Linebacker Martrell Spright prepares for a collision with running back Rob Kelley. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Sports Columnist

The Redskins needed a new training camp approach, and coach Jay Gruden knew it. His soft summers of the past — with minimal contact and starters sitting out preseason games — haven’t worked out. After losing in the regular-season opener in each of his first four years, Gruden has begun to push the team slightly harder.

The Redskins have ramped up the intensity at practice ahead of their first preseason game at New England on Thursday. Two sessions in full pads Saturday included jarring tackles that excited the crowd at Fan Appreciation Day. Next week, the team hosts the Jets for three days of joint practices that are sure to get physical.

Near the start of camp, Gruden said it’s all part of a plan to field the best team for a Week 1 road trip to face the Cardinals on Sept. 9.

“We’ll push the envelope and push them and make sure we get them ready more so than we have, hopefully, for Arizona,” the coach said.

Gruden isn’t a coach that inflicts wear and tear on players with no good reason. And the collective bargaining agreement allows one padded practice per day during two-a-days, so Gruden is still limited.

There’s no one right way to ready players for the season. Marty Schottenheimer’s lone Redskins camp was straight out of the “Junction Boys” playbook for brutality.

On the first day of camp in 2001, the coach invited fans on the field to watch a “bull in the ring” drill, which calls on a running back to batter through a linebacker as teammates encircle the action. Schottenheimer imposed brutal conditions with two padded practices per day and still opened the season 0-5. He was fired after going 8-8.

By contrast, Jim Zorn’s camp in 2008 was easily the softest in recent memory, and the Redskins started 6-2 before finishing 8-8.

Under Gruden, Washington has averaged just 12.3 points per game in season openers. The club has lost two of its first three games in three of the four years. Maybe it’s time for the coach to play his starters deeper in preseason games.

For decades, the Redskins used the traditional system of playing regulars for one quarter in the first exhibition, two in the second, three in the third and one in the fourth.

Gruden has resisted using starters after halftime in the third game, and he doesn’t play starters in the finale at all. Then everyone wonders why the offense looks stale.

Limiting physical activity doesn’t protect the players, either. Redskins linebacker Zach Brown was injured in the first 45 minutes of camp before hitting anyone. Nose tackle Daron Payne is missing two weeks after his ankle was stepped on. Receiver Josh Doctson injured his shoulder diving for a pass.

August practices are meant to push players hard, and finally Gruden sees why.

Read more from Rick Snider:

The Redskins’ trash-talking defensive backs have their hands full with Alex Smith

Josh Doctson is building trust and turning heads at Redskins training camp

Led by Alex Smith, Redskins newcomers come out firing to start training camp

New-look Redskins need these five players to thrive in training camp

Alex Smith is still adapting to Redskins, but his competitive fire is an immediate fit