It happens every year. Fans obsessively follow every training camp practice and get overly excited when they hear that guys from their team look really good. Or conversely, they could get worried upon hearing that somebody is struggling.
This is your friendly annual reminder to calm down. The first few days of training camp ultimately don’t mean a ton, especially when it comes to rumors about how particular players are performing. Let’s take a look at a few of the reasons why hearing about a single practice taking place over a month before the season starts is not really going to tell you much about the season.
How often do you hear somebody say “This player looked great today,” using one big play he made as proof? Unfortunately, this blatantly ignores the consistency required from players to truly perform at a high level.
To go along with this is the problem of contrasting reports. One person will say a player looks great based on one or two flashy plays he made, while another person claims that same player is doing terrible because he had one bad miscue. Fans will naturally want to gravitate towards the positive reports, but it is important to remember that balance is key.
Looking good or looking bad?
Another thing to keep in mind is that players are going up against their teammates in training camp, so somebody “looking good” could mean more that their teammate is bad. For example, hearing that the offensive line is consistently dominating their defensive counterparts in practice can be viewed two ways. On the one hand, the offensive line is looking really good. On the other hand, the defensive line is being outclassed. Does that say more good things about the offensive line or bad things about the defensive line?
This happened in 2014, when the defense drew praise throughout training camp for holding their own against the offense, which had finished as the 2nd highest scoring unit in the NFL the year before. Everybody thought this meant good things for the defense, when in fact the opposite was true. The defense was still among the worst in the NFL, while the offense plummeted from 2nd to 23rd in points scored.
Context is key
It is also essential to remember who players are going up against when evaluating their play. A wide receiver making training camp plays against the third string defense — where many of the prospects probably won’t make the team — doesn’t mean he’ll be able to make plays against starting defenses in September. Having a young reserve look good against other reserves is promising in that it might mean the player is ready to test himself against better competition, but don’t go overboard in thinking it means much more than that.
Recent example: Mason Foster recently received praise for beating Vlad Ducasse, getting into the backfield, and tackling Jacquizz Rodgers for a loss in a goal-line drill. Ducasse is on his 3rd NFL team in as many seasons and is generally viewed as a poor reserve guard at best, while Rodgers is a 5’6″, 196 pound scatback who should never get a goal-line carry between the tackles in an NFL game. Foster has generally been running with the 2nd team, and a player with over 50 starts under his belt should be looking good in that situation.
Not real football
Finally, the most important thing to keep in mind is that training camp is not real football. Most of the practices do not allow tackling, and some even take place without pads on. It’s easy for a quarterback to step up in the pocket and confidently make a throw when he knows he’s not going to get drilled, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be able to make the same play in a real situation when a pass rusher is bearing down on him. Likewise, running backs look good when they keep running and people can’t tackle them, and receivers have an easier time making tough catches in traffic when a safety isn’t coming to separate them from the ball with a big hit.
And don’t even get me started on the defense. It’s extremely difficult to judge a linebacker — whose primary job is to make tackles — when he can’t tackle anyone. Sure, you can say that he is consistently in the right position to make a play, but you don’t know whether he actually will make that play. Likewise, linemen on both sides of the ball are very tough to judge in practices that limit contact, as virtually everything they do relies on contact.
Recent example: everybody is talking about Jay Cutler not turning the ball over through five practices. The quarterback can’t be hit in practice, which makes it pretty much impossible to fumble, and it’s easier to make correct reads of a defense when you don’t have to worry about getting drilled at any second. It’s still a good sign that Cutler isn’t turning it over, but let’s keep in mind the same thing can be said of Geno Smith (who is bad) and Marcus Mariota (who is a rookie).
What it comes down to is this: don’t overreact to what you hear from training camp practices. I know it’s tempting to want to over-analyze everything, especially after football has been gone for so long, but that will not do you any favors in the long run. At least wait until preseason games to convince yourself that your favorite lesser player has used the offseason to turn himself into a star.