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 get worried upon hearing 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, 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 balance is key.
Recent example: New kicker Cody Parkey made some long field goals, but also had a few misses. One reporter explained that all the misses came with the 2nd team holder, while another decided Parkey had a “shaky day.”
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.
Recent example: Chicago’s secondary has been drawing rave reviews from camp so far. Does that say good things about them or bad things about the new-look WR group?
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.
Remember Tanner Gentry last year? He was the talk of training camp after repeatedly burning third string defensive backs and winning contested catches downfield. Everybody was worried he would be claimed by another team when the Bears cut him at the start of the year, but he easily ended up on their practice squad. When he actually got into NFL games later in the season, he was a complete non-factor. It turns out performing against third string cornerbacks in practice isn’t the same as beating starters in real games.
Recent example: Kevin Toliver was the talk of early camp after having three interceptions through two practices. He was catching balls thrown by Chase Daniel and Tyler Bray. This isn’t to say that Toliver can’t be a good NFL player, but perhaps we should wait to see him against other NFL players before building his shrine in Canton.
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. Running backs look good when they keep running and people can’t tackle them. 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: Toliver’s aforementioned big days came on two practices where players weren’t even wearing pads. He’s been injured and unable to participate since then.
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.
This is not to say that these practices are meaningless.
On the contrary, they are an important way for young players to get reps and for offenses and defenses to develop cohesion. But secondhand reports about them, or even firsthand experiences viewing them, are not always the best indicator of things to come. So let’s all agree to at least wait until preseason games to convince ourselves that our favorite lesser player has used the offseason to turn himself into a star.