Most Heated Camp Battles in NFL History

Adam LazarusSenior Analyst IMay 8, 2012

Most Heated Camp Battles in NFL History

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    Believe it or not, NFL training camp isn't that far away!

    One of the best parts of the preseason (aside from the fact that it eventually ends and games that matter start) is the training camp battles, pitting one player against another with the winner earning a starter's job and the loser earning a spot on the bench.

    This upcoming preseason, there will be much debate about a few potentially exciting training camp one-on-ones, most notably the Jets' showdown between incumbent Mark Sanchez and the incoming Tim Tebow. But before we look ahead, let's look backwards at the 20 greatest training camp showdowns.

    A quick note before reading, however. Keep in mind that the bulk of these entries pit quarterback vs. quarterback. That's not to say that the other spots on the field don't have great showdowns, but consider the circumstances and meaning of a "heated" battle.

    Only one quarterback can play at a time; teams with multiple talents at wide receiver or tackle or cornerback usually (not always, but usually) make room for both. Aside from Wildcat packages or whatever the Jets plan to do with Tebow, that isn't the case with quarterbacks. So that winner-take-all element elevates quarterback battles to a much more intense level.

No. 20: Patrick Ramsey vs. Mark Brunell

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    Team: Washington Redskins

    When: 2005

    Winner: Ramsey

    Many of the heated training camp battles on this list and in NFL history in general feature two types of characters: the aging, discarded veteran with an impressive résumé vs. the young, promising and far less physically battered upstart.

    That's one way to describe the quarterback situation Joe Gibbs faced in training camp prior to the 2005 season.

    The previous season, Washington had acquired Brunell from Jacksonville, where the lefty had become expendable after the arrival of Byron Leftwich. Given his veteran leadership and success he had with the Jaguars, Brunell quickly became the Redskins' starter.

    But because he had a pretty dismal, injury-plagued season in 2004 (he completed less than half his attempts), he didn't have a great handle on the gig the following summer—especially since Patrick Ramsey, the 26-year-old prototypical big pocket passer, seemed to be coming into his own.

    Although Gibbs named Ramsey the starter prior to camp, everyone knew the job was open, and the two battled throughout August.

    After a close contest, Ramsey retained the job, but he soon lost it after a pretty poor effort in Week 1 (6-of-11, one interception) during a 9-7 win over Chicago.

No. 19: Mark Ingram Jr. vs. Darren Sproles vs. Pierre Thomas vs. Chris Ivory

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    Team: New Orleans Saints

    When: 2011

    Winner: Indeterminable

    As stated in the introduction slide, it's hard to pick heated training camp battles that involve positions other than quarterback.

    But the Saints of 2011 (and most likely again this upcoming season) are an exception given that they had four viable candidates for the starting running back job: Ivory was the team's leading rusher in 2010, Thomas the team's leading rusher in its Super Bowl-winning season, Sproles a relatively high-priced free-agency acquisition and Ingram a Heisman winner who the Saints traded up for in the first round of that year's draft.

    Now, obviously, it doesn't really matter who the official starter at running back is because teams can mix and match carries, but with that Saints backfield so crowded, things had to get pretty intense as the hierarchy came into shape. 

    Ultimately, no one really "won" the job: After Ivory underwent sports hernia surgery, the carries were split fairly evenly. But on opening night in Green Bay, Ingram carried the ball 13 times, eight more than Thomas and 11 more than Sproles. 

No. 18: Rex Grossman vs. Brian Griese vs. Kyle Orton

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    Team: Chicago Bears

    When: 2007

    Winner: Grossman

    The Bears' longstanding quarterback woes seemed to hit full stride in 2006: They had a Super Bowl-caliber team and apparently no field general to lead it.

    Grossman was the one under center during the playoff run that landed them in Super Bowl XLI, but his slippery hands (two fumbles, two interceptions) during that loss to the Colts proved just how shaky his grip was on the job.

    The next summer, both Brian Griese and Kyle Orton, who had started 15 games in 2005 for the Bears, looked to unseat Sexy Rexy.

    In the end, they couldn't, but it was close, and the quarterback carousel continued throughout the 2007 campaign.

No. 17: Mike Vanderjagt vs. Shaun Suisham

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    Team: Dallas Cowboys

    When: 2006

    Winner: Suisham

    No one fell faster or harder in the annals of NFL kickers than Vanderjagt, who went from being one of the most valuable players on the Colts roster to a punch line following his missed kick in the 2005 playoff loss to Pittsburgh.

    Yet after the Colts promptly replaced the free agent with Adam Vinatieri the next spring, Vanderjagt quickly found work and a huge contract in Dallas. But moving down south did nothing to help him regain his accuracy, and during the preseason Bill Parcells and his staff started to prefer undrafted second-year kicker Shaun Suisham for extra points and field goals.

    A hamstring injury coupled with several missed kicks in preseason games cost Vanderjagt the job and ultimately a place on the Dallas roster. Coincidentally, Suisham's place on the Dallas roster was short-lived as well: He was cut in October.

No. 16: Larry Johnson vs. Priest Holmes

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    Team: Kansas City Chiefs

    When: 2005

    Winner: Holmes

    Injuries often play a part in big-time position battles, and that's exactly how the Chiefs' record-setting running back Priest Holmes found himself in a battle with Larry Johnson.

    Holmes, who had scored an incredible 70 touchdowns during the previous four seasons, suffered a season-ending knee injury in November 2004, and Johnson filled in with five straight games in which he averaged over 100 yards and 20 carries.

    Because the Chiefs spent a first-round pick on Johnson, who was much bigger, seemingly more durable and six years younger than the 32-year-old Holmes, there was a case to be made for him as the starter, or at least to greatly increase his touches.

    By the end of camp, Holmes kept his place as the team's starter, but he soon suffered a devastating neck injury, and Johnson went on to have a Pro Bowl season.

No. 15: Todd Blackledge vs. Bill Kenney

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    Team: Kansas City Chiefs

    When: 1984

    Winner: Blackledge

    Everyone remembers the difficult position that Drew Brees put the Chargers in in 2005: The team spent a top-10 draft pick on Philip Rivers only to see Brees have a fantastic season the next fall.

    But virtually the same thing happened in Kansas City two decades earlier.

    The Chiefs, in their long search for the next Len Dawson, spent the seventh overall pick in the 1983 draft on Penn State's Todd Blackledge.  Then, in a classic case of bad timing, former 12th-round draft pick Bill Kenney went on to rewrite the Chiefs' record books that same season, leading the NFL in completions (346) and attempts (603) and racking up over 4,300 yards passing.

    Naturally, that led to a pretty complicated training camp in 1984, when Blackledge had shed his rookie status and was looking to take the job management had essentially guaranteed him.

    Technically, Blackledge won the battle because he was the Week 1 starter, but since he only nailed down the job because Kenney broke his thumb in the preseason, it wasn't exactly a heroic victory.

No. 14: Terrell Davis vs. Olandis Gary vs. Mike Anderson

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    Team: Denver Broncos

    When: 2000

    Winner: Olandis Gary

    The only way that a relatively still-young recent Super Bowl and league MVP is going to find himself in a training camp battle is by way of an injury, and that's the only way that Terrell Davis had to audition for the role of the Broncos' starting running back in 2000.

    TD tore up his knee early in the 1999 season but was ready to come back the following August. Yet because rookie back Olandis Gary had rushed for over 1,150 yards in Davis' place, the Broncos couldn't necessarily hand him the job back with no questions asked.

    Making matters a bit more complicated was the emergence of rookie and former Marine Mike Anderson, who quickly impressed coach Mike Shanahan.

    By the time the regular season hit, another injury (a sprained ankle) sidelined Davis, and Gary got the start in Week 1. But within a week, injury again shook up the Bronco backfield: Gary tore his ACL, thrusting Anderson into the spotlight. He took advantage, rushing for nearly 1,500 yards. Meanwhile, Davis could not get back to 100 percent and played in only five games.

No. 13: Asante Samuel vs. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie

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    Team: Philadelphia Eagles

    When: 2011

    Winner: Samuel

    While the Eagles were assembling the Dream Team in 2011, it must have never occurred to Joe Banner or Andy Reid that acquiring two big-name corners (Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie) might cause a backload given the presence of Asante Samuel.

    That's exactly what happened. 

    While rumors swirled that Samuel, who had been to the Pro Bowl each of the past four seasons and was making nearly $10 million per season, would be dealt, the Eagles still had a preseason to carry out.

    There were only two starting cornerback spots, and since Samuel wasn't going to edge out Asomugha (the NFL's most highly coveted free agent that spring), his real competition for the other corner spot was Rodgers-Cromartie, who was more physically gifted but less refined.

    But since the Eagles had demanded Rodgers-Cromartie as compensation in the Kevin Kolb deal, they clearly wanted him on the field as much as possible.

    In the end, despite all his complaints to the media and the rumors of his being traded, Samuel retained the job and limited Rodgers-Cromartie's time on the field, but soon enough he was dealt out of town.

No. 12: Mark Brunell vs. Byron Leftwich

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    Team: Jacksonville Jaguars

    When: 2003

    Winner: Brunell

    Just two years before he found himself in the same position with the Redskins, Mark Brunell was being pushed out of the starter's job in place of a younger quarterback, a first-round draft choice with a big arm and big body.

    In the 2003 draft, the Jags made the somewhat surprising move of drafting Marshall's Byron Leftwich with the seventh overall pick. Sure, Brunell was 33 years old and on the downside of his career, but he had basically been the only quarterback the Jaguars franchise had ever known.

    Two completely different types of passers (Brunell a cagey, scrambling lefty, Leftwich an immobile righty with an enormously elongated delivery), the two made for an interesting contrast during training camp in 2003.

    Leftwich signed his rookie deal late and missed part of camp, but within a few weeks he looked worthy of the starter's job, rallying the Jags to a victory over Miami in the middle of August. There were even rumors that the Jags were shopping Brunell around the league.

    Brunell hung on to the job for a while, but soon enough another injury landed him on the bench and thrust Leftwich into the starter's role. The following spring, the Jags dealt Brunell to Washington.

No. 11: Brady Quinn vs. Derek Anderson vs. Charlie Frye

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    Team: Cleveland Browns

    When: 2007

    Winner: Frye

    Admittedly, aside from Anderson's Pro Bowl season in 2007, none of the quarterbacks listed above have had very bright NFL careers. But the specifics of this trio of Browns quarterbacks do make it one of the more unique cases in great training camp battles.

    In the summer of 2007, the Browns had local hero Charlie Frye, an excellent physical specimen in Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn, who many thought would be the top pick in that year's draft but tumbled only to be snatched up by Cleveland after a trade with Dallas.

    At the beginning, Anderson and Frye battled for the job while the rookie Quinn watched, but as the regular season neared, all three seemed to have a grasp on the job.

    Frye ultimately earned the opening-day start, but after a few quarters he was replaced by Quinn and later was dealt to Seattle. Quinn and Anderson carried the training camp battle on into the regular season, and after much back and forth, Anderson emerged as the winner.

No. 10: Doug Flutie vs. Rob Johnson

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    Team: Buffalo Bills

    When: 2000

    Winner: Johnson

    After all the pain and angst of the Bills' heartbreaking playoff loss to Tennessee (by way of the Music City Miracle), Wade Philips had to be even more distraught realizing what lay ahead the following summer: a quarterback controversy between Rob Johnson and Doug Flutie.

    Those fears were realized in August of 2000, as the conventional passer Johnson (to whom the Bills were paying a fortune and who cost them a first- and fourth-round draft pick to acquire) battled the far more popular "playmaker" Flutie.

    Flute had posted a much better record than Johnson during the 1998 and 1999 seasons, but because he was 38 years old, he clearly wasn't the future of the franchise.

    But what made this training camp battle extra juicy was the fact that the two didn't really like each other. That August, while they battled for the job, Flutie told TSN that the Bills would have beaten the Titans if he started. A few days later, Penthouse published an interview with Johnson in which he returned Flutie's blast.

    That made the locker room at St. John Fisher College interesting.

No. 9: Joseph Addai vs. Dominic Rhodes

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    Team: Indianapolis Colts

    When: 2006

    Winner: Rhodes

    During the 2006 training camp, both Rhodes and Addai had the somewhat unenviable task of trying to replace the great Edgerrin James, who had left Indy as a free agent that spring. 

    Addai seemed to have the upper hand: He was built more like James, had better hands and was the Colts' first-round draft choice, so there was a real itching to get him on the field. But Rhodes, who had been in the Colts' offense for five years, was more familiar with the scheme and Peyton Manning, so there was a real neck-and-neck feel to this battle. 

    Both had very productive training camps, making it hard for Tony Dungy to name a true starter, something he really never did throughout the season. But because Rhodes carried the ball 16 times in Week 1, against just seven carries for the rookie Addai, you'd have to say Rhodes came out on top. 

    Still, since both were so productive in the team's Super Bowl XLI victory, this was a case of a training camp battle paying dividends for all parties.

No. 8: Roger Staubach vs. Craig Morton

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    Team: Dallas Cowboys

    When: 1970

    Winner: Staubach

    In retrospect, it's hard to fathom that the great Roger Staubach ever had to audition for the starter's job in Dallas. But missing five years of his prime due to Naval service certainly put him behind the eight-ball when he began his professional career.

    The 1970 season was proof of that.

    Craig Morton didn't have the physical tools or scrambling ability of Roger the Dodger, but he had been in Tom Landry's system for five years and led the Cowboys to 10 wins in 1969.

    All throughout August, Landry danced around naming a starter until he absolutely had to, prior to the Cowboys' Week 1 game against the Eagles.

    He chose Staubach, who played well in victory but soon enough was sent back to the bench in favor of Morton, who guided the Cowboys to Super Bowl V, only to throw three interceptions in a loss.

No. 7: Tim Tebow vs. Kyle Orton

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    Team: Denver Broncos

    When: 2011

    Winner: Orton

    Obviously, at the end of the 2011 season (although it didn't last for long), Tim Tebow was the talk of Denver and the NFL world in general. But during training camp just a few months earlier, he was pretty thoroughly beaten by incumbent Kyle Orton for the starter's job.

    Some even felt that he lost the second-string job to Brady Quinn.

    But this is a list of "most heated" training camp battles, not necessarily "the closest" training camp battles—and "heated" was certainly an appropriate way to describe Tebow vs. Orton.

    Virtually everyone wanted to see Tebow handed the job on a silver platter, but John Fox and the Denver coaching staff wouldn't do it. 

    That made for a lot of headlines and some angst within the locker room about who was the best fit to lead the team.

    That's always a key part of a heated position battle, especially one involving quarterbacks.

No. 6: Drew Brees vs. Philip Rivers

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    Team: San Diego Chargers

    When: 2005

    Winner: Brees

    There was no heated training camp battle between Drew Brees and Philip Rivers in 2004, just a few months after the Chargers acquired Rivers from the Giants in the Eli Manning deal: Rivers didn't sign until mid-August and never had a chance to contend for the job.

    But a year later, that changed.

    Sure, Brees had a fine season in 2004, and Rivers only attempted eight passes, but because Brees was to become a free agent the following spring, the front office had to secretly be rooting for Rivers to unseat the undersized veteran.

    It didn't happen, and Brees retained the job, but not quite as easily as it may have seemed. Since that 2005 training camp turned out to be Brees' last as a Charger, Rivers applied plenty of heat to Brees, who signed with the Saints the following offseason.

    So you might say that while Brees won the battle (i.e. the 2005 starting job), Rivers won the war (i.e. the job for the next handful of seasons).

No. 5: Kurt Warner vs. Matt Leinart

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    Team: Arizona Cardinals

    When: 2008

    Winner: Leinart

    When the Cardinals re-signed Kurt Warner in 2006, it was never to be the long-term starter, the leader of the franchise. The purpose of signing the former Super Bowl MVP who had washed out of New York was to either tutor whatever rookie they were going to draft or hold down the fort until they found a younger replacement with a much brighter future.

    But for a brief time, early in the 2006 season, Warner found resurrection just outside of Phoenix while rookie Matt Leinart was still learning the system. Soon enough, however, during that same year, Leinart usurped Warner and played exceptionally well.

    That easily made him the front-runner for the starter's role in 2007, but poor play put Warner back in the starter's chair throughout most of that season.

    So after two years together, the Warner-Leinart battle had produced one victory, one loss for each. Not surprisingly, there was a heated battle in the third go-round, i.e. the 2008 preseason. 

    At the end of August, Ken Whisenhunt settled on the wily old veteran, Warner, instead of the curly-haired Heisman Trophy winner, and it paid off with the greatest single season in the history of the franchise.

No. 4: Troy Aikman vs. Steve Walsh

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    Team: Dallas Cowboys

    When: 1989

    Winner: Aikman

    Today, you might laugh at the notion that Troy Aikman's place as the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys was ever in jeopardy, especially if he was concussion-free.

    But back in 1989, when the reboot of the franchise was under way, Aikman had to fight for the job, even though he was the team's first overall draft pick that spring.

    Why? Because of Steve Walsh.

    Walsh wasn't necessarily better or more talented or smarter than Aikman, but because he had been Jimmy Johnson's quarterback at Miami the previous two seasons, he had a huge leg up on Aikman.

    That alone proved not to be enough to keep Aikman from ascending to his destiny as the Cowboys' signal-caller, but for a time, during that first training camp, Walsh made Aikman earn the job.

No. 3: Jeff Hostetler vs. Phil Simms

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    Team: New York Giants

    When: 1991

    Winner: Hostetler

    Neither Simms nor Hostetler is or will (probably) ever be a Hall of Famer, so at first glance seeing these names here at the third spot on the list might be a bit off-putting. But consider the context.

    Only seven months prior to the 1991 Giants training camp, Hostetler led the Giants to a huge upset in Super Bowl XXV. It was such an upset, in part, because Hostetler replaced Simms, the MVP of Super Bowl XXI, just six weeks earlier.

    So when camp opened in August of 1991, the Giants had two Super Bowl heroes at quarterback and had to pick one of them.

    Simms had been the incumbent for years, so he had an advantage over Hoss, who had made only a few regular-season starts in his five years in the NFL. But because Simms was older and far less mobile, the job was entirely up for grabs.

    Hostetler narrowly edged out Simms during camp but never really solidified his place as the starter, and over the next two seasons, both quarterbacks staked their claim to the job. Not surprisingly, the Giants failed to defend their title or even make the playoffs.

No. 2: Joe Montana vs. Steve Young

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    Team: San Francisco 49ers

    When: 1988

    Winner: Montana

    Despite having the best (statistical) year of his entire career in 1987, Joe Montana nearly lost his starting job in August 1988.

    Part of the reason was his raw but talented backup Steve Young's great athleticism.

    Part of the reason was Montana's poor performance in the 49ers' shocking playoff upset loss to Minnesota the previous January.

    Part of the reason was simply Bill Walsh's style of motivation: never allowing his players—superstars or journeymen—to feel comfortable or complacent with their places on the team.

    All of those contributed to Walsh publicly declaring a quarterback controversy prior to a preseason game in London in 1988.

    Throughout the remainder of the preseason, Young and Montana shared snaps, but by Week 1, Montana retained his place and (despite some serious bumps along the way) returned the 49ers to Super Bowl glory at the end of the year.

No. 1: Joe Montana vs. Steve Young vs. Steve Bono

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    Team: San Francisco 49ers

    When: 1992

    Winner: Young

    Although the previous entry produced one of the most heated quarterback training camp battles of all time, few people really could have ever believed that Joe Montana (or at least a healthy Joe Montana) would ever lose his job as 49ers quarterback, be it to Steve Young, Joe Namath, Johnny Unitas, Dan Marino or anyone who ever lived.

    But four years after his training camp battle with Young, Montana wasn't healthy; he was still recovering from elbow surgery and suffered a slew of setbacks. He continued to practice but never suited up for a preseason game.

    So the job was automatically Young's, right?

    Wrong.

    Because of the presence of Steve Bono, who had won five of six starts during the 1991 season, Young found another challenger for the starter's job. Many thought Bono, a right-handed passer who preferred to stay in the pocket like Montana (and unlike Young), was a better fit for the 49ers' West Coast offense.

    Soon enough, however, head coach George Seifert settled on Young, sent Montana to the injured reserve list and declared Bono the backup.

    How did Young reward his head coach? With a league MVP and the best record in football.