A roar rippled through the throng of fans lined up along the practice field an hour into the start of the Washington Redskins' training camp yesterday. For the first time since retiring from football in 1993, Coach Joe Gibbs had his offense lined up against the defense in pads and helmets about to engage in full contact.
The sound of shoulder pads cracking and players grunting rang out for the next 45 minutes as the seven-on-seven drill continued, and then picked up again during the afternoon practice, which lasted 90 minutes.
While the sessions were not exactly crisp -- there were poor passes, boggled exchanges between quarterbacks and centers and the normal miscues that come with the opening day of camp -- they were certainly intense, with the coaching staff swiftly establishing a heated and physical environment on the field at Redskins Park.
Unlike the past two training camps under former coach Steve Spurrier, who favored far less structured practices that included coaches sometimes taking imaginary golf swings between drills, Gibbs plans to use the five weeks of training camp to equip his team to play a more brutish brand of football. He wants to grind out yards with the running game, do everything possible to protect the quarterback and attack the opposition's passer with the aggressive schemes of Gregg Williams, the team's assistant head coach for defense.
"This is fun, this is football," defensive tackle Brandon Noble said after the morning session yesterday. "That's what you're out here to do. You've got to get used to it; it's a tough, physical game, and practices like this get you prepared for the season and makes the games a lot easier.
"This offense is obviously different [from Spurrier's]. We're going to run the ball a lot, so as a defense you're going to get more runs at you [in practice], so it's a lot more physical than in the past, and that's good because this is a very physical division, and we need to be ready for that. And when we get out of this camp we're going to be battle-tested and ready to go."
Gibbs, who won three Super Bowls in his first tenure with the Redskins, is known for demanding much of his team during training camp, and he pays sharp attention to detail. Training sessions are planned to the minute, and the players are well-informed of what to expect before arriving in the morning.
"It's not real different from" former coaches Norv Turner and Marty Schottenheimer, said tackle Jon Jansen, the team's longest serving player. "It's a little different from coach Spurrier, but everyone has their own style. . . . To me, this is [football], and I'm glad we're glad that we're back to that brand of football."
Gibbs wants to simulate game conditions and said he will not stand for players being overweight or out of shape. "Practice is going to move quick, and it's going to be hard," center Cory Raymer said.
The focus on physicality is even more pronounced now because Gibbs opened camp as late as possible to give the players a month's vacation. The Redskins and Denver Broncos will begin their preseason schedule ahead of every team in the league when they play in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, on Aug. 9.
"We're going to open in a little over a week, so we don't have much time, and we won't have many practices," Gibbs said.
Joe Bugel, the assistant head coach for offense and one of Gibbs's longtime coaching cronies, spent much of practice hunched over behind the offensive line looking like he was ready to make a block himself. Gibbs and offensive coordinator Don Breaux often lined up in the spot of a defensive back during the drill, getting a player's perspective and admittedly providing virtually no resistance to any receiver who crossed their path.
Gibbs's offensive coaches -- most of whom are in their sixties -- kept players in meetings until around 11 p.m. Friday, then stayed up sharing old war stories until 1 a.m. before arriving at Redskins Park early yesterday morning.
They said they felt as nervous and excited as they did the first time around. They were encouraged about how well the players responded to the first day of full contact, exerting aggression without resorting to fights or dirty tactics.
"Today was a great thing," Bugel said. "Because when both the O and D lines can work together without any fights or without talking to each other, it's great. Both sides of the ball have a great work ethic."
Their resolve to not lash back across the line will be tested, however, as the long days grind on under the blazing sun, with the hits certain to keep coming on both sides of the ball.
"We've got a lot of physical guys; this is how it is," safety Matt Bowen said. "We're a physical team; this is to be expected. It will be that way for the next couple of weeks until we get to hit someone else."