The training camp trip is ingrained in football culture, a traditional, rigorous bonding exercise meant to prepare a team for the upcoming season.
But this is the modern NFL and nothing ever stays the same. There are still two-a-days held under a hot summer sun. Players still scrap for precious roster spots and tempers still flare. But more teams have decided to hold those endless practices at home rather than subject their players to weeks away from their families and friends.
The Redskins are part of the dwindling number of organizations committed to a training camp away from their own headquarters. For the second year in a row, they are headed to Richmond for camp. From July 24-Aug. 11, the team will practice at a facility built by the city of Richmond in 2013 and sponsored by Bon Secours Virginia Health System.
The team hoped to expand its massive fanbase into central and southern Virginia, where its games draw high television ratings anyway and interest in the team already is strong. The city hoped to generate added tax revenue and increase tourism in the heart of summer. Bon Secours estimates that 165,000 fans attended training camp last year, including over 25,000 for Fan Appreciation Day. Now, the team is ready for a second stint in Virginia’s capital with a better idea of what to expect.
“We’re all looking forward to Richmond,” Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III said. “And not to necessarily to get away from our families or anything. But to get there and be together as a team and put the pads on and get ready for the season and actually practice and play against other people. I think it’s time for that.”
For the previous 10 years, the Redskins trained at their organizational headquarters in Ashburn. Only 13 of 32 NFL teams travel for training camp anymore, a practice that used to be standard across the league.
The majority now hold training camp at their headquarters or — in the case of the New England Patriots, Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals — at their home stadiums. Gone are the days when teammates shared spartan college dorm rooms, as Redskins players did for 38 years at either Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania or, from 1995 to 1999, at Frostburg State University in Frostburg, Maryland.
But while the amenities are better now, traveling to Richmond and living in a downtown hotel is still a different dynamic than staying home — even if it’s not quite the experience NFL players had for years. Plus, the offseason is broken up into chunks. With rookie minicamp and organized team activities and veteran minicamp taking up much of May and June, the downtime is limited, especially for teams that made deep playoff runs the previous season.
Training camp long ago ceased to be about playing your way into shape. In a way, where the practices are being held is irrelevant.
“We haven’t had any bickering or any arguing or any fighting,” new Redskins coach Jay Gruden said after the team’s veteran minicamp last month and prior to the five-week break before camp. “Overall, I feel like the team together is coming along great and the unity is where it needs to be at this point. Then we when come back to training camp with the knowledge of the system and people knowing one another, hopefully we can take off from there.”
Fans in Richmond get a bonus this year with the Patriots coming to town for three days of practices with the Redskins prior to their Aug. 7 preseason game at FedEx Field. That should help break up the monotony following 18 practices — a morning session and an afternoon walk-through — over the course of 11 days beginning Thursday.
Players are only off on July 29 and Aug. 3. The Patriots then come to town Aug. 4-6. Demand from fans in Richmond and the surrounding area is great enough that the Redskins announced they would hold a lottery for tickets to Fan Appreciation Day and for the three days of practices with the Patriots.
“We’ve been to Richmond before so we kind of know what to expect,” Griffin said. “But at the same time we have a different group leading us — a different head coach. [Gruden is] gonna have a different schedule for us ready to go. But training camp is training camp. Everybody’s ready for the grind and then everybody is ready to play after that.”