For weeks now, with only occasional breaks, NFL players have been lifting weights, absorbing strategy from coaches in classrooms and then going out on the field and running plays for extended periods in weather so hot Mike Ditka could light one of his cigars by touching it against a blocking sled. If that sounds a lot like training camp, it's because the league no longer takes many days off.
So as each team prepares for its formal camp routine, about all that changes is moving everyone from the home practice complex to some out-of-the-way facility for a few weeks and allowing fans to attend most of the early sessions. Except for perhaps about a dozen positions, the rosters on most teams are set before the first training-camp snap. Why? Because of what happened during the offseason roster moves and all those minicamps.
Appropriately, one of the first teams to trot off to camp will be the Cleveland Browns, who existed in name only after Art Modell moved one of the league's most famous and well-supported franchises to Baltimore after the 1995 season. The tremendous outcry by Cleveland fans resulted in the Browns returning this season as an expansion franchise--and to a uniquely warm welcome.
"It's almost a situation for our fans here where vacation time interferes with getting camp started," said Browns President Carmen Policy, who left the same position with the San Francisco 49ers. "We're opening every session--and finishing construction on two sets of bleachers. I'd say the attitude around here is robust."
All the other teams also are upbeat--all are undefeated--with many undergoing major changes. The defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos, for instance, will be without John Elway for the first time in 16 years. After leading the Broncos to back-to-back NFL titles, Elway became one of the few superstar athletes to retire when many in his sport thought he still could play at a high level.
The Broncos are so talented they could pull a three-peat with the quarterback position manned by Walter Andrew Brister III, more commonly known as Bubby through 13 mostly mediocre seasons with four NFL teams. Brister, who turns 37 before the start of the regular season, replaced the injured Elway during four games last year--and the Broncos won them all while averaging 34 points.
"It's going to be more pressure than I've ever had and probably would have ever dreamed of having," Brister has said. "By no means am I John Elway. I think I'm old enough and mature enough to handle the pressure. I just think if I can fill my own shoes, that will be good enough for us to get where we want to go."
Trying to stop Denver's dominance in the AFC West will be the Seattle Seahawks, under new coach Mike Holmgren. The Seahawks are one of eight teams with a new coach--and Holmgren will oversee nearly every area in the organization, expanding the coach-only role he filled so well with the Green Bay Packers.
Holmgren inherits many talented players but a team that won only half its 16 games last season under Dennis Erickson. The franchise has not made the playoffs since 1988. Holmgren is upbeat about still-obscure quarterback Jon Kitna, who completed 57 percent of his 172 passes last season while sharing time with the since-departed Warren Moon. Kitna had seven touchdown passes and eight interceptions.
The Seahawks suffered a severe blow when defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur, who relocated with Holmgren from Green Bay, had liver cancer diagnosed. He is not expected to return to the team. Linebackers coach Jim Lind, an aide to Shurmur with the Packers, has taken over the coordinator's duties.
Several of the head coaching changes put familiar faces in new places. Ray Rhodes, who coached the Philadelphia Eagles last season, replaced Holmgren with the Packers. Former 49ers head coach George Seifert tries to jump-start the Carolina Panthers while two of the most respected assistant coaches last season, Chris Palmer and Brian Billick, assume control of the Browns and Baltimore Ravens, respectively.
One team even changed its name: The Tennessee Oilers became the Tennessee Titans.
Several teams have questions that interest the entire league. Were the first-, second- and third-round draft picks the Washington Redskins paid the Minnesota Vikings for quarterback Brad Johnson too much?
Was Ditka wise in trading eight of the New Orleans Saints' choices in the next two drafts, including both first-round picks, so he could move up in the 1999 draft and grab Texas running back Ricky Williams?
The Browns will be watched as closely as any team--and part of the attraction is being in the same division, the AFC Central, as Modell's Ravens. The most recent expansion teams, the Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars, did extremely well their first two seasons and the Browns had many of the same advantages, including high draft choices and the ability to spend lavishly on free agents.
With the first pick in the draft, the Browns chose a quarterback, Tim Couch of Kentucky, whom Policy and others in the organization believe will excel for years. Couch has progressed splendidly during the offseason, Policy said, but may enjoy being able to learn this season without the physical abuse or pressure of immediately being the starter.
That's because veteran Ty Detmer, acquired from the 49ers for a mid-round draft choice, seems to have the ability to become an effective starter.
"That's important," Policy said, "because there wouldn't be a sense of urgency with Couch. I think that will carry into the season."
The Browns spent their free agent money on building offensive and defensive lines, specifically on tackles--Lomas Brown and Orlando Brown for the offense and Jerry Ball and John Jurkovic for the defense.
"One thing the other two expansion teams had that we didn't was time," Policy said. "They had an entire year, at least. We'll have had a little over eight months from when we could start putting everything together until the first preseason game. We won't know for some time whether we've suffered [in terms of competitive strength]. But our sanity and level of sleep has suffered."