There are no new stories. That's common wisdom among novelists and screenwriters. Whoever first coined the saying was surely thinking of Shakespearean stories or Hollywood stories but might as well have been talking about NFL minicamp stories.
Most NFL minicamps are scheduled over the next three weeks. Those things you have been reading about over the past two weeks have been "voluntary" OTAs, which are practically the same thing, except A) the most important or disgruntled players can skip them, and B) press availability is a little more sporadic. It's a blurry distinction, but the upcoming mandatory minicamps are the last real events before teams take a few genuine days off to rest up for training camp.
Minicamp news is the NFL offseason equivalent of the bonus scene at the end of a Marvel movie. All the wham-bam action of free agency and the draft is over. Now, here's a last look at our heroes eating shawarma to get you stoked (somehow) for the next chapter of their adventures. Almost nothing really happens in minicamp: No one actually wins or loses a job, settles a controversy or even says anything of particular interest. But we love football, so we'll happily write about what players did in non-contract drills three months before the season starts as long as you will happily read about them.
If you have followed football long enough, you will notice that about 99 percent of minicamp stories fall into four major categories: Contract Stories, Injury Stories, Depth Chart Stories and Everything Is Awesome Stories. Each of those genres contains a handful of rules, conventions and subgenres, each with their own cliches and tropes.
Let's explore the four types of training camp stories together. This article may save you from having to read dozens of others. Or you could choose to become a minicamp literary expert, classifying and savoring the NFL stories of the next few weeks as excellent examples of outstanding genre literature!
1. Contract Stories
Contract stories are the microwave popcorn of the offseason. We shovel 'em down by the fistful, then look at the empty bowl an hour later and wonder what was in it.
Adrian Peterson delivered the Citizen Kane of contract dramas over the past few months. It featured alleged barroom brawls, Twitter tirades and a huge supporting cast: Jerry Jones, Roger Goodell, Peterson's father and many more. And then it was over. Peterson showed up at OTAs, shrugged through few a press conference questions and took the field. The next day, the headlines were about how great he looked. All that was missing was a scene of Peterson waking up at home in his bed and declaring, "It was all a dream!"
That's the problem with contract dramas. For all their twists and turns, they end with an anticlimax. Nearly all contract squabbles end with the player walking into team headquarters within the first 48 hours of the start of training camp, new deal or not. That's because teams can fine players for missing training camp, whereas grumbling through agents and unofficial channels in early June is absolutely free. Players who threaten to retire never retire; 49ers players simply retire without threatening, which is something entirely different.
The amount of news a contract drama generates can be calculated using the following formula:
News = F * M * D
"F" represents the fame of the player. "M" represents the size of the media market he plays in. "D" represents the amount of debate we can have about whether the player "deserves" a new contract.
Peterson brought a huge amount of F and all sorts of juicy variables to the D, so his modest M did not matter much (and got beefed up by the fact that Dallas piggybacked on a Minnesota story).
Jason Pierre-Paul brings moderate F but a whopping M and a surprising amount of D. New Yorkers love to debate whether JPP is an underachieving lollygagger or a superstar on the perennial verge of breaking out. Muhammad Wilkerson has the same M and a little less F but a lot less D than JPP. We all know Big Mo is great, so the contract debate is about the Jets' financial state, not the value of the player. A player like Buccaneers tackle Demar Dotson has little F and plays in a tiny M, and he won't generate much D because no one north of Dunedin has an opinion on him. Dotson could hold out until October, and it would generate less news than Russell Wilson playing shortstop at a charity softball game on July 4 weekend.
As an exercise, use the formula above on Dez Bryant, Justin Houston and Evan Mathis. The correct answers are "gobs of coverage," "occasional coverage" and "is he holding out?"
The reality of a contract situation has little bearing on how much drama it generates, at least until those first days of training camp in late July. A player who flat-out skips minicamp might generate less speculation than a player who grumbles a bit, then shows up to answer three days of questions about "distractions." A player like Wilson, whose contract demands have been gleaned from speculation and telepathy, doesn't have to say or do anything to generate contract drama. Poor Dotson would have to key Lovie Smith's car to get even a fraction of the attention Wilson gets for practicing and saying nothing.
We should see through these dramas by now. Marshawn Lynch sent signals last summer that he would retreat to a Tibetan monastery like Rambo rather than play out his contract. If anyone was likely to abandon the NFL on a matter of pride or principle, it was Lynch. The Seahawks twiddled a couple of knobs on his contract, and he was back in Beast Mode. If Lynch couldn't bring himself to hold out and Peterson cut back on a dime just days after a Twitter tantrum, everyone else is issuing idle threats, folks.
2. Injury Stories
There are four subclassifications of minicamp injury stories: A) Someone got seriously injured; B) Someone got slightly injured; C) Someone is recovering from injury; and D) Everyone in camp fits into categories A through C, and we are doomed (the typical Giants story).
A. Someone got seriously injured: Obviously, this is real news. However, it has minimal long-term storytelling potential. If a significant player like Dante Fowler Jr. or Will Beatty gets injured, the coach talks about how significant a loss it is, teammates react and…that's it. The player disappears, and we move on to the Depth Chart Story (see below). Sometimes, we lament what a waste it was for such an important player to get injured during an OTA or minicamp, as if handcuffing players to their sofas until the start of training camp is somehow a better idea.
B. Someone got slightly injured: Minor injuries have major storyline potential because we can speculate, hope, worry and wonder about them, and—this is the best part—compare the recovery time for injuries we know almost nothing about to vague and semi-imaginary timetables like "day to day" or "four to six months," then evaluate a player's character based on that comparison. Derek Carr's mysterious arm injury turned one routine practice pass into news. Odell Beckham Jr. with a hamstring flare-up is a limping cornucopia of daily copy; expect minute-by-minute updates of whether Beckham is stretching, riding a stationary bike or chatting with coaches during next week's Giants minicamp.
C. Someone is recovering from injury: These stories give readers a tour of the many intermediate states between "undergoing surgery at this very moment" and "getting speared in a non-contact drill by Donte Whitner, which may result in more surgery." The recovering player can be limited to conditioning work, limited to individual drills, limited to non-contact drills, limited to the far side of the practice facility where the press pool cannot really see what he is doing and so on.
Often the recovery news is accompanied by meaningless percentages. After the draft, Giants general manager Jerry Reese told WFAN's Mike Francesa (via NJ.com) that Victor Cruz was "probably 85, close to 90 percent" after last season's patellar tendon injury. Three weeks later during OTAs, Cruz himself told the New York Post's Paul Schwartz he was at 80 percent. Using regression analysis on those data points, Cruz will be paralyzed by Labor Day. Health percentages are further complicated by the fact that NFL people think they can give 110 percent effort, meaning that a player at 90 percent is further away from full health than someone with a middle school understanding of percentages would think.
D. Everyone is injured. You will notice that each of the injury categories above featured a Giants example. That just means it's June.
3. Depth Chart Stories
Depth-chart stories are minicamp meat and potatoes. Your intrepid local reporter cannot glean much of substance from the two-hour, non-contact, mostly individual-drill practices he or she gets to see once or twice during minicamp. But we can at least spot who is lining up with the starters and who is relegated to the second string. And heaven knows the guy playing right tackle on May 30th is guaranteed to be the same guy playing right tackle in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl.
Depth-chart stories come in four subtypes: A) The rookie is already starting; B) How can they replace the injured veteran; C) A formerly important player has been demoted; and D) There's a battle.
A. The rookie is already starting: When a rookie tops the depth chart at minicamp, it automatically validates both the rookie and the organization that drafted him. Because the rookie starter gets nothing but kudos from his coach and teammates—and because most of us are too polite to write about it if the rookie throws every pass into the pine trees beside the practice facility fence or slips and falls when trying to block a sled—these stories often veer into Everything Is Awesome stories. Most Jameis Winston stories fall into this category, even though Winston is actually splitting reps with the first team.
B. How can they replace the injured veteran: When Beatty got injured, the Giants slid rookie Ereck Flowers to left tackle and promoted Marshall Newhouse to right tackle, while keeping former right tackle Justin Pugh at guard. When Anthony Davis retired from the 49ers, it added significance to the fact that seventh-round pick Trent Brown has been lining up with the starters at right tackle. It's important to get to know these new faces before the next Giants lineman gets injured or 49ers lineman retires—and also before training camp starts and coaches stop messing around and start preparing the real starters.
C. A formerly important player has been demoted: The Rolls Royce of depth-chart stories. A good demotion story is a cautionary tale of squandered potential packed with schadenfreude, like an old episode of VH1's Behind the Music without the part in the last 10 minutes where the band is touring county fairgrounds and the bassist is an organic gardener.
For maximum enjoyment, take demotion stories and run as far with them as your imagination will permit. Eric Fisher, the first player taken in the 2013 draft, lined up with the Chiefs' backups last week. Andy Reid cautioned that he was experimenting with different lineups, wanted to get backup Donald Stephenson some reps and thinks Fisher has done a great job lifting weights and attending meetings this offseason. Yep, nothing to see there.
So…where are you slotting Fisher in your All-Time Draft Busts slideshow? I have him wedged between JaMarcus Russell and Tim Biakabutuka.
D. There's a battle: Position battles are somewhat interesting in training camp but just filler in minicamp, where no one is going to win any job once and for all. The most delightfully insane minicamp battle stories either involve running back battles—gosh, if only there was some way these players might share the job as some sort of "committee"—or obscure players who are suddenly being discussed as starters for no discernible reason. For a fine example of the last type of story, read up on Tyrod Taylor.
4. Everything Is Awesome Stories
Barring contract disputes or injury/retirement plagues, most minicamp news is as sunny and creepily upbeat as the programming on PBS Sprout. Everyone is happy. Everyone can do anything he puts his mind to. Any obstacle can be overcome through the sheer power of teamwork, effort and a can-do spirit. In short:
There are many subgenres of Everything Is Awesome stories, most of which are self-explanatory. There's Rookie Receiver Makes Amazing Catch, New Quarterback Has Already Taken Command, Disappointing Player from 2014 Is Much More Comfortable This Season, Respected Veteran Thinks This Is the Best Group of Guys He Has Ever Been Around and many more.
In minicamp, ordinary news is great news and great news is delivered by angelic choir. The Seahawks traded for Jimmy Graham in the offseason, which was certainly good news. Graham scored five touchdowns in red-zone drills in his first practice, which is great news for fans still reliving ridiculous goal-line passes to obscure receivers in their nightmares. Oh my, is that Mount St. Helens erupting? No, that's the Seattle media gushing with poetic play-by-play descriptions of spring intrasquad drills and glowing reports about Graham's personality and his budding bromance with Wilson.
That was during voluntary OTAs. If Graham catches a touchdown pass in actual minicamp next week, the entire Pacific Northwest will totally plotz.
Everything Is Awesome stories are most adorable when written about teams that have been so awful for so long that no one associated with the team (coaches, players, reporters) would really know awesome if they saw it. Browns brass talked up Josh McCown to the Akron Beacon Journal's Nate Ulrich last week as "another coach on the field" and "more than advertised." Raise your hand if that sounds like a "nice personality" blind date setup to you. In Washington, CSN Washington's JP Finlay is reporting that Redskins linebackers Preston Smith, Trevardo Williams and Trent Murphy are all standing out; shall we pencil in 70 sacks for the Redskins defense, or a mere 65?
There is no sense slagging guys while running drills in early June, of course, and fans want to hear about rookies who are excelling, veterans who are improving and other sources of eternal-springing hope.
There are still some poor fans, though, who read the home team's Everything Is Awesome stories and do not realize that 31 sets of identical stories are being written around the NFL. These fans often end up with a set of unrealistic expectations that they are all too eager to share on message boards and around water coolers. Our undrafted rookie receiver made a one-handed catch from our now-comfortable-in-the-system quarterback. It's Montana-to-Rice all over again! What other team can boast such a lethal combination? The unspoken answer to that question is "all of them."
There are a handful of other variations on the minicamp story:
"Elite" Stories: These are now out of fashion but were all the rage from 2011 to 2013. A player or coach refers to his quarterback as "elite" (usually with ample prompting from a reporter), that quarterback is neither Tom Brady nor Peyton Manning and we all know what we are doing for the next week or so. The legendary PFTCommenter single-handedly dismantled this timebomb of a genre and should get a Pulitzer Prize for doing so.
Shots Fired Stories: The LeSean McCoy-Chip Kelly racism affair is an extreme version of this storyline, in which a player says something bad (or something which could be interpreted as bad by someone with easily bruised feelings) about a former team, forcing each team's local press pool to question everyone from the head coach to the undrafted rookie for reactions. These long-distance gossip-mongering sessions go nowhere—remember, no one has to work together anymore—and provide all of the intellectual gratification of playing a game of Battleship by mail.
Veteran Did Something Interesting with His Free Time Stories: Minicamp is a time to catch up with players who got married, became fathers, met the Dalai Lama, or Went Back to College to Earn His College Degree, Making Him the First Person in His Family to Do It and Fulfilling a Promise to His Late Grandma. Minicamp is where we learned two years ago that Tony Romo liked to run in the mountains and where we learned last week that Romo doesn't even golf in the offseason anymore. In other words, minicamp is where we learn that it isn't even fun to be Tony Romo anymore.
Arrest Stories: Players rarely get arrested during minicamp; that's what 4th of July weekend is for. But minicamp is our chance to get official statements from executives, coaches and teammates regarding any and all bad behavior surrounding the franchise over the last six months. Hooray. No wonder we prefer to write about the depth chart.
Guarantee Stories: Rex Ryan assures fans that the Bills will make the playoffs (via NJ.com); he was assuring Yankees fans, but hey, Rex is a confident guy. Dwayne Allen asserts (via USA Today) that the Colts are in "win now" mode, as if signing an over 30 all-star team in free agency didn't make that clear. The "guarantee" story is an Everything Is Awesome story with pithier quotes and a little more backbone. Sure, every team thinks it's going to the Super Bowl every year. But there are no new stories; it's all a matter of how you tell them.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.