Call it the Law of Inverse Interest: the better an NFL team is, the more boring their training camp will be.
Training camp is all about battles, controversies, and fresh new stories and personalities. Successful teams have few of these things. Bad teams have most of them. Some of the things that make established contenders a joy to watch during the season make them a snooze in late July. Superstar quarterbacks are a prime example. Drew Brees in October is a future Hall of Famer creating offensive magic. Drew Brees in July and August is a guy drinking Gatorade, wearing a baseball cap, and providing politely dull soundbytes while Luke McCown stumbles around the field trying to earn the right to be a never-used backup.
So with camps opening up around the league as you read this, it's time to rank the 32 NFL teams not on quality or their Super Bowl chances, but on preseason amusement value. To add a little science to the rankings, I whipped up a formula to determine just what makes a team interesting in training camp. Here's the math:
New Coach: Ten points. New coaches mean new approaches, systems, quotes, and other things that are just inherently interesting.
New High-Profile Coordinator: Three points. A Rob Ryan-type brings his own interest. New owners and executives also go here if they are noteworthy, interesting, or under FBI investigation.
Loose Cannon: Four points for head coach or owner, two points for coordinator. Jim Harbaugh and Jerry Jones make every press conference a potential blockbuster. A few coordinators (Ryan again) have the same potential. Chip Kelly gets a Loose Cannon ranking, even though he is not a quote-smith, because of all the Hitchcock suspense he is building by not saying much of anything.
Read Option: Three points. We are all watching to see how this new strategy evolves.
New Quarterback: Four points. New quarterbacks are automatically interesting, even if they are Kevin Kolb.
Quarterback Controversy: Five points. There is nothing better on a hot August afternoon than a quarterback controversy. It's the only thing that can make you watch the third quarter of a preseason game. All of these quarterback points stack, by the way, so a team with new quarterbacks involved in a controversy, like the Bills, get double points.
Class of 2012 Quarterback: Three points. Colin Kaepernick gets lumped here, even though he's a Class of 2011 quarterback. Nick Foles does not, because he is kind of dull. All of the other major Class of 2012 guys are here, because we love talking about 'em.
Make-Good Quarterback Story: Two points. Will Matthew Stafford earn that contract? Will Tony Romo? Is Cam Newton watching a Falcons game instead of studying the playbook? Is Jay Cutler pushing nuns into busy traffic? A catch-all category for the established quarterbacks who need to do more than wear the baseball cap and chit-chat with the offensive coordinator.
Free Agent Haul: Four, eight, or twelve points. There is some subjectivity here, as we look for both quality and quantity of new faces. One Reggie Bush is good, a Darrelle Revis and a Dashon Goldson are better, and a Dolphins-lode is best, at least when it comes to keeping things fresh in the summer heat.
Impact Rookies: Two points. The quarterbacks of note, like E.J. Manuel and Geno Smith, were already covered elsewhere. Early-round running backs, receivers, and pass rushers are fun to track during camp, so they get points. Early-round offensive linemen, this year's bumper crop, are not that interesting, so they need to be supplemented by other interesting rookies to earn points here.
Recent Team Success: One, two, or four points. Great teams may lack compelling position battles, but they attract some interest simply by being contenders with high expectations. Last year's Super Bowl participants earn four points, the playoff teams earn two points, and regular contenders like the Giants and Steelers who missed the playoffs are given a point.
Historic Awfulness: Minus-3 points. While bad teams enter camp with lots of questions, teams that grope around year after year stop holding our interest. A handful of teams like the Browns and Bills are docked three points because their perpetual crisis mode has grown stale.
Tim Tebow: Ten points. Sad but true.
Horrifying Recent Criminal Storyline: Ten points. Sadder but truer.
Now that we have settled all of that, let us count up from the least to most interesting training camp teams. If you are looking for a team to keep an eye on besides your favorite, let this be your guide.
32: New York Giants (1 point). No team goes out of its way to be less interesting in camp than the Giants. General manager Jerry Reese is allergic to splashy signings, Tom Coughlin grumps and grumbles through interviews but never erupts with anything inflammatory, and Eli Manning is the second most quote-worthy Manning in the NFL. Former blabbermouths like Osi Umenyiora and Brandon Jacobs are gone, and there aren't many starting jobs on the line. Coughlin and the gang will try to slightly tweak their well-established system so they can go from 9-7 and failing to make the playoffs to 9-7 and making the playoffs, then suddenly getting Super Bowl hot. Whee.
31. St. Louis Rams (1 point). There's a huge difference between what I find interesting and what normal people find interesting, something I discovered while explaining the history of bacon to some friends a few years ago. The Rams have lots of cool new skill position talent (Jared Cook, Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin, Zac Stacy), and Sam Bradford has entered the "make good" stage of his quarterback career. But they remain the Rams, a team that could end up tenth best in the NFL but still finish third in their division. They are fun for football junkies and fun when they are giving the 49ers and Seahawks wedgies, but when it comes to cooking up summer intrigue, the Rams lack sizzle.
30. Cincinnati Bengals (4 points). Another team that I find interesting that you may not. Their fresh new face is tight end Tyler Eifert, and tight ends only bring so much buzz. Marvin Lewis has been around forever, the skill position depth charts are mostly set, and the team has established a comfortable one-and-done playoff rut. Watching them escape that rut, at least in July and August, will be like watching a truck rock back and forth in the mud.
29. Carolina Panthers (5 points). You have the Newton make-good story, a trendy offensive system, and what else? Nothing that will make the casual fan tune in to watch a preseason game.
28. Houston Texans (6 points). The Texans added DeAndre Hopkins and an over-the-hill Ed Reed, building a team perfectly suited to win the AFC South, beat the Bengals in the playoffs, and lose to a stronger contender in the next round. They aren't the best at what they do. They are the only ones who do what they do.
27. Detroit Lions (6 points). You have Reggie Bush and the Stafford contract angle, but otherwise these are the same guys we have seen for years since the end of that time of tragedy known to historians as The Millening. The Lions don't officially get guano crazy until the season begins and the real late hitting starts.
26. Denver Broncos (6 points). Peyton Manning was somewhat interesting last summer, when there was a slim chance that his arm would tear off and roll down the field when he attempted a 20-yard pass. Now that we know that is not going to happen, all of the camp drama will involve determining whether Wes Welker can catch seven-yard passes from a Hall of Famer. Which is the only thing we are certain Wes Welker can do.
25. New Orleans Saints (6 points). The Saints should probably get some post-Bountygate bonus or something. But really: are you still thinking about Bountygate? The Sean Payton "I Have Returned" narrative doesn't provide much heat, since he left the team in the hands of worker bees last year, and no one directly blamed Payton for whatever it was that the Saints allegedly did anyway, which no one really knows. So, you get Rob Ryan in a swamp, which has some Duck Dynasty potential, but otherwise the Saints will be dull until the 37-34 wins and losses start accumulating in September.
24. Tennessee Titans (7 points). Speaking of Bountygate, Gregg Williams is in Tennessee performing penance in a vague "assistant" role, which adds a tiny dollop of interest to a camp awash in humdrum conundrums about Jake Locker's accuracy and Chris Johnson's ability to produce a useful play other than his three SportsCenter highlights per year. The Titans would rank lower if not for the possibility that Bud Adams will go on a firing-and-obscene-gesturing spree.
23. Green Bay Packers (7 points). I gave the Packers a read-option point in the scoring system, not because they are running it, but because they are so traumatized by what the Niners did to them in the playoffs that stopping it could erupt into an amusing training camp neurosis. Otherwise, there are some rookie running backs to ogle over after years of trying to gussy up James Starks, and … that's about it for drama.
22. Pittsburgh Steelers (7.5 points). The Steelers get half a "quarterback controversy" point because their backup battle is a big deal: Bruce Gradkowski versus Landry Jones for the right to see who gets to be Charlie Batch and keep his cushy job through two recessions. Some big-time skill position rookies like Jarvis Jones and Le'Veon Bell will also keep things entertaining. And with the backup quarterbacks doing all the work, Ben Roethlisberger will get plenty of time to chill with Todd Haley, which is bound to have a payoff.
21. Oakland Raiders (8 points). The whole Matt Flynn-Terrelle Pryor-Tyler Wilson ménage would make for a compelling controversy narrative if it did not involve Matt Flynn, Terrelle Pryor, and Tyler Wilson. Seriously, each of those three quasi-prospects is interesting in his own way, but yoke them up to the Raiders futility treadmill and you get a bunch of guys running in place.
20. Minnesota Vikings (8 points). The Vikings are a playoff team trying to take the next step with Christian Ponder under center. The Vikings are a playoff team trying to take the next step with Christian Ponder under center. Nope: repeating it does not make it feel any more real. Adrian Peterson falls under the Manning-Brady category of Too Important to Do Anything Interesting in Camp, though there is a slim chance that he and Leslie Frazier will decide he needs 20 carries in a preseason game behind the third string line just to "stay sharp."
19. Atlanta Falcons (8 points). The Falcons would earn Free Agent Haul points if all of their acquisitions weren't such blatant one-for-one substitutions. Hey: let's replace aging pass rusher John Abraham with aging pass rusher Osi Umenyiora! Let's replace fading power back Michael Turner with fading power back Steven Jackson! We are sick of these white office walls: let's repaint them eggshell! The Falcons always try to do things the way the Giants do them, a philosophy that serves them well from late July through early January.
18. Washington Redskins (8 points). Robert Griffin participated in a 7-on-7 drill! Robert Griffin won't play in this preseason game! Robert Griffin might play in the next preseason game! Robert Griffin won't play but might have played if it were a real game! The players are inspired by Griffin's presence! The coaches are impressed with Griffin's perseverance! This creepy obsession with one injured player is like its own training camp story! But it's one that will get old really fast!
17. Baltimore Ravens (8 points). Most of the Ravens' points come from being defending champions. They also get negative-space Free Agent Haul credit for all the guys who were hauled away. Their first few defensive practices will look like the early scenes of a zombie movie, when the heroes walk through the abandoned downtown of a city in broad daylight searching for survivors. Now that Ray Lewis is gone, everyone else gets a chance to speak once in a while, but they probably don't have much to say.
16. Dallas Cowboys (9 points). The Jones-Tony Romo saga is like a serialized cable drama that has painted itself into a narrative corner and can only escape by copping out (Cowboys headquarters is purgatory) or having a main character start setting things on fire. Monte Kiffin's out-of-retirement effort to rebrand the Tampa-2 scheme as some kind of retro-chic, option-buster defense adds some real football value to Jones' passive aggression. The first highlight of Cowboys camp already happened when players reported last Saturday: Jason Garrett gave his season-opening press conference, but the only person who provided any quotes was Jones.
15. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10 points). Revis seems like a normal guy, but he has some drama magnet tendencies. He and Goldson represent a serious defensive makeover, but two great defensive backs are only worth so much training camp storyline mileage. Josh Freeman is the cherry on top: he is a bundle of unreliability who is one slump away from tripping and stumbling into a quarterback controversy with cannon-armed rookie elm tree Mike Glennon.
14. Chicago Bears (12 points). We are arriving at the teams with new head coaches. Marc Trestman was hired in part because of his bona fides as a Cutler Whisperer, and Bears camp could play out like an inspirational horsey movie. "They said that maverick was too high-strung to be tamed. Then a stranger came to town … on a train from Canada." Most of the Bears roster from last season is intact, so position battles will be rare, but with Mike Tice gone we will get a rare look at what the offensive linemen can do if they get two or more consecutive reps at the same position.
13. Arizona Cardinals (13 points). Bruce Arians, Carson Palmer, and a rookie class full of interesting cats (Tyrann Mathieu, Ryan Swope, Stepfan "Kulabafi" Taylor) make the Cardinals more interesting than usual. A low bar, admittedly.
12. Jacksonville Jaguars (14 points). Despite getting docked points for being the Jaguars, Gus Bradley's team still climbs into the top division among interesting camp storylines. Bradley is the biggest reason: he is new, and he has the potential to be outstanding. The Jaguars also get quarterback controversy points, even though Blaine Gabbert supposedly has starting dibs. Gabbert inspires a kind of morbid fascination as he gropes around the field searching for his potential as if it was a lost contact lens. The rookie class also has its charms: Luke Joeckel is a tackle, and therefore not that camp interesting, but Denard Robinson is a video game coverboy, and Ace Sanders is buzzy.
11. Seattle Seahawks (14 points). You have the Russell Wilson sub-Griffin mancrush, read-option tealeaf analysis, Percy Harvin, Christine Michael, and the sense that Pete Carroll is just one lineman away from unveiling his 9-0-2 defense. There is also the Richard Sherman-Roddy White Tweet Fight, though that could be interpreted as a plus or a minus.
10. San Diego Chargers (15 points). This may be a fluke in the system: most humans who don't live within 100 miles of Mission Beach are more interested in the Seahawks (or the Bears, or lawn mulch) than the moribund, star-power-challenged 2013 Chargers. The organization is new from the top down, but Tom Telesco and Mike McCoy aren't exactly Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick in terms of name recognition, though Ken Whisenhunt adds some curiosity to the coaching staff. Yes, Manti Te'o counts as a "rookie to watch." His jersey is currently the hottest seller among rookies, though I fear that we could all be getting punked, and "Te'o jersey" is actually hip slang for going shirtless.
9. Miami Dolphins (15 points). The Dolphins get the most credit from our system for veteran newcomers, thanks to Mike Wallace, Dustin Keller, and others. They also get some Ryan Tannehill second-year love. The Dolphins free agent haul appears to reside in that Goldilocks Zone between "they did not do enough to have an impact on anything but the salary cap" and the 2000s Redskins-2011 Eagles "let's watch this Dream Team pratfall." The Dolphins will be entertaining for the right reasons in training camp (decent team with exciting new personalities finding a way to get better), which is a nifty trick to pull off.
8. Kansas City Chiefs (16 points). Andy Reid is pretty boring, but Andy Reid in a red shirt is new. Alex Smith is also on board, and what else could you possibly want from training camp besides a new coach and quarterback? The next seven teams have answers to that question.
7. Indianapolis Colts (17 points). Jim Irsay always brings the party, and this year he invited every second-tier free agent he could lure into his conversion van. Ahmad Bradshaw, Erik Walden, LaRon Landry and others create a critical mass of depth chart bewilderment on both sides of the ball. It would be dull and a little sad if the Colts were any old rebuilding team, but they are a playoff team with a Class of 2012 quarterback, so watching Chuck Pagano frantically sort out the puzzle pieces that Irsay dumped onto his shag rug is going to be a lot of fun.
6. Buffalo Bills (18 points). Doug Marrone, Manuel, and Kolb make up for the Bills' historic Billsitude. You get a new coach and a quarterback controversy right out of the gate, supplemented by a draft full of receivers (Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin) who will make the Bills offense look very different in a hurry. The Bills are usually a fun camp team -- Chan Gailey was a blast -- and it showed whenever they went on one of their September hot streaks that fooled everyone, including themselves, into thinking they were finally good.
5. New York Jets (19 points). Camp schadenfreude returns with no Tebow circus but plenty of other tents. The Mark Sanchez-Geno Smith affair will sizzle under the New York media broiler (the early angle is that there will be no controversy, but yeah sure), Rex Ryan will be himself, and the talk of coordinator Marty Mornhinweg installing some read option … well, it could be magic.
4. San Francisco 49ers (20 points). It is hard to be both great and fascinating in the NFL; that's the NBA's thing, as the NFL practically demands a bland form of excellence. But the 49ers find a way. Harbaugh: blustery, provocative, sometimes irritating, always watchable. Kaepernick: new enough to be surprising, established enough to be catnip for a chorus of professional trolls whenever he adopts a new fashion statement. The read-option: Kaepernick and coordinator Greg Roman make it feel like a new cell phone, bursting with features we haven't even discovered. The new faces: Anquan Boldin, Nnamdi Asomugha, and a truckload of rookies who would be competing for starting jobs elsewhere but will be fighting for the ninth string in San Francisco. All this, plus a Super Bowl run and a division rival breathing over their necks. We will barely miss Randy Moss.
3. New England Patriots (22 points). The Patriots would rather be boring in August for the best reasons then intriguing for the worst ones. But the Aaron Hernandez aftermath is too vast and baffling to turn away from, and Tebow brings a swirl of devotion and frustration with its own tidal system. Even the most devoted x-and-o loving, talk show-rejecting fans will take a long look at the goings on in Foxborough. Lousy human nature.
2. Cleveland Browns (27 points). Don't laugh. Start with a new owner who is getting investigated by the FBI. Add a front office with about 75 different execs who already appear to be working themselves up to a Game of Thrones throwdown. Add new coach Rob Chudzinski and the goofus-and-gallant coordinator tandem of Ray Horton and Norv Turner. Separate Brandon Weeden into a Class of 2012 quarterback and a veteran journeyman on the precipice of a controversy, because he is both. Sprinkle in an odd collection of free agents like Paul Kruger and rookies like Barkevious Mingo. Deduct three points for historic futility. Shake well. Serve with reduced expectations, but a sense that nearly anything can happen.
1. Philadelphia Eagles (28 points). Kelly is Pandora's Coach. He is inscrutable. We all know he is about to do something, but even his disciples aren't sure what. Any two-and-a-half way quarterback controversy promises to be interesting, but Michael Vick's reluctant presence makes this one special. Draft and free agent classes that appear to have been cobbled together randomly provide lots of roster confusion. But Kelly is the star: he gets points from the system for being a new head coach, bringing (probably) a trendy new offense, and for being a kind of Loose Cannon, even though he has not yet opened fire.
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(Don't like the rankings? Let me have it below, or @MikeTanier on Twitter. Just remember: Thirty-two fanbases think their team's camp is most interesting, what with its weakside linebacker battle and the undrafted rookie receiver who could make the practice squad as a return man. I will be giving every team as much attention as possible during the Sports on Earth camp coverage; some teams are just going to demand a little more of it.)