clock. Denver wants Tebow to start at some point, and good luck. Too many NFL scouts and GMs told me he won't be ready this season ... or maybe next ... or maybe ever. I love the guy because he won at every level, and maybe that's what attracted Denver. All I know is that there will be tremendous pressure on both these guys this summer ... and, eventually, coach Josh McDaniels.
5. Charlie Whitehurst vs. Matt Hasselbeck in Seattle: Pete Carroll proclaimed Hasselbeck as his starter, which is great. Except he also said he loves competition at positions, which is not so great for Hasselbeck and his future in Seattle. Carroll didn't trade for Hasselbeck; he traded for Whitehurst and paid a steep price to acquire him. So he has a conviction about him, which means he sees him as a future starter. The question, then, is: When does that future begin?
Ten biggest questions
1. Can Mike Martz make Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears one big, happy family?
2. What impact does L'Affaire Ben have on the Steelers and the AFC North?
3. Are the San Francisco 49ers really the team to beat in the NFC West?
4. How do the Redskins keep Clinton Portis, Larry Johnson and Willie Parker happy?
5. What happens to Philadelphia without Donovan McNabb?
6. Who has the guts to take a flyer on JaMarcus Russell?
7. What's next for Albert Haynesworth?
8. How does New Orleans avoid a Super Bowl hangover?
9. Will Mark Sanchez take the next step up?
10. When does the Brett Favre news conference at Eden Prairie begin?
Five rookies who intrigue me
|It will be interesting to see if Tim Tebow will prove his doubters wrong. (Getty Images)|
Five vets worth watching
Five coaches I feel for
|Eric Mangini is in an unenviable position in Cleveland. (Getty Images)|
2. Rex Ryan, N.Y. Jets: Let's get one thing straight: Everything is good ... no, great ... for Rex these days. He went to the conference championship game in his first season on the job. He has a promising young quarterback. He has a collection of big-name stars. And he has his own TV show, with the Jets hitting HBO's Hard Knocks series Aug. 11. But the expectations are off the charts, with Jets fans figuring nothing but a Super Bowl will do, and that means a ton of pressure on the head coach. Ryan welcomes it, but he might not if he's sitting 5-8 in December with disgruntled vets in the locker room and a city that never sleeps outside it. Already there are questions about contract extensions for core veterans like Darrelle Revis, and that's no way to enter a summer. It could be a long one for Generation Rex.
3. Lovie Smith, Chicago: He had better win or else, and he must win with Jay Cutler as his quarterback. Winning the lottery might be easier. Cutler hasn't had a winning season anywhere since high school. But that's why Smith hired Mike Martz as his offensive coordinator, and Martz holds the future of Smith and the Bears in his hands. Like it or not, the Bears have entrusted their offense to a quarterback who last year led the league in interceptions and uninspired play. Martz must change that, and he might be the only guy who can. I dunno, it sure seemed a lot easier when the Bears were all about running the ball and playing defense.
4. Chan Gailey, Buffalo: Someone told me he's the perfect choice for the Bills because he knows how to run the football, and running the football is how you survive in Buffalo. OK, no problem there. But Gailey is in a tough spot because that spot is the AFC East where Buffalo is a landslide favorite to finish last again. The Bills made a surprise addition with running back C.J. Spiller, and maybe that takes the heat off their quarterback. The only question is: Which quarterback are we talking about? Trent Edwards? Brian Brohm? Ryan Fitzpatrick? I just don't see how Gailey toughs it out in a division with New England, Miami and the Jets.
5. John Fox, Carolina: All the guy's done is go to a Super Bowl and take the Panthers to two conference championship games in three years. But this is a league of "What Have You Done for Me Lately?", and what the Panthers have done is make the playoffs once in the past four seasons while producing three non-winning years and a 35-29 record. Fox is in the last year of his contract, and he must prove to someone he belongs. Of course, he can just as easily walk away after this season, too. It all depends on what happens, and what's happened so far is that Fox lost star linebacker Thomas Davis for the season with a torn ACL. The hill just got steeper.
Five storylines to follow
1. McNabb plus Shanahan equals ... what? Washington scored no more than 17 points in any of its first eight games last season -- six of which it lost -- so hiring Shanahan makes sense. Hiring McNabb does, too. He has a history of success that includes five conference championship games and a Super Bowl. The Redskins have been to neither since 1991. Expectations are high, and they should be. You have Shanahan calling the plays (Kyle, Mike, take your pick) instead of Sherm Lewis, and McNabb instead of Jason Campbell. Hail to the Redskins.
2. Cutler and Martz: I can't emphasize this enough: The future of the Bears is in Martz's hands because the Bears are built around their quarterback. I know, it doesn't make sense to try to win in Chicago with the pass in November and December, but that's the route the Bears chose. So it's up to Martz to straighten Cutler out, otherwise walk the plank with his head coach in January.
3. The Dallas kicking game: Nick Folk hurt the Cowboys down the stretch, so they brought in Shaun Suisham. And he proceeded to hurt them in the playoffs. Now Dallas turns to kickoff specialist David Buehler and hopes he can do what Folk and Suisham could not. But wishing won't make it happen, guys. I know, Buehler set a club record with 29 touchbacks last season, but Baltimore last year tried the making a field-goal kicker out of kickoff specialist Steve Hauschka, and it cost the Ravens a come-from-behind victory over Minnesota. Eventually, he was cut.
4. The New York Jets' contract negotiations: All-Pro Darrelle Revis is the game's best cornerback and the cornerstone of the game's best defense, and the Jets know it. One problem: He wants to be paid like the game's best cornerback, and the Jets are reluctant. So Revis played hooky during the summer, once pulling himself out of a workout after complaining of dizziness and a sore hamstring he later admitted was fine. Center Nick Mangold and linebacker David Harris are other young starters looking for new money, but nothing has happened. GM Mike Tannenbaum said the uncertain labor landscape is a major hurdle, but it didn't prevent the Jets from spending $60 million on a four-year deal for tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson. Stay tuned. This one could get ugly.
5. The absences of Marcus McNeill and Vincent Jackson in San Diego: Both are starters. Both are quality players. And both are restricted free agents. McNeill is a standout left tackle; Jackson is the team's top wide receiver. Yet both are expected to be camp no-shows because of contract issues. This is a tricky game of hardball the Chargers are playing, and they're playing it with two guys critical to the team's success. GM A.J. Smith said he doesn't expect either to show up before the 11th game, thus guaranteeing them another year toward free agency, and he may be right. Philip Rivers better hope he's not.
Five storylines we can do without
|You know training camps are close when the Brett Favre talk heats up. (Getty Images)|
2. The return of Pacman Jones: So now it's the Cincinnati Bengals who are going to scare this guy straight? Yeah, sure, and while they're at it they can promote him for NFL Man of the Year. Pacman Jones isn't a troublemaker; he's a trouble seeker, another paragraph in search of a police blotter. I don't care that he was a first-round draft pick; I care that two teams gave up on him -- as they should -- and that he hasn't played a down in almost two years. I'm sure we'll get a dose of Pacman Redeemed stories this summer, but I'd rather concentrate on guys who have nothing to apologize for.
3. The ongoing saga that is Terrell Owens: The market is flat, and T.O. can't understand why. So he blames the Dallas Cowboys. No, no, he blames ESPN. In T.O.'s world it's always someone else at fault, but he should take time to read the tea leaves. Wide receivers who behave like morons, drop too many passes and are on the verge of 37 aren't in demand ... unless, of course, you include VH1.
4. L.T. and the Chargers: Enough already. I understand why San Diego released him. L.T. should, too. So stop moaning about the Bolts and their GM. Look, I love the guy, and I loved watching him run over, around and through opponents. But those days are over, with Tomlinson's numbers last year the evidence. They were the worst of his career. He insinuated that a sub-par offensive line had something to do with it, and maybe he's right. But so does this: Tomlinson just turned 31, and 31-year-old running backs who average 320 carries a season typically wind down by now -- and that, L.T., is why you're living in New Jersey. If you're going to prove the Chargers wrong, please do it quietly.
5. The repair and reconstruction of Ben Roethlisberger's image: So he admitted he was out of control. Great. Now what's he going to do about it? The league is interested, waiting to see if his suspension should be reduced from six games to four. In the meantime, get set for a zillion mea culpas from Big Ben, only it's not what he says that makes a difference; it's what he does. Roethlisberger knows the score, and it's this: One more screw-up, and he's gone from the Steelers. Even Roethlisberger should get that.
Five things I'll miss
1. Colts' training camp at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind.: One of the prettiest and most accessible training camps anywhere. Plus, it was only an hour's drive from the Indianapolis airport. People are friendly, the athletic fields are top notch and there's shade to protect spectators from mid-day heat.
2. Chiefs' training camp at University of Wisconsin-River Falls, Wis.: The athletic fields weren't all that great, but the town was cozy, the South Fork Cafe was terrific and Main Street parking meters took pennies. Plus, it was a half-hour drive from Stillwater, Minn., a gorgeous town that keeps people like me coming back.
3. Kurt Warner: One of the most gracious and professional athletes I've covered ... in any sport. Warner signed autographs. He sat patiently for interviews. He posed with fans for photographs. It's one thing to be an outstanding performer; it's another to excel as a role model for teammates and fans. Warner was both, and he will be missed.
4. Marcus McNeill at left tackle for San Diego: It sure sounds as if he and Vincent Jackson are serious about staying away for a long time. More power to them. All I know is I wouldn't mess with A.J. Smith. The guy may be inflexible, but he gets results: It's on his watch that the Bolts won the past four consecutive AFC West titles.
5. Donovan McNabb in Philly: He always drew a crowd, and he always was the story. When he left the Eagles he put a lot of headline writers out of work and cramped radio talk-show hosts. I mean, without McNabb gone, what is there to complain about? Once upon a time I asked Minnesota defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier when he thought Eagles' fans would appreciate their quarterback. "When he's gone," he said. OK, we're there. Now what?
My five favorite places to pig out
1. The Coal Tower Restaurant, Pittsford, N.Y.: If I lived in this town I'd lease a table here. It's not just the food; it's the experience, and you'll know what I'm talking about if you go to breakfast before a morning practice.
1. (tie) Tav on the Ave and Pagliai's Pizza, Mankato, Minn.: Honestly, I can't think of anywhere I'd rather have a pepperoni pizza than Pagliai's. The pie is great, and the Noon Special is the best deal in town. A whopping $5.50 for a 10-inch pizza and drink. Then it's on to Tav on the Ave for dinner because I can get my Yankees fix while working my way down the left side of the menu. There is nothing about this place that isn't right. It's not the Vikings that keep me coming back to Mankato; it's the Tav.
2. Graney's Pub, Albany, N.Y.: Not sure which is better, the hired help or Todd Brittell's buffalo chicken pizza. Anyway, go there, and you'll know what I'm talking about. When you step inside you'll think you're dreaming. If the 36 TV screens or Todd's pizzas, burgers and wings don't hook you, the wait staff will. Trust me. In my next life I'm applying to the U of Albany and doing my senior thesis on Local Sports Bars and Why I Want to Live in One of Them.
3. Big Dipper Bar-B-Q, Applachin, N.Y.: The Taj Mahal of chicken joints. Without question, it's the best chicken in the country. I mean it. I go out of my way to stop here, and there's a reason: Nobody is supposed to make chicken that's this good. I spent a decade looking for the best chicken place in New York City when the best place in the country was just over three hours away. When I go to the Jets I stay outside Binghamton, and look no further than the Big Dipper for an explanation. It's a short drive down the road.
4. Nuevo Acapulco Restaurant, Berea, Ohio: So you go to Cleveland and order Mexican food, do I have that right? You do if you're at Browns camp. This place is close to the Browns facility, and it's one of the best Mexican restaurants this side of La Pinata in Old Town San Diego. Jeff Schudel of the News-Herald turned me on to this place, and I owe him big time. It's just too bad he didn't clue in LeBron. Maybe it would have kept him from leaving.
Best reason to drive to training camps
Three words -- Sirius Satellite Radio. Tune in to Channel 16's "Deep Tracks," hope you get Michael Tearson as a DJ and pray for something, anything from Todd Rundgren. Tearson this summer played Chain Letter from The Ballad, the first time I heard any DJ anywhere air one of the cleverest cuts from one of the best and most underrated albums. Just as we can't imagine what we did before the Internet and cell phones, I can't remember how I drove to training camps without "Deep Tracks" and Sirius Radio.
Best reason to avoid driving
Three words -- Men Working Ahead. Translation: There will be more congestion ahead than there is in the Washington backfield.