Training Camp Narratives: Where Everything is Made Up, and the Points Don't Matter
Once upon a time, in the late 1990s, there was an improvisational comedy show on ABC called “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” Host Drew Carey (ironically for an improvisational comedy show) would begin every single show the exact same way:
“Welcome to Whose Line Is It Anyway?, where everything is made up and the points don’t matter.”
As NFL training camps begin in earnest this week, with teams having completed their initial COVID-19 screenings and cleared players for practice, remember that line. It is as applicable to training camp narratives as it was to the wacky and wild comedic stylings of Ryan Stiles, Colin Mochrie, and Wayne Brady.
Everything is made up. The points don’t matter.
Not everything about training camp is made up. For instance, training camp is happening, right now. That’s not fake news. There’s video evidence and everything.
Players are playing. Coaches are coaching. Brett Veach and Brandt Tilis are trying to figure out how to sign Jadeveon Clowney (probably). These are facts.
Narratives, on the other hand, are not facts. They are stories. Sometimes these stories are based in fact. Other times, they are based on rumor and innuendo. Occasionally, they are based on nothing but idle speculation. Every year, NFL training camps are dominated by fantastical stories, like "Why the Chargers Will Steal the AFC West Title From the Chiefs This Year" and "Derek Carr Plans on Using His Legs As Well as Arm," and "Joe Flacco Throwing Dimes at Training Camp."
Remember: these narratives cannot be trusted.
Patrick Mahomes spoke to the media as the team's camp began and delivered a Hall of Fame training camp trope, telling reporters, "I'm in great shape. The best shape I’ve ever been coming into camp.” While I'm not going to accuse Patrick Mahomes of lying, this line — "I'm in the best shape of my life" — has been uttered at least 15 times by every professional athlete in every professional sport, and statistically, at least some of them weren't being entirely forthright. An athlete telling reporters he's in the best shape of his life is a ritual for all, probably bordering on superstition for some, but ultimately the words are meaningless, especially after being baked into a 1,000-word piece about how this or that player is going to dominate because, after all, he's in the best shape of his life.
Be prepared for a round of stories about how players you thought weren't very good are great now, because of reasons. The consensus opinion one week into Chiefs Camp, 2018, was that David Amerson — formerly a bad cornerback for the Oakland Raiders —looked good:
I even attempted to dunk on a Raiders fan because David Amerson looked good in training camp.
Imagine how silly I feel now.
Of course, the predominant narrative of that 2018 training camp was that Patrick Mahomes was "plagued by mistakes." Mahomes infamously threw seven interceptions in his first six training camp practices as the Chiefs' starter, prompting a round of hand-wringing from some media and fans. It even sparked boasts from division rivals, which aged...poorly.
Mahomes would go on to throw 50 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions in the 2018 season, winning MVP and leading the Chiefs to their first AFC Championship Game in 25 years. No one predicted that, even though thousands gathered to watch training camp every day that year.
Be prepared for unheralded and unhyped players to emerge when the lights come up and the games actually matter, especially this year, with training camp being conducted almost entirely out of the public eye. If you want to attempt to crack the sphinx-like code of Andy Reid, who has perfect the art of saying nothing of significance to reporters, be my guest. You'll be attempting to assign meaning to which player's name is mentioned first, which "He did a good job out there today" was spoken with just a touch more emphasis, and you'll probably be wrong.
But to be honest, I'll probably join you. Once you recognize training camp narratives for what they are — "based on a true story," or, for the really speculative yarns, "based on actual events" — you can enjoy them no differently than you'd enjoy a movie like Rudy or Moneyball. They can be consumed as entertainment, not as information.
How many interceptions Mahomes throws in training camp may not matter, but for four weeks in August, it brought rival AFC West fanbases more enjoyment than they'd ever get out of actually watching Mahomes play. So go nuts, Chiefs fans. Until the season actually starts, DeAndre Washington is an MVP candidate. BoPete Keyes is rookie of the year. Patrick Mahomes is throwing 60 touchdowns.
Actually, that last one might happen.