Primed for a whirlwind excursion
In an ideal world, I'd like to find a way to squeeze 15 teams into a 12-day training camp tour.
Things might not break right on my trip, which starts Sunday at the Cleveland Browns' camp, but I will see at least 12 teams. By Monday afternoon, I'll have seen the Browns, Buffalo Bills and New York Jets. With the Jets practicing Monday morning and the Bills nearby with an afternoon practice, I can see three rebuilding AFC teams in a 24-hour period.
It would be nice to slip into Detroit on Tuesday, but the timing might not work, so the next stop would be Anderson, Ind., to see the Indianapolis Colts. Next Thursday will be adventurous. I can watch the Chicago Bears practice in the morning and rush south to catch the St. Louis Rams for an evening practice.
That frees up that Friday for a trip to see Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs. The final week of the trip will be efficient. I can see the Cincinnati Bengals practice against the Atlanta Falcons for two days. After that, I'm off to Philadelphia to watch the Eagles practice against the New England Patriots with a chance to drive up the New Jersey Turnpike to see the New York Giants.
Here are the 10 things I'm eager to see:
1. How the fast-paced offenses will work this season. The Bills, Eagles and Patriots will provide a preview of some of the fast-paced offenses expected to rock the league this fall. The Patriots used some of the University of Oregon's running offense last year and were able to get off 74.4 offensive plays per game. The Eagles are expected to be at the forefront of the hurry-up change. Chip Kelly cranks up the music and lets his quarterbacks call plays at a pace that is supposed to exhaust defenses. The Patriots-Eagles dual practices will be the highlight of the trip.
2. Seeing three of the four main quarterback battles. This quick trip gives me a chance to catch the early stages of quarterback battles. That's why I wanted to stop by the Jets to see whether Geno Smith is ready to compete against Mark Sanchez. Everyone around the Jets anticipates that Sanchez will win the job. Smith struggled in minicamp getting the plays called because the West Coast offense is a tough scheme from which to pick up the calls and bark them out to the rest of the offense. The battle between Kevin Kolb and EJ Manuel should be interesting to see in Buffalo. Then the trip closes with the three-way Eagles battle among Michael Vick, Nick Foles and Matt Barkley. The only battle I'm missing is the Blaine Gabbert-Chad Henne competition in Jacksonville.
3. Checking out some of the new coaches. Eight teams have new head coaches for 2013, and this trip gives me the chance to see five of them. Kelly is the wild card. His new offense is one of the biggest mysteries to be revealed in the NFL in years. Doug Marrone is expected to bring his version of a fast-paced offense to Buffalo. With a young receiving corps, the Bills have a little bit of a buzz to the franchise. Seeing Marc Trestman at Bears camp will also be a highlight. He was brought in to improve the play of Jay Cutler and help the franchise decide whether it wants to give Cutler a huge pay increase. And then there's Reid. With some of the recent problems AFC West rival Denver is facing, the Chiefs might have the best chance to improve by five or six games. This isn't a 2-14 team in terms of talent. The Chiefs have five starters on defense with Pro Bowl experience. They have Dwayne Bowe, Jamaal Charles and Alex Smith on offense. Plus, Reid is a winner. Last year, I came out of Cleveland with a good review of the Browns' young talent, but they had an ownership change and now have Rob Chudzinski as the head coach. With him is offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who could help Brandon Weeden improve in his second year.
4. Seeing whether the Bengals are ready to take over the AFC North. I couldn't squeeze in trips to Pittsburgh and Baltimore this summer, but those franchises are always solid and always contenders. The Bengals are the most intriguing team in the division. On paper, they might be the best team. Andy Dalton has taken them to the playoffs the past two years, but they have no postseason victories. But this roster is loaded at wide receiver and tight end. It is loaded with pass-rushers. On top of that, the Bengals have two of the hottest assistant coaches in football -- Jay Gruden on offense and Mike Zimmer on defense. Both will be stars on HBO's "Hard Knocks." For two days, I'll see them matched up against a Falcons team that is ready to advance to the Super Bowl.
5. The impact of Pep Hamilton on Andrew Luck. Bruce Arians did the best coaching job in football last year. He earned NFL Coach of the Year honors filling in for Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis and did amazing things with rookie quarterback Luck. Luck helped the Colts win 11 games and make the playoffs. But his completion percentage was 54.1 because Arians had him make more long throws downfield than anyone else in football. Hamilton, who was at Stanford with Luck and is the Colts' new offensive coordinator, is going to work on efficiency. He'll have Luck work on shorter drops and easier routes. It wouldn't surprise me if Luck ends up completing better than 60 percent of his passes in Hamilton's system.
6. Seeing the new Sam Bradford. In some of my trips to St. Louis, I've felt sorry for Bradford. He's a talented quarterback who has operated without much talent on offense. That has changed. The Rams are loaded with quick, explosive receivers. Tavon Austin was the most exciting selection in the 2013 draft. Is he Percy Harvin? Is he DeSean Jackson? Bradford now has a stable of receivers who can turn short passes into explosive plays.
7. Defenses converting to the 3-4 scheme. Conversion to the 3-4 isn't easy. I'll get an early look at whether changing to a 3-4 is the right move for the Browns, Bills and Eagles. As Arizona's defensive coordinator, Ray Horton inherited a 3-4 scheme and added some of the looks he knew from his days as an assistant in Pittsburgh. The Browns brought Horton in this year, paying him about $2 million annually, to put the Steelers' defense in Cleveland. In the Mike Holmgren days running the Browns, the team was doing a good job drafting to a 4-3 scheme. The first stop in my trip will gauge whether the Browns are on the right track for the 3-4. I thought the Bills were wise getting out of the 3-4 last year, but they didn't blitz out of the 4-3 and now they are going back to a 3-4. The Eagles are going to be hybrid, but it appears the 3-4 will be their base defense.
8. Checking out the Giants' defense. Because of the salary cap, the Giants have had a lot of changes. Osi Umenyiora is gone. They let Chris Canty go to Baltimore. And quick, who are the starting linebackers for Tom Coughlin's Giants? David Wilson takes over at halfback for Ahmad Bradshaw. Is he ready? The Giants might be the best team in the NFC East, but they have plenty of questions. A quick trip to New Jersey could provide some answers.
9. Are the Falcons Super Bowl bound? After going to a few Falcons games in the Georgia Dome last year, it was easy to see the Falcons were ready to be Super Bowl contenders. Matt Ryan continues to evolve as one of the game's best quarterbacks. The team is loaded on offense. I can't wait to see how the Bengals' corners do against Roddy White and Julio Jones. Steven Jackson was the perfect addition for the Falcons' offense. I don't know whether they can get to 13 wins, but they are definitely in the Super Bowl hunt.
10. Seeing whether Tom Brady needs his receivers to wear nametags. If things weren't bad enough for Brady, Julian Edelman started camp on the physically unable to perform list. That means the Patriots start camp without their top seven pass-catchers from 2012. Brady starts camp with players who caught only 26 of his 402 completions last year. That's a 93.5 percent turnover. Ouch. The dual practices against the Eagles will give a preview of whether the Patriots need to be more of a running team this year.