Tension mounted. Fingernails receded. Stress bellowed from the deepest innards of New York Giants fans.
Would Odell Beckham Jr. hold out from the Giants' mandatory minicamp?
Of course not.
Once feared as an annual plague, the holdout has nearly vanished from the NFL landscape. Credit the post-2011 rookie-pay structure, along with franchise tags, owner leverage and, yes, a reflexive public narrative that disproportionately targets players as the villain. Its occasional appearances often can be attributed to a deeper issue, be it inflexible team philosophies or a player's deep desire to force a separation.
With no real holdouts to speak of, we obsess these days over absences from voluntary spring practice. Beckham is the most recent example. (How one can be considered a "holdout" from a non-obligatory camp, I'm uncertain.) Then we fret over whether players might skip a mandatory minicamp that isn't important enough to include contact. Beckham, of course, chose to report on time.
To my mind, there are two ways a holdout can be significant. One is when a rookie misses a big enough portion of training camp to force a cutback in playing time or limit his performance. That has happened exactly once since the 2011 collective bargaining agreement. Last season, Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa went unsigned for 31 days after the start of training camp, pushing back his rookie debut to Week 5. Even then, however, Bosa went on to record 10.5 sacks in 12 games.
The other instance is when a veteran, for whom training camp isn't as crucial, starts missing regular-season games. That affects not only the player's bank account, in the form of forfeited paychecks, but also the team's competitiveness. It happened most recently in 2015, with disastrous results for the player. Pro Bowl safety Kam Chancellor sat out the Seattle Seahawks' first two games, losing two game checks of $267,647, before reporting in Week 3. The Seahawks did not upgrade his contract, as he had hoped, but reportedly agreed to waive the associated fines for the time he missed.
Training camp holdouts offer public drama during an otherwise monotonous part of the NFL calendar, but almost none of them extend into the regular season. Cornerback Darrelle Revis provided a textbook example of the (effective) toothless holdout in 2010, when he missed 35 days of the New York Jets' camp before signing a revised deal that added $11 million guaranteed to his compensation. He went on to earn the second of his four All-Pro honors that season.
In reality, you have to go back to at least 1999, and maybe 1993, to find an example of a veteran achieving a good outcome from a holdout that extends into the regular season. In 1999, Seahawks receiver Joey Galloway sat out the first eight weeks of the season in hopes of getting a new contract but returned to the field when Seattle was 6-2 overall. It was not until the following year that the Seahawks gave in and traded him to the Dallas Cowboys, who signed him to a seven-year contract worth $42 million.
Six years earlier, the Cowboys stood strong against tailback Emmitt Smith, who at the time was already a two-time rushing champion and would finish his career as one of the best players in football history. His in-season holdout contributed to an 0-2 start, leaving the Cowboys little choice but to cave. They made Smith the highest-paid running back in the game.
There was a time, of course, when holdouts routinely changed the way teams were comprised. They were a big deal. Most of them happened before many of you were born.
Running back Eric Dickerson used a holdout in 1987 to force a trade from the Los Angeles Rams to the Indianapolis Colts. Running back Bo Jackson held out and refused to report to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1986, and then re-entered the draft in 1987. Quarterback Kelly Stouffer held out after the Cardinals drafted him in 1987, forcing a trade to the Seahawks.
Why did the strategy die? The loss of regular-season paychecks is a huge disincentive, naturally. But Ronald Bishop, a communications professor at Drexel University, believes that an ideology developed during the height of holdouts that might have helped discourage them moving forward. At some point, the narrative moved from an employee and employer disagreeing on what constituted a fair agreement to painting players as selfish by default.
In a paper titled "The Wayward Child," based on newspaper coverage of the Galloway holdout, Bishop suggested the media created a "dominant ideology" that excluded alternative perspectives on Galloway's holdout.
That ideology, Bishop wrote, "revolves around several key ideas. The team is sacred -- it is bigger, and has more value, than any of its individual members. The coach is the ultimate authority figure, one whose judgment should never be questioned. A holdout by its very nature threatens the team. And players who do hold out are seen as selfish and disloyal, or at the very least, driven solely by pragmatism."
Bishop describes himself as a "progressive pro-union liberal." That bias aside, I think his paper accurately paints the way most of us view long NFL holdouts -- and I don't think it's a coincidence that we rarely see them anymore. Look at the attention paid to Beckham's absence from voluntary workouts, and to the simple possibility that he might skip minicamp.
"I think league officials and team owners, with the help of sports journalists, have done a masterful job of convincing fans that players should be grateful to be making so much money for playing what amount to kids games," Bishop said in an email. "Holdouts aren't intrinsically bad. A player has a short career window, especially in football, to earn what you can and put away a bit for the family."
That bit of a rational thought was lost somewhere along the way. This is not to encourage more prolonged holdouts, nor is it to suggest that they have dissipated solely because of public pressure. It is to point out that among the many labor victories NFL owners have achieved in recent decades, the end of the (real) holdout is among their most thorough.