I ended my trip right in my backyard – Albany, N.Y. The New York Jets came out from Hofstra to work out with the New York Giants for the day. I arrived a good hour early for this morning's "combined practice." Both teams made it very clear that it wasn't a true scrimmage, but after watching the hits being thrown around, I don't think that the message reached the players.
The fans at this gathering were perhaps the most colorful and entertaining of my entire tour. There were quips related to the whereabouts of Jimmy Hoffa, arguments about stadium funding and placement, one fan wondering out loud what happened to former Jets wideout Wesley Walker and of course, playoff predictions galore. One group in front of me contemplated how the chips would fall in their fantasy draft.
Eli Manning jerseys were flying off the rack as one might expect. The best scene of the day was a father walking with two children, who were no more than five years old and were wearing Mark Bavaro jerseys. Now that's dedication!
Here's what I saw on the field.
New York Giants at SUNY-Albany
Last month I was in attendance when the Giants opened training camp. Within a half hour, new coach Tom Coughlin had them running seven-on-seven drills. And after the morning, he released 2003 starting kicker Matt Bryant. It was clear that discipline was the order of the day for the new-look Giants. I couldn't wait to see how things had evolved since my first visit.
Like everyone, I made my way toward the side of the field where the quarterbacks began to go through their paces. Unlike the hordes of teenage girls hoping to get that perfect shot of Jesse Palmer and pierce the eardrums of all those around them, I wanted to watch these guys throw.
Eli Manning took his first snap and delivered a dart on a 10-yard out route. Despite it being a frozen rope, the collective masses were unimpressed. Then Kurt Warner stepped up, and in typical Warner fashion, threw a tight spiral that smacked square in the middle of receiver Tim Carter's chest (more on him later). The two matched each other pass for pass in the initial set of tosses. But it was only the beginning.
They later stretched the field and began to toss deep outs. Warner showed that there's still some action left in his arm and he hit WR Ike Hilliard in stride with a perfectly laid out ball over the outside shoulder. Eli Manning applauded the toss, promptly stepped under center and replicated the toss. This pass elicited some "Oohs" and "Aahs" from the crowd. Jesse Palmer held his own in these drills. His deep balls had more wobble than those of Warner and Manning, but he was accurate.
I left to watch the running backs and knew the inevitable pairing of the Giants offense and Jets defense was coming soon. The backs were going through a drill designed to protect the ball from defensive players trying to strip it away. They worked the punch method from below and the chop from above. No doubt that this drill was implemented to overcome the ills of 2003. Speaking of which, Tiki Barber has changed the way he holds the ball and looks comfortable and fluid.
Then came number 27. Fans wondered aloud who the thinner, more nimble back was wearing this uniform number. Many asked pointedly, "Did they finally release Ron Dayne?" When told that the thin back was actually Dayne, screams of "Thunder and Lightning Lives" came over the crowd. I know it's only the first two weeks of drills, but Dayne looked quicker and hit holes harder than I'd seen since he was at Wisconsin.
The third back in the equation impressed me, but got caught in a numbers game and was released early this week. The diminutive Delvin Joyce (5 feet 7 inches tall from James Madison) shocked the crowd with some tremendous cuts in one-on-one drills and later in the full practice.
At receiver, Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard looked ready to go right now. Both were running precise routes, which is paramount with Warner under center. One guy I added to my sleeper list on this day is Tim Carter. He ran the deep routes well and seemed to click with Warner and Manning before pulling up lame after a 35-yard post route from Manning. ( Note: His injury has opened the door for JaJuan Dawson, formerly of Cleveland, in the third receiver spot. ) Willie Ponder earned big cheers for his play on a deep route from Kurt Warner, but he'll be hard-pressed to win significant playing time.
Joyce's release means more work on punt returns for Toomer and Barber. Coach Coughlin wants the ball in the hands of his playmakers at every opportunity. We'll get a chance to watch this play out starting Friday against the Kansas City Chiefs.
A welcome sight on this day was the emergence of Jeremy Shockey to the practice field. He ran a bit and played a little soft toss on the side, but didn't participate in full drills. Fantasy owners will be excited to know that Shockey has since joined the full drills about two-three weeks ahead of schedule. Visanthe Shiancoe had been filling in for Shockey and has struggled to find consistency.
Rookie Chris Snee played well for his father-in-law, taking over the guard position in a rebuilt offensive line. This unit seems to have gelled somewhat amid question marks. They did struggle when faced with blitzes from the Jets. Warner and Manning worked their progressions well in these scenarios.
Post-practice: I watched in amazement as Warner emerged from the sports complex, his right arm wrapped in ice, and proceeded to sign autographs for the next 90 minutes, posing for pictures and thanking fans for their support. He's truly a man excited about his new start.
First preseason game: Friday, August 13 against Kansas City
New York Jets at SUNY-Albany
The biggest ovation on this day from Jets fans was for a player who didn't even participate in the day's activities. WR Wayne Chrebet, coming back from injury to compete for the third receiver job, spent the day in sweats. But his presence was a boost for the crowd. WR Santana Moss also sat out drills.
QB Chad Pennington hit the field to the chants of "franchise" and worked the early lob drills with running backs Curtis Martin, LaMont Jordan and the receiving corps. Coaches and defensive backs alternated in covering the plays and Pennington's accuracy was encouraging for those on hand.
QB Vinny Testaverde's ascent to the top spot in Dallas was a hot topic of conversation on this day, and for good reason. QB Brooks Bollinger was erratic and inconsistent, both in this early set of drills and later in the 11-on-11 workout. Already in midseason form, Jets fans let him have it. Rookie Ricky Ray looked marginally better in this set, particularly when tossing to Jordan. Chris Finlen, the second rookie QB out of Northern Illinois, showed better touch on long patterns.
With Moss and Chrebet on the sidelines, I watched the anchor of my sleeper corps intently. WR Justin McCareins lived up to the advanced billing. He went up for balls, threw himself around and was constantly working. Pennington worked deeper routes with McCareins in one-on-one drills and demonstrated great chemistry. Rookie Jerricho Cotchery showed good speed and hands and should see time in the No. 3 spot.
Martin showed a good first step, perhaps recognizing that Jordan is hot on his trail for the feature back position. He caught the ball well out of the backfield and ran well inside the tackles. Jordan ran with purpose. Now in his fourth season out of Maryland, he's clearly perturbed that he continues to play second fiddle to Martin.
Head coach Herman Edwards, himself eliciting a standing ovation from the crowd, is expected to work Martin more in the preseason to try to get him on track earlier. If he stumbles, Jordan is hungry and well-equipped to step into the role.
TE Anthony Becht stands atop the list of tight ends, which includes new signees Mikhael Ricks, Chris Baker and James Dearth. Ricks has failed to step up in the competition which means more two-catch games from Becht to start the season. He looked a little quicker in this workout and hit the sideline routes better than in the past.
I spent a great deal of time watching the Jets defense work. I was particularly interested in watching first-round selection Jonathan Vilma. Like the rest of the crowd and the veteran Jets players howling with glee, I stood in awe of his athleticism. He blanketed the field in coverage, chased down speedy tailbacks and knifed through the offensive line on blitzes like warm butter. In leagues using individual defensive players, here's a linebacker to nab. He's a playmaker and sure-fire highlight material.
In the scrimmage, the Giants' receivers were able to shake coverage for big plays and the Jets' defensive line failed to contain the corners. It appeared that the Jets were working from the big book of blitzes, which left them exposed. But take that with a grain of salt. I know coach Edwards will watch the tapes and tweak the alignments.
It only took ten plays before the first skirmish occurred. Bodies were not supposed to hit the field in these drills, but given the adrenaline that comes along with players in different uniforms, that certainly didn't last long. Again, this is only the end of Week 1 of camp, so much will change on both sides of the ball for these teams.
First preseason game: Friday, August 13 against New Orleans
There's a whole slate of games this weekend. Speaking for the 9,200 fans in attendance at this workout, we can't wait.