It’s hard to believe that the Redskins did not have a full time practice bubble until this past season.
Literally every other team in the Northeast had an indoor practice facility. All our division rivals did. Every team North of us, at the very least, had a practice bubble. Even the Steelers, the would-be gold standard of NFL history and tradition, had a state of the art indoor practice facility.
But the Redskins didn’t get their indoor practice facility until 2012, which was about a year after it had been announced in the first place due to issues with permits. For years, the Redskins had practiced “as it was supposed to be”—out in the elements. It wasn’t for lack of Dan Snyder asking; Snyder had extended the offer to coach Joe Gibbs, but Gibbs 2.0 was still old school.
When asked about it in August of 2004, Coach Gibbs told the Washington Post, “I don’t like bubbles. You play outside. It’s an outdoor game. I want to be in the rain because you have a lot of these adverse weather conditions. I don’t think there’s any other way to get used to that except to be out in it. You need to be out in the heat, rain, snow, sleet — the whole deal.”
And so that was the way it was. And because Coach Gibbs is a certified legend, not many questions were asked, at least not from fans, even when inclement weather derailed and washed out practices. The Redskins were an NFC East team that needed to be accustomed to playing in the elements, and so they were.
It wasn’t until 2010 that the wheels of the long awaited, and frankly, long needed practice bubble were put into place. In 2010, inclement weather forced the Redskins to practice in Airport Hangers, and even to practice on the awful, terrible, miserable AstroTurf Field. Even when they didn’t have to deal with rain or snow, the Redskins still had to deal with torn up, muddy practice fields in September and October, and hard, ice packed fields in November and December.
Practicing in the elements was never really any advantage for the Redskins. It was old school ideology; you played in the elements, and so you practice in the elements. At the end of the day, practicing in the elements had little effect on what the Redskins did on the field; the Redskins had a losing record in 2004, followed by a winning record in ’05, another losing season in 2006 and another winning season in 2007. Lord knows that practicing outdoors didn’t help the Redskins in 2008 and 2009. By 2010 it became downright detrimental to Mike Shanahan’s practice schedules, having to do quarter-speed walk-throughs in local gyms.
In the meanwhile, every single team that won a Super Bowl over that time period either had a practice bubble, or a full indoor practice facility.
There are high schools in Virginia that had better fields to practice on, to say nothing of just the training facility in general.
But, in 2011, the Redskins finally broke with tradition. In 2012, they built the practice bubble. They went 10-6, reeling off 7 wins in a row, and won the NFC East. Which isn’t to say that having a practice bubble suddenly made the Redskins win more games. But it did keep practices uniform; the Redskins still practiced outside and occasionally in the rain, and they didn’t seem to morph into a soft, cookie cutter dome team because of it.
And then they lost in the first round of the playoffs on one of the worst fields that has ever, ever seen post season football in at least the last decade.
Let’s just be honest; for the first playoff game at home in over a decade, FedEx Field’s turf was embarrassing. Spray painted dirt, loose sod and mud. It didn’t look playable. It didn’t look like the turf of a proud football team on the come up. It looked like my high school’s football field. It sucked.
In that game, FedEx’s crappy field claimed two ACL’s; Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons tore his ACL early in the game. Robert Griffin III planted wrong on the bad turf and re-aggravated his MCL, and then later in the game tore his ACL on the bad field. Earlier that year versus the Eagles, an awkward plant by safety Brandon Meriweather resulted in a tore ACL.
The field looked like crap at the beginning of the season. It look like crap when we played our home opener versus the Cincinatti Bengals; despite not being played on, the sod was already coming up in chunks, the dirt had already been turned to sand after a long summer drought. I couldn’t grow a tiny plot of grass in front of my house without constant watering and fertilizing; I can’t imagine would it’d be like for a grounds crew to try and fix 100+ yards of turf.
There’s a reason why no team north of the Washington Redskins has a grass playing surface anymore; in the Northeast, they are basically impossible to maintain. Summer droughts dry them out; then massive storms drown them out. By September, if you’ve somehow managed to maintain a playing surface that doesn’t completely suck, you then have to contend with the rapidly approaching fall and winter weather, constant rain, then cold temperatures at night.
That’s not to mention the 16 regular season games you have to deal with, the Kenny Chesney or U2 concerts or soccer exhibitions in the summer, or the additional college football games you have to deal with. Or did everyone forget how terrible the field look in 2011 after the Army-Navy game?
This isn’t a one year thing. The field didn’t suddenly get bad. In 2010 and 2011, the turf was so bad it was almost lucky that you didn’t have to play on it in the playoffs. 2012 was just the worst year, and on top of that, it actively hindered our chances at a win. Even if Robert Griffin III doesn’t tear his ACL, our players seemed to slip and struggled to gain proper footing on what seemed to be every play, on both sides of the ball.
Too many times, football teams justify crappy field conditions by saying “everyone had to play on the same field”. It’s wrongly called a home field advantage. In reality, all it is, is a hindrance. It literally makes no sense.
Some will say, “It makes our players slower, so it makes their players slower”. Hello, McFly? Why would you want to slow down your own players? You shouldn’t need bad field conditions to slow down your opponent; you should (to put it in a way a coach might say it) kick their asses between the whistle, out-execute them and slow them down because you are the better team.
Even following the rule of “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying”, it’s a bizarre and flawed argument. It’s not cheating if you are actively hurting yourself. It’d be like trying to stack the deck in poker, then loudly announcing to the table “I am stacking the deck now!”, and then allowing those same opponents to also stack the deck in their favor. Because as long as your opponent has to deal with the same bad conditions as you, it’s completely fair right? It’s the definition of cutting your nose off to spite your face.
The arguments for keeping the natural grass playing surface are in line with the same mentality that Coach Gibbs showed; a desire to not want to change, simply for the sake of not changing. No real advantage is gained by practicing in the elements. It’s more about a mentality than it is about an advantage, an old school viewpoint for a new school game.
The same can be said of the grass field. Almost every argument I hear has to do with “tradition”. It’s a tradition. Football is meant to be played on grass. Football is made to played in the elements. Football is about grass stains and mud and weather and…
No. Football is about football, period. Sure, those other things can enhance the game. But it’s never about those things. The game gains and loses nothing because a player does or doesn’t have a grass stain on his pants. It’s a purely superficial mark. It’s not some sort of vast conspiracy that the league wants everything to look clean. For some teams, particularly teams like the Redskins, Field Turf is just better.
M&T Stadium has FieldTurf, crappy old Giants Stadium had FieldTurf and now so does Metlife Stadium. Ralph Wilson Stadium has Field Turf. Bill Belichick, ever the image of the last truly old school coach, had FieldTurf installed at Gillette Stadium during the 2006 season after players complained about the Patriots grass field. That’s right; despite the expense, Robert Craft called for FieldTurf to be installed in the span of one week. And it was.
The Philadelphia Eagles don’t have FieldTurf, but they do have Desso Grassmaster, a hybrid between natural and synthetic grass. The fibers help maintain the integrity and strength of the grass. The Green Bay Packers also have Desso Grassmaster, as do the Denver Broncos. The Broncos turf looked a little tough in their playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens, but it still looked lightyears better than the Redskins field.
When Washington Redskins General Manager Bruce Allen was asked about the Redskins terrible, godawful, bad field, that tore two ACL’s in the same game, his indications were that there would be no changes. Instead, he said, the Redskins would establish an in-season re-sodding schedule once the full league schedule comes out. Weirdly enough, he also said “…obviously it’s not going to grow. We’re not in Florida. But we think that is going to address the playing field in December and, hopefully, January”, according to Rich Campbell of the Washington Times.
The Redskins are going to establish an in-season re-sodding schedule, and yet they know it won’t take root, because it will likely occur in October or November when grass doesn’t grow.
If someone could point me in the direction of the logic of this thinking, I’d be thankful, because frankly, I can’t find it.
All that will happen if they put loose sod on bad turf that’s mostly dirt is loose, bad turf that will come up in chunks and still be a bad playing surface. It does not solve the problem in the event that the Redskins make the playoffs and get a home game again. It’s a Band-Aid solution, for a front office that, since coming to Washington, has done a pretty good job of avoiding Band-Aid solutions.
Are FieldTurf or Desso Grassmaster cheap? No. But again, Robert Craft got complaints about his field on a Sunday, and four days later he had a crew digging up that field, and by the following Sunday it was installed. Dan Snyder has never had a problem dishing out money when he needed to; the practice bubble is a prime example of that. And yeah, it was delayed, but that wasn’t because of issues with finances. Over the years, Snyder offered to build practice facilities for most of his coaches. The Redskins are still actively looking for a new home for Redskins Park to replace the outdated Ashburn, VA building.
Under Bruce Allen and Mike Shanahan, Dan has installed high definition video boards. He installed ribbon video boards. He’s pumped more money of his own money into FedEx Field to make it not quite the hole it is then many owners would. Money isn’t the biggest issue in this case.
And yes, I know about that survey where players were asked what kind of surface they played on, and they overwhelmingly chose grass. No one is arguing that under ideal conditions, grass isn’t the best playing surface.
But the conditions in Landover are hardly ideal. Far from it. Two years ago, the turf at FedEx Field was rated one of the best in the NFL, but now? There’s little doubt that it’s one of the worst. It made Soldier Field and Heinz Field look like heaven in comparison.
These are not the Joe Gibbs Washington Redskins anymore. On a team with as much speed on the field as we seem to have, having a slow, dangerous playing surface, and especially with a quarterback that will now be dealing with his second ACL injury who has nothing but good years ahead of him, it’s time to make an investment in the future. The field is more likely to get worse than get better.
I have defended a lot of the decisions the front office has made. I can even muster a defense for trading Donovan McNabb. But this choice is one of those things that I can’t muster a defense for. There’s no upside to keeping a field that’s hard to maintain, even if you have a renewed commitment to maintaining the field that is basically impossible to maintain by the nature of the area you play in.
Tradition is great. But sometimes, traditions are meant to be broken.