Marv Levy obviously knows his current events.
When the Buffalo Bills general manager punched in a cellphone number and learned the person on the other end was driving around Boston, he chuckled, then said: ``Hope you're not going through that tunnel."
Levy and the rest of the NFL's 31 personnel chiefs usually have tunnel vision of a different kind this time of year. All NFL squads are scheduled to begin training camp by today, which traditionally marks the first step of a sixth-month, nonstop grind. Or, as Bill Belichick sometimes says, every team starts climbing up the same mountain.
Perhaps the defining theme of the upcoming NFL season is the lingering questions surrounding the quarterbacks set to lead their teams on that climb. And no place is that more apparent than the AFC East.
In Miami, there is no guarantee that Daunte Culpepper -- who tore three ligaments in his knee last October while playing for the Vikings -- will be ready for the season opener Sept. 7 at Pittsburgh. Culpepper was cleared to participate in the Dolphins' first practice in training camp yesterday , but there is still uncertainty as to how heavy of a load he'll handle. If he can't go, it's Joey Harrington's job.
In New York, Chad Pennington is recovering from two surgeries on his throwing shoulder in the last year. He's in a four-way competition for the Jets' starting job with Patrick Ramsey , rookie Kellen Clemens, and Brooks Bollinger .
And in Buffalo, there are no injury concerns at quarterback, just a three-way competition between former first-round pick J.P. Losman , veteran Kelly Holcomb, and career backup Craig Nall .
One division, three major unknowns.
In the entire AFC, eight of the 16 teams have either open quarterback competitions, a starter coming off serious offseason surgery, or a changing of the guard.
``It seems like every year there are quarterback questions or unsettled situations at the position," said Levy, whose pro coaching career started in 1969 with the Philadelphia Eagles. ``Many of the situations are different. Is a first-rounder ready to play? Who is going to step up? Is someone like Culpepper going to be ready?
``There are abandoned quarterbacks who have sparkled, like Brett Favre after leaving Atlanta, or Steve Young after leaving Tampa Bay. There are backups who get it done, like Kurt Warner or Matt Hasselbeck . So what I'd say is that there is no one formula."
Levy, who had a winning formula as coach of the Bills (1986-97) when Jim Kelly was the quarterback, said one of the reasons the Patriots are favored to win the AFC East is because of their settled quarterback situation.
It's a general thought echoed in many NFL cities: Until the quarterback spot is adequately addressed, it's difficult to focus on the rest of the team-building process. That's part of the reason so many quarterbacks are drafted in the first round, which Levy said can be a blessing or a curse.
``The expectations are so great, I don't care for the first-rounder," he said in the hours before the Tennessee Titans inked Vince Young to a contract Thursday that included a guaranteed $25.8 million. ``I'd rather have a sixth-rounder like Tom Brady, or a third-rounder like Joe Montana."
The problem, of course, is that there are also plenty of sixth-rounders like Todd Husak (selected three picks after Brady in 2000 ) and third-rounders like Giovanni Carmazzi (selected 134 picks before Brady in Round 3), both of whom never developed.
Levy does acknowledge that ``if there is any one position [above all else], it's quarterback," and that's why the Bengals, a team that showed dramatic improvement in 2005 by making the playoffs for the first time in 15 years, are a bit of a wild-card this year. Quarterback Carson Palmer is coming off major surgery after suffering torn knee ligaments in the 2005 playoffs.
In Pittsburgh, coaches will be watching Ben Roethlisberger closely after his offseason motorcycle accident. And there are new starters in San Diego (Philip Rivers ), Cleveland (Charlie Frye ), and Oakland (Aaron Brooks ).
Over in the NFC, there are fewer questions, with the most noteworthy in New Orleans concerning Drew Brees (shoulder surgery).
Another year, more quarterback questions. For Levy, that sounds about right.
``I tend to say this is the norm," he said. ``Quarterback is a vitally important position."
LaCasse riding high on bonus
Stoughton High graduate Ryan LaCasse , a seventh-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens, didn't exactly go on a spending spree after signing his rookie three-year contract.
Seventh-round picks generally receive a signing bonus in the $40,000 range.
``My big splurge," he said, ``was to go out and get a $13 haircut."
LaCasse's no-frills approach was also seen during Ravens' offseason activities. Instead of waiting for a bus that picked rookies up at a nearby hotel, LaCasse hopped on his bicycle and rode 3 miles to the team's workout facilities. After workouts, he rode the 3 miles back to the hotel.
``Just trying to stay in shape," said LaCasse, a defensive end who played at Syracuse. ``It's something I enjoy doing. I used to do a lot of mountain biking before I played football and this was a way to get back into that. Plus, it was a pain to wait for the bus. This allowed me to make my own schedule."
LaCasse checked in for the opening of Ravens' training camp Thursday, where he'll compete for a roster spot as a strong-side outside linebacker and a pass-rushing defensive end on third down. LaCasse also realizes he'll have to make a mark on special teams to earn a roster spot.
He said the team's veterans, specifically fellow outside linebacker/defensive end Adalius Thomas , have been a big help.
``If they see something you're doing that isn't right, they'll pull you to the side and show you some of the tricks of the trade," LaCasse said.
Freak accident keeps Packers' Blackmon on sideline
The Green Bay Packers opened training camp Friday, but former Boston College cornerback/receiver Will Blackmon didn't take the field with his new team.
Blackmon, a fourth-round pick who will play cornerback for the Packers, sustained a clean fracture of his foot during offseason drills. He called the injury ``a freak accident" in which his foot got caught on the field while he was jogging.
``I wasn't even fully sprinting," he said. ``It's definitely tough when all you've wanted to do is participate in the NFL your whole life, but all I can do is stay patient and study [the playbook]."
Blackmon, who said he played last season at BC with a separated shoulder, estimates his return could come ``anywhere from two weeks to a month." The Packers are set at the starting corner positions, with Charles Woodson and Al Harris , so Blackmon is expected to contend for time in a reserve role with former first-round pick Ahmad Carroll , third-year veteran Jason Horton , and second-year players Mike Hawkins and Patrick Dendy . He also is expected to vie for time on special teams, in the return game.
Just as he developed strong friendships at BC, which he visited last weekend in the days leading up to training camp, Blackmon sees them starting to develop in Green Bay, too.
``Our '06 rookie class is real close, we all talk among each other," he said of the group headlined by No. 5 overall pick A.J. Hawk (Ohio State), second-round picks Daryn Colledge (Boise State) and Greg Jennings (Western Michigan), and third-rounders Abdul Hodge (Iowa) and Jason Spitz (Louisville).
One aspect that quickly caught Blackmon's attention in Green Bay is that it's all Packers, all the time.
``Football-wise, it's everything you need and something I definitely want to experience. When I was at BC, I was really excited when we switched to the ACC. I loved playing away and seeing how crazy the people were. Unfortunately for us at BC, we were competing with the Red Sox and Patriots. Here, we're the main focus."
Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.