Greg Landry, the Baltimore Colts' backup quarterback, was not in uniform. Immediately, the whispers began. "Where's Landry, what's wrong with Greg?"
When the 90-minute practice ended, Mike McCormack, the new head coach, walked over to the sidelines to greet waiting reporters. There was a respectful silence, then the question.
McCormack paused. "At 6:58 this morning," he began, "Greg Landry drove his wife to the hospital where she had a baby girl. He was up all night. He was excused from practice."
The news so far this year from the Baltimore Colts has been good. But the anxiety about Landry, needless as it was, reflects the residual concern over the health of their fair-haired quarterback, Bert Jones.
You just can't separate the Colts from Jones' separated shoulder. With Jones at quarterback in 1975-77, the Colts were 33-11, and were the AFC East champions each year. Without him, the Colts finished 5-11, in 1978 and 1979. Without Jones and Landry? Baltimoreans shudder to think.
So, although the 1980 Colts have a new 212-pound running back named Curtis Dickey; a new old offensive tackle named George Kunz who is out of the broadcasting booth and back on the field; and a new starting cornerback, Derrick Hatchett from Texas who may just live up to his name, they are faced with the same old question. How's Bert?
"Oh, no," Jones said, "here we go again. I can't blame people for asking.
I did get blown away the last couple of years. I tell them it feels as good as it can. There's not a whole lot of moving parts in there. And the ones that move aren't supposed to.But I feel like I'm throwing good.
"I worked with a strength coach over the offseason. The idea was to build up the muscles around the joint to compensate for what's missing in other areas."
McCormack, who does not like to dwell on the past, said, "Anytime Bert went out it was an excuse for failure. Hopefully we're not going to give it to them again.
"Too many times, people said, 'our main sparkplug is missing.' If you accept that at the top, then it's more easily accepted through the ranks."
Under former head coach Ted Marchibroda, the Colts were a veteran-oriented team supposedly just a few players away from the Super Bowl. v
"The last three years," Ernie Accorsi, the assistant general manager, said, "we brought in a lot of vets to try to win it all. This year, we're building around the same key players. But we don't want to start all over again. We're trying to win while the key carryover players are still in their prime."
So, while the Colts are not rebuilding, they are remodeling.Gone are veterans such as Glenn Doughty, Roosevelt Leaks, Don Hardeman and Stan White. There probably will be 15 new names on the Colts roster this year, Accorsi said, and perhaps six or seven new starters.
When McCormack was hired last January, he said he wanted to lessen the team's dependence on Jones, "beef up the offensive line and find a running back who can hoof it."
He appears to have done both. Certainly, Curtis Dickey -- 4.38 in the 40 -- can hoof it. In fact, the only thing he has done slowly is report to camp. He is now happy, and why not, after winning a contract dispute?
Dickey gives the Colts "another way to hit the home run," Accorsi said. "Like Earl Weaver says, it takes too many singles to score a run."
McCormack had been intending to switch Dickey, who averaged over five yards per carry all four years at Texas A & M, to wide receiver. But, McCormack says, "The Lord helps those who can't think for themselves. He helped me by giving Ray Butler (fourth round draft choice out of USC) a chance to show what he could do."
The emergence of Butler at wide receiver means that Dickey will remain a halfback, and that the question of whether Roger Carr remains a Colt is less pressing than it might have been. Carr had demanded to be traded to a team closer to his home in Louisiana and reported to camp four days late. Since arriving, he has wrangled publicly with McCormack over injuries and his ability to practice.
Carr now says he is "resigned" to staying in Baltimore and wants to get the "most out of the legs the Lord blessed me with."
As for beefing up the offensive line, the Colts drafted five linemen last spring. "What we're trying to find out is whether they're Grade A or not," McCormack said.
Certainly, Kunz, an All-Pro tackle in 1975 before a debilitating back injury forced a spinal fusion operation, was once a prime specimen. The question is whether he canb be again. Kunz decided to make a comeback this winter after his doctor gave him the go-ahead.
"At first," Kunz said, "I had a little tendency to get down. It's like one day you're a fish happily swimming on the bottom of the lake, and the next your in the bottom of the boat choking on oxygen. You wonder if you made the right decision."
After seeing him play in an exhibition game against the Packers, the answer, McCormack says, is yes.
McCormack says Kunz is no longshot. Right now, he's at 75 percent, he says, which is a lot better than 100 percent of a lot of other guys.
Defensively, the Colts "have some weak spots," McCormack says. "We'd like a little more depth in the defensive line and in the defensive secondary." l
Last year, the starting linemen -- Mike Barnes, Joe Ehrmann and Mike Ozdowski -- had serious knee injuries. (Ehrmann and Ozdowski had surgery). "We feel they can come back," said Dick Syzmanski, the general manager. "But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't concerned."
Last year, said Jones, "We were boring because we lost. And boring is boring."
But they were also predictable. A typical set of downs went something like this: Joe Washington right, Joe Washington left, incomplete pass, punt.
Last season, the Colts threw 137 passes to their backs. Their first-string wide receiver caught only 35. In 1973, when McCormack was the head coach of the Eagles, Harold Carmichael led the league in receptions (72) for wide receivers and Charlie Young led the tight ends with 56. "I enjoy seeing the ball in the air," McCormack said.
Clearly, the Colts will be more enjoyable to watch this year. But where will they finish?
"I refuse to answer on the grounds that it might incriminate me," Kunz said, smiling.
"In Baltimore, against Kansas City," Accorsi said, looking at the schedule.
"First," said Jones, looking over his schedule. "If we're healthy."