The halfway point of my training camp tour seems like an appropriate time to reflect upon what I've seen and heard first-hand, along with what has been taking place at other NFL camps.
Here's a look at several items that grabbed my attention:
» The New Orleans Saints' defense is determined to pull itself out of the shadow created by one of the league's most explosive offenses.
The Saints' defenders fully understand that they wouldn't have their Super Bowl rings without the efforts of Drew Brees and the rest of their incredibly prolific passing game. However, they arrived at camp feeling the need to do something about the fact that the only props they received on the way to winning it all were for leading the NFL in scoring and ranking second to Green Bay in takeaways. That's how it is when your other defensive rankings are so bad (25th overall, 21st against the run, and 26th against the pass).
"We feel as if we didn't get a lot of respect in that department," veteran end Will Smith said. "We have a high-powered offense, but the defense played our part, too. We kind of got overshadowed by the offense, which is fine by us. But we don't only want to be recognized as the defense that's just hanging on to win the games. I don't think anybody who played us felt that way, but it was just kind of the perception with the media because our offense is so great.
"We gave up a lot of yards because we had the lead a lot of times, so teams were forced to do a lot of things out of the norm (to try and score quickly), and we gave up a lot of yards. Our goal going into this season is to kind of limit the yardage and to be No. 1 in all statistical categories, not just turnovers and big plays and all that other stuff. That's great, too, but we want to be No. 1 in the run, No. 1 in the pass ... No. 1 in everything."
A strong case could be made that Dumervil was the best player the Broncos had at any position. He didn't merely lead the NFL with 17 sacks last season. He provided a pass-rushing terror that new defensive coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale planned to utilize in a variety of ways as part of the more aggressive, turnover-minded philosophy that he is instilling. Dumervil's combination of strength, quickness and low center of gravity consistently makes him a nightmare for most opposing offensive tackles.
Given the many question marks the Broncos have on offense and at other defensive positions, Dumervil's loss has the potential to do considerable damage to the team's hopes -- which might not have been particularly high anyway.
By all accounts, Williams is physically and mentally ready to redeem himself for the promising NFL career that never materialized after the Detroit Lions made him the 10th overall pick of the 2005 draft. He literally ate his way out of the league by ballooning up to a reported 270 pounds with Tennessee in 2007. After shedding about 35 pounds, he's doing his best to show the Seahawks that they could have an impact player in the red zone.
Given his history, however, Williams is going to need to keep pushing full throttle to make this second chance count.
» Ugly. Awful. Those were the words that kept floating around inside my head as I watched the performance of the Buffalo Bills' quarterbacks in practice.
I have no idea if this thought has crossed the mind of general manager Buddy Nix or coach Chan Gailey or anyone else in the Bills' hierarchy. But if that were my team, I'd be looking high and low for a legitimate NFL passer because right now that team does not appear to have one.
Gailey has made a mostly favorable impression with what he has said and done during his first camp at the Bills' helm. His practices are crisp and (except for what the quarterbacks show) mostly efficient. He has the team hitting frequently in full pads, something his predecessor, Dick Jauron, kept to a minimum.
Gailey has a strong presence as a teacher and leader, and communicates effectively with his players and the public.
» I'm not saying it's time for the Arizona Cardinals to panic, but is anyone truly stunned that Matt Leinart struggled during a scrimmage over the weekend?
It has been made fairly clear by coach Ken Whisenhunt that Leinart was no lock as the successor to Kurt Warner, even though he would have the best chance to win the No. 1 job. Derek Anderson was never viewed as a genuine threat, and by most accounts, he hasn't been.
No one is expecting Leinart to be Warner, one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the game. Yet, this preseason is supposed to be about Leinart demonstrating that the Cardinals at least have a competent starter. Granted, it was only one scrimmage, but Whisenhunt and his offensive coaches are using it as a piece of an evaluative puzzle that can't be all that comforting at this point.
» On a purely business/football basis, it makes all of the sense in the world for Houston Texans owner Bob McNair to go to bat for Brian Cushing and try to convince commissioner Roger Goodell to drop the four-game suspension he gave the linebacker for testing positive for human chorionic gonadotropin.
But this goes beyond business and football. McNair has a tremendous affinity for Cushing. It isn't an overstatement to say that he views the 2009 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year as a cornerstone player -- as someone whose exuberance and toughness he would love to be able to bottle and serve to the rest of the players on the team.
Given that, it's no surprise that Cushing has been able to convince McNair that the hCG found in his system during testing was the result of "overtrained athlete syndrome." The condition, Cushing explained to reporters, is that when he overtrains and then stops, the hCG naturally produced by his body elevates to a high enough level to result in a positive test.
I'll leave it to people who are a whole lot smarter than me to determine if that's a valid explanation. But I can't recall another owner being so determined to come to the defense of one of his players who, at least for the time being, has run afoul of the rules ... particularly at a time when tensions between players and management are as high as they've been in recent memory because of the uncertainty on the labor front.
» One of the biggest thrills of my visit to Canton over the past several days was getting to sit next to Cowboys Hall-of-Fame defensive tackle Bob Lilly in the press box during Sunday night's preseason opener. Lilly was a childhood hero, and one of several reasons I became an NFL fan. At 71, he looks in tremendous shape, with a thick head of hair and the chiseled features that made him one of the most identifiable players in the game. As he and his wife watched the Hall of Fame Game, they studied the rosters and made mention of some of the few noteworthy plays made by his former team and the Cincinnati Bengals. At one point, they could be heard marveling over some of the height and weight listings, which is understandable because NFL players have gotten considerably larger than they were from 1961 to 1974 when Lilly (listed at 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds at the time) played. Still, as someone who grew up viewing him as one of the biggest and most dominant players of his era, it was hard seeing Lilly watch a game that didn't look quite the same as when he was a pillar of the "Doomsday Defense."
» So I walk into this Italian restaurant in Metairie, La., where the Saints train, and the first thing I notice under a glass case near the entrance is a long snake -- curled around a plastic bag of uncooked pasta -- that I presume is dead. To the left of the snake is an alligator -- curled around another bag of pasta and a wine bottle -- that I also presume is dead. And after noticing cakes, cold cuts, cheese, and other food in the case, I ask a waiter: "Are these reptiles on the menu?" He smiles and says, "No, they're made out of bread." They couldn't have looked more real if they were made from rubber.
» How's this for keeping track of the tiniest details? A quarterback throws a pass out of bounds during practice. One of two men standing on the sidelines steps to his left, reaches up with both arms to make the catch and ends up tipping the ball before it falls to the ground. A high-ranking team executive, wearing a stern expression, turns to me and says, "We really don't need our orthopedic surgeons sticking their hands in front of footballs."
» This might very well have been the best year for Hall of Fame induction speeches. No one went too long. No one drifted too far off onto tangents that leave the audience more confused than inspired. One of the best format changes was having each presenter videotape his remarks -- as part of a tightly edited highlight package produced by NFL Films and narrated by Steve Sabol -- rather than standing on stage and giving long-winded introductions that made the ceremony drag on forever. By the way, my vote for best speech was the one delivered by Dick LeBeau. It was powerful, humorous, heartfelt, and folksy. Just about everything that anyone could want in exchange for his or her undivided attention.
» Another tour highlight: Had dinner at the original Carrabba's Italian Grill in Houston. While I was there, I got to meet Johnny Carrabba, who co-founded the culinary empire in 1986. After a brief chat, he promptly returned to his strategic location just outside of his kitchen, where he could inspect each plate of food as it emerged. It's nice to see someone who continues to take pride in what he does after all these years.
» Think Saints fans are satisfied with one Super Bowl victory? Consider this sign, displayed at a Metairie gas station, under the listing of its prices per gallon ($2.69.9 for regular, in case you were wondering): "CA MON SAINTS, WHAT CHA SAY, HOW'S ABOUT AN INSTANT REPLAY?"