UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
More Sports

Fighting for your cause: Players, coaches are split on camp quarrels

If they were to ever make a movie of the Philadelphia Eagles 2008 training camp, there would be only one logical working title: Fight Club II.

More so even than most summers, the Eagles have been a feisty, disagreeable bunch on the practice fields at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. Philadelphia head coach Andy Reid is a staunch believer in full-contact workout sessions, and once the long, hot and monotonous camp days start to pile up, tempers inevitably flare.

During one recent morning practice session, no fewer than five skirmishes broke out among Eagles, all of them pitting one foul-mooded offensive player against one of his similarly-minded defensive counterparts. There was safety Quintin Mikell versus receiver Michael Gasperson; guard Scott Young versus defensive end Juqua Parker; safety Sean Considine versus guard Max Jean-Gilles; offensive tackle Winston Justice versus Mikell (a scrapper who apparently refuses to back down from anyone, no matter the weight disadvantage); and outside linebacker Omar Gaither versus Justice.

"You're hot and tired and somebody just pushed a little bit extra on the pile, and now you want to get a little get-back, so you push back,'' said Gaither, a third-year Eagles veteran, describing how a training camp fight is usually sparked. "At that point, it's blah, blah, blah in somebody's face, and then everybody starts pushing. Later on, you laugh about it in the locker room.

"We have had some fights this camp, but I think it's because of the intensity of our practices. We hit more than most teams, and I think that has something to do with it.''

The Eagles may be setting the pace in terms of training camp hostilities this year, but camp fights as a genre have been with us as long as there has been tackle football being played in the sweaty, dog days of August. Sometimes the showdowns turn ugly and costly, as Steve Smith's sucker-punching of teammate Ken Lucas in Carolina two weeks ago reminded us. But usually they're just entertaining, momentary, and represent another less-straightforward form of team-building, as the Rams-Titans melees in last week's joint practices in Nashville seemed to be.

"I love 'em, personally,'' Browns receiver Braylon Edwards declared last week after a particularly hot afternoon practice at Cleveland's camp. "I think they serve a purpose. When fights happen, it shows you that the guys there aren't just going through the motions. When you've got guys going after it, when they're intense, when guys are trying to get better on every play, you get fights. I like those fights.''

Not everyone shares Edwards' enthusiasm for seeing football and fights mix. Reid, entering his 10th year as Philadelphia's head coach, does not believe such fireworks are useful, and minced no words when asked about the skirmishes that have broken out amongst his players this camp.

"I'm not big on fights,'' Reid said. "We're not boxers. We're here to play football. I'd rather you get the number, get back in the huddle, and then somewhere along the line take care of the number. Fighting doesn't do anything for me. I'm not going to keep a guy because he's a good fighter.

"[But] things are going to happen. I understand that. They're hot and tired and irritable. But they're wasting their energy. It's not impressive.''

True enough. Training camp fights are usually more pushing and shoving than bobbing and weaving, but there's nothing like a little tension and testosterone to inject a practice session with some much-needed intensity. Training camp is, after all, a competitive exercise for most players on a team's roster. Coaches don't like the injury risk that fighting sometimes poses, but some value anything that gets the competitive juices flowing.

"You want guys to be aggressive,'' Browns head coach Romeo Crennel said. "You want them to be physical. And when it's hot outside like that, sometimes tempers flare. As long as it doesn't get out of hand, sure, it can be useful. It changes the monotony of practice. It picks everybody up, gets everybody excited, and they're talking and it generates some energy.

"You can tell when guys are fighting or just pushing and shoving. When they're fighting, then you need to try and get in there, because that's when someone swings and breaks a bone in a hand or something like that.''

Some coaches have even been known to intentionally stir things up to add life to a listless camp practice and get their team's full attention. Jets offensive tackle Damien Woody played for one such coach. A guy named Bill Belichick in New England. No word on whether he videotaped the fights for later use in determining his players' pugilistic tendencies.

"Yeah, he liked them,'' Woody said of the Patriots head coach. "Sometimes he initiated them, just to kind of stir the pot a little bit. I remember one time he had a rookie free agent guy and he told him to get something going. Oh, man, it was chaos. I mean, it was funny. But it was chaos out there. He wanted to just rev up practice. But that time he did it, he had to stop practice because it kept going on. The whole team got into it.''

Belichick, no doubt learned at the hand of the master motivator himself, Bill Parcells. During his stint as Giants head coach, Parcells was said to have put Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor up to a practice-field fight with left offensive tackle Jumbo Elliott the week of January 1991's Super Bowl XXV in Tampa. Why? According to Saints head coach Sean Payton, who relayed the story to me last week, it was to get Elliot suitably motivated and intense for his gargantuan game-day challenge of blocking Buffalo Pro Bowl defensive end Bruce Smith.

Crennel was a defensive assistant on Parcells' Giants staff, and he recalls plenty of such practice-field showdowns on those defensive-led New York teams.

"We had some good fights at the Giants because you had big egos and competitive guys,'' Crennel said. "But there are all different ways they can start. I think sometimes early in camp there might be a bit player starting a fight with a veteran, because he's trying to get noticed by the coaches. But then as things go along in camp, it can be one good player against the next good player. I've even seen two best friends go at it.''

Browns receiver Donte' Stallworth is playing for his fourth team in four years, and his stints with the Saints, Eagles, Patriots and now Cleveland is giving him a pretty good working knowledge of the origins, execution and potential merits or pitfalls of the training camp fight.

"I've seen a couple punches here or there,'' said Stallworth, entering his seventh NFL season. "But it's usually nothing personal. It's the competitiveness in everyone. It usually happens around now, when you're in that sixth, seventh or eighth day of camp, after that first week. You're just tired of seeing each other and you're not able to beat up on another team yet. That's when tempers flare.

"The only negative that can come out of those is if someone gets hurt. But otherwise they're definitely good, because at the end of the day we're all teammates and we're all going to be in the locker room laughing and joking about the fight right after that. It's just a little spark, and sometimes you need that to keep everybody's attention.''

Players say camp fights actually help build camaraderie, be it offensive or defensive players brawling with one another to defend the honor of their particular unit, or like in the case of the Rams-Titans skirmishes last week, it can draw an entire team closer in the process of taking on a common foe.

"Offensively you're going to back up your offensive guys, and the defense does the same thing,'' said Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, who wears that no-contact red jersey in practice and isn't likely to be leading his charges over any hill and into battle. "I don't get involved. I'm not jumping in there. But I'm one of the guys who will instigate it a little bit and get it going.''

The aftermath is always the same, McNabb said. The perceived winner of the brawl gets camp bragging rights for a day.

"You see guys fight, and if they think they won, when they go into the cafeteria they kind of stick their chests out a little bit,'' he said. "Everybody makes jokes about it. No one gets hurt, and it's nothing that really lingers.''

Obviously in the case of the Smith-Lucas fight in Carolina, there was something that lingered. The two reportedly had a long history of practice-field hostilities that helped precipitate the camp fight between the veteran receiver and cornerback. But that appears to be largely the exception, not the rule when teammates square off.

"The key is the ability to leave it on the field,'' the Saints' Payton told me. "You don't want it to carry into something else and all of a sudden it becomes a little bit more than just a camp fight. It gets hot, guys get frustrated and fight, and then you move on.''

Despite being a protégé of Belichick's, Jets head coach Eric Mangini outlawed training camp fights in addressing his team before it's first workout of the summer. But as since released Jets quarterback Chad Pennington pointed out, that's not always a rule that can be perfectly adhered to.

"It's not a very sane game, so you kind of want people to be emotional at times out there on the field,'' Pennington said. "Some coaches like it because it increases the intensity, but [Mangini] doesn't because he doesn't want us to lose the rep. He cares more about us getting the rep in.''

Adds Jets safety Kerry Rhodes: "There's always going to be fights at camp because people are tired and irritated. You get hot and tired and somebody steps on your toe wrong and you want to fight.''

Some players look forward to camp fights for the comic relief they provide, a needed bit of levity that breaks up the drudgery of those early weeks filled with two-a-day practices. I asked new Jets guard Alan Faneca if he was a rush the pile guy, or a stand and laugh guy?

"I'm a stand and laugh guy,'' said Faneca, the ex-Steeler. "I've been caught up in some fights, but when it's just two guys having a beef with each other, it's usually comical. That's when I'm like, OK, somebody go get me some water, real quick.' ''

Every coach seems to have their own rules when it comes to rushing the pile in order to break up a camp fight. Payton looks for certain key indicators.

"With the helmets on, you kind of rush the pile,'' he said. "But when the helmets start flying, you've got to back up. Each one is different depending on the size [of the players] and what's going on. I've seen some doozeys, and then I've seen some where it looks like they're really pillow fighting.''

As a defensive coordinator under Belichick in New England, Crennel rushed the pile one too many times. But he learned a lesson he now lives by. There wasn't any pillow fighting going on that day in Foxboro.

"I used to try to break them up a little bit,'' he said. "But up in New England there was a fight I tried to break up, and a haymaker just went 'Boom,' right beside my face. That's when I decided, 'OK, that's enough. I'm out of there. I'm not going in there again.'

"I don't really remember who almost got me, but I just remember what it felt like getting grazed. I could have gotten hit in the eye or the nose. It was all I needed to say, 'I'm not going in these fights any more. I'm too old for this.' ''

The Jets' Woody has come around to the same basic viewpoint of camp fights. They're for the young, and energetic. Veterans should know better.

"In my younger days, I'd get in there,'' he said. "But now, it's like, if I fight, I'm going to waste all that energy and then I've still got to get out here and practice? No thanks. I'm not a fighter any more. I'm all about conserving.''

SI.com

Drag this icon to your bookmark bar.
Then delete your old SI.com bookmark.

SI.com

Click the share icon to bookmark us.