The Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins opened training camp over the weekend. The NFL's other 30 teams will do so by the end of the week. It's finally here, a break from contract coverage and arrest news. And depending on how close the FBI investigation gets to Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, we finally have football things to talk about.
There should be, roughly, a 1,000 or so camp previews popping up around the internet on Monday. Some might even get some oxygen amid all the Royal Baby hot takes. So here's my entry into the training camp preview genre: four questions about four of last year's shittiest teams and a fifth one for the Super Bowl champs. If you, dear readers, had a longer attention span and if I were more ambitious, there'd be more, because there is no end to the list of questions we hope to have answered by September.
Nevertheless, these five things will keep us riveted to training camp and the preseason ... at least until we're sick of that, too, by the middle of August.
Can the Eagles fly without Taco Tuesday?
It sounds like I'm kidding. I'm not. Revamping the team's approach to nutrition, by actually installing nutrition, encapsulates Chip Kelly's effort to remake the franchise. He's erasing the Andy Reid era, one crispy corn shell at a time.
But what everyone really wants to know is what the Eagles offense will look like under Kelly and whether or not it will work. In May, Ron Jaworski, fresh off a binge of Oregon game tape, declared flatly that the Ducks offense would not work in the NFL.
The Eagles will either have Michael Vick, Nick Foles or Matt Barkley at quarterback for Week 1. Foles moves like a wooden statue. Barkley has some quickness, but he isn't a runner. Vick is a threat to run, ergo he's an option quarterback according to the umbrella definition used by NFL media. Vick's rollouts and scrambles with the Falcons were not an "option" offense. His NFL experience has consisted entirely of traditional offenses. More importantly, running Vick 10 times a game, a la the Oregon Ducks, would end his career by the end of the third quarter in the season opener.
Kelly has been tight-lipped about what kind of offense he and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur will run. The early line is that it will be something like the "K-Gun" made famous by Jim Kelly and the Bills. It fits with the repeated shotgun snaps seen this spring at the Eagles' OTAs and particularly the up-tempo, no-huddle philosophy Kelly preaches--muck like the same one his friend Bill Belichick uses with the Patriots.
He does have the personnel to run that. Using Maclin, McCoy, Jackson and a stable of tight ends led by Zac Ertz could give opposing defenses fits. It certainly makes the quarterback battle one of the highlights of training camp and the preseason.
Set aside the Xs and Os for now. For me, labeling the Eagles offense isn't the story. Last week, I talked to SB Nation's own Dan Rubenstein, noted Oregon aficionado, who pointed out that Kelly's biggest strength as a coach was playing to his talent.
When the Eagles start camp next week, when the pads go on, we'll start to get an idea about the offensive system and, more importantly, just what Kelly can do with the kind of talent on his roster.
Kelly's offense is a red herring, a new way of wondering about a successful college head coach with no NFL experience making the jump to the pros. Jim Harbaugh erased some of the doubts and biases about successful college head coaches jumping to the NFL, the Saban-Spurrier paradox. But Harbaugh had plenty of familiarity with the NFL. Ditto Pete Carroll.
And Kelly isn't just quietly slipping into his new gig. He's instituting a massive cultural shift for one of the most scrutinized NFL teams, speeding up practices, removing cherished culinary traditions and putting more urgency into everything they do. Will it work? We're about to find out.
Jets crash coming?
Yes, I'm anxious to see what becomes of the Jets offense. Why? for the same reason you stop to look at a 1978 Crown Vic wrapped around an oak tree: rubbernecking, morbid curiosity.
The Jets offense didn't score a touchdown until the last week of the preseason in 2012, a span of 14 quarters, 37 possessions and 199 snaps. Running back Terrance Ganaway snapped the streak. A few days later he was with the Rams. It was that rare occasion where the preseason did actually foreshadow the regular season.
This year's Jets feel a lot like last year's Jets. Mark Sanchez is likely to start, the roster is thin and dysfunction abounds thanks in part to Rex Ryan's season in purgatory.
The guy to keep your eye on when the Jets open training camp isn't Geno Smith. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, brought in to replace a disastrous Tony Sparano, knows plenty about decaying franchises. He coached the Lions for two years under GM Matt Millen. But he's in New York thanks to his work over the last 10 years with the Eagles.
Mornhinweg's West Coast Offense leans heavily on the pass. He has been known to throw the ball when anyone else would try to run it. Remember how many times the Eagles were throwing the ball at the goal line last year, usually resulting in a turnover?
Passing the ball 35 times a game could be a problem with Mark Sanchez under center. Will Geno Smith be any better as a rookie? Will Rex Ryan push for more balance in play calling?
Can defense boost the Browns?
Cleveland's 5-11 record in 2012 is probably close to what most people predicted this time last year. It was a young team, and one hit hard by injuries. But the Browns defense seemed to reflect a little glimmer of hope through it all, I thought.
After Jimmy Haslam cleaned out the front office, the team hired Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton for the same job in Cleveland. He's leading the switch to a 3-4 from last year's four-man front that had to survive without Phil Taylor most of the season.
The Browns opened up the checkbook when free agency started. They signed Ravens pass rusher Paul Kruger after a breakout nine-sack season for a princely sum of $40 million over five years. They added Desmond Bryant to bolster the defensive line and drafted LSU's Barkevious Mingo in the first round to add to their stable of pass rushers.
It gives Horton enough talent to get creative and aggressive with his pass rush. What I want to see over the month ahead is how the scheme switch works. Changing systems is never as easy as it seems. More importantly, the Browns will rely on that pass rush to compensate for a secondary that has Joe Haden and ... and ... T.J. Ward? The Browns should be a better team this season, but if they're going to need the pass rush to be the real difference-maker if they hope to get to .500 or better.
Remember the Ravens?
It feels longer than a scant six months since the Ravens won the Super Bowl. It may seem like an even bigger gap when you see the team's final 53-man roster, one that will not include Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Anquan Boldin, etc.
You've heard this before. You've been hearing this since the trophy parade engulfed Baltimore. The Ravens are breaking up.
Restocking a football team and carrying on is easier than replacing a drummer or a lead guitarist, like all those post-Lloyd George editions of Little Feat or the strange iterations of Lynryd Skynyrd playing the county fair circuit this summer.
This is where Ozzie Newsome excels as one of the game's best general managers, a founding father of today's football technocrats. He drafted Arthur Brown and Matt Elam to replace Lewis and Reed. He signed Chris Canty, Marcus Spears, Michael Huff and stole Elvis Dumervil in the wake of a fax machine glitch. On paper, this Ravens team might be better.
But chemistry still matters, and the void left by the veterans, especially Lewis, is something to watch as head coach John Harbaugh mounts a defense of his championship.
Who are these Raiders?
In October, it will have been two years since Al Davis left to time 40-yard dashes in the great beyond. Say what you will about Davis, but the Raiders had an identity with him, even if it was marked by futility and stubbornness in the later years.
And who are the Mark Davis Raiders? Well, whatever course they're charting, it's happening without Amy Trask, the elder Davis' chief lieutenant who navigated the dicey waters of Raiders' operations. She looks like a casualty of the team's new identity, which is "don't disagree with Mark Davis." General manager Reggie McKenzie doubtlessly understands that.
Internal politics aside, the Raiders aren't going to be very good this year. McKenzie purged the roster of the team's costly past, but was still hamstrung by the leftover cap implications this year. Will they have a franchise quarterback in Tyler Wilson? More importantly, will we see enough signs of life to keep the whole thing from blowing up this year?