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Why statistics should not define training camp performances

Practice is meant for mistakes and to test your limitations.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers Training Camp Robert Edwards-USA TODAY Sports

As we enter the dog days of August, so comes the training camp discourse driven by statistics that are not relevant by any definition of the word.

Training camp signals a new beginning, a fresh start, and the return of football. It’s only natural that the 49ers’ passionate and invested fan base will want to absorb any updates they can as we inch closer to kicking off another season.

The dilemma that comes with that stems from taking what happens on the practice field and packaging it in a way that it is consumable for the fans who were not present.

Statistics can be a valuable resource. They will often paint a clear and objective picture of an outcome. However, the issue with training camp is that the outcome is not the priority. The process is.

Before I expand on that, I first want to focus on the most important thing going into every NFL practice. It’s not completion percentage numbers or sacks. It’s what you did today to improve yourself and grow as a football player.

The only way that can be accomplished is by taking risks, which will inevitably lead to mistakes. In an ideal world, those mistakes will then be reflected upon and corrected.

The issue with the discourse surrounding the 49ers over the last few seasons is the extreme reaction to the mistakes that stem from the risks that players are not only expected to take but genuinely encouraged to take.

This must be considered when evaluating how successful a practice is, both at the individual and team levels. A concerning performance by a box score’s standards could actually be a breakthrough performance in terms of growth and progress being made.

The other issue that has evolved is this constant need to label a winner and a loser for every single rep during a team period or one-on-one portion of training camp. This kind of binary thinking has led many to get so caught up in the raw numbers that, as a result, they miss the forest for the trees.

After observing Tuesday’s practice, I wanted to highlight a couple of plays demonstrating why focusing on these numbers is not an ideal way to paint the best picture of what has unfolded in a given practice.

The first came on a play that resulted in an incompletion by Trey Lance on a ball intended for tight end Ross Dwelley. This shows up on a stat sheet as a miss, which inevitably snowballs into a discussion about accuracy, completion percentage, and a million other things that take a backseat to what matters — growth.

As insignificant as it appears on the stat sheet, this rep was a very encouraging example of how much Lance has progressed during his time in the NFL. Based on the defense's alignment, he checked out of a run with a blitz coming and made a throw to his hot receiver.

The process was fantastic, which cannot be stressed enough.

This is precisely the kind of thing you want to see from a developing young quarterback. Now would a completion have been an ideal outcome? No doubt.

But when Kyle Shanahan and the offensive coaches break down this practice film, do you think they care more about the incompletion or the fact that Lance correctly directed the offense? Of course, it’s the latter.

So rather than focusing on whether or not the ball was completed, why not focus on how it got there and why the quarterback made the decision he did to target that spot? That will be far more valuable in the long run when we look back at these practices in August that will be all but forgotten in a matter of weeks.

As for the issue of winning or losing during team periods, there has to be some level of competitive fire for every player that steps on an NFL field. Whether practice or an actual game, this is non-negotiable at this level of football.

Once again, this idea that success is mutually exclusive to one side of the ball during team drills is a fallacy. However, much pride these players have in besting their teammates during these portions of practice, the primary goal will always be improving as a collective unit.

For the players and coaches on this team, there is no such thing as a winner or loser at the end of the day. There are only those who are getting better and those who are not. That is the accurate barometer of success.

A play during the red zone period on Tuesday’s practice encapsulated this perfectly. Brock Purdy delivered a beautiful ball to the back pylon, hitting Jauan Jennings on a wheel return route for what would technically be scored as a touchdown in this practice setting.

That would be a win for the offense, right? The presumed starter delivered a great ball to a key wideout who ran a great route. I’d undoubtedly chalk that up as a victory for the offense.

On the flip side, however, defensive linemen Alex Barrett dominated his matchup up front and was well into the backfield before pulling up to a stop well before Purdy released this ball. Due to the rules of practice, Barrett cannot make contact with Purdy, but rest assured, in any other setting, that's a sack every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

The issue with binary thinking is that this play gets broken down into a debate between two absolute outcomes. Either you don’t count the sack, and the touchdown is a win for the offense, or you acknowledge Barrett’s pressure and say the throw should be negated because Purdy would have been sacked in a real game.

The way it should be viewed is as a win across the board. Remember, this “touchdown” or “sack” literally does not count. No record book or database will track these meaningless statistics. What is real, however, is the throw that Purdy made and the win that Barrett recorded in the trenches.

Two positive things that these players can take away and build upon as they look to stack days throughout the progression of training camp.

My ultimate point is that when looking for the scoop on what happened at one of these practices, I’d encourage you to seek out the how and why rather than the result.