Downtime brings tense times
Pre-training camp break gives general managers, coaches reason to be nervous
Though it may be hard to believe, roughly a third of the league's teams went on vacation late last week or over the weekend.
Most training camps open in the final days of July. For players, it's a needed break. For some coaches and general managers, it's six to seven weeks of sweating, fearing players will get in trouble or out of shape.
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Ravens coach John Harbaugh was forced to break a little earlier than expected. His meetings went too long and some players turned him in to the league. The Ravens lost two days of work last week, but Harbaugh can rest. He has a top defense loaded with veterans, and quarterback Joe Flacco had a great offseason working with a more talented receiving corps.
Some teams closed with quarterback debates silenced. Denver's Josh McDaniels picked Kyle Orton over Brady Quinn and Tim Tebow. No surprise there. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is leaning toward starting Byron Leftwich during Ben Roethlisberger's four-to-six-game suspension. No surprise there. The Steelers need a more experienced quarterback than Dennis Dixon to get through a tough September schedule. Browns coach Eric Mangini is leaning toward starting veteran Jake Delhomme.
Vikings coach Brad Childress caused the biggest stir at the close of his team's offseason work. First, he called out halfback Adrian Peterson for attending a day in his honor in Palestine, Texas, instead of Vikings minicamp. It was the fourth annual Adrian Peterson Day, but it was Childress' first public protest. Childress stirred things up even more by moving sixth-round pick Joe Webb ahead of veteran Sage Rosenfels in the quarterback rotation as offseason work concluded.
The Eagles, Cowboys, Colts and Cardinals closed quietly. Ken Whisenhunt seems to be pleased with Matt Leinart and how he handled this offseason as Arizona's starting quarterback. Eagles coach Andy Reid's biggest concern is the health of starting center Jamaal Jackson, who probably will start the regular season on the physically unable to perform list. The Colts have a long list of injuries, but they have a healthy Peyton Manning. The Cowboys couldn't be more thrilled with the play of wide receiver Dez Bryant.
From the inbox
Q: The Cowboys did not address their need at safety. Will that have a major effect on their defense?
Justin in Jacksonville, Fla.
A: It's still too early for me to pick Super Bowl teams, but I'm leaning toward favoring the Cowboys in the NFC. A year ago, during my training camp tour, I thought the Vikings were the most talented team in the league. They were an interception away from going to the Super Bowl. This year, I think the Cowboys could have the edge in talent, regardless of what is going on at safety. I think they are loaded on defense. The offense is loaded with the development of Miles Austin and the addition of Dez Bryant.
Doug in Iowa wonders whether the Vikings could move to Los Angeles, and whether the Rams could be swapped into the NFC North and the Los Angeles Vikings could be in the NFC West. That would be the easiest solution. What Minnesota must do is find a way to keep the Vikings, and that has to be done with a new stadium. To Kevin in Toms River, N.J., the Giants didn't make a move for a middle linebacker because they weren't in position to get Rolando McClain and possibly because they think they can get by with Jonathan Goff and others. They made a similar gamble at the wide receiver position after they lost Plaxico Burress, but I think this might be a more dangerous gamble. Kalen in Kodiak, Alaska, wonders how Seattle's shuffling of running backs impacts Justin Forsett. I don't see him as the starter because I'm not sure he's going to be durable enough, but I think he'll end up with about 125 carries in a shared position. Kyle in Arlington, Va., offered his take on what has been a regular topic over the past few weeks. He wonders why the Sunday networks -- Fox and CBS -- have so many 1 p.m. ET games and so few 4 p.m. games. You have to remember that the league is designed to appease the fans in the stands more than the fans at home watching the games. The home crowds prefer the 1 p.m. starts. That's why there are more. Joey in Fort Mills, S.C., wants an update on the Panthers' quarterback battle. The organization wants to give Matt Moore the starting job. I still predict Jimmy Clausen will eventually beat him out, but it might take a few weeks into the season for that to happen. I'd start him in the opener if it's a tie in training camp. Mike is a loyal Packers fan in St. Francis, Minn., and is annoyed by talk that the Packers are ready to take back the NFC North. He doesn't think Aaron Rodgers is a top-five quarterback. I'd say Rodgers is clearly in the top 10 and rising, and the Packers are catching up to the Vikings, who are getting older. But it's still Brett Favre's division until proven otherwise. Gerard in Maryland wants an explanation about the shortening of the Ravens' OTAs. I guess you could say there is a similarity to the University of Michigan's problems, but about eight players were tied up in meetings too long and one of the players turned in the Ravens. The difference is Ravens players like coach John Harbaugh despite turning him in. In Michigan, that might be a different story among the players. Jake in McLean, Va., can't figure out why Daunte Culpepper, with an 87.8 career quarterback rating, is on a UFL roster instead of a team such as the Bengals as a backup. Most teams consider Culpepper a starter more than a guy coming off the bench. To play, Culpepper had to go to the UFL. Justin in Sacramento, Calif., supports Marshawn Lynch in the three-way battle for the Bills' starting halfback position, thinking he can return to form. I think it's pretty clear they would like to showcase him for a trade and use Fred Jackson as the starter and C.J. Spiller as the Reggie Bush-type back. Josh of Duncan, Okla., wants the NFL to expand the playoffs and add a seventh playoff team in each conference. Be patient. The league will soon go to 18 games, and when it does, it will expand the playoffs. Rashad in Richmond, Va., wants a Donovan McNabb contract update. I expect an extension to be announced sometime this month, maybe this week. Terry in Boulder, Colo., raises a good point. He cites my complaints about coaches who change schemes instead of adjusting their schemes to the players on a roster. He notes how Mike Tomlin, a Cover 2 defensive coach, stayed with the 3-4 and earned a Super Bowl ring. There should be more of that. It takes years to build up defensive personnel for a particular scheme. Good call, Terry.
Q: Do you think the Titans have a real shot at going deep in the playoffs this season?
Taylor in Arkansas
A: I question whether the Titans have the passing offense to go deep into the playoffs. Although I'm a big believer in Vince Young as a leader of an offense, I'm still not sold that he can get into a passing shootout with some of the best quarterbacks in the league, and that's what it's going to take for the Titans to go deep into the playoffs. The Colts still have the team that should win the AFC South, but that leaves a wild-card spot for maybe the Titans or Texans. The Texans have the league's toughest schedule, so it might be hard for them to get to 10 wins. For the Titans, they would have to find the right playoff matchups to win a game or two.
Q: I would like to add my opinion(s) to this ongoing debate about elite quarterbacks. I like Joe Flacco and some other quarterbacks that you consider elite, but the problem I have is when the elite status is granted. Your criteria is great, but you didn't include consistency and/or longevity in it. I think elite status should be given after an extended period of time.
Maurice in Merrillville, Ind.
A: Your point is well taken, but sometimes it doesn't take a lot of time to determine that a very good quarterback is elite. I had Jay Cutler as an elite quarterback after the 2008 season, when he threw for more than 4,500 yards, but removed that status last season. I didn't give Matt Schaub elite status until last season, when he threw for 4,770 yards. I guess the criticism is more in regard to Flacco and Matt Ryan, but in my eyes, it was clear that these two were elite even as rookies. Sometimes, you have to make a projection. Once you saw the class of 2004 -- Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers -- start to perform, it wasn't long before you could project them as budding elite quarterbacks.
Q: With the Kansas City Chiefs getting new coaches such as Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel and a couple of better players in the draft, what are the chances of them making the playoffs this year?
James P in Houston
A: Playoffs, no. Better team, yes. Weis' biggest challenge is squeezing more points and yards out of this offense. Matt Cassel proved in New England he can be a solid quarterback who's capable of taking a team to the playoffs if he is surrounded by the right talent. I'm not sold he has enough yards-after-the-catch wide receivers at the moment. Weis can try to scheme a lot of things to get more yards after the catch, but Cassel can't make up for his lack of downfield arm strength. He doesn't have a strong arm. As you remember, Trent Green didn't have the strongest arm, but his strong supporting cast made the offense work. On defense, the Chiefs will be better, particularly with Crennel calling the plays. They will be better this season, and you might see a playoff run in 2011.
Q: With all of Cincinnati's new receiving threats (Antonio Bryant, Jordan Shipley, Dezmon Briscoe and TE Jermaine Gresham), how will the team balance it with the talents of RBs Bernard Scott and Cedric Benson?
Danny in Cincinnati
A: Great question, but for the Bengals, it's a good problem to have. That's why Carson Palmer called out Chad Ochocinco last week to get to camp because so much has changed in the passing offense and they needed Ochocinco there to catch up. The interesting part of this season will be the balancing act. Last year, the passing offense lost speed and had to lean on the running attack. I'll watch them in practice this week and get back to you with a report.
Q: When my Saints drafted OT Charles Brown right after winning the Super Bowl with Jermon Bushrod, it seemed clear to me that Jammal Brown would be traded. Do you agree? If so, who would want him and what do you think he's worth? He's been injured a few times, but he's also been to two Pro Bowls at a vital position.
Will in New Orleans
A: The Saints clearly drafted Charles Brown to potentially be the long-term answer at left tackle. That might take some time, but it's clear Jammal Brown's days are numbered in New Orleans. He's on a one-year tender and won't be retained after the season, if he even makes it through this season. The Saints tried to trade him, but they never got offered value. The best chance they had was in the first hour of the draft. Had the Redskins not taken Trent Williams, Brown was the second option in a trade. Williams was available at No. 4, so no trade was needed. If I were the Saints, I'd keep in touch with the Bills. If things don't work out at left tackle for the Bills, Jammal Brown would be a viable option.
Q: Seems to me everybody has it in for my Browns. I believe the Browns will surprise a lot of people this year. How many games do you see them winning?
John in Dayton, Ohio
A: Honestly, I think six wins is about the best they can do. To get more than six wins, they would have to win multiple games in the division, and that's where the problem is. The Ravens, Bengals and Steelers have more firepower on offense along with good defenses to make it tough to think the Browns can do any better than 1-5 in the AFC North. If they go 0-6 in division games, they would have to go 6-4 in non-division games, which will be tough. Running the ball and playing decent defense doesn't get you as far in this pass-crazy league nowadays. Nobody "has it in'' for the Browns. They've been rebuilding since 1999. They've made so many changes that it's hard to move forward. Mike Holmgren will move this franchise forward, but it's going to take a little more time.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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