BY JEFF GORDON
STLTODAY.COM SPORTS COLUMNIST
Sunday, Aug. 06 2006

The NFL has returned with the usual hoopla at training camps across the country.

In Oxnard, Calif., Cowboys fans have gone ga-ga over controversial newcomer
Terrell Owens. When he caught a touchdown pass during an early camp session,
the "T.O." chant broke out in the crowd. (Donovan McNabb fans probably stayed
home.)

"They're excited for me to be here and I'm equally excited for me to be here,"
Owens told reporters. "I got it every day in Philadelphia, fans chanting my
name each and every day, so I expect that."

In Latrobe, Pa., always-rabid Steelers fans are fawning over their defending
Super Bowl champions. Linebacker Clark Haggans got what witnesses called "a
thunderous ovation" after exiting a Port-A-Potty at training camp.

Somehow he wasn't unnerved by that display of support. "It's almost a football
career highlight," Haggans told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

In Napa, Calif., 77-year-old Raiders czar Al Davis, like Castro, assured the
public that he still has a grip despite his diminished physical state. "I'm
here," he told reporters. "I want you all to know I'm alive, very healthy, can
still smile, and work out five days a week. And if we could do away with this
walker, I'd be able to meet with you more often. Won't be scared of you."

Elsewhere, fans have enormous expectations for their teams this season. In San
Diego, the first full-pads practice at Chargers Park drew a record crowd of
3,900. The opening session of the Redskins camp in Ashburn, Va., drew a mob of
2,700.

But at Rams Park in the Earth City industrial park, training camp has been
pretty dull. Some nice three-digit crowds assembled for the open workouts, but
nothing unusual is happening.

"The Greatest Show on Turf" is no more. The Rams are Just Another Team now,
generating little buzz among national experts or the local fans.

The Seahawks rule the NFC West now and the long-suffering Cardinals finally
seem positioned to make their move. How can they miss the playoffs with all
that offensive talent?

Super Bowls 34 and 36 seem like a long, long time ago. "Mad Mike" Martz is
gone. So is running back Marshall Faulk, the victim of multiple injuries. Isaac
Bruce is in the twilight of his career, coming off an injury-marred season.

Fans attending the early camp sessions see a lot of two-tight end formations
and not so many empty backfields with four wideouts.

New coach Scott Linehan is maintaining a quiet profile. Paranoia is way down
and harmony is way up. There are always disagreements within the football
operation and the franchise management team, but with this group we don't hear
much about them.

After all the weirdness we've seen out there -- culminating with last year's
organizational implosion - an ordinary training camp seems refreshing.

"I think we're right on course," Linehan said Thursday afternoon, as reporters
stifled yawns. "I'm excited about the progress of the team."

He isn't totally predictable. He changed up Thursday morning and took the
fellas for a swim at a local recreational complex, which was a nice touch. That
must have been quite a scene when players linked up and went down the water
slides as human chains.

Linehan certainly CAN get upset, as the Rams saw after he observed some lapses
during offensive drills. False-start violations drive him crazy, even when they
occur in meaningless practice drills.

So he ordered the offensive players to run extra wind sprints after practice --
basic football at its most, well, basic.

"I thought the offense was sloppy," Linehan said. "We can't allow that to
happen."

The Rams have much to prove this season. They have a rookie head coach, new
defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, a few remnants from their championship years
and lots of young and/or unproven players.

So Linehan doesn't talk about playing a "fast-and-furious" style. Instead, he
talks about achieving consistency and better execution.

The whole "Shoot, we'll fix it" atmosphere is gone. It is hard to find leaders
at Rams Park acting smug, dismissive or arrogant. (Sometimes it is hard to find
leaders, period, since the operation has scaled back media access.)

There are no sideshows or soap operas at Rams Park these days, just a bunch of
players, coaches and administrators working really hard to improve. Nobody
seems to be wasting much time and energy on the silly stuff.

This is a novel concept in these parts, we know, but fans ought to embrace it.
The franchise might not be as entertaining this fall, but odds are it will be a
LOT more successful.