As a former NFL player who has endured the rigors of several training camps in my day, the idea that these long, intense, seemingly endless summer days could actually be somewhat meaningless is hard to come to terms with.
In an effort to find out whether training camp is either a critical component to a successful NFL season or something most guys can live without, I put together a pretty lengthy list of players. Each of the players who factor into the data have missed at least one week of training camp due to either injury or a contract dispute.
With this resource I was able to analyze various angles to different questions surrounding the true value of an NFL training camp using career statistics, the nature of their camp absence and what, if any, effect it had on their seasons.
Perhaps with some comparative data crunching and a bit of firsthand experience, we may finally get a definitive understanding of the real value of an NFL training camp.
Does Missing Training Camp Increase a Player’s Chance of Injury?
As part of the process, I utilized the aforementioned list of over 50 players in order to pull all of the athletes who missed at least 10 days of training camp either through a contract dispute or injury going as far back as the 1983 season.
From this sample population there was a total of 42 individual seasons listed where a player missed some or all of training camp. This also includes multiple seasons of missed training camps by a single individual. Of those 42 seasons accounted for, 11 resulted in a significant injury that caused those players to miss multiple games during a season with limited training camp opportunities (most of these cases were season-ending injuries).
In order to make sense of that ratio, we need a reference point.
Based off of an injury chart created by DallasNews.com, who conducted a study of team-by-team injuries from the 2012 season, the league average for guys being placed on injured reserve is three per team. This roughly equates to about three out of every 50 players sustaining season-ending injuries.
Though not all 11 of those holdout injuries resulted in missing the rest of the season, at least eight of those instances did, which appears to be a significantly higher ratio than what was normal for 2012.
Let’s see what happens when addressing the question by comparing an individual player to their own history of injuries.
Running back Maurice Jones-Drew of the Jacksonville Jaguars averaged 15.5 games per season in his first six years before holding out. Yet in his holdout year, Jones-Drew only managed to play in six games before being placed on IR.
Conversely, fellow running back Chris Johnson played in every single game of his holdout season in 2011.
So which example is more revealing of a general truth?
According to the sample population of guys who missed most or all of training camp only to return by the regular season, they played a combined average of 7.61 games per year without training camp. By contrast, those same guys combined to average 12.48 games per year in all other seasons when actively participating in the summer program.
This seems to suggest that missing training camp can increase your chance of missing more games to injury during that particular season.
With that said, it’s important to note that guys who miss training camp still have nearly a three-in-four chance of playing the entire season throughout that particular year.
This should shine new light on any perceptions that injuries are an inevitable, or even likely, part of a season without training camp.
Does Missing Training Camp Impact a Player’s Production?
If the evidence that players are more likely to miss games when they hold out has any validity, then it’s reasonable to assume they would also suffer a letdown in production and performance.
So then how do we explain a season like 2012, where running back Adrian Peterson and defensive end J.J. Watt each had record-breaking seasons despite missing most of training camp due to injuries? The last thing we want to do is make unfounded assumptions. The impressive show those two superstars put on last year might be enough to devalue training camp on its own.
In a comparative breakdown of running backs and their average yards per carry per season, it may surprise you to find out that when these backs were factored together, they had a better average in their “non-camp years” (4.55) than they did when compared to the rest of their careers (4.45).
Shockingly, in many cases these backs had career-highs in several categories during their “non-training camp year(s),” not unlike what Adrian Peterson was able to do recently.
For example, Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith averaged a career high in yards per carry. Furthermore, Marshall Faulk arguably had the best season of his career during a “non-camp year,” which was the only season where he ever gained over 1,000 yards in both rushing and passing. To finish his historical year off, he added a Super Bowl victory.
Oddly enough, wide receivers missing training camp seemed to have a negative effect on production. Of the eight receivers factored in, only Hines Ward managed to improve his average receiving yards per game during a holdout year. In total, the receivers averaged nearly five more yards per game when participating in training camp.
This could signify the importance of timing between the quarterback and the receiver, which is developed during those critical summer days.
On the defensive side of the ball, both Deion Sanders and J.J. Watt had MVP seasons without the benefits of training camp.
Even defensive rookies like DE Justin Smith, LB Shawne Merriman and CB Darrelle Revis all had outstanding rookie campaigns despite holding out a significant portion of training camp.
As I continue down the list of defensive players who missed a significant amount of training camp like Asante Samuel, Aubrayo Franklin, Lawrence Taylor and Cornelius Bennett, more often than not these guys end up having highly productive seasons.
Samuel had six interceptions in ‘07, Franklin racked up a career best in tackles in ‘10, and Taylor had a career high (at the time) of nine sacks while Bennett had 8.5 sacks as a rookie despite playing only half the season due to an unusually long contract dispute.
Relatively speaking, there really aren’t many cases in the last 15 years where a defensive player struggled in a season in which he missed training camp. Surprisingly, this even stayed consistent with defensive rookies who you would think could use the repetitions more than anyone. Yet time and time again, these players had highly productive seasons with little or no grinding away in August.
Julian Peterson’s Achilles tear after holding out for 27 days before the '04 season is one example that comes to mind. But even that is more about his injury than it is about a drop in effectiveness. Blowing out an Achilles can obviously happen to anyone. Besides, statistically speaking, he was having a pretty solid year before the injury occurred.
The data suggests that not all positions are created equal when it comes to missing training camp. As you can imagine, when timing and familiarity between two positions are paramount, the value of training camp increases tremendously. Such is the case with receivers.
Unfortunately, I was not able to pull enough examples of quarterbacks missing training camp beyond guys like Brett Favre, JaMarcus Russell and Brady Quinn—Favre being the only veteran of the bunch to do so. Perhaps so few examples of any QBs missing camp is telling of just how valuable that time of year is for them—unless, of course, you're Brett Favre and think you can just un-retire on the day your team breaks camp.
Another reasonable assumption to make is that players who miss a large portion of training camp are likely to start off slow and get better as the season goes on.
Using the grading system provided by Pro Football Focus whenever applicable, I checked to see if there was any pattern whatsoever of a player missing camp and getting better as the season went on.
Out of the 10 different players I was able to examine on PFF, only Darrelle Revis showed any real pattern of getting better later in the year, and that was likely due to him dealing with a pulled hamstring in the beginning of the season.
There actually seems to be more players who may have regressed as the season wore on rather than progressed.
Maybe to find some greater meaning to all of this we have to dig a little deeper. Could it be that guys who hold out for more money tend to have character issues? Maybe these players have a history of being selfish or greedy. This does seem to be a stigma that was placed on Darrelle Revis, and it was most likely the reason he had worn out his welcome in New York.
Though there might be some correlation between the two, the process of trying to figure that out is far too arbitrary to proceed with any depth. But guys like Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith, Marshall Faulk, Steven Jackson, Justin Smith and Tony Gonzalez all fall into the category of being a training-camp holdout at one point in their careers.
With that being the case, it seems unwise to make such negative generalizations about the players involved in such a process.
After personally experiencing NFL training camps, it feels tremendously counterintuitive to adhere to any reality that suggests the countless hours of pain and sacrifice were essentially unnecessary in regard to production for most position groups.
I even had the opportunity to know what it’s like to arrive late to a training camp in Baltimore and try to play catch-up to the system while getting my body in football shape. Regardless of what any of the data presented here shows, there really are very few ways, if any, to prepare for a football season without actually putting the pads on and having some contact.
The first day of practice after my late arrival was extremely intense. I vividly remember the feeling of terror when I found out I’d lost 10 pounds in a single day, most of which was water weight.
During that entire summer, I was never able to get in the type of shape I was used to, regardless of how much I ran after practice to catch up. It was as if I was perpetually a step behind in that regard. Even in the final preseason game, I was noticeably fatigued much quicker than normal.
I’m baffled to find professional athletes who are capable of functioning at such a high level without the aid of a training camp. The only reasoning I’m left with is to deduce that some of these guys are simply superior athletes in the same vein as a diluted Bo Jackson (never did training camp or even stretched)—or they’ve been able to maintain an incredibly disciplined workout regime that minimizes the need for a hardcore training camp.
One way or the other, one thing seems clear: Players who miss training camp for whatever reason should not be cast aside and discarded as if their season is doomed. Oftentimes, these players end up playing the best football of their lives. But one downside to missing camp does seem to be the increased injury factor.
Now you should know that if your star fantasy player sprains his ankle on the first day of camp, don’t sweat it. The season is long and player success is not predicated upon much of anything that transpires in August. Preparation for an NFL season began months ago—and in the rare cases of those super-athletes, it began much earlier than that.
Ryan Riddle is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Before B/R, Ryan played defensive end at the University of California, where he still holds the single-sack record. Afterward, he was drafted by the Oakland Raiders and spent time with the New York Jets, Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens.