Last saturdayafternoon, in the stifling humidity of western Pennsylvania, the football fieldat the Steelers' training camp was turned into a proving ground. Time to showwhat you've got, boys. First-year coach Mike Tomlin, dressed head-to-toe inblack, lorded over the workout like Johnny Cash on a Nashville stage. And whatthis man in black wanted to find out was who among these 86 players loved thegame and wanted to play for him the most. ¬∂ In a seven-on-seven drill,involving skill players in a test mostly of pass offense against pass coverage,defenders were supposed to make contact with receivers, but tackling and killshots were not allowed; all players were to be on their feet at the end of eachplay. A few snaps in, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hit wideout Willie Reidover the middle, and almost instantly Reid was leveled by a bone-jarring shotfrom safety Anthony Smith. While the crowd of fans in Latrobe went into afrenzy, Reid popped up and disgustedly threw the ball at Smith's feet; histeammates on offense jabbered at the defense. ¬∂ "What's that prove?"Pro Bowl wideout Hines Ward yelled, walking menacingly toward Smith, asecond-year player. "What's that prove? You want a trophy for that cheapshot?" ¬∂ Smith, who's battling sixth-year man Ryan Clark for the startingfree safety job, approached Ward and yelled back, "It's football! It'sfootball!" A defensive player dragged Smith away, and his mates in thesecondary gave Smith his props. He had violated the rules of the drill, but inthis climate his intensity was not such a bad thing.
"You don'tlike to see shots like that taken," Tomlin said a few minutes later,"but we're developing a mentality, a toughness. Guys here have a lot toprove."
With all 32 teamsreporting to camp last week, the NFL became the land of opportunity. FromFoxborough, where a batch of new receivers led by Randy Moss competed for TomBrady's attention, to San Diego, where Norv Turner took over for fired coachMarty Schottenheimer, the pressure to prove one's worth was felt among theranks of contenders and pretenders alike. And the players' return to the fieldin pads came just in time for a league desperate to make news that didn't haveMichael Vick in the headline. Hope abounds.
Which team--likethe 1999 Rams (from 4-12 to Super Bowl winners) or the 2003 Panthers (fromeight wins in two years to NFC champs)--will be the turnaround story of '07?Sometimes it's a new coach, such as Tomlin, who makes the difference. Othertimes it's a newly added veteran player, perhaps Jamal Lewis of the Browns orMatt Schaub of the Texans or Nate Clements of the 49ers, who changes a team'sfortunes. Sometimes it's a rookie.
Hope would seem tobe in short supply in Buffalo. The Bills are stuck in the AFC East with thethree-time Super Bowl-champion Patriots and the resurgent Jets under coach EricMangini (a.k.a. Mangenius). Buffalo has not been to the playoffs since 1999,and the team has become a way station for players eager to find somewherebetter. In the opening days of free agency two defensive standouts, cornerbackNate Clements and linebacker London Fletcher-Baker, set land-speed records forsplitting town (Clements to San Francisco and Fletcher-Baker to Washington).Leading rusher Willis McGahee was ecstatic about his March trade to Baltimore.The run stopper the Bills acquired in a March deal with the Eagles, defensivetackle Darwin Walker, told Buffalo he wouldn't report without a rich newcontract. The Bills traded him to the Chicago Bears on Sunday, before he eversuited up for Buffalo.
So why was themerchandise tent at training camp in Pittsford, N.Y., swamped under threateningskies last Friday? And why is Buffalo on pace to sell 47,500 season tickets,more than in any season since 1994, the year after the Bills' fourth straightSuper Bowl?
In western NewYork there is hope after all, and the reason is rookie running back MarshawnLynch. He's the first-round pick out of Cal who, in the Bills' system, will getthe chance to fill a LaDainian Tomlinson-like role. Buffalo was one of the fewNFL teams that preferred Lynch to Oklahoma back Adrian Peterson heading intothe draft, and that was mostly because Lynch was a ready-made receiver, wholast season caught 34¬†passes, often split wide or from the slot. Billsoffensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, who coached Marshall Faulk while servingunder Mike Martz in St. Louis, wants his feature backs to be in the Faulkmold--70% runner, 30% receiver.
At his firstpractice last Friday, shortly after signing a five-year, $18.9 million contractthat includes $10.3 million guaranteed, Lynch showed the burst and the softhands that the Bills had paid for. Watching from the sideline as the rookiequickly cut through a hole and sprinted past a cornerback, former Buffaloquarterback Jim Kelly shook his head in respect and said, "Now this guy canrun. He's just what we needed."
From CookieGilchrist to Thurman Thomas, running backs have starred in Buffalo, thanks toan emphasis on the ground game that is part coaching philosophy, partcold-weather necessity. Last year, however, with the discontented McGahee and apatchwork offensive line, the Bills averaged only 3.7 yards per carry (27th inthe league) and struggled to a 7-9 finish. To upgrade the blocking, the clubspent $74¬†million on free agents Derrick Dockery, a guard from theRedskins, and Langston Walker, a tackle from the Raiders.
"I think thisoffense is going to be perfect for me," Lynch said, following his first propractice. "They want the back to sometimes line up in the slot, one-on-onewith a linebacker, or split wide, getting into space--and those are looks Ilove. I've been catching the ball since I was in Pop Warner. I don't evenconsider it the second part of my game. It's who I am."
It's unlikely thatin Fairchild's multiple-formation offense Lynch will touch the ball 400 timesin a season as Tomlinson does. (The seventh-year vet Anthony Thomas should get100 to 125 carries.) But with his explosiveness--as a Cal junior in 2006, heaveraged 6.1 yards per carry and 9.6 yards per reception--and the bulked-upoffensive line, Lynch will get his shot at becoming the versatile back Buffalohasn't had since Thomas in the mid-1990s. He has to make that kind of impactfor the Bills to contend in the AFC East.
Anytime aquarterback is directing a new offense for a new team that has a new coach, thesmallest achievements in his first training-camp practice have meaning. Andlast Saturday morning in Davie, Fla., the summer home of the Dolphins, TrentGreen was pleased--no, thrilled--that in the 36 snaps he took inoffense-versus-defense drills, no player on his side of the ball made a mentalerror. "People are going to hear that and say, 'You mean he's excited justbecause his guys lined up right and ran the right plays?' " Green saidafterward. "But it's the first thing you've got to do on the road to beingsuccessful."
It has been eightyears since Dan Marino retired and left a gaping hole at quarterback in Miami.The successors--Fiedler Feeley, Culpepper--have proved inadequate. And Green,37, acquired from the Chiefs in June for a 2008 fifth-round pick, is hardly asure thing. After suffering a severe concussion in Week 1 last season, hemissed eight games because of headaches and wasn't very efficient after hereturned. Last weekend he pronounced himself "as ready to play as I've everbeen in my career." What's more, the Dolphins have a top¬†five defensethat will help minimize the need for Marino-style heroics. What Miami wants isa quarterback who moves the chains, completes 65% of his throws and doesn'tmake mistakes.
Green was thatcaliber from 2002 through '05, when he connected on 63.4% of his throws andaveraged less than one interception per game. The Dolphins need him to puttogether another season or two like that while first-year coach Cam Cameronschools rookie quarterback John Beck, a second-round pick out of Brigham Young.At the same time Miami wants to take advantage of having end Jason Taylor andlinebackers Zach Thomas and Joey Porter at its defensive core for the one ortwo quality years they will play together.
"From whatI've seen," Cameron said, "[Green's] footwork is as good as it's been,he still gets the ball out quickly, and his accuracy's there." But Greenhasn't been hit yet. The big test could come in Week¬†2, when the Dolphins'inexperienced offensive line goes against the Cowboys--in particular,pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware, who could wreak havoc on Green and Miami'sseason.
"People forgetthat prior to that concussion I started more than 80 games in a row and tooksome pretty good punishment," says Green. "I get hit one time, and allof a sudden I'm fragile? I'm not buying it. I like this situation because I geta chance to prove myself all over again in a new place."
Vacationing at hisregular summer spot in Falmouth, Mass., last week, Colts president Bill Polianwas on his way to a Cape Cod League baseball game when his cellphone rang. Itwas Tarik Glenn, Indy's 31-year-old, three-time Pro Bowl left tackle. "I'mgoing to retire," Glenn said. No more baseball game for Polian.
"It's justanother example of why you have to steel yourself in this day and age,"Polian said last Saturday, "that every year your team is going tochange--and in a meaningful way. We won the Super Bowl on February¬†4, andit seems like on February¬†6 the deconstruction period began. What westrive to do is never be shocked by anything, and to lay the groundwork 12months a year so we're ready when things like this happen."
Certainly PeytonManning is the main reason for the Colts' success in the Polian era. Butanother factor is the consistent and dispassionate way in which Polian movespersonnel. Every year he lets some good free agents go--Edgerrin James in 2006,starting cornerbacks Nick Harper and Jason David this year--and pays theplayers he believes he can't do without. Manning and All-Pro wideout MarvinHarrison got big contracts in 2004, and just before training camp began thissummer defensive end Dwight Freeney signed a six-year, $72¬†million dealthat included a $15¬†million signing bonus and another $15¬†millionoption bonus to be paid in February.
As for Glenn, whohad protected Manning's blind side for 151 of the quarterback's 157 games as apro? "His contract was up next year, and he was continuing to have weightissues that apparently weren't going away," said Polian. That's why he wentmining for a tackle in the 2007 draft and found one he liked: Tony Ugoh ofArkansas, a 6' 5" 305-pounder with two years of starting experience in apro-style offense and the quick feet necessary to play left tackle in the NFL.Problem was, other teams liked Ugoh just as much. So on draft day Polian gaveup next year's first-round pick for the 49ers' second-round pick thatafternoon, the 42nd overall, and snapped up Ugoh. "He's the first player inyears who could play that position and that we could actually get," Poliansaid. Ugoh will compete with second-year tackle Charlie Johnson for the job onthe left side; both will benefit from Manning's quick release, which buys themtime to become familiar with the league's weakside pass rushers.
Over the last fivemonths the Colts have lost--in addition to their durable left tackle and twostarting corners--punishing safety Mike Doss, linebacker and defensive leaderCato June, and valued defensive tackle Montae Reagor. It's Polian's job tocalculate how many hits his team can take and still remain a title contender."The answer at this time of year," he says, "is you just don'tknow."
The pressure is onPolian. It's on Ugoh. It's on Manning. It's August, and even the Super Bowlchamps must face the heat of an NFL summer.
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TEXANS CAMP, HOUSTON He started a mere two games in histhree seasons in Atlanta, but the Texans see quarterback Matt Schaub as anatural leader who can rally a pitiable offense. Schaub broke out his moxieearly in off-season conditioning and impressed starting wideout Andre Johnson.One day after a workout, safety Jason Simmons joked that he would "pick[Schaub] off all day" in practice. "Matt was like, 'You're not going tobe picking off anything,' " Johnson says. "It kind of caught meoff-guard. He was the new guy, but he showed he has confidence in hisgame." Perhaps more important, Schaub, a third-round pick of the Falcons in2004, is winning the confidence of his protectors. "I'm excited about thepossibilities in the passing game," says tackle Eric Winston, "andabout the way he gets rid of the ball." In return, the QB says he has"100 percent" faith in an offensive line that allowed ill-fatedpredecessor David Carr to be sacked 158 times over the last three seasons.Schaub's cool head in the pocket should help, but he's not as mobile as thedeparted Carr, the 2002 No. 1 pick who spent far too much time in Houstontasting the turf. The Texans need new running back Ahman Green to take some ofthe pressure off. "[Schaub] has got a lot on his plate right now," sayscoach Gary Kubiak. "It's the first time he's ever stepped into a huddle fortwo-a-days as a starter of a franchise."
BROWNS CAMP, BEREA, OHIO "A hungry Jamal is a goodJamal," G.M. Phil Savage says of Jamal Lewis, acquired in March after theBaltimore Ravens released him in a cap move. The Browns dangled some tastytreats in front of the eighth-year back: $1.5¬†million in incentives on topof a one-year, $3.5 million deal. The 5' 11", 245-pound Lewis should beeager to feast on the competition, not only because of the incentive money butalso because his performance is likely to dictate whether he'll be getting alonger-term deal in '08. His production dropped after a four-month jail stinton drug charges in '05, but he blames his struggles on a scheme change inBaltimore that often had him in a one-back set. "They were looking more fora pass offense," says Lewis, 27. "I just didn't fit that scheme. So beit. . . . I'm young and fresh and still have a lot in me."
RAVENS CAMP, WESTMINSTER, MD. It's hard to tell who'shappier: the Ravens to have Willis McGahee, or McGahee to be anywhere otherthan Buffalo. The '03 first-rounder rushed for 2,375 yards in his first twoactive seasons with the Bills, but western New York wore on the Miami native,and he in turn wore out his welcome; last year his production dipped to990¬†yards. His reaction to being traded to Baltimore in March for futuredraft picks? Screams of joy. "I thank God for the 990, to tell you thetruth," says McGahee, 25. "I was facing nine guys in the box." Sofar it's been all honeymoon in Baltimore. McGahee's outside speed andpass-catching ability have offensive coordinator Rick Neuheisel drawing up morethree- and four-wide sets. And the new back's swagger fits in well. "Thatsame attitude we have on defense," says linebacker Ray Lewis, "he hason offense."
FALCONS CAMP, FLOWERY BRANCH, GA. First-year coachBobby Petrino most likely won't have to worry about his new quarterback'soff-field conduct--Joey Harrington plays jazz piano in his free time. ButPetrino must be petrified about this: In only one of Harrington's five seasonswith Detroit and Miami has he thrown more TD passes than interceptions. What'smore, since 2003 the Falcons have a .566 winning percentage with Michael Vickstarting and .154 when he's been out. "We're just trying to rally aroundJoey," said tight end Alge Crumpler after the first day of camp.Harrington, the No. 3 pick in '02, knows he can't replace Vick, but he's aquick learner, and Petrino's system, which allows the QB the freedom to makeline calls, could suit him. "It's the complete opposite of [the Lions']West Coast offense," Harrington says, "so I feel great about thisteam."
49ERS CAMP, SANTA CLARA, CALIF. "We didn't think ofthe money," says coach Mike Nolan. "We just wanted a good footballplayer." That's what a decade of futility in the secondary will do--SanFrancisco last ranked in the NFL's upper half in pass defense in '97. And sothe Niners handed an eight-year, $80 million free-agent contract to NateClements, 27, a two-time Pro Bowl corner who's been injury-free over sixseasons. The 6-foot, 209-pound former Bill has charmed teammates with his sunnypersonality ("I enjoy pressure, especially at my position, one-on-one, onthe island," he says) and cover skills. "To look across the way and seeyou're throwing the ball against Nate Clements--you have to be on top of yourgame," says quarterback Alex Smith. A passer expressing his admiration forthe 49ers' secondary? Looks like the investment's already paying off.
JETS CAMP, HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. In seven NFL seasons ThomasJones rarely played to expectations. The 2000 first-rounder underperformed inArizona and didn't break out until his third team, the Bears, drafted CedricBenson in 2005--Jones responded by topping 1,350 total yards in both '05 and'06. Now the Jets, who in March acquired Jones for a second-rounder, want himto play like the premier back he's been for the last two years. For their sakehe'd better: Just last week Curtis Martin retired and Cedric Houston left theteam. Coach Eric Mangini is counting on Jones to strike some fear intodefenses, enabling quarterback Chad Pennington to exploit the play action."Anytime you have an effective running game, that play action has so muchmore pull," says Mangini. For that to happen the Jets will have to see theThomas Jones who lives up to expectations.
PATRIOTS CAMP, FOXBOROUGH, MASS. Lost in the excitementabout a hyper-upgraded receiving corps --Moss! Stallworth! Welker!--is this:The Patriots' passing game was the AFC's fifth-best last season. While the Dalso ranked fifth, the unit was sometimes exposed, particularly afterlinebacker Junior Seau suffered a broken arm in Week¬†12. New Englandallowed 13.1 points per game up until then and 21.0 afterward. In response, thePats swooped in for free-agent linebacker Adalius Thomas, the 6' 2",270-pound former Raven who emerged as football's most versatile defensiveforce, playing not only as a linebacker in Baltimore but also as a lineman,safety and even corner. "I don't have a preferred position," saysThomas. "Whatever is needed of me, I do." With Slash in the fold, it'slikely that opponents will find fewer holes in the Patriots' defense.
"Every year your team is going to change--and in ameaningful way," says Polian. "What we strive to do is NEVER BE SHOCKEDby anything."
Photograph by Michael J. LeBrecht II/1Deuce3 Photography
Roethlisberger (7) was in the line of sight for eager pass rushers, who wereallowed to chase--but not hit--the Pittsburgh quarterback.
LT to be?Operating behind a rebuilt line in a running-back-friendly offense, Lynch will get a chance to put up big numbers.
Ugoh will contend for the vital role of protecting the Colts' most valuableasset: their future Hall of Fame QB.
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