The demystification of training camp in the National Football League is currently being unveiled like never before.
With the annual production of HBO’s Hard Knocks and social media platforms such as Twitter, unprecedented access has been granted inside the unknown.
These newly uncovered truths, though entertaining and valuable, can also be delivered half-spoken. They can even be misleading by way of selective editing, rumors or over-dramatizations perpetuating certain myths regarding summertime in the NFL.
Training Camp is an Essential Part of a Great Season
This perception may seem like a forgone conclusion. However, my research on the matter seemed to turn up some surprising results. In reality, there were several instances where players would produce career years in seasons where the valuable grind of training camp was not a part of the equation. This is based off of research I did for a previous article.
According to this research, of all positions besides the quarterback, wide receivers seemed to be the most dependent on training camp in order to perform at the highest level. In all other cases, camp in August seemed to have no positive effect on seasonal performance.
For those who believe training camp helps ready the body for a grueling season of gridiron violence, there seems to be some truth to that—but perhaps not as much as once believed. When comparing players who missed training camp that year and got injured versus years they participated in camp, the data showed that there was a significantly greater chance of missing time due to an injury during that campless year.
However, the data also revealed that those who play an NFL season without training camp have roughly a three-in-four chance of not missing a single game.
This indicates that players who miss training camp are not only likely to stay healthy, but they can also put up record-breaking numbers—see Exhibit A, J.J. Watt, or Exhibit B, Adrian Peterson.
This is the Time for Guys to Become Better Tacklers
Truth be told, there’s only a few opportunities in training camp for defenders to tackle anyone at full speed. Nearly every drill of every practice throughout the summer is done at “thud tempo.” This means defenders are not allowed to leave their feet or take the ball-carrier down in any way. The only permissible contact allowed is a light bump or “thud” with the shoulder pad as the runner continues to past you, hence the name “thud tempo.”
The only real chance a guy has to work on his tackling skills comes in the preseason games. The problem is in-game moments to make a tackle are typically limited to a quarter of action, if that. Such time constraints tend to limit tackling opportunities to perhaps a few times a contest.
This may help explain why NFL defenders are surprisingly poor tacklers. In fact, this phenomenon only appears to be getting worse.
It seems odd that training camps around the league would neglect such a fundamental aspect of the sport. It appears that the fear of injuries to key players significantly overrides any desire to become a team equipped with technically sound tacklers.
So, the next time you hear about an NFL team focusing on tackling in training camp, ask yourself whether or not this focus involves taking a player to the ground with any regularity and the answer is almost guaranteed to be a resounding “no.”
Tackling in an NFL practice is a rare event, limited to only a few drills throughout the course of a summer. This is hardly an adequate amount of repetitions for anyone to shake off the rust of an offseason without pads, let alone improve upon a critical point of emphasis.
The Conditioning Test is Difficult
I remember during my rookie season how much anxiety I had about facing the conditioning test at the start of training camp. This was something coaches had talked about off and on as we prepared to take our vacation in July.
Players are constantly warned about not failing this test.
Considering the concept was specifically designed to assess the condition levels of some of the greatest athletes in the world, I was anticipating one of the biggest challenges of attrition in my entire life. Fortunately, the reality of the test was far less intimidating than I anticipated.
It surprises me that every year we have to hear about key players failing their conditioning test, though some organizations might have a much harder test than others.
As for the Raiders under Norv Turner, I believe the conditioning check was something similar to running 10 100-yard sprints under a certain amount of time. The qualifying times were different for linemen, mid-level guys (LBs and TEs) and the speed positions.
I can distinctly remember the feeling of ease and relief while performing the test. Maybe if it were conducted after a two-hour practice things would have been different. Running without pads or a helmet on, was shockingly simple.
If memory serves, I cannot recall a single player failing a conditioning test while I was in Oakland.
Coaches Love Guys Who Ask Questions
This is an element few coaches will own up to in public. But this myth is perhaps one of the more frustrating ones out there because most fans assume that showing initiative by wanting to learn is deemed as a positive. Well, to some degree this is true, however, its truth lies more in theory rather than practice. Some exceptions where this is true are when a high draft pick, expected to play a significant role on the team, is asking a ton of questions. Most coaches love this. This also illustrates just how busy coaches can be when you factor in how many people they have asking them questions in a day.
Conversely, they commonly act annoyed if a late-rounder or undrafted “camp body,” trying to make the team, was endlessly occupying his time and attention.
Time is a valuable thing during training camp. So consider it a positive sign when any coach is giving you the time of day.
Starting Jobs are Won and Lost in Training Camp
In some cases this is absolutely true—but most of the time this concept proves to be more of a myth than a reality.
Typically, starting positions are established long before a player ever steps out onto the practice field. More critical factors, which determine who starts, centers around how much the organization has invested in the player.
Of course there are exceptions to the rule.
For the most part, higher draft picks are afforded every opportunity to become the starter. They receive the bulk of the reps in practice and are given more one-one-one coaching tips. For these guys, they literally have to prove to the coaching staff that they cannot play, while low draft picks and undrafted free agents are forced to make the most of every rare opportunity. But even if they establish themselves as talented prospects, there still has to be a decisive letdown by the player(s) who are ahead on the depth chart in order for them to ever crack the starting lineup.
Essentially, money will almost always talk a lot louder than performance with regard to training camp and establishing the final depth chart.
Any rhetoric about there being positions to be won in camp are often just an attempt to manufacture player effort and to provide hope to those in need of it. The truth is competition and positional battles are generally an illusion with little chance of anything changing because of what transpires in training camp.
If what I’m saying were not true, there would be many more stories like Russell Wilson’s each year, rather than it serving more of as an outlier to the norm. Russell Wilson was extremely lucky given the situation he was presented. Unfortunately, we’ll never know how many guys like him could have emerged throughout the years.
As you soak up your training camp news from around the league this summer, just remember that perception can often be as inaccurate as a New England Patriots' injury report.
Ryan Riddle is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a contributor to Footballguys.com. Before B/R, Ryan played at the University of California. Afterward, he was drafted by the Oakland Raiders and spent time with the New York Jets, Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens and Los Angeles Avengers.