Skins' training camp policy gives players reprieve from 6-week grind

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Perhaps the only thing worse than training camp for NFL players, at least mentally, is the week before camp. It's like a dark cloud hanging over their heads while the rest of the world seems to be enjoying the summer sun. The physical pain and mental fatigue of camp is unforgettable. That's why instead of enjoying the last bit of free time they have before the marathon of an NFL season starts, most players liken this period to the dread of knowing root canal surgery is scheduled the next day.

"I have just kind of been on edge mentally," said Giants center Shaun O'Hara, a 10-year veteran. "The other night at dinner my wife said, 'I just lost you for 10 minutes,' because I was just staring out the window, thinking about the conditioning test, whether or not I had done everything that I could to get ready for the season, and what was about to come in Albany [at training camp]."

Players dread the brutality of multiple padded practices, the monotony of the daily meetings, and the grind of working from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. for six straight weeks. Compounding the physical agony of camp is the psychological discomfort of leaving their home and their loved ones, sometimes for a single bed in a college dorm room. Late night phone calls are really the only semblance of family time for a solid month.

Not so for the Washington Redskins, who have taken the unusual, but not unprecedented, step of letting veterans with four years of service or more sleep at their own residence during camp. The Skins are among a growing number of teams that hold training camp at their own year-round facility. As a result, they have the luxury of allowing players to sleep where they please.

This decision, as you might imagine, is very popular with the players. "I really think it is awesome because it allows you to mentally regroup every day," said Reed Doughty, a fourth-year safety who has started nine games over the past two seasons and is expected to push last year's rookie sensation Chris Horton for the starting strong safety job. "Being able to put my kids to bed and see my wife refreshes me."

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the move, from a team standpoint, is that it ingratiates Jim Zorn among the veterans, the value of which can't be overstated. Granted, if the Skins lose, the goodwill Zorn earns during camp will vanish. But most of the team leaders will at least give him the benefit of the doubt now that he has thrown them a significant bone.

The only real downside that I can see is that some players might get even less rest if they are constantly driving home at the end of the night, which in some cases could be up to 45 minutes away from where the nightly meetings are held. But sleeping at home is an option, not a mandate, so veterans can still stay in the camp facility if they choose. And even if they do tack on some time to the end of their day, knowing they are heading home will likely make it well worth it.

More of a comment, but I remember Ricky Williams being skewered heavily for the timing of his first retirement announcement. While subsequent revelations offered a moral platform for the general public's anger toward Williams, when he first retired, he was lambasted for the timing of his announcement in terms of how it affected the Dolphins. We've heard no such outrage with Mason, even though for all intents and purposes, he did the same thing. Why?-- Kyle, Atlanta, Ga.

I think the biggest difference between what Ricky Williams did and the abrupt retirement of Derrick Mason is the circumstances surrounding those decisions. Williams pretty much decided he didn't feel like playing football anymore, and he was the Dolphins' best offensive player at the time, by far. I think people are more sensitive to Mason's situation, and rightfully so, because of the tragic murder of his close friend Steve McNair. The reality is that none of us can fully understand how that might have affected Mason. I think because of that incident, his timing is not as inappropriate as Williams'.

I don't have to tell you that the only "real" number in an NFL contract is the guaranteed number. Under his franchise tender, Cassel would've gotten over $14 million this year. So, all the Chiefs have really done is double that guaranteed amount... and spread it out, which, as I understand it, takes away some of the salary cap ramifications. Is that really that much of a risk?-- Frank Downey, Peabody, Ma.

The contract was smart from a financial standpoint if Cassel becomes the franchise quarterback the Chiefs obviously think he can be. But I had more of a problem with the Chiefs basically naming Cassel their starter for the foreseeable future without seeing what he can do with a new team and in a new system. For an organization that wants to promote competition at every position, giving Cassel that contract effectively eliminates any chance that he could be pushed for the position by Tyler Thigpen. I am not convinced Cassel is that much better than Thigpen, if at all, and I would have liked to have used the first part of this season to let that situation play itself out. If Cassel proved his worth for my franchise, I would have been happy to pay him then.

When you are playing an away game, how do the various stadium locker rooms compare? I would imagine that the away locker rooms are not exactly spectacular but are some better/worse than others?-- Rich Richard, Blue Point, NY

There is a huge variance depending on the facility. The only especially putrid visiting locker room that stands out to me right now is the one in Oakland. There is some sort of sludge that drips from the ceiling into the locker room, and a football team couldn't possibly be more crammed. I think, however, that is just how the Raiders want it, so no visiting team should anticipate an upgrade, ever.

Is there a difference between Coaches' tape and game film? What differs between game film and the version of the game that is shown on television?-- Jonathan Stetson, Chicago

Coaches' tape and game film are the exact same thing, and there is a huge difference between that footage and what the casual fan sees on TV. No football player or coach would ever really try to scout out their opponent from a television copy. The Coaches' tape has camera angles like the end zone cut, which is key for evaluating offensive and defensive line play as well as the respective gap responsibilities of blitzers. The other typical viewpoint on the Coaches' tape is the "All-22" look, which takes a much broader pan of the action so you can better diagnose both defensive coverages and offensive route combinations.-- Jonathan Stetson, Chicago

ElJackoSupreme@SI_RossTucker Ross, Do you find it strange that Vick serves 23 months for dog fighting & Stallworth served 24 days for killing a human?

When you put it like that, it seems pretty incongruent, I must admit. But Stallworth made a mistake and immediately accepted responsibility for his actions. Vick was basically living a criminal lifestyle and proceeded to lie about it when questioned. Ultimately, Stallworth made one poor decision whereas Vick funded an illegal operation for years.