With the end to the offseason of the inflatable swan, NFL training camps are opening. That means two things. The part of the year that makes coaches and general managers most nervous -- when they have less contact and less control over players, sending them into paroxysms of panic whenever the phone rings late at night -- is finally over. And players, after rhapsodizing about how happy they are to be back to work, will quickly remember how hot and humid -- and repetitive -- training camp can be.
Still, this is the time of the year when chemistry is made and relationships are forged. These are the meldings to be mindful of this summer:
1) The most important position battle
Geno Smith vs. Michael Vick will get the most coverage, but Vick knows the real story, and he broadcast it this spring: The Jets won't hold much of a quarterback competition -- unless Smith implodes. Derek Carr vs. Matt Schaub is the most fraught for the Raiders' front office. Schaub, coming off his nightmare season in Houston, was acquired to be the franchise quarterback, but there is already a belief in the Raiders' organization that Carr, Oakland's second-round draft pick, could push him for the starting job.
Debate: Players to watch in camp
Johnny Manziel will provide plenty of intrigue at training camp, but who else demands your attention? Our analysts weigh in. READ
But only in Cleveland could the competition decide the immediate future of a bereft franchise, provide another referendum on scrambling quarterbacks and maybe even induce a training camp visit from LeBron James. Poor Brian Hoyer. Johnny Manziel's ascension seems -- and is -- inevitable, but Hoyer is the starter for now, albeit one whose failure virtually every Browns fan is awaiting. Hoyer has a tiny bit of an experience edge over Manziel, logging three of his four career NFL starts last season and showing impressive decisiveness in making reads that Manziel has yet to master. Hoyer should be fully recovered from the torn knee ligament that ended his season in early October. On paper, it looks like Hoyer should comfortably retain his job.
But, well, Johnny Football. Can he learn to make reads? Can he be taught to protect himself outside of the pocket? Can the Browns count on him to sideline his side interests during the season and become the leader -- and consistent quarterback -- this team desperately needs? Since the Browns returned to Cleveland in 1999, they've started 11 different quarterbacks in Week 1. Hoyer or Manziel will become the 12th on Sept. 7, and it's safe to say one option carries more intrigue and excitement than the other.
2) The most important player-coach relationship
The dysfunction that developed between Mike Shanahan and Robert Griffin III was fascinating to watch, but clearly not productive for either party -- or the Washington Redskins as a whole. Shanahan lost his job, Griffin lost a bit of his lustrous reputation and the team lost its NFC East supremacy. Questions that emerged about Griffin's ability to develop as a more traditional pocket passer and become a team leader -- thanks to an awful lot of damaging leaks -- persist to this day. That's why the relationship between Griffin and rookie head coach Jay Gruden is so critical. The future of Griffin, not just as a player but as the most important figure in the franchise this side of the owner's box, is at stake.
On the field, there are plenty of reasons to think Gruden will be good for Griffin. Cincinnati's scoring offense improved in each of Gruden's three years as offensive coordinator there, and Andy Dalton joined only Peyton Manning and Cam Newton as quarterbacks who threw for at least 3,000 yards in each of the first three seasons of their respective careers. Griffin, presumably now fully healthy entering his second season after a torn ACL (he won the Heisman Trophy in his second year after a torn ACL at Baylor), has been given DeSean Jackson as a target.
But how Gruden will manage a mega-star, who last year was portrayed in some quarters as a developing diva, will decide the success or failure of his tenure and Griffin's stature. Gruden was regarded as a players' coach while an assistant, but he is a blank slate as a head man and has now been thrust into one of the most closely scrutinized jobs in the league. It feels as if the Redskins have been in freefall ever since Griffin's knee went out from under him in the playoffs 18 months ago, engendering some of the player-coach mistrust that turned toxic last season. Gruden and Griffin -- and the rest of the Redskins -- can't afford such a misstep.
3) The most important player-player relationship
Want to know how much is riding on rookie receiver Sammy Watkins' impact on Buffalo Bills quarterback EJ Manuel? Consider this: The Bills' second-year general manager Doug Whaley and second-year head coach Doug Marrone gave up next year's first-round pick to draft the Clemson product. If this doesn't work -- if Manuel winds up looking less like the quarterback who started the season with four touchdown passes and one interception in his first three games than the one who posted seven touchdowns and eight interceptions the rest of the way (after missing six games with knee issues) -- Whaley and Marrone might not be around to try again next year. The team is up for sale following Ralph Wilson's death in March, so this is the last chance for Whaley and Marrone to make the case that they should be retained for a third year. Considering the Bills haven't made the playoffs in the past 14 seasons, that likely means they have to show substantial improvement.
Breer: Worst to first?
The good news is that, other than the perennially stout New England Patriots, the AFC East appears weak. And early reports from the very first Bills practice on Sunday were promising. Reporters there said Manuel went 4-for-4 on passes intended for Watkins in team drills. The bad news is that, with the Bills' defense suffering a devastating blow in the form of the season-long loss of linebacker Kiko Alonso, much of the onus will fall on how well the Bills progress in Marrone's up-tempo offense.
When the Bills reported to camp over the weekend, Whaley told reporters he wanted Manuel to show more command and have more of a presence in the offense. A big target like Watkins should help boost Manuel's confidence, but how well they develop their timing in a fast-paced attack could determine the fate not only of the unit but of much of the franchise. The Hall of Fame Game, against the New York Giants' much-improved secondary, will be a good sneak peek.
4) The most important player-front office relationship
San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis' desire for a new contract caused him to skip minicamp and could trigger a training-camp holdout, too. That would obviously not be ideal for a team that has been to three straight NFC Championship Games and is a leading contender to go to a fourth. The 49ers have plenty of other potential distractions -- pass rusher Aldon Smith's league-discipline fate is one, and offensive guard Alex Boone's possible holdout is another -- but a lengthy absence by Davis would be damaging for the offense and for the ascension of quarterback Colin Kaepernick. That would be foolhardy for a team that is so achingly close to a championship.
Yes, the stakes are high in San Francisco because of the club's Super Bowl potential, but the Niners' plight with Davis pales in comparison to the nastiness in Houston.
For years, receiver Andre Johnson was the best thing the Houston Texans had going for them -- he was the best player on the field, the best representative off it, and, in some lean years, maybe the only Texan fans around the country even paid attention to. But now everyone is going to watch him for another reason: After years of futility, Johnson wants to win, doesn't think the Texans are going to do that and apparently wants out. He has already lost $1 million in bonuses because he skipped offseason team obligations, and the team declined to let him off the hook -- a questionable decision in itself -- and he stands to lose as much as $30,000 for each day of training camp he skips. The Texans don't want to let him go; among other reasons, they would be on the salary-cap hook for millions. If this standoff is not resolved quickly, perhaps by the time Texans veterans report on Friday, it has the potential to poison Bill O'Brien's first training camp, to say nothing of the fortunes of an offense that is now in the hands of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
This is one of the most valuable franchises in the league, one with a reputation of being well-run and well-respected. With a powerhouse defense, the Texans need a functional offense to erase the bitter memory of last season. Take Johnson out of that unit, and Houston loses not only firepower but leadership, as well.
Now is the time of year when optimism abounds around the league. But if the Texans botch their handling of Johnson, dark clouds will quickly obscure that summer sunniness.
5) The most important player-player-player-player-player relationship
The New York Giants won the Super Bowl a little more than two years ago. Today, as they report to camp and Chris Snee retires, not one of the starting offensive linemen from that Super Sunday remains. The Giants knew that their O-line was a major liability last season -- the "Is Eli Manning declining?" storyline should have been more accurately framed as "His offensive line sure is" -- and acquired Geoff Schwartz and John Jerry during the offseason. Manning was sacked 39 times last season (the highest total, by far, in his career), threw 27 often-unsightly interceptions (another career high) and managed just 18 touchdown passes (the fewest since his rookie campaign, when he played in just nine games).
Few units around the league figure to face as much scrutiny and pressure to abruptly get it together as the Giants' O-line, which has the added burden of learning a new offense.