'Skins Training Camp: An Optimist’s Playground
Once upon a time (in July and August of 2001 to be exact), in a quaint little town in central Pennsylvania (Carlisle to name names), loyal followers of the Washington Redskins postulated that the obviously incompatible marriage between head coach Marty Schottenheimer and QB Jeff George would produce sweet Sunday music.
Crazy talk, right? Let me explain.
One of the best things about the NFL’s annual script (and there are many) is that it abides by entertainment’s No. 1 rule: it leaves us wanting more. For most NFL teams, the season ends in December and there’s not another visual in-uniform glimpse of Sunday’s gladiators until the following summer. Even the Super Bowl participants exit the stage in early February and don’t return until the 4th of July is in the rearview and back to school nerves are starting to fray.
In the months between the season that was and the one that will be, coaching staffs are flipped like houses during a real estate bubble, free agents change locales with sufficient intensity to stress out fantasy football addicts and a new crop of rookies faithfully arrives after the NFL Draft.
It’s dynamic to say the least — and we love it.
The volatility creates hope for the downtrodden, worries the established elite and, most importantly, never allows the NFL to leave the sports conversation. Regardless, football fans would probably just make up something to talk about (if Jerry Seinfeld can base one of the greatest sitcoms in history on nothing, football fans can manufacture conversational content), but it sure is kind of the league to generate regular, legitimate news.
The long offseason allows new regimes to be established, better players to be acquired and, specifically for the Washington Redskins, for injuries to heal. It all begs and even demands that anyone with a trained eye on the game and a shred of curiosity wonder about what the upcoming season could unfurl. The effect of the change of pace and the unprecedented distance between NFL seasons is the creation of hope where it wasn’t and dreams so big that they transcend reason.
From February to July, there are few new injuries to obsess over, no bad games to critique or brutal stretches on the schedule to fear — in other words, there’s nothing to check the swell of optimism. Then training camps open and the superheroes appear again in all their spectacular regalia. Their faces look rejuvenated and joints don’t ache. The rookies look promising and the veterans are refreshed. The fans and media are cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs and football. Even the coaches are in a good mood (well, except for Bill Belichick). Football is the good friend we rarely see, and it is genuinely missed. There’s nothing ho-hum when our paths cross; an unmistakable energy is created when they do.
Football is the summer fling we get to repeat every year.
For those old enough to remember Grease, training camp sometimes leaves me humming “Summer Nights” (“Summer lovin’ had me a blast … summer lovin’, happened so fast…”). I might even sing it out loud in the shower while pondering recent reports from training camp.
Bizarre? A little. Do I have a problem? Absolutely not.
I’ll personalize the return of the NFL even further: Despite my lingering bitterness over the end of Washington’s 2012 season and skepticism about Robert Griffin III’s health in the future, the ‘Skins had me again at the mere sight of the burgundy and gold on the training camp fields in Richmond, Virginia. The same thing happened years ago with Norv Turner’s squads at camp in Frostburg, Maryland (surely Jeff Hostetler or Gus Frerotte would travel to Disney World at season’s end) and Steve Spurrier’s teams in Carlisle, Pennsylvania (back when Patrick Ramsey was going to make the Fun ‘N Gun famous in the NFL). It is that wave of delusional, summer feel-good that made the odd union of Schottenheimer and George plausible.
If those extreme mental reaches created hope, seeing RGIII back in uniform — albeit with limited reps and a yellow hit-me-and-you-risk-your-professional-future jersey on — justifiably rekindles optimism and allows one’s imagination to wander to far off places where Lombardi trophies and postseason parades reside.
There I go again; I’ve gotten way, way ahead of another long season with unimaginable pitfalls. But then again, that’s what this time of year is all about. Unwelcome doses of NFL reality will occur (more on that later in the week), but during training camp, such undesirables remain problems for another day.