|How quickly does Robert Griffin III grasp Washington's complex offense? (Getty Images)|
The flights aren't yet all booked and the hotel rooms aren't quite locked in, but I'm already counting down the days until I hit the trains, planes and automobiles to make my way around NFL training camps. We're less than three weeks away, people, and another looong, strange offseason is nearly complete (over/under, anyone, on how many more lawsuits and motions filed before veterans start reporting?).
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There are so many delicious subplots to this season, so many looming questions that need to be answered about teams and players alike. As I pored over training camp practice schedules and preseason matchups and perused some flight schedules, as well, I couldn't help but romanticize about the return of football a bit, with a gleam in my eye, fired up about the possibilities.
And, with the Fourth of July now behind us, and camp reporting dates creeping up, what better time to share some of what I'm most excited to see up close and personal in only a few short weeks.
|RG3 is No. 1|
All eyes will be on the Heisman Trophy winner from the moment he's first under center. And I'll be there to see it from the start. Wouldn't miss this one. (Full disclosure, as a native of the Baltimore area, sure, geography plays at least some role in the decision to kick off my journeys here, but as you'll see I'm making a point to see a lot of this talented rookie).
How quickly will he grasp an offense that some in the Redskins staff would have you believe Donovan McNabb never could or would? Does Griffin quickly take some of the heat off the father/son coaching duo of Mike and Kyle Shanahan? Do they have enough weapons and protection for him? How elusive will he be on all those bootlegs, and can he hold up to the beating he might take?
Especially coming off Cam Newton's monumental rookie campaign from 2011, Griffin might be held to some unfair expectations, but fewer young players in the league will command more immediate attention. I'll be in Buffalo to check out his first preseason game as well, and will make sure I'm at FedEx Field for another one of his exhibition games (more on that later).
|Manning in blue ... and orange|
It's going to be pretty wacky seeing ol' No. 18 in anything other than the uniform Johnny Unitas made famous. It's gonna look weird to see a horse head and not a horseshoe on the side of his helmet. It will take some time for it to sink in and not seem out of place.
I can only image the atmosphere that will await him at Mile High when he takes the field for a preseason tilt against the Seahawks. It will be his first home game since what certainly seemed like the most unusual free-agent courtship ever, and let us not forget that it was in Denver where Seattle brass, including coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider, were rebuffed in their impromptu attempt to woo Manning during his initial visit with the Broncos. Oh, the irony (OK, it's not quite irony, but is a little quirky).
Everything Manning does will be interesting. How much zip on the ball? Is he favoring old pals like Jacob Tamme and Brandon Stokley? Can't wait to check this out from the press box, and I suspect, since it's the second preseason game, that Manning ends up playing half the contest.
|Two days, if not two-a-days|
So the new CBA pretty much kills two-a-days as we knew them, but that won't prevent me from spending at least two days with one particular team. Can you guess which one?
OK, a few hints. The backup quarterback could probably sell out a football stadium if he decided to do a sermon. The starting quarterback was getting verbally steamrolled by teammates down the stretch last season. The head coach has finally stopped declaring Super Bowls, but remains firmly on the hot seat. Oh, and at any point, the star corner could decide that another holdout is in order.
Um, yeah, two days in Cortland, N.Y., sounds about right. Lord knows what will happen in Jetsland while I am there. This team is in the crosshairs, and the locker room could get explosive again. One day just isn't enough. Tim Tebow completes a two-minute drill in shells and Mark Sanchez throws a few picks to his teammates, and look out. The back pages of the tabloids will never be the same.
|Dream Team nightmare is over?|
I suspect a very different vibe awaits at Eagles camp this summer. More contrite and restrained. Vince Young's innocent yet provocative (at least to the media) intimation about Philly having a dream team seems long ago. That free-agent flurry was a while back now, Young is fighting for a backup job in Buffalo now, and Mike Vick comes into camp fresh off his honeymoon.
The glare should be off the Eagles some, and a more relaxed -- OK, Andy Reid is still running the show, so relaxed is too strong a verb, but you catch my drift -- and less strained environ would do this bunch some good. Nnamdi Asomugha will be answering some tough questions, but the rest of the remaining 2011 free-agent class more than earned its keep and the Eagles could be primed for big things this season with DeSean Jackson and Shady McCoy both now locked up long term.
|Brady to Lloyd|
It has been a while since Tom Brady had a legit deep threat to connect with, really since Randy Moss was in his prime. But Brandon Lloyd, as long as he stays focused and avoids his tantrums, could change everything. And I have a hard time thinking he falls back into any bad former habits on Bill Belichick's watch.
Lloyd is a burner and he knows how to get beyond the safeties, even in Cover 2. And given New England's tight ends and weapons between the hash marks, Lloyd will get some room to roam. I'll spend a good bit of my time with the Patriots to see how these two dudes are interacting between series, off to the side. If they hit it off right away, and coordinator Josh McDaniels is just the guy to facilitate that relationship, then look out. Lloyd could end up being a free-agent steal.
|A new Suh?|
A year ago, I was in Detroit's camp right as Ndomakong Suh was embroiled in his latest controversy, at least up until that point, facing league discipline for a preseason transgression. Teammates and coaches were peppered with questions about whether he was a dirty player. Suh, himself, was fairly indignant through it all.
I'll try to get a sense if he has been humbled some by all the events of last season, including his Thanksgiving outburst and subsequent suspension. An attitude adjustment is in order, and some more realistic self-perspective about some of his antics. For a team dealing with a litany of off-field, offseason issues, getting Suh in the right mindset would be huge, as these young Lions are now burdened with some expectations.
|1 vs. 2|
I mentioned awhile back about not being done with RG3 just yet. Well, in the all-important third week of the preseason, I'll be sure to catch him square off with Andrew Luck, the Colts' first-overall selection. Let's not kid ourselves, a rivalry already exists here, and these two will always be compared to one another, just as Philip Rivers and Eli Manning, or Peyton, and, gulp, Ryan Leaf.
These two kids will always be linked together, and they're smart and savvy enough to know it. They're also hypercompetitive. Griffin wanted to be first overall, and thinks he should have gone first overall, and will be out to prove it. Sure, it's only an exhibition game at the end of the day, but on the afternoon of Aug. 25, there is nowhere I would rather be.
After checking out RG3 one last time, I'll be able to shoot up I-95 to cram in a look at Cam Newton. As anyone who has paid attention to this column could tell you, I'm beyond bullish on Newton and believe he will continue to redefine his position. He can do everything, and I bet he gives the never-boring Jets fits in this primetime tuneup (team speed on defense is not a New York hallmark).
Newton is as explosive as anyone in the game and, remember, this is his first real offseason -- the lockout changed everything a year ago. On the other end of the spectrum, I'll also see if Blaine Gabbert is making any baby steps for the Jaguars this same week, as he faces a Ravens defense that had him looking gun shy at times on a Monday night last season in Jacksonville. If Chad Henne beats up on soon-to-be cut defenders on the second team as I expect he will, then he could be nipping at Gabbert's heels sooner rather than later (I'll also squeeze in Falcons at Dolphins this week to hit at least four games in as many days).
Brandon Marshall has worn out his welcome relatively quickly before, most recently in Miami despite catching a lot of balls from middling quarterbacks. I'm waiting a few weeks to peek in on the Bears to see how the adjustment to his new surroundings is going, and what the buzz is around him. With his relationship with Jay Cutler and Jeremy Bates, expectations will be high and Bears fans are desperate for a true weapon at wide receiver.
I'm also waiting a bit on the Bears, because should Matt Forte still be staying away, this could be a particularly interesting camp. Chicago's offense, with Mike Martz gone and Mike Tice now in charge, will have a very different look, and running back holdouts have a way of impacting the player and team long after the runner returns (see Johnson, Chris, Titans, 2011).
|All bulls on parade?|
Speaking of waiting on teams, I'm going to hold off on hitting Houston until after the Texans break camp in hopes their health luck improves. A year ago, the injuries started early and never really stopped. They can't be that unlucky again, right?
It should be more of Schaub to Johnson and not Yates to Jones; Yates should be back to holding a clipboard, and that defense is only getting better. This has the makings of one of the more balanced teams in the NFL, and, finally playoff tested, you have to like their chances of being a true Super Bowl threat ... if healthy. No better place to wrap up a preseason tour.