From Renton, Wash., to Santa Clara, Calif., to Glendale, Ariz., and Earth City, Mo., football's best division keeps getting better. Here are eight training camp scenes that tell the story of the NFC West.
It is a gorgeous day at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center, the NFL's finest practice facility. Lake Washington glistens in the sun, leaves quiver in the pleasant breeze, and the grass is so green. The thumping bass from the speakers in the middle of the field make this feel a little like a celebration for the 2,500 fans who were awarded passes to watch the defending Super Bowl champions practice this day. But there is no such feeling between the lines.
Shortly after the start of practice in the middle of individual work, Pete Carroll frantically sprints off the field as if he is seeking help for a medical emergency. Gosh, he moves fast for a 62-year-old. He runs through a line of reporters and right up to the fence where fans stand. "Let's get fired up!" he yells, gesturing with his arms. "We need you!" The fans roar. Carroll runs back on the field, smack into the middle of a drill where offensive linemen are charging at him while high-stepping over pads. Somehow, Carroll is not trampled, perhaps because of the energy field that surrounds him.
And from there, the intensity grows. Russell Wilson hits Percy Harvin with a pass of about 15 yards in front of Richard Sherman, who stops Harvin at the two. Carroll comes running over to Sherman. "What happened?" he wants to know. Sherman does not give up many of those passes. On the next play Wilson goes back at Sherman, this time with a pass to fullback Spencer Ware in the corner of the end zone. Sherman covers him physically, and the play ends with both Ware and the ball bouncing off the grass. Sherman shakes his head and smiles as he walks from the play.
"I believe the way we are practicing right now is better than ever," Wilson says later. "The sharpness, crispness of practice has been unbelievable, and the level of talent continues to rise. I really feel everyone has elevated their game."
If the Seahawks fail to repeat, the reason will not be self-satisfaction. General manager John Schneider said he believes the intensity level of camp may be higher than it was one year ago. Even after practice, Carroll still buzzes. If they gave speeding tickets for talking too fast, Carroll could be cited for being well over the limit.
"People talk about getting complacent with past accomplishments," Carroll says. "There isn't a whole lot of time for that around here. We're always pushing, so I don't have to change anything from last year. We just need to emphasize it better, focus it better and be more disciplined."
The goal of these Seahawks is not to win Super Bowl XLIX. Their goal last year was not to win Super Bowl XLVIII either. "The Super Bowl never has been my goal," Carroll says. "The goal is to be the best we can be. You are constantly challenged to be that, day in, day out. We weren't trying to be national champions at SC. We were trying to win forever. I know how powerful goal orientation is in that regard." That might explain what we are witnessing in Renton this August.
Colin Kaepernick is wearing a black jersey. He is the only player on the 49ers' Santa Clara practice field wearing black. The other quarterbacks wear white. Kaepernick matches head coach Jim Harbaugh, whose long sleeve shirt is black. Kaepernick is special. If anyone on the field didn't know that, they know by his jersey color. And if they still aren't sure, all they have to do is watch him practice. He moves like no other player on the field. His flexibility and conditioning levels must be from another world.
This is a player who appears to be performing at his highest level yet. During one unusual drill, a quarterback drops back, attempts to avoid two exercise balls rolled at him from opposite directions and then tries to throw the ball through what looks like a butterfly net about 20 yards away. The other quarterbacks don't avoid the balls so well, they throw late and they miss the net. Kaepernick, meanwhile, is so instinctive, so graceful, so accurate. He buries four straight throws in the net, and all the others can do is shake their heads. "Kap is playing at a very high level," 49ers fullback Bruce Miller deadpans.
In June, the 49ers signed Kapernick to a $126 million contract extension with a little less than half of that guaranteed. Some questioned the wisdom of the deal. Seeing Kaepernick practice, it's difficult to understand how.
"There is no question we are happy that got done," Harbaugh says. "And we're very happy for him. There is this movie Seven Years in Tibet. One of the lines in there is, 'A friend's good fortune is a blessing.' That's how I feel about his good fortune.
"A football player will be know by talent, execution and effort. He's at the highest level in all three of those categories."
Harbaugh is coaching his quarterbacks on drops, explaining some finer points. He picks up a football and takes three snaps himself, going through the movement and getting off the throws. Seeing the old quarterback back in action provides a little levity in the group. When Harbaugh is done, Kaepernick slaps his palm, offering a glimpse of the special connection between the two men in black.
A football team gets quiet at 9:30 at night after a long day of training camp. Meetings are over. Eyelids are heavy. Minds are blank. Muscles are sore. The Cardinals have about an hour-and-a-half before curfew, and most of the players are vegetating in their rooms, lost in their mobile devices. But a light flickers from a meeting room at the Renaissance Hotel in Glendale, Ariz. There, Patrick Peterson hits the pause button.
This is his time to study every receiver he will be covering this year. It's a process that started long ago in the offseason. He is dissecting 650 snaps each of Keenan Allen, Michael Crabtree, Demaryius Thomas, Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson, Rod Streater, Jeremy Maclin, Dez Bryant, Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones and more. At this point, he has three receivers left to study.
Peterson could be doing this on his tablet, but he prefers the big screen. He can pick up more details this way, and it's easier to stop, start and rewind. "I can pay attention to what they like to do, the little things, the kinds of routes they are good at, how they like to release in certain situations, what they like to run on third and two, third and four, things like that. Some of them have new offensive coordinators, but their movements, their routes, won't change. I believe this will take my game to another level."
Peterson's game already was at a high level. The fifth pick of the 2011 draft has made the Pro Bowl in each of his three seasons, and he recently signed a contract extension that will make him one of football's highest paid cornerbacks. Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said he has seen Peterson become more focused each season.
Sometimes, Peterson is joined in the meeting room by cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross, or by defensive assistant Ryan Slowik. But really, this is Peterson's project. It is a project he never had time for in the past, mostly because his time was divided between cornerback, wide receiver and kick returner. This season, the Cardinals decided to make Peterson a full-time cornerback so he could be the best defensive player he could be.
"It was time to play defense only," Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. "He can focus just on the job we ask him to do -- take the best receiver every week and study that, not have eight or nine plays in the offensive game plan and punt return duties. He's been studying it so much."
Peterson enjoyed being a three-way player, but he sees an advantage in being a specialist. "I can just hone in on my assignments now, and taking the No. 1 opposing receiver out of the game," he said. "Now I don't have to remember offensive plays, or how high the punter kicks the ball and where I need to line up."
After a completed pass on a muggy day, Gregg Williams steps aggressively toward the Rams defenders on the field. "Take charge, let's go!" he yells. "If it's wrong, you correct it!"
These days, it is the new defensive coordinator who is taking charge in Rams camp. Williams, the rehabilitated bounty coach, has an unmistakable presence on the field and in the meeting rooms in Earth City, Mo. He has since his first meeting with the defense. In front of the room, Williams made sure he had every player's attention. "He had a command of the room and he got our attention right away," defensive end Chris Long said. "It's kind of rare."
That day, Williams emphasized that he expects 11 men running to the ball on every snap. "Find ball, see ball, get ball," he explains.
"It may sound a little first grade, but it makes sense," NFL sack king Robert Quinn says. "If they throw a quick screen, everyone has to react." Everyone is reacting in practice. Rams defenders are swarming to the ball carrier consistently.
General manager Les Snead credits Williams' "tenacious approach." Williams is vociferous and demanding. Players are not missing his points. He is keeping his players on edge and is giving the defense an element it didn't have one year ago.
"I like Gregg's intensity," Long said. "He is what you need every day to set the tone. Everyone should come to work expecting great things of themselves. But at the same time you kind of need that leader to set the tone, let people know repeat mistakes are not acceptable.
"Fix it right now, then move forward. He sets a really high standard and does not waver."
Williams has a lot to work with, including four former first-round picks -- and that's just the defensive line. Young players Alec Ogletree, Trumaine Johnson and Janoris Jenkins are starting to look like veterans. In camp practices, draft choices Aaron Donald, Lamarcus Joyner and E.J. Gaines have looked like they can help quickly. Even though the Rams defense finished 13th in the NFL last season, and last in the NFC West, there are not many defenses in the league with more potential.
Williams is known for getting contributions from many. If opposing offenses want to gang up on Quinn, Williams will be happy to dig into his deep bag of blitzes and start dialing them up.
"He has so much in his defense," Quinn says. "He can switch it up on you so fast. If people focus on me there are going to be 10 other guys out there who could be coming. With Gregg being here it's going to be a lot harder for teams to focus on me."
In training camp, at least, the focus of the Rams defense is Williams.
John Morton has the remote control in his hand. Back and forth the tape plays in the quiet Santa Clara meeting room. He is making sure his receivers understand the offense and how routes are supposed to be run in the 49ers offense. The assistant coach shows Anquan Boldin running routes in Baltimore. Here is one of Stevie Johnson in Buffalo. Check out Brandon Lloyd with the Patriots. Look at how Michael Crabtree got open for the 49ers on this one.
What stands out to those in the room is the diversity of talent on the screen and in the chairs. Different bodies. Different gifts. Different styles. Bolden uses his size, strength and savvy to free him. Johnson, who was acquired in a trade with the Bills, is all about the first couple steps. Lloyd, who was lured out of retirement, has a complete arsenal of moves. And Crabtree uses a blend of quickness and power. This group of wide receivers is unlike anything the 49ers have had in quite awhile.
"It's a lot of unique players," Lloyd says. "It's fun to watch as a connoisseur, and I consider myself a connoisseur of releases and route running. I'm excited to see what I can pick up from these other receivers."
The diversity also is evident on the practice field, where 49ers receivers are creating separation and making plays. "They all have their different techniques, different strengths that they are going to use to get open," 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick says. "And, I think it's good to have a variety of receivers with different moves. I think that makes it harder on defenses, harder on DBs."
San Francisco outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks agrees. " I've been watching the receivers a lot this year," he said. "They stand out to me."
Carson Palmer thinks he is placing a pass in that sweet spot, where it will result either in touchdown to Ted Ginn Jr., or an incompletion out of the back of the end zone. The ball arcs beautifully to the intended target area. And then 6-foot-2 cornerback Antonio Cromartie leaps high in the air, stretches his arms to full extension and plucks the ball away from the offense.
School already has started in Arizona, and the snowbirds still are up north, away from the heat. But the few hundred fans in the stands at the University of Phoenix Stadium get a charge out of this one. They also make a little noise when receiver Michael Floyd gets a step on Cromartie and takes off down the sideline, too fast to give a defender a chance. Palmer hits him in stride this time.
Those two plays illustrate how this Cardinals team is different from the last Cardinals team that finished out of the playoffs. These Cardinals are longer and faster, and it is not by happenstance.
"It was a point of emphasis to be longer on defense and faster on offense," Cardinals general manager Steve Keim says. "In the division we are playing against two quarterbacks in Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson who are speed guys that can get to the perimeter, so we want defenders to be longer guys who can chase those guys, get to them and disrupt throwing lanes. And having an element of speed we didn't have last year will help open up things big time for the whole offense. There will be mismatches."
The Cardinals signed Ginn, who once ran a 4.28 40-yard dash. And they drafted wide receiver John Brown in the third round, who ran a 4.34. Brown has been a sensation in camp. And even some of the holdovers -- especially Floyd -- are playing faster. "Mike is much more fluid," Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians says. "The guys in our strength program did a great job with him."
Defensive additions besides Cromartie include 6-foot-1 safety Deone Bucannon and 6-foot-6 defensive end Kareem Martin. "Every position on defense with the exception of [inside linebacker] has gotten longer and faster," Arians said.
A longer, faster team may be just what the Cardinals need to reach the Seahawks and 49ers.
It's early in camp, and the Rams defense is having its way with the Rams offense. No surprise here. The Rams had the NFL's 30th-ranked offense one year ago. Now there are unfamiliar blitzes, new looks and a lot of muscle and speed for the offense to deal with. But the offense keeps coming. And talking.
A little more than one week into camp during a practice at the Edward Jones Dome, quarterback Sam Bradford drops back and goes deep. Wide receiver Kenny Britt is on the other end of what turns out to be a 68-yard play. It is more than a completion though. It is a statement. The Rams offense won't be pushed around. The Rams offense is starting to believe in itself.
Britt is the unlikely leader of the offensive resurgence. After a number of run-ins with the police the Titans were happy to see him go. Now, at 25, he has somehow become the wide receiver that other wide receivers are following. Britt never wanted to take part in special teams practices early in his career. He is now. And third-year wide receiver Brian Quick is right there beside him.
Britt talks a lot of trash. But in a good way. He challenges teammates on both sides of the ball. He does a lot of helmet tapping. "He has some good personality for the young guys," Rams general manager Les Snead says. "He's having fun. I don't know what the word swagger means, but he has it. So whereas maybe in the past, the receivers were young and bright eyed. Now you see Tavon Austin, those guys with some swagger. It's, 'We're going to show those guys.'"
You see Bradford with some of that too. Bradford does not look like the kind of quarterback who is coming off a knee injury that kept him out of the last nine games of 2013. "Sam has been encouraging," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "He's throwing the ball better than I've seen him right now."
If the Rams offense can translate their offensive training camp performance to game day performance, the gap between last place and first in the NFC West will seem smaller than ever.
There is heat for offensive tackle Justin Britt to deal with. Not the kind of heat that comes from the August sun. Here in Renton, Wash., the summer temperatures are pleasant, and no one complains about the humidity. The heat he has to deal with is about the pressure to step into a starting lineup of the defending Super Bowl champions as a rookie. It's also about the pressure of having a crafty veteran right on his tail, waiting for him to screw up. And it's about Cliff Avril lining up facemask to facemask and coming off the edge snap after snap as if he were shot out of a cannon.
It did not take the second-round pick long to realize he was not in Missouri anymore.
"The first day of training camp grounded me and made me realize this is different, faster," he said. "It was different because we could have contact. I was ready, but I wasn't really ready. I figured I have to really come off the ball against a professional defensive end."
Most defensive ends in the SEC didn't come off the ball like Avril. Most of them didn't have his speed, or his ability to translate speed to power. They weren't as savvy with the upfield rip move he has used on Britt repeatedly, and they didn't mix in a spin move as effectively as he does. They didn't have his understanding of how to get leverage against a bigger offensive tackle. "It's a high motor style of play," Britt said. "He really makes me have to be quick off the ball, excellent with my technique. He's been around the block a few times and he knows how it works."
Avril is preparing Britt for wars against the likes of Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Calais Campbell, John Abraham, Chris Long and others. With speed, length and experience, Avril has gotten the best of Brit on many days. But their battles are must-see viewing. Britt keeps fighting and adjusting and improving. That's why he is a Seahawk.
"He has all the right makeup," Carroll says. "He's tough minded, he's smart, he's physical. It really matters to him. He's poured himself into it so that gives him a chance to be really good. Right off the bat he's sent great signals about who he is."
Carroll believes Britt can make the Seahawks better. He was drafted after 2013 starter Breno Giacomini signed with the Jets. The idea was Britt could compete with Michael Bowie, but Bowie showed up out of shape and injured his shoulder on the second day of camp. That meant no Blake Bortles treatment for Britt.
Four days into camp, however, the Seahawks signed Eric Winston, who has started 119 games over the last eight years. It was not a move that indicated dissatisfaction with Britt. Rather, it was an addition that enhanced depth and competition. Britt said he didn't mind the competition. And he really didn't mind having a veteran mentor. "For me it's really good to have Eric here," he said. "He's been in the league, and he has gone against lot of defensive ends with different styles of play, so he has given me a lot of pointers."
Right now, it's all about learning for Britt. Soon though, it will be about 49ers and Cardinals and Rams, and winning the NFC West.