This story appears in the Aug. 31, 2015, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. Subscribe to the magazine here.
In the NFL, training camp is the most wonderful time of year. It’s a time for optimism and for bonding with your teammates. For three weeks my team, the Panthers, set up shop at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. We returned to our college days of eating in the cafeteria and hanging out in common rooms. We focused solely on the sport we love after a six-month absence.
The logical question, then: If training camp is so wonderful, why are so many NFL players getting into fights? From the Cowboys’ Dez Bryant and Tyler Patmon swinging at each other on the field to IK Enemkpali breaking Jets quarterback Geno Smith’s jaw with a locker room punch over a plane ticket, some of the biggest hits so far have been on guys wearing the same uniform.
One such altercation occurred in our camp. On Aug. 10 cornerback Josh Norman and quarterback Cam Newton got into a scuffle following a Norman interception. It was our seventh day of padded practice in nine days. Fights usually come when guys are exhausted and tired of facing the same players and running the same plays. These conflicts rarely carry over. It’s not uncommon to see the same guys who were screaming at each other on the sideline in the afternoon dining together that night.
Another reason for infighting: pride. Players want to prove themselves to their teammates and coaches. That inherent competitiveness is especially heated when it’s offense versus defense. Neither side wants to hear the constant chirping about how it got beat while waiting in line at the salad bar at lunch.
The other type of training camp fight occurs during joint practices. This season it has happened to the Rams and the Cowboys and to the Texans and the Redskins. Generally, every team practices at its own tempo with its own rhythm. Sometimes, when two clubs are thrust together, those styles don’t blend quite right. The expectations for a drill are different—are you going full contact or not? Fifty percent effort or 75? If this isn’t communicated, there’s going to be a problem.
When the Dolphins arrived in our camp for two days last week, Miami coach Joe Philbin and our coach, Ron Rivera, were very clear about their expectations. When going full speed, we were to make sure that both the ballcarrier and the defensive players knew it. They also told us to understand that each team wanted to accomplish something and walk away healthy. We didn’t have any incidents.
All we want as players is to have a level playing field. We want to know the parameters, have everyone abide by them and see who thrives in competition. This is why you rarely see fights in regular-season practices or games. The expectations are consistent and are communicated as such. But in training camp, things are different, from the schedule to the weather to the number of fringe players looking to stand out and win a job, all of which can ratchet up the tension.
Before our preseason opener in Buffalo on Aug. 14, I said to linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly, “It’s nice to finally all be on the same side.” They smiled. We were no longer enemies. We were teammates again. Our success wasn’t predicated on each other’s failure. All we care about is winning the Super Bowl. None of us can argue about that.