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As TRAINING CAMPS open across the nation, the ever-more-popular NFL is looking at a season like no other

It doesn't matter how many Packers are griping about their contracts, or what little the team did to buttress a 25th-ranked defense, or how much better the other NFC North teams got in the off-season: Football fever is at an alltime high in Green Bay. In March the faithful came from as far as Italy to attend the club's inaugural fan convention. In June the Packers needed all of three hours to sell some 60,000 tickets (at $8 a pop) to Family Night, a combined practice and scrimmage with the Buffalo Bills (plus fireworks afterward) at Lambeau Field this Friday; it took eight weeks to sell out a similar event last year.

To top it off, the NFL Network will televise this glorified workout live. "Locally and nationally, the attention on this league has just exploded," says Packers public relations director Jeff Blumb. "Fox Sports Net just sent out a press release announcing a new NFL show, and I thought, There are more NFL shows than [there are] Packers."

What's going on in Green Bay, the smallest city (pop. 102,313) in the U.S. with a major sports franchise, is typical of the rest of the NFL's cities. Fans are so skeptical of steroids-tainted baseball, so put off by the ego-driven NBA and so indifferent toward the lockout-scarred NHL that they are hungrier for the upcoming NFL season than for any of the previous 85. Pro football, says Chicago Bears receiver Muhsin Muhammad, has "always had two things America loves--it's the ultimate team sport, and it's violent. Now, with the steroid testing we do, fans can trust it's clean. And it's so unpredictable: The 49ers pick [Utah quarterback] Alex Smith Number 1 in the draft, and really, who knows how he's going to turn out? Will he be the next Peyton Manning, or the next Ryan Leaf?"

As training camps opened last week, the fans' surging interest was almost palpable. In Davie, Fla., Miami Dolphins fans packed the bleachers at Nova Southeastern University to watch the second practice of a team that finished 4--12 in 2004. "Damn!" defensive end Jason Taylor said to fellow lineman Kevin Carter. "I haven't seen the stands this full in years." In Oxnard, Calif., summer home of the Dallas Cowboys, golfers clogged the 9th tee of the River Ridge Golf Course, interrupting their rounds to watch the team work out on the adjacent practice fields. At McDaniel College in Westminster, Md., the Baltimore Ravens signed autographs for fans who stood four-deep along the sideline. The line stretched more than half a football field. And in Bourbonnais, Ill., as the Bears were warming up for a practice at Olivet-Nazarene University, a leather-lung roared, "I've been waiting seven months for this day, guys!"

NFL players are well aware, thank you. "We are America's game," Taylor says. "I've felt such a buzz this off-season. Fans couldn't wait to see the game, hear the game."

Off-season? What off-season? For most players pre-camp conditioning runs from mid-March until late June. An increasing number of them have their own regimens, usually under the direction of personal trainers who incorporate unique drills (page 42). Then there are the so-called voluntary programs imposed by the teams. Under new coach Nick Saban, for instance, the Dolphins had players in for 14 weeks of conditioning, three weekends of minicamps and two weeks of on-field and classroom sessions called organized team activities, or OTAs. "As if we didn't have enough," Taylor grouses, "now they add these bullcrap OTAs." But more OTAs means more player bonding--and more media attention.

fifteen years ago NFL owners thought they had a good thing going: Players were tied to their teams for as long as the organization wanted them. Then the rank and file fought hard for free agency, a move that old-time football executives said would be a stake in the heart of the game. "We're not baseball," George Young, the late general manager of the New York Giants, said in the late 1980s. "You can't just plug in a second baseman or a shortstop and go on. We're a game that requires chemistry and teamwork." But after management and the players agreed to unfettered free agency and a salary cap in 1993, something happened: "Hope," says Ernie Accorsi, the current G.M. of the Giants. "Every team in our sport has it now, every year."

Parity, which became part of the legacy of late NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, was taken a step further by his successor, Paul Tagliabue. In no other era of any other sport has there been such a run of teams who in a year's time rose from a sub-.500 season to the title game as there has been in the NFL since the advent of free agency. The Atlanta Falcons went from 10 wins over two seasons to the Super Bowl in 1998. The St. Louis Rams won four games in '98, the Super Bowl the next year. The Giants and Ravens were a combined 15--17 in '99, then met in the NFL title game the next season. The Carolina Panthers went from 1-15 in 2001 to 7-9 in '02 to the Super Bowl a year later.

This season? A check of eight pro football publications turned up eight different preseason Super Bowl matchups. "There's no reason why we can't be the first team to make the Super Bowl [the year it's played in the team's stadium]," says Detroit Lions wideout Roy Williams, referring to Super Bowl XL at Ford Field on Feb. 5. Never mind that the Lions were 6--10 last year and haven't had a winning season since 2000.

"People love great stories," adds Lions quarterback Joey Harrington. "They love players taking pay cuts to stay in New England, and how [the Patriots] have beaten all odds to stay a great team. Ben Roethlisberger comes out of nowhere to revive the Pittsburgh Steelers, and they go, what? Fifteen and one? Terrell Owens brings excitement to Philadelphia, and the Eagles finally go to the Super Bowl. There's so much drama, and you don't know where the next great story's coming from. It's like the anticipation for the next Harry Potter book. What's the new story line?"

in green bay the story line for much of the off-season was wideout Javon Walker's contract woes. After leading the team in catches (89), receiving yards (1,382) and touchdowns (12), Walker said he was unhappy because the Packers wouldn't redo a deal that calls for him to make $515,000 in salary this year, and he threatened to stay out of camp. The issue flared when quarterback Brett Favre criticized Walker in the media, saying the receiver should honor his contract.

So last week, when Walker surprisingly showed up on the first day, he was the big story again. "Pretty weird," he said as he walked off the practice field in Green Bay last Friday. "But people love football. People love drama. I gave them both."


Photographs by John Biever


With scores of fans lining the practice field outside Lambeau last Saturday, the Packers went to work on their passing game. Backup Craig Nall (red shirt) took a turn under center.


Photographs by John Biever


With a combined 23 years of NFL experience, Ahman Green (30) and Favre know the rhythms of training camp.