A homestyle training camp (commuting to camp, perhaps a growing trend)

Wanted to follow up on something I touched on briefly last night on NFL Total Access regarding the Washington Redskins training camp. Coach Jim Zorn is allowing all players with four years or more of NFL experience to opt out of one of the staples of training camp — shacking up en masse in a dorm or hotel — and to commute to and from their homes for training camp. It was a decision that certainly caught his players by surprise but, according to some front office people I spoke to around the league, could be a philosophy that becomes more mainstream.

You all know the cliches about training camp, going back to The Junction Boys on the college level or the war stories about what Vince Lombardi used to put his charges through in the summer heat. It’s a time when you build bonds, throw everyone – stars and rookies alike – into the same sweaty cauldron and forge the steel, resolve and character of your team. You break them down to build them up. You foster a collective spirit as the entire team endures long work days in the sun, and then retreats, as a unit, back to sparse and spartan quarters to catch some sleep, away from wives and families and immersed in football.

Certainly times have changed, but by and large most franchises still adhere to the team-building elements of training camp on at least some level, with most still having everyone bunk in one spot for anywhere from 2-4 weeks until they officially break camp. More teams, however, are holding training camp at their full-time training facility, or nearby, which makes it easier for guys to get back and forth from home, and keeps them closer to those creature comforts.

Zorn did some research before making his decision to try this tactic, finding several other coaches who did it and felt like it worked for them. Former NFL coaches Brian Billick and Mike Shanahan, both of whom won Super Bowls, used to give their veterans the option of staying home. So it’s not entirely new. But it did create a real buzz among the Redskins players, who were shocked when Zorn told them about it – it’s a big departure from a year ago when Zorn, as a rookie head coach, ran a camp that was much longer and more physical than those of his predecessor, Joe Gibbs . Some veterans said privately they are a little conflicted about the idea.

Players are creatures of habit. Little things, like fighting traffic — the Redskins can get 20,000 fans or more to their facility for some training camp sessions — and figuring out the logistics of their commute, become topics of conversation. Some players actually prefer to get a breather from newborn babies and figure they can get more sleep and recovery time at a dorm or hotel. Some wonder if it will even feel like a communal training camp, given that on a veteran team like the Redskins, almost all starters could be commuting from home for all of August (safeties LaRon Landry and Chris Horton and rookie linebacker/end Brian Orakpo are the only projected possible starters with less than four NFL seasons).

Zorn, a free-thinking guy who is not afraid to fly in the face in convention (and someone I enjoyed getting to know covering his team), said he thought long and hard about his decision. He wanted to empower his veteran team (“If I had a really young roster, no way we’d be doing this,” he said), and trusts that players will be home sleeping and not getting into trouble.

The organization is looking for ways to keep guys fresh all season; a year ago the Redskins started 6-2 then fell to 8-8, missing the playoffs. Zorn is hoping that an extra month of guys sleeping in their own beds will pay dividends (“We’re hoping it helps with recovery time,” he said) and he said the team will be doing things to ensure there is still a training camp vibe.

Any veteran player who wishes to stay in the team hotel, can do so, however “Once you’re in, and you stay one night, then you’re all in,” Zorn said. So there won’t be any toggling back and forth. Zorn also said if the policy becomes a problem for any player, then he will simply become part of those who are boarding with the team. Zorn said that evening meetings that used to take place at a large conference center at the location the team used to use for training camps will often be held on site or nearby, and all of those meetings and team meals will be mandatory for everyone. But obviously, the days of bedchecks and curfews across the board are over, at least for this training camp.

Several players mentioned to me that being able to catch a nap after a morning practice, and before afternoon meetings, is vital; Zorn said that all veterans will have rooms available to them at a nearby hotel for naps. The coach has done his homework. But I will be interested to see if any of this ends up mattering one way or the other. As one veteran Redskin put it: “That doesn’t really sound like training camp, and I’ve never heard of it before, but at my age I’ll take it and see how it goes.” Several players said that they looked at the move as one designed to cut costs and lower overhead, but Zorn said he looked at it from a football and health standpoint.

Reaction from people I spoke to around the league was mixed. Some execs believe this is the wave of the future. Most training facilities are better equipped to handle a camp of this size than are the remote colleges many teams head to for camp. Players are already asked to spend much of the year together at the facility for offseason workouts and OTAs, so the idea of “training camp bonds” has been replaced by the months of offseason work already put in together (indeed, with the Redskins players on vacation now, quarterback Jason Campbell has still been throwing to receivers like Antwaan Randle El and Devin Thomas at Redskins Park several times a week). Some say the old-school ideals about training camp no longer apply.

“This makes a lot of sense to me,” one exec said of the Redskins policy. “You’re cutting down on costs, you’re giving veterans a say. I think you’re going to see more teams doing this kind of thing.”

And, of course, you talk to some longtime coaches, who bristle at the very thought of a camp with the bulk of the roster retreating home every night makes them cringe. “Unbelievable,” one coach said, thinking players are coddled too much already in many instances. “That’s crazy.”

For a franchise that has not tasted real success since the end of the first Gibbs era, perhaps change is good. Maybe Zorn going from one end of the spectrum with his camp last year to this approach will rally players behind him. Maybe they will be a better and fresher team in November and December. Maybe it doesn’t matter either way, and is just fodder for the early July news rut. But whenever people buck conventional thought, I tend to get interested, and I know among the players involved in this decision, opinions vary on how well this might work out.

How about you guys, any strong opinions one way or the other? Would you like to see your team go this route? Do you think a team should have to earn a policy like this through postseason achievement? I’m all ears (or, well, in this case, eyes).

– Jason La Canfora

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