Refreshing scenarios heading into camp

Michael Silver
Yahoo! Sports

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Jackson has emerged as one of the Browns' top defensive playmaker.

(Gregory Shamus/Getty)

The man who led the NFL in tackles last season is underappreciated, undersized and, in a relative sense, grossly underpaid.

So what does Cleveland Browns inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson(notes) plan to do in response?

"We've got a new group of coaches, and they've identified a few players they might want to build around – so what I have to do is go out and prove I'm worthy of a new contract," Jackson said in a recent phone conversation. "I'm not making a lot of noise, and I don't want to stress out and worry about things I can't control. All I can do is work my tail off and play as hard as I can, and if I get a new deal I'll be the happiest guy on this earth."

I have to admit, Jackson's quote makes me kind of happy, too. Time after time, I hear from frustrated readers (and coaches, general managers and owners) who get their thong panties in a bunch whenever an NFL player lobbies for a bigger salary before his contract is up.

Now here's a budding star entering his fourth season who's due to make $640,000 in the final year of his rookie deal, and his approach is to bite down hard on his mouthpiece and pummel the dude with the ball? Try getting bitter about that.

(And how refreshing is it when the most self-important person in the column is the dude writing it? OK, maybe that's not such a novelty.)

While I'm not prone to getting indignant over an athlete's salary demands – it's simply a matter of leverage, on both sides, so why get emotional about it? – I do have my trigger points, and as you might have noticed I tend to vent on occasion.

Today, however, I'm not getting angry. Call it Prozac Friday, or simply the product of a nice, long offseason, but as training camps approach (the Browns' rookies report today, veterans a week later) I'm busting out more smiley faces than a pair of eighth-grade girls in a two-hour IM session.

Jackson, 25, is the kind of guy who makes football difficult to predict and fun to watch. Barely six feet, bowlegged and virtually anonymous, he raised his level of play at a time when many of his peers were ducking for cover.

Last season the Browns, who had narrowly missed the playoffs in 2007, were a trendy pick to make a run at an AFC title, largely because of a high-powered offense featuring quarterback Derek Anderson(notes), wideout Braylon Edwards(notes) and tight end Kellen Winslow(notes).

Things turned ugly early, and by midseason the franchise was in disarray. Cleveland went an inconceivable 24 quarters without an offensive touchdown to close the season and finished 4-12, and head coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Phil Savage feuded – and both were later fired.

Through it all, Jackson kept playing hard. His 154 tackles (a team stat) made him the unofficial league leader; he also had six passes defensed, three interceptions and two sacks.

"Our offense had a problem throwing the ball when we needed to, so we couldn't let everything go to [expletive]," Jackson explained. "As a defense, we had to show some pride. This was probably the closest group I've been around, but once the talk about [Crennel] not being here started, it became harder to focus and things just snowballed."

Now Eric Mangini is the man in charge, and though his abrasive leadership style has already alienated some people in the organization, Jackson isn't one of the people complaining.

"They don't owe me anything," Jackson said. "They have enough on their hands right now without having to worry about my situation. I understand that. I have to play the waiting game. But all throughout my career, even going back to high school, I've considered myself an underdog. So I'll just keep scrapping."

And I'll just keep smiling – at least for the rest of this column. Here are some other potential feel-good stories that could come out of training camp:

Hoping the new coach of the New York Jets checks himself before he Rex himself? I'm not – if there's one thing I adore more than a smack-talking player, it's a mouthy dude with a headset, and Rex Ryan is the best thing to happen to NFL journalism in a long time. More significant, Ryan's players are in heaven right now. After three years of the paranoid, ultratight Mangini, the Jets are enjoying a relaxed vibe that new middle linebacker Bart Scott(notes) – who followed his ex-defensive coordinator over from the Baltimore Ravens – described as "swagger-licious." Hey, when your coach calls out Bill Belichick and starts a war of words with an opposing player (Miami Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder(notes)) before his first game, how can you not enjoy coming to work and strapping it on? "Trust me," says Baltimore's star pass rusher, Terrell Suggs(notes), "those guys are loving it right now. When a coach has your back like that, you want to go out and back up his words."

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Rodgers was fourth in passing yards (4,038) last season.

(Jeff Hanisch/US Presswire)

Like Hall of Famer Steve Young and so many less successful quarterbacks before him, the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers(notes) has the toughest job in football: Trying to follow a legend. But if Brett Favre(notes) wanted to pave the way for Rodgers to make it in Green Bay, he couldn't have done his successor a bigger favor than to act the way he has for the past year; first attempting to force a trade to the rival Minnesota Vikings and eventually closing in on his goal. After a cameo with the Jets and a second retirement announcement, Favre became a free agent and is expected to sign with the Vikings next week. He'll always be a titan of Titletown, but this potential move reeks of vindictive sacrilege to many Packers backers, and some of the guys in Green & Gold quietly share that belief. The likely result? Cheeseheads rally around Rodgers like never before, and his teammates try to establish their new leader's street cred by taking down their old one. The Packers, who reached the NFC title game as the league's youngest team in '07 before sputtering to a 6-10 finish last year, could surprise a lot of people (though, as you know, I won't be one of them). If Green Bay's defenders can step it up and pull off a tricky transition to the 3-4, Rodgers could become the most beloved quarterback in Titletown. If so, will he send Favre a thank-you card? Not likely.

In the haunting aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as I toured New Orleans with then-Saints halfback Deuce McAllister(notes), we talked a lot about the city and wondered whether it would ever recover. Football was secondary, but if you'd asked me to guess whether the Saints would stick around after their Superdome lease expired, it wouldn't have been hard to do the math: Battered stadium plus lousy owner with ties to San Antonio plus devastated populace equals au revoir, bon chance. Somehow, to Tom Benson's credit, he defied the cynics and made it work in the Crescent City. He cut a deal with the state that will spruce up the Superdome and make it once-again Super Bowl-friendly (hallelujah!) while keeping the team in New Orleans through at least 2025. Good for Benson; good for everyone. This is one of the most surprising developments I've witnessed in two decades of covering the NFL, and it makes me want to have an Abita Turbo Dog or four to celebrate. Will Saints fans be celebrating on Sundays? If new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams can turn the Saints into aggressive playmakers and Sean Payton and Drew Brees(notes) work their usual offensive voodoo, this could be a big year in the Big Easy.

Jeff Garcia(notes) is a quarterback who's been handed absolutely nothing, and it was no surprise that his latest revival (as the guy who led Jon Gruden's Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the playoffs in '07) didn't have much staying power. That's just the way things seem to go for Garcia, 39, until he resurfaces with a new team and defies conventional wisdom again. Now he's back in the Bay Area, where he had his greatest successes, making three Pro Bowls in five seasons as the San Francisco 49ers' starter. This time Garcia is a Raider, a situation that looks dubious on paper. He's there as a backup to JaMarcus Russell(notes), the first overall pick in the '07 NFL draft – and a player so revered by owner Al Davis that, in his infamous news conference to announce Lane Kiffin's firing last season, he cited Kiffin's lack of faith in Russell as justification for getting rid of the coach "with cause." Some veteran quarterbacks would come in quietly and try to tutor the young passer, but that won't happen here. Garcia doesn't do mentoring, and he'll carry himself like a mature, cocksure leader who gives his team the best chance to win. And Garcia may be just that – but unless head coach Tom Cable wants the Kiffin treatment, he'll likely resist the temptation to bench Russell. However, players aren't likely to rally behind a young, erratic player who doesn't always carry himself like a professional should, as has sometimes been the case with Russell – especially if a better alternative exists. Should Garcia get an opening, be it through injury or the threat of locker-room mutiny, things could get mighty interesting in Oaktown. If Davis wants to prove that "Just win, baby" isn't just an empty cliché, might Garcia be the guy who makes it happen? Nah … now I'm getting too giddy. Oh well – it was fun while it lasted.

TAKE IT TO THE ATM

If this invention takes off, Mine That Bird's new ride will have some serious horsepower. … If Tim Tebow's senior season proceeds like his sophomore and junior campaigns, a whole lot of Florida students – of both genders – will be happy to help him "lose his eligibility." … If Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross sees a video of me singing Bad Company's "Shooting Star" while playing Rock Band 2 with my kids, he'll offer me a piece of the team.

LIES, LIES, LIES

1. Excited by ESPN's decision to issue a "do not report" edict regarding the civil allegations against him, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger(notes) called up vice president and director of news Vince Doria and offered "to come to Bristol and take a quick look at the television set in your office, to make sure it isn't malfunctioning."

2. Derrick Mason's(notes) retirement has nothing to do with money.

3. When former Browns and current Bucs tight end Kellen Winslow showed up at a recent AC/DC concert, the band busted out a rip-roaring version of this classic.

OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE

As I told you last month, I had 6,000 reasons to be bummed out the last time I visited a casino. Well, I got back on the horse last week, staying in a casino hotel in Lake Tahoe, Nev., while visiting with various American Century Championship celebrity golf tournament participants, and an old friend topped my tale of woe in a big way. On Friday, future Hall of Fame halfback Marshall Faulk(notes) hit a hole-in-one at No. 17 on the Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course, the first in the tourney in 10 years, and just the third ever (skater Dan Jansen and musician Rudy Gatlin hit the others). The tournament advertises a $1 million bonus for anyone who hits a hole-in-one, but the fine print is a killer – that only applies on Saturday and Sunday for the tournament's final two rounds. As we celebrated Faulk's triumph in the player-hospitality lounge, a constant procession of rich and famous athletes expressed the opinion that Marshall had gotten … well, turn his surname into a past-tense vowel, and that's pretty much what it sounded like they were saying. Amazingly, two days later, Faulk launched another glorious nine-iron off the 17th tee that, after landing behind the hole, spun back and stopped a foot away from a potential seven-figure payday. That would have taken the sting out of Friday's $2,137.49 bar tab, in keeping with tradition requiring a golfer making an ace to buy a round (or four) for everyone and his third cousin.

As for this jilted grand-prize winner, I experienced something of a karmic payback last Sunday at the University of Santa Clara's Buck Shaw Stadium, where I sat in the stands with my 13-year-old daughter, two of her former youth-soccer teammates and our families watching the Boston Breakers battle FC Gold Pride in a WPS clash. It was a great spectacle made even better when, shortly before the second half, Gold Pride midfielder Kim Yokers kicked a ball into the section behind the team's bench and I leaned sideways to snag it. True, Yokers and I have a cosmic connection – she's a former Cal star who, naturally, enjoyed it when I heckled Stanford's Satanic Tree mascot as it walked by before the game – but I prefer not to consider the possibility that she'd aimed the giveaway-ball my way. After all, I'd never caught a baseball or anything else at a sporting event, and this was my day: Late in the second half, about 90 seconds after my 10-year-old son had uttered the words, "I'm hungry," a member of the team's pep squad hurled a hot dog into the stands. Still holding the ball in my right hand, I reached up high to snatch it with my left, and my grateful son chowed it like Joey Chestnut.

LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …

Lesley Visser, who was recently voted the No. 1 female sportscaster of all time by the American Sportscasters Association. The personable and hard-working Visser was a pioneer in the business, transitioning to TV after working as a New England Patriots beat writer for the Boston Globe, and one of the many reasons she's great is that she takes her work a lot more seriously than she takes herself. She also paved the way for future generations of successful women in sports broadcasting, including ESPN's Erin Andrews, for whom I'll also do a shot. I don't know Andrews, but the unnecessary humiliation she has had to endure in recent days thanks to a criminal and reprehensible invasion of her privacy makes me sick. Seriously, people (not all of you, but you know who you are) – I know she's attractive, but life isn't a scene from Porky's. Please accept her as a professional and stop trying to be second-hand peeping Toms.

THIS WEEK'S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

Back in the mid-'80s, I went to school with a guy named Hardy Nickerson who did some great things as a Golden Bear, most notably leading Cal to a 1985 upset of USC and climbing a podium on the field to conduct the marching band after the game. Nickerson, a fifth-round pick of the Steelers in 1987, went on to have a stellar 16-year NFL career, and now he's giving back to the program in a big way: His obviously brainy daughter, Ashley, will enroll as a Cal freshman next month and will compete as a sprinter on the track team. It gets better: Son Hardy Jr., 15, is a promising linebacker who'll play at Oakland's Bishop O'Dowd High School this fall, and he's already a regular at Cal's football camps. "He's good," Hardy Sr. says. "He's better than his dad was at this stage, that's for sure." If that's even remotely true, I sure wouldn't mind seeing another "Dragon" in blue-and-gold. Meanwhile, current Cal kicker David Seawright has skills that extend beyond the gridiron. Check out this impressive article he did for my old stamping ground, the Daily Californian, on the athletic department's continued march toward worldwide dominance.

YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK

Dykstra Daily Show

ROLLIN' WITH THE ROYALS

Reading drummed up some preseason excitement by bringing in 19-year-old defender Ryan Bertrand on a season-long loan deal from Chelsea – the Royals' first signing since Brendan Rodgers replaced Steve Coppell as manager. Bertrand has played for England's under-21 squad and, according to Rodgers, is being groomed as an eventual replacement for left back Ashley Cole on the national team. He's expected to compete with holdover Chris Armstrong for a spot on Reading's back line.

LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK

Former Falcons coach Dan Reeves says he has tried to get in touch with Michael Vick(notes) but has gotten no love in return, and now he's a bit moist as a result. Being a retro kind of guy, Reeves might be sitting at home channeling Tony Orlando and Dawn, with longtime cohorts Wade Phillips and Chan Gailey doing the background hooks. (Or he might not be – but it's funnier this way.) To the tune of the Irwin Levine/L. Russell Brown composition "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree."

You're comin' home
You've done your time
Now I've got to give you a piece of my mind
If you received my letters right before they set you free
Then you'll know just what to do to make me your daddy
Make me your daddy

Oh, send me a text message to my ole cell phone
It's been two long years
Show me how you've grown
If I don't see a message on my ole flip phone
I'll turn off the power
And take a cold shower
Spend my days alone
If I don't see a message on my ole cell phone

Took a job, went to Big D
But I couldn't bear to hook up with Jerry
Cause I'm the one in prison
Your attention holds the key
One hundred sixty characters can surely set me free
Pick up your BlackBerry

Oh, send me a text message to my ole cell phone
It's been two long years
Show me how you've grown
If I don't see a message on my ole flip phone
I'll turn off the power
And take a cold shower
Spend my days alone
If I don't see a message on my ole cell phone

Now the stormy skies are clearing
And I can't believe I see
A hundred instant messages
On my old Mac SE

You're comin' home

Send me a text message to my new cell phone
Send me a text message to my new cell phone
Send me a text message to my new cell phone …