Friday, July 29, 2011

This Could Be Good For Football

My radio chat-partner John Madden has often decried the fact that the NFL lacks the sort of year-round buzz that attends to baseball. He's pointed to baseball's post-season awards, followed by off-season free agent signings and trades, followed by spring training as a process that ensures baseball stays in the sports headlines year-round.

He's right, but the NFL may have stumbled into a solution.

What makes baseball spring training compelling is the uncertainty: every year, a phenom emerges somewhere. Every spring, the fans back home thrill to the exploits of some guy they've never heard of. Once in a while, the phenom is the real deal; often, he's just a spring flash in the pan.

And for the next few days, NFL training camps could have that same "anything might happen" feel. Because the lockout scrambled the whole free-agent signing process and for arcane legal reasons I don't pretend to understand, NFL camps have opened without a full complement of veteran players.

Take the 49ers, for example. They only have one veteran quarterback on the roster--the oft-maligned Alex Smith--and he can't legally practice until sometime next week. In the meantime, the quarterbacks are Colin Kaepernick, the exciting University of Nevada product, and a guy named McLeod Bethel-Thompson, who has been a backup quarterback for the Arena League San Jose SaberCats.

Neither has ever thrown a pass in an NFL game (regular or exhibition). Bethel-Thompson started his collegiate career at UCLA but wound up at Sacramento State, which to my knowledge has never produced a starting NFL quarterback. Heck, I'm not sure it's ever produced a backup NFL quarterback.

But for the next few days, these guys will be taking snaps, throwing passes, and getting the undivided attention of the coaching staff. Sure, the 49ers front office could well be working on a deal with a more experienced quarterback, and yes, Alex Smith will be at work soon, but for now, these are the boys of summer.

Somewhere around the NFL, maybe one of these longshots will sneak through the door that's been left slightly ajar by the lockout and settlement. Something tells me that would be good for the NFL.

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