BBD Staff Writer: Eric Samulski
The Buffalo Bills and star free safety Jairus Byrd failed to negotiate a contract prior to Monday’s deadline for franchise-tagged players to sign long-term contract extensions. Furthermore, Byrd has yet to sign his one-year, $6.916 million tender. With only one week until training camp, it is becoming expected that Byrd will miss most if not all of training camp.
Since Byrd had the franchise tag placed on him four months ago, it’s unlikely that the Bills had a backup plan for him not being on the field. While he will most likely sign his one-year deal prior to the start of the season, what the team does have to consider is how a prolonged holdout through training camp and the preseason could affect the on-field performance of their star defender.
The holdout has long been a part of NFL culture, affecting some of the league’s most prominent stars from Eric Dickerson in 1985 and 1990 to Jerry Rice in 1992 and Emmitt Smith in 1993. However, for the sake of comparison, I’m going to examine some of the NFL’s most recent and prominent holdouts since 1999.
Since we are also looking just at the consequence of missing training camp, I’m also going to include Adrian Peterson and J.J. Watt, who missed last year’s training camps with injuries.
The Effect on On-Field Production
This is the most common question about training camp holdouts and the answer is, unfortunately, not conclusive. While many players have seen their production suffer after missing training camp, there are players such as the aforementioned Peterson and Watt who miss camp and come back to produce career years.
If you look closely at the players coming off of holdouts, there is something to the theory that performance suffers early in the season.
Chris Johnson returned from his holdout to average a career-low 4.0 yards per carry on the season; that included a total of only 45 yards on 33 carries, or 1.36 yards per carry, in the first three games of the season. Similarly, Larry Johnson, who averaged 4.4 yards per carry throughout his career, ended his holdout prior to the 2007 season and went on to average only 3.5 yards per carry in the eight games he played, including a first three game run of 4.3, 3.4, and 1.9.
Steven Jackson, Mike Wallace, Vincent Jackson, and Joey Galloway suffered similar down years, with Galloway’s being the most flagrant. After catching at least 57 receptions, 987 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in his first four seasons, he caught only 22 passes for 335 yards and one touchdown in 1999.
However, since Byrd is neither a running back nor wide receiver, looking at the defensive players on the list may prove more effective in predicting his performance. As any NFL fan knows, Watt went on to have a career year this past season after missing camp, including a league-leading 20.5 sacks. Samuel recorded six interceptions in the year after his holdout. Franklin collected the most tackles of his career following his missed time, and Justin Smith recorded the most sacks in his career.
What this seems to suggest is that offensive skill position players have a harder time integrating themselves back into their teams after missing extended periods of training camp. This doesn’t necessarily appear to be the case with defensive players. Due to the individual nature of their positions and assignments, many defensive players are able to sill perform at a high, sometimes even career-best, level after missing chunks of training camp.
The bigger question for Byrd is whether he can pick up the differences in Mike Pettine’s new scheme quickly enough to make that fact hold true.
The Effect on Health
This is one area where missing training camp seems to rear it’s ugly head. Of the players listed above, many missed significantly more games after holding out then they ever did in previous seasons. The two most recent examples are Revis and Jones-Drew, who both suffered season-ending injuries during the year when they did not participate in training camp.
For Revis, last year’s total of missed games (14) was more than he had missed in the entirety of his career prior (only three games in five seasons). Meanwhile, Jones-Drew had missed only three games in his entire career before missing 10 last year following his holdout.
Similarly, Larry Johnson had played two straight complete seasons after taking over as the starting running back before his holdout. When he returned, he got injured and played only eight games that season. He would never play a full season again, playing in 12 games the following year before never playing in more than seven for the rest of his career.
That track record is similar to Shawne Merriman and Joey Galloway. Merriman missed one season due to injury before his 2010 holdout, but had just come off a season where he played in fourteen games. After ending his holdout, he got hurt again, never regained his full ability and eventually retired. Galloway was one of the best deep threats in all of football prior to his 1999 holdout. After that shortened season, he got injured and played in only one game in 2000. He continued to battle injuries and averaged only 569 yards per season in the twelve years following his holdout, as opposed to 1,030.5 before it.
Without the conditioning of a rigorous training camp, a player could be more susceptible to injury when they start playing full games in the regular season. If we can agree that this small sample size is an indicator that missing training camp, at minimum, increases the likelihood that a player sustains an injury during the season, then that alone proves important.
The Dallas Morning News put out a detailed look at how injuries affected teams during the 2012 season. It’s not a coincidence that the teams who had the most successful years were those who put the fewest amount of players on injured reserve and had the most starters playing all sixteen games.
The Bills will hope that should Byrd miss time during training camp, it will not lead him to suffering an injury during the regular season. Byrd has not missed any games in the past two seasons.
It’s likely that Jairus Byrd will likely remain a top safety when he finally does suit up for the Bills this year. He may experience some minor growing pains as he learns Pettine’s system, but as a roving ballhawk safety, Byrd’s production is more based on his coverage skills and instincts when the ball is in the air. Those two traits are not affected by a new scheme.
That said, his chances of injury will likely go up if he sits out training camp. It’s an uneasy truth for the Bills, but also a scarier one for a player on a one-year deal trying to lure in a bigger contract.