August 17, 2015 (c) 2015, The Washington Post.
RICHMOND — For 20 days, a new-look Washington Redskins coaching staff and squad slogged away at the task of getting better under Richmond's sweltering August heat, but far fewer fans showed interest this year in cheering on the process.
Attendance plunged for Year 3 of Redskins training camp in Richmond, which concluded with an abbreviated practice Monday morning that was open only to media and the 50 volunteers who have staffed the free workouts these past three weeks.
According to figures supplied by the team, the average daily attendance this year was 6,222. That's down from 11,183 in 2014 — a drop-off of 44 percent.
Team President Bruce Allen said he suspected the decline was related to two factors: The team's 4-12 record last season and the possibility that the novelty and "thrill" of the location have waned.
But he was quick to add that he believed the Redskins rank among the top five NFL teams in attendance for camp, a claim that's difficult to substantiate because policies about inviting fans to camp vary throughout the league.
"If you look at what we're doing here, the fans that come do enjoy it," Allen said. "They even got to see a fight this year, which was something new here at Bon Secours' facility."
Even though admission is free, the matter of attendance is significant to Richmond residents because city officials signed an eight-year contract that guarantees the Redskins $500,000 in exchange for holding their summer workouts in the city, convinced it would represent a boon for the restaurant and tourist industry. The financial windfall has yet to materialize, forcing the city to borrow to meet its payments. Richmond officials also built the Redskins a $10 million practice facility, believing the main portion of the two-story complex could be leased for commercial purposes. Three years into the deal, two-thirds of the upper floor remains vacant with no tenants.
Nonetheless, Allen insisted that training camp continues to be a success for the city and the team, noting that the Redskins have exceeded their contractual obligations through community service projects conducted by the team's charitable foundation. And he used the occasion to announce construction of a playground on the site of the Bon Secours Training Center.
"As we said from the beginning, any way that we can impact the kids in this neighborhood, that is one of our primary goals off the field," Allen said.
The Redskins' president was equally upbeat about the team's progress on the field, saying that General Manager Scot McCloughan was "doing exactly what we had hoped" by adding quality football players.
"There's a hunger that you can feel," said Allen, who noted with approval the fact that the Redskins' offensive line didn't have a single false-start penalty in last week's 20-17 preseason victory at Cleveland.
"Those types of things mean that the players and the coaches are on the same page," Allen said.
Accentuating the positive heading into the 2015 season appears to be a Redskins mandate following the turmoil of 2014, which included Coach Jay Gruden's withering criticism of quarterback Robert Griffin III, backbiting among players and lusty boos from the home crowds at FedEx Field, who departed in droves amid fourth-quarter collapses.
Throughout camp, Gruden's public posture has been uniformly positive — particularly as it relates to Griffin, who threw four touchdown passes and six interceptions last season.
Gruden said he sees daily progress in the fourth-year quarterback with daily repetitions.
"Every time he calls a play against a different defense, he's got to react, he's got to make a read and deliver the ball accurately in the passing game," Gruden said. "He's done that, and he's just continuing to grow. And that's all we can ask."
While Griffin, the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner, would love to recapture the magic of his rookie season, Gruden said the more pressing goal was keeping him healthy.
An Olympic-caliber sprinter at Baylor, Griffin, 25, has overcome three serious leg injuries.
"The number one objective is to keep him healthy, keep him upright, and then to just see how he steadily progresses throughout this year," Gruden said.
Gruden said he saw no common thread or cause among the rash of injuries during camp, summing them up as "unfortunate deals."
"For the most part, we have a lot of healthy guys that have really progressed well," He said. "They've gotten stronger. I feel like they've got more juice."
Gruden acknowledged that injuries have hit the tight end ranks hard and slowed the development of chemistry among the defensive backs.
But the coach adjourned camp with high hopes, citing the team's improved depth on the defensive line, more dynamic pass rush, glut of gifted wide receivers and a roster that's generally bigger, stronger and faster.