Originally created 07/25/99

Camps an all-around struggle



Training camp in the NFL is two-H time -- hope and holdouts.

The Lions haven't heard from Barry Sanders, who's threatening to retire. Marshall Faulk is still negotiating with the Rams, to whom he was traded in April because the Colts didn't want the contract hassles.

Antonio Freeman, one of the league's top receivers, is still negotiating with the Packers. And rookie quarterback Cade McNown, who's expected to start for the Bears, was a no-show when Chicago opened camp Thursday, waiting until contract negotiations are finished.

But veterans, even those with their own squabbles, have some perspective.

"As much as me and all of the other players in the NFL don't like training camp, I don't want to miss any time," says Jamal Anderson, who gained 1,846 yards as Atlanta made its surprise run to the Super Bowl last season and is now trying to renegotiate his contract.

"I have every intention of remaining a Falcon. Where else am I going to go?"

By next weekend, all the NFL's camps will be open -- with some big holes.

Denver, for example, opens camp without John Elway, who retired after leading the Broncos to two straight Super Bowls titles. Green Bay won't gave Reggie White, who left on a high note as NFL defensive player of the year.

But as the old go out, there are always the new, players and teams.

The team is the Cleveland Browns, replacing the one Art Modell took to Baltimore after the 1995 season. Like Carolina and Jacksonville, who began play in 1995, the Browns should be respectable: Free agency allowed them to get a number of solid veterans.

And for all teams, there are those high hopes.

"At this time of year, I've never felt as good about what we have to do and what we have to do it with," says coach Dick Vermeil of the Rams, who are 9-23 in his two seasons.

Even Indianapolis, which finished 3-13 last season, is looking forward to camp.

"You're always excited at the beginning," team president Bill Polian says.

Who could blame him? The Colts have Peyton Manning, who finished his rookie season looking like he could be the next Elway.

There are more on the horizon.

Five quarterbacks were drafted in the first round last April. Two, McNown and Donovan McNabb of Philadelphia, might be instant starters.

Then there's Ricky Williams, the Heisman Trophy winner, who's the Saints' only draft choice. Mike Ditka gave up the rest of his picks because he thinks Williams can carry the ball and his otherwise shaky team all the way to the Super Bowl.

Three other running backs in the spotlight were Sanders, Anderson and Faulk.

The most interesting is Sanders, who will break Walter Payton's career rushing record when he runs for 1,458 yards, a little less than a normal season's work for him.

But the Lions haven't heard from him since early May. He missed training minicamp, and the last word Detroit had was from his father, William, who said his son was tired of playing with a losing team.

Still, the Lions say (hope?) they'll see him in Saginaw Valley, Mich., when camp opens Thursday.

"I don't think a holdout has been Barry's MO," Detroit coach Bobby Ross says. "If you look at his past history, he's been pretty much doing this year what he's done in previous years."

The Rams obtained Faulk from the Colts because they assumed they could work out the contract hassles that prompted Indianapolis to trade him. But they opened camp last Thursday without him.

But as high as most teams' hopes are, they can be dashed quickly.

San Francisco, for example, has been scrambling to find a new running back after learning that the ankle Garrison Hearst broke in the playoffs last season, may not be healthy until late this year, if ever. It will probably be running-back-by-committee until then.

San Diego, which last year went into camp with high hopes for Ryan Leaf, taken second to Manning in the draft, is now looking at things from a totally different perspective.

As Manning flourished last season, Leaf struggled. He'll would have begun the season as the Chargers' third-string quarterback behind two veteran free agents, Jim Harbaugh and Erik Kramer. But he injured his shoulder on the first day of camp and could miss the entire season.

With Elway gone, Denver won't be favored to win a third straight Super Bowl, even though Bubby Brister, who will start the season at quarterback, was 4-0 last season when Elway was out.

One good omen for the 36-year-old Brister: Last year's best QBs included Randall Cunningham, Chris Chandler, Steve Young and Doug Flutie, were all well in their 30s.

But the Broncos are rated no higher than third in the AFC behind the Jets, whom they beat in the AFC title game last season, and Jacksonville, which has been a contender for three of its four years in the NFL.

Minnesota, which went 15-1 last year only to lose at home to Atlanta in overtime of the NFC title game, is probably the favorite in the conference. Although the Vikings have lost two of their four starters in the secondary and some other key players, they still have Cunningham and his wide receivers -- Randy Moss, last year's brilliant rookie, and Cris Carter.

Atlanta? For whatever reason, their 14-2 record is viewed as something of a fluke.

They lost their only deep threat, Tony Martin, who was released after being indicted on money-laundering charges and signed by Miami. So many things went their way last season that some things have to go sour this year.

Still, they're a good playoff contender.

After those two, the NFC is anyone's guess. Dallas, Arizona or the New York Giants could all win the East, but all are flawed. Green Bay has lost a lot but still has Brett Favre, the game's best quarterback, which means they're a threat. And San Francisco will probably win 10 or more games for the 17th straight season.

Is there another 1998 Atlanta out there?

It's training camp. And where there's a camp, there are hopes.

Just ask Polian, Ditka and Vermeil.

End Adv for July 24-25