As we do every week, let’s take a swing around the NFL, looking at a bunch of random things …
So, what’s been up?
1. The trip to Nashville on Friday was interesting, but the thing that left me thinking was the conversation I had with Titans RB Chris Johnson. I was impressed with the back’s speed, and I couldn’t help but travel back to last year. I had questions about how last year even happened. He did show up late after holding out, but was he simply not in shape? And why didn’t it get better during the season, as he had more time to run, get his legs under him, and get used to being in a game? As Johnson explained, being ready to be on the field isn’t something that happens in a couple days. And it’s not a switch you can flip, either. He arrived late, couldn’t get into football shape, and was running uphill to get back. All of which points out how he’s primed for a big year in 2012.
“I was in shape, but I wasn’t in football shape (last year),” Johnson told me. “Like, as much as I worked out in this offseason, I came in, I started in camp, and I’m still not used to it today. I’m still not in football shape. We just started. It takes toward the end of football camp to get in football shape. The thing about it, it wasn’t nothing I can do during football practice during the season get me in football shape. I can go through the games and play in the games, but the games still… the games aren’t as hard as training camp. That’s not going to get you in football shape. Training camp is brutal.”
2. The Cowboys have retooled their defense, hoping to get more pressure on the quarterback and having corners who can play press coverage. That was the thought process behind signing CB Brandon Carr and drafting Morris Claiborne. Based on my days in Oxnard, Calif., Carr looks like the real deal, given how physical he is. But it’s difficult not to be disappointed in how things have worked out for Claiborne. Torn tendons in his wrist knocked him out for the spring, and now a tweaked knee will keep him out a couple days. Nothing to be freaked out about … but it won’t help. As Claiborne himself said, “I can’t have those reps back.” He already was playing catchup, having a tough time with his head swimming with assignments and dealing with Dez Bryant torching him in practice. This is actually what the Cowboys wanted. To throw him in there, force him to tread water, and hopefully quicken his learning curve. But every minor injury, every little speed bump forces him to take a step back, and that’s awful when so much is riding on him. DC Rob Ryan looked at the Joe Haden example from his Cleveland days, with the hope that early playing time helps Claiborne thrive like it did Haden. But Haden didn’t start until more than a month into the season. Will Claiborne be ready to do so? All of which means… the Cowboys may really, seriously need Mike Jenkins healthy.
3. I love a team that’s open with the media, not afraid to speak it’s mind. What reporter wouldn’t? That makes it fun, and a little character never hurt anyone. Still… I don’t understand what Jets CB/WR Antonio Cromartie is doing. Yes, he’s brash and cocky and says what he thinks. But what is the benefit of proclaiming he’s the Jets second-best receiver? For those teammates who already roll their eyes at him, this gives them another reason to do so. And now, whenever the receivers struggle, take a guess who will face the questions? Cromartie. Rex Ryan is doing his best to be proactive in these media brouhahas, but even he essentially is powerless with Cromartie and Holmes. Both players better be worth it on the field. Oh, and here’s the other thing. Cromartie might be right. Aside from Holmes, the Jets don’t have anyone proven at that spot. That’d be the worst thing for that offense … if he’s right. Yikes.
4. I don’t know what to make of Dolphins WR Chad Johnson taking part in the team’s special teams drills this week. I’m sure he’s bored during those drills and wanted to entertain himself, as he’s been known to be a little flighty. And if he really is becoming more of a selfless teammate, volunteering to work as a gunner or punt returner only emphasizes that. But the dude they used to call Ochocinco is also savvy. He knows it’s no sure thing that he makes the roster, even with the way his work in camp has been portrayed through the media. He is 34, he’s coming off his worst season, and he’s having to learn a new offense — which isn’t easy. Why would Ochocinco try his hand at special teams? To make the roster. If he can emerge as a kick returner or punt returner, it makes his spot more secure. If he’s the number one or two receiver (unlikely in my mind), then all is well. If he’s the number three, playing special teams helps. If he’s number four, it could be the difference between making the team and not. It’s hard for a number three receiver, number four cornerback, fifth linebacker, etc., to justify their spot if they don’t play on fourth down. Perhaps Johnson is just trying to make himself more valuable. Call it self-preservation.
5. It’s hard for me to be anything but happy for Cleveland Browns fans this week. They met their new owner, Jimmy Haslam III, and he already sounds different from their previous owner, Randy Lerner. Basically, Haslam sounds pumped. Not sure Lerner ever was. On one hand, Lerner did what an owner needs to do by hiring good football people like Mike Holmgren and letting them run things. But there was never the sense he was engaged. Haslam will be engaged. And the new owner also gets how tied the city is with the team. As he said, “We’re 100 percent committed to making the Browns a winner again. I understand the spirit of the city rises and falls with how the Browns do, and it’s our job to keep it up.” So, all that’s good. The word is that ex-Eagles guru Joe Banner would be part of the executive team, but it’s not clear what role and whether that would leave Holmgren out. But here’s the thing I get left with: The Browns are a sleeping giant. A young, up-and-coming team that has just two winning seasons since it became a team franchise again, the fan base is dying to wrap its arms around it. There are all sorts of untapped revenue available should the team start winning (beginning with stadium naming rights). And when wins do come, that home-field advantage will be serious and real. I’m not sure I could imagine Haslam in a better situation, honestly.
6. One of the strangest camp stories to me is the one surrounding Ravens tackle Bryant McKinnie, who no-showed the opening of camp, had a chiropractor tell the team, and then took a while to pass his conditioning test. Finally, he did pass it, even if he’ll have to lose weight throughout camp, anyway. Oh, and he doesn’t have an agent. Yeah. A couple things here: First of all, I feel for guys in McKinnie’s situation, who pretty much are forced to play because their financial issues are so troubling and they need the money. Investing in a rap label should be banned. The real issue, though, is that McKinnie can be out of shape, not in love with the game, heavy… and he’s still better than most of the game’s left tackles. That’s how talented he is. It puts the Ravens in an awkward situation, because McKinnie knows this, too. He can waltz onto the field and still dominate. But hey, at least Baltimore benefits from a guy who will protect Joe Flacco perfectly. Oddly, it’s a win-win for both sides.
7. Oh, those fighting Patriots. Is anyone else getting a kick out of this besides me? For three years, I watched every Patriots preseason practice. And not only was there not a fight, there wasn’t even a hint of a fight. No one would dare. On the other hand, over the course of those three years, the defense got worse and worse, showing an inability to tackle on a variety of occasions. Now, suddenly, there is talent. They can hit. They can rush. And it sounds like the offensive line is getting pretty pissed. That’s why you hear about LT Nate Solder and C Dan Koppen tossing guys around, igniting skirmishes. It’s cool that Bill Belichick pretends to be upset, and how Tom Brady spoke to the troops. But you know Belichick is amped that his defense is feisty again. That they have a little swagger. The more frustration the offense shows, the more optimism there is about the defense. As for the Patriots offensive line… they’ll be fine. Always are. Brady unloads quick and helps with protection, propping that unit up. There will be no issues going forward.
8. Thank goodness the league and its teams are taking concussions so seriously now. The awareness is heightened, players are starting to know what they are looking for, and if anything, teams are overly cautious. Yet still, there are situations like with Lions RB Jahvid Best, who still hasn’t been cleared. He got a concussion against the 49ers last year, had headaches for two weeks, and now is still on the sidelines. Scary. No wonder teams are looking into players who had concussions as college players while scouting. There is simply no roadmap with any of these terrible injuries. There was so much optimism with Best, but now, everything is in doubt. When he does get cleared, will he run the same? Will he be carefree? How can he be? I wouldn’t be. For the rest of his career, sadly, concussions will be an issue. And for the Lions now, it is a major unanswered question. Makes me wonder why they didn’t draft a running back. Curious.
9. Pretty psyched about the week I got coming up. That run through training camp was fun, and it’s not over. I’ll be in Tampa on Monday to see a regular training camp practice and check in on one of the league’s most promising regimes. And then it’s off to Kansas City for the Cardinals-Chiefs joint practice. I love those, and that’s one assignment I got and literally said, “Yes!” It’s just such a great thing to be able to evaluate a team watching them rumble during individual drills with another team. It’s always intense. Everyone should do this. But later in the week is when things get really good. In Chicago to watch Peyton Manning’s Broncos play the Bears, with all eyes on Manning’s arm. Then off to Indianapolis to watch some QB named Andrew Luck face the Rams on Sunday. Man, it’s all so real. Football teams against other football teams. Camp is great. I love it. But I’m starting to feel the excitement that comes with, ya know, games. Bet I’m not alone.