Do training camp fights ever actually mean anything? The answer, in most cases, is no. A lot of times a fight is just a fight, spurred on by the heat and angst of training camp. In rare instances, however, an altercation can be very telling on a number of levels and a decent amount of information can be extrapolated from the incident.
The recent full-blown melee incited by Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett and then offensive tackle Levi Brown looks to be one of those where a significant amount of knowledge can be gleaned. For those who haven't seen it or read about it previously, it all started with Dockett bull-rushing left guard Alan Faneca, bowling Faneca over until both men landed at the feet of presumptive starting quarterback Matt Leinart. That's fine, that happens, and that's football.
But then the unusual happened. Dockett inexplicably swiped Leinart's leg, knocking him down. Leinart didn't take too kindly to this and threw the football down in Dockett's vicinity. Brown shoved Dockett and had words with him before Dockett exploded into Brown and the brawl was on. From there, it was a mosh pit of players and coaches trying to separate the two.
So what exactly did we learn? Let's start from the beginning. From a pure football standpoint, we saw that Faneca continues to struggle in pass protection, much like he did a year ago in New York. Blocking Dockett one-on-one is no picnic, but Faneca looked like a Smart Car on the tracks and Dockett was the train, knocking the former perennial Pro Bowl guard on his back with far too much ease. That's not a real good sign for Faneca and the Cards offensive line.
For a veteran like Dockett to take a swing at Leinart's leg -- causing him to fall down -- is both mind-boggling and stupid. Yes, Dockett said he got caught up in the heat of the moment, which at least sounds plausible. But he knows better than that. In a league where multiple players are carted off the field on a daily basis, there is absolutely no reason to take any chances with the guy who is trying to fill the rather sizable void left by the retirement of Kurt Warner.
But there's a silver lining for what Dockett did, as well. For one, in an era in which a lot of players (Albert Haynesworth, Brett Favre, Aaron Schobel, etc.) clearly don't want to even attend training camp, let alone actually practice, Dockett was giving it everything he's got and going full bore in early August. You gotta love that if you are a fan of the Cards because the best players on every team typically set the tone for the rest of the squad. Dockett made it very clear with his actions that this team's tempo is still going to be upbeat, even without Warner, Karlos Dansby, Anquan Boldin and Antrel Rolle. Then he reinforced his on-field actions with his words.
"When you are putting the pads on, man, as much as you love your teammates, damn, you're trying to kill them," Dockett said to the assembled media. "That is what it's all about. That is the only way you can get better. You can't come out here and play 80 percent and hope to win our third division title. It just don't happen like that."
That's refreshing to hear, especially from a guy who has been clamoring for a new contract from his franchise for a long time. But then he took it a step further, focusing on the team that likely represents the greatest challenge to the Cardinals NFC West supremacy.
"Every day we step on the field, we have to go harder and harder and harder," he said. "We got to treat them (teammates) like they're the 49ers. They have to treat us like we're the 49ers. That is the only way we are going to be able to compete and that is the only way we are going to be able to back up all the great work and try to win our third title."
The stuff that happened after Dockett knocked Leinart down is just as important as what preceded, if not more so. First, I love that Leinart has some spunk to him and didn't just accept what Dockett had done. That's critical. Players want to rally around a quarterback who is feisty like that and not a wall flower. (Don't forget, Leinart took part in some MMA training this past offseason ...)
Even more significant was that Brown stepped in and defended Leinart. Offensive linemen are always supposed to have the back of the skill players in general and the quarterbacks in particular, and usually they do. The truth is, however, that sometimes they are more willing to protect some players than they are others.
For example, I would always have confronted any player who knocked down one of my quarterbacks in practice. That is just how I was taught and what I believe. That said, I would have done that for Drew Bledsoe with a much greater zeal than I would have for, say, J.P Losman. I just had a greater respect for Bledsoe, for a multitude of reasons.
That's why Brown coming to Leinart's rescue is so vital. It gives us an indication that the players have embraced Leinart, at least on some level, and are going to support him.
So yeah, a lot of times a fight is just a fight. But in Arizona's case, the Cardinals are hoping it means a whole lot more.