In The Camps


by John Ring

Of the 32 NFL teams, 13 currently train in their home cities and are backing away from the time honored tradition of going to a remote site, usually in a college setting and away from the big city and fast life.

Pittsburgh Coach Bill Cowher likes it the old fashioned way. So does the Colts’ Tony Dungy. Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati’s new coach, is still deciding but is leaning towards staying in Georgetown, Kentucky. Talks last Monday resulted in a new two-year agreement between the Bengals and Georgetown College.

Going out into the sticks has some positives– it expands the fan base, gets the players away from distractions and leads to team bonding. They even have a curfew. But in the end, it all comes down to the dollars and cents.

The Zephyr hit three training camps in the last week, all in college settings– the Rams in Macomb, the Colts in Terre Haute, Indiana and the Bengals in Georgetown. The focus wasn’t so much on the pros and cons of where a training camp should be; rather it was about the climate of those camps, the intensity of the practices and a feature story on a player at each site– Bryce Fischer of the Rams, Brian Allen of the Colts and Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna.

The most intense camp by far was the Bengals. There was a lot of hitting, a lot of cursing and a sense of urgency. Players were chewed out by coaches on a routine basis.

Safety Marquand Manuel leveled a knockout hit during the practice but was scolded by Coach Marvin Lewis during a kickoff coverage session. Assistant Coach Darrin Simmons yelled, "I can’t put players on the field who don’t know what they’re doing" during a special teams drill. Even potential All-Pro wide receiver Chad Johnson caught some flak when he caught a pass and gave up ground while attempting to gain more yards.

"North-south, go north-south," said tight ends coach Jonathan Hayes.

Johnson went north when rookie cornerback Dennis Weathersby attempted to chuck him at the line of scrimmage. Johnson escaped and caught a 56-yard pass from quarterback Shane Mathews.

The most laid-back camp was the Colts. Bedeviled by injuries, Indy played it close to the vest. The Colts were diligent and paid attention to detail but there wasn’t a lot of hitting or intensity.

The Rams were in-between. Anxious to prove that their 7-9 record last year was merely a fluke, Coach Mike Martz presented a calm, easy going front. No quarterback controversy. Warner’s fine. Let’s get on with it.

Macomb, Illinois–

"Is there someone special you need to interview?" asked one of the many Western Illinois University volunteers on the sidelines of the Rams practice. "I can set it up for you after practice if you’d like."

Hospitality is the theme at Macomb where the St. Louis Rams train at. And the good thing is Macomb and WIU have worked at it and have it down pat. They love the Rams. The Rams love it in Macomb.

Signs with Ram helmets easily lead fans to their destination. A tent is set up selling Rams merchandise, a Macomb radio station still broadcasts St. Louis football games and Ram players seem at ease mingling with fans after practices are over. They autograph everything– hats, visors, pennants, footballs and photos.

"I was carrying some boxes the other day, moving them from one building to another," said Pam North, one of the Western volunteers at the field, "and Kurt Warner walked by. He asked if he could carry them for me. I said no, it was all right. It was just before practice. But he took them from me and carried them anyway. It isn’t often you see a guy like that, just being nice and helping out. But a lot of the players here, they’re stand up guys."

True enough. You seldom see a Super Bowl MVP do a thing like that. But that’s Warner, a guy coming back from a thumb injury that limited his effectiveness so much that the Rams slipped to a 7-9 record last year and missed the playoffs. Despite backup quarterback Marc Bulger going undefeated in his stint last season in relief of Warner, there’s no hint of a quarterback controversy in St. Louis. It just isn’t mentioned at all.

The Rams lost their preseason opener to the Raiders but there wasn’t any tension in Macomb. Before beating Tampa Bay last Monday night, the Rams hadn’t won a preseason game in two years. Practice seemed to be laid back. "Obviously the outcome was not what we would want," said Coach Mike Martz about the loss to Oakland, "but physically, we played a strong game."

One of the Rams working the hardest is defensive end Bryce Fischer. A 6’3", 268 pound third-year player, Fischer currently is second on the depth chart on the Rams defense at the end position.

"Things are going pretty good for me right now," said Fischer. "My job is to put some pressure on the quarterback and the coaches have been working on some different techniques with me this camp.:

Fischer attended the Air Force Academy– where he was the Western Athletic Conference defensive player of the year as a senior– and was drafted in the 7th round of the 1999 NFL draft. After serving two years in the Air Force, Fischer joined the Bills and played in 13 games during the 2001 season, making 25 solo tackles. He also made three quarterback sacks.

"No one forgets their first sack," laughed Fischer "and mine was against New Orleans. Aaron Brooks was the quarterback. It was nice but we lost the game and that’s all that matters."

Fischer was released by the Bills but the Rams claimed him off waivers in 2002.

"I push myself as hard as I can," said Fischer. "The reason most people fail is because of their mind set. They let their body go and they fail. I’m not going to let that happen."

Fischer was stationed at Pope AFB in North Carolina while he was on active duty and also went through the rigorous Combat Survivor School at Fairchild AFB in 1996. "It was tough, very tough," said Fischer. "In some ways, tougher than this. In some ways, it wasn’t. But the whole experience of being in the military was a very good thing for me."

After practice was over, Bryce Fischer ran sprints with the other defensive linemen. So did the running backs and linebackers. So did Kurt Warner.

Most 7th round picks are history after a year or two– but Fischer is still around.

"You have to believe in yourself," said the Rams defensive end, "because if you don’t, who will?"

Terre Haute, Indiana–

During a scene in Rocky II, Apollo Creed’s trainer is pumping him up before the rematch with Rocky Balboa. "Women love you, men love you, older people, kids love you. You’re the best. You’re the best."

At the Rose-Hoben Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana, you can say the same thing about Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. Colt colors (blue and white) adorn the small campus in this southwest Indiana venue.

Replica Manning jerseys are everywhere. Men wear them, children do as well and a good amount of women proudly wear #18 on their Colt jersey. On Wednesday of last week, there were 26 people wearing replica Colt jerseys and all 26 had Manning’s number on them.

Such is the way it is at Manningville. The much heralded debate of who to take first in the draft– Manning or quarterback Ryan Leaf– seems like just a bad joke five years after the fact. Indianapolis made the right choice, remains a competitive team in the NFL but was brutalized to the tune of a 41-0 score in the first round of the playoffs last season by the New York Jets.

But the big thing for Colts Coach Tony Dungy is the injuries Indy has piled up this year. Asked about the teams performance against the Bears in a losing effort in the first preseason game, Dungy was more concerned with the teams health. Eight players missed the game against Chicago while four others were injured in the game. "Our run defense wasn’t as sharp as it could be against the Bears," said Dungy. "The real question is how sharp we can be with some of the injuries we have. We want to find out how our personnel is fitting together."

One of the biggest injuries has been to tight end Marcus Pollard– the only Bradley Brave in the NFL– but the Colts selected Iowa TE Dallas Clark in the first round last spring. "If you get Marcus and Dallas out there," said Manning, "those are two guys that can stretch the field. Marcus is a great athlete. He can get in the air and we need to get him back to doing that."

But another Colt coming back from an injury is an unknown– Brian Allen. He carried the ball 8 times for 74 yards in his first professional action in the loss to the Bears. Allen suffered a major knee injury during preseason last year as a rookie and missed all 16 games.

Does he think his performance against the Bears answered all the questions about how his knee is?

"No, not at all," said Allen after practice. "The fans and you guys (media) want to know how I feel and that’s fine. I expect questions about it. That’s how it is. It was just great to be out there on the field and be able to perform. I had some great blocking and just tried to make the most of it."

Allen played for Stanford in college. The 5’9" running back was a 6th round draft pick for the Colts in 2002 but just months after the draft, he suffered an injury to the lateral knee ligament on August 16th and was finished for the year.

"I wasn’t nervous before the game, not at all," said Allen. "The first hit I got was just like the other hits. It didn’t bother me. I just put my faith in Jesus Christ and I never got down on myself during the rehab process. The only tough thing about it sometimes was the repetitions. You know, you have do so many of this and so many of that. That got hard. But my faith in Jesus got me through it. It’s made me stronger."

Star running back Edgerrin James isn’t too concerned about Allen or anybody else taking over his position. "This is no different than any other year I’ve been here," said James. "Every year we start out with a bunch of running backs and the same thing happens. It’s something that I’m used to."

As long as the Colts have Manning, they should remain competitive. He’s one of the most gifted quarterbacks in the NFL. His cadence calling signals could be heard, literally, for blocks. Even his southern accent could be heard on the field.

"Playing with Peyton is a blessing," said Allen. "Really, we have a lot of gifted guys on offense. Peyton, James, Marvin Harrison, our offensive line. We should be able to move the ball anytime we want to."

Peyton pleased his many fans at this camp. He signed countless autographs, talked to kids and handled himself with grace.

Just remember– Peyton’s number is 18.

Georgetown, Kentucky–

There are 32 billboards in the Greater Cincinnati area and his face is on all of them. His picture is on the Bengals 2003 Media Guide. He is the Face and the Voice of the Bengals.

Meet Marvin Lewis.

It was the 7-month anniversary of his naming as the new Bengals coach that he watched his team practice last week and it’s easy to forget he’s never coached a single game in the NFL simply because of his accomplishments in that short period of time.

Marvin Lewis came to the Bengals when they were literally in ruins. They had finished with a 2-14 record and Owner Mike Brown was among the most hated sports figures in Cincinnati history. Brown hired Lewis and his been invisible since.

Lewis acted quickly. He recruited quality free agents in cornerback Tory James, defensive end Carl Powell, defensive tackle John Thornton, middle linebacker Kevin Hardy and tight end Reggie Kelley.

Lewis eliminated any quarterback controversy by naming Jon Kitna as the starter, releasing backups Gus Frerotte and Akili Smith and then drafted USC Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer #1.

He brought in talented assistant coaches– among them defensive coordinator and former Bear Leslie Frazier– and has sprung hopes of optimism among the most cynical Bengals fans, who haven’t seen their team make the playoffs since 1990.

"I was ready to leave," said Bengals fan Randy Glover of Hamilton, Ohio. "I was ready to root for the Colts. But I want to give Marvin Lewis a chance. I renewed my season tickets."

The main thing Lewis has to do is turn around the teams attitude of expecting the worst and then doing it. Learning how to win. Asked what that entails, Lewis replied "Basically, making plays under pressure. Whether it’s dropping the snap, making interceptions, not dropping the ball on third down, completing the pass on first down, not dropping the snap. Just making the plays. You have to expect to make those plays. I think learning to win is more of a mental thing, rather than a physical thing."

Kitna, who won the starting quarterback job after the fourth week of the season last year, emerged as the Bengals leader both on and off the field. He passed for 3,178 yards in just 12 starts after begging the coaching staff to select a starting quarterback and quit juggling himself, Frerotte and Smith around. "A quarterback controversy is never good for a team," said Kitna. "That’s why I said, ‘Hey, pick a guy. If it’s me that’s third string, fine. But pick and settle on a guy.’"

"The first year I was here, we had growing pains on offense. I was learning a new system. Then we get it going my second year and then we have this competition at camp my third year.. We couldn’t pick things up where we left them on offense."

Kitna is encouraged by Lewis but seemed to downplay the fact that the new Bengal coach named him as the top quarterback. "I didn’t expect anything and I was thankful but what does that mean? There’s only a few guys today in the NFL with totally secure jobs. Two years ago, Mike Brown said that Jon Kitna would be the Bengals starting quarterback but that didn’t hold up. You just can’t put your trust in what man says because man changes his mind and that’s their responsibility to do so if someone is playing better."

An Evangelical Christian, Kitna has been very candid about his religious beliefs. He doesn’t shy or back away from them. "Without my faith, I would drive myself crazy. God knows me better than I know myself. That’s why I put my trust in God. My security comes from a far greater purpose than the people or coaches around me."

Kitna leads by example. Two years ago in Baltimore, he and wide receiver Chad Johnson clashed on the sideline after Johnson blew a route that resulted in an interception. Ever since, Johnson has put up All-Pro numbers. Cornerback Artrell Hawkins, when asked about the competition at the cornerback position, said that he’s taking the Jon Kitna approach– whatever happens will happen and he’ll make the best of it. "I think my teammates see that I don’t play favorites out there," said the Bengals quarterback. "I throw to anybody. I throw to whoever is open.

Carson Palmer’s shadow is all over Kitna. Palmer has accepted his role. Lewis still backs Kitna, even after Palmer was 7 for 7 with two touchdown passes against Detroit in Cincinnati’s 23-10 win last Saturday night. "I knew Carson would be good," said Kitna, "but he’s better than I thought he would be. He’s learned the offense and has a great arm. He’s going to be a great quarterback."

After Kitna finished his interview, another sportswriter came up. "Just two questions, that’s all I need," he said to Kitna.

"That’s fine," replied Kitna.

"My questions are about Carson Palmer," said the writer.

Kitna just smiled.

It was a sweltering, hot day in Georgetown last Thursday. Kitna had chugged down some Gatorade as we spoke. As I walked through the tunnel out to the parking lot, there was a guy at a Gatorade fountain pouring himself a drink. As I approached him, his back was to me. "Hey pal," I said, "you mind if I get a drink?"

He turned around, gave me the full cup of Gatorade and poured himself another.

It was Marvin Lewis.