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Redskins training camp starting times: Dollars or sense?

(2014 photo by John McDonnell / TWP)

Twelve months ago, during his first visit to Richmond, Redskins Coach Jay Gruden explained why his team would switch its training camp schedule from late afternoon practices to the morning.

“I think it’s cooler in the morning and there’s less chance of rain in the morning than the afternoon, that’s the main two reasons,” Gruden said. “If you [hold walk throughs] in the evening, it’s a chance for them to sleep on it. And then you come right out and practice [the next morning] and see how much they can digest mentally . . . . I like this. I want to see how that goes. We practiced in the afternoon last year in Cincinnati, but I think the morning practice is the way to go.”

“I think Coach’s plan is good,” President Bruce Allen agreed. “The heavy practice is in the morning, and obviously the threat of rain is in the afternoon, so it will eliminate hopefully the need to go to the convention center.”

Earlier this week, the Redskins sent out a schedule for training camp. Last year’s ideal “way to go” had changed. This year, the heavy practices will be in the afternoon, with the walk-throughs in the morning. And Gruden had an explanation, telling reporters Tuesday that there wasn’t much rain last summer, that if rain is in the forecast practices can always be switched, and that the new schedule will be more educationally conducive for his team.

“It’s really up to us as a staff,” Gruden said. “And what we decided was to install in the morning in meetings, walk through the installation, practice in the afternoon, watch the practice tape, and then do it all over again.”

Which sounds perfectly fine. I’m not aware of any studies that link wins and losses to the starting time of training camp practices, and the Redskins (and other teams) have used both models in recent years.

But before Gruden offered his explanation Tuesday, reporters couldn’t help but notice that the new schedule would make it much easier for fans to spend a full day at the team’s Richmond facility – with its food vendors and massive merchandise tent. They couldn’t help but notice that fans could easily grab autographs after the walk-through, enjoy lunch at the facility during the brief mid-afternoon break, and then assemble for the 3 p.m. main event.

They couldn’t help but note that last year’s food truck court was something of a bust, with at least one vendor telling the Richmond Times-Dispatch that practice times were an issue. They couldn’t help but note that the Richmond Economic Development Authority had to make large cash payments to the Redskins two years in a row, covering shortfalls in the required local contribution. And they couldn’t help but note that many fans seemed to depart after last year’s early sessions, skipping the less interesting walk-throughs.

“It’s believed that the decision to change formats partially was made to help increase attendance for the afternoon sessions and thus provide more of an economic boost,” The Post’s Mike Jones reported.

“I would hope an organization would not change a practice time just to sell more food and souvenirs,” ESPN’s John Keim wrote. “But we all know what we’re dealing with here.”

“It appears that the flipping of the practice times was done at least in part due to the financial arrangement the Redskins have with the city” of Richmond, CSN’s Rich Tandler wrote. “The change happened even though last year’s schedule was probably best for football reasons.”

“The overall point is that this is a huge marketing and revenue generating opportunity for the Redskins,” ESPN 980’s Chris Russell wrote. “It always has been and it always will be. This isn’t about the fans or the players. This is about business.”

Now, maybe merchandising and attendance had absolutely nothing to do with this decision. Noted truth teller Allen said Tuesday that boosting attendance in Richmond was not a factor, and that “Coach Gruden decided to go to the afternoon” for his own football reasons, just like Shanahan before him.

But at a certain point – when a franchise has proven far more adept at making money than at winning football games – every decision comes with a question: Was this about drills, or dollars? It’s hard not to wonder, when you see the merchandise trailer set up at Redskins Park during OTAs and again during this week’s mini-camp, with invited fans lining the sidelines. (The Eagles and Giants, for what it’s worth, do not welcome fans at OTAs.) It’s hard not to wonder, when you hear Gruden explain how the Redskins could not have traveled off-site for joint practices with another team, due to their Richmond obligations. It’s hard not to wonder, when you see a team consistently at the top of franchise value lists, and at the bottom of the standings.

More than a decade of profitable losing has conditioned us all to look for the cash registers hidden behind every Redskins decision, to assume that every new deal has a benefit unconnected to winning games.

I asked four players Tuesday whether they preferred morning or afternoon practices; three said morning – citing the heat – and the fourth said he was indifferent. Nose tackle Chris Baker said some players had asked Gruden to stick with morning practices due to the afternoon heat, but added “we’ve been losing while doing that, so might as well switch it up.”

Which is fair enough. You can’t really argue that last year’s system produced a team so excellent that nothing should be changed. Just remember what Gruden said on the first day of his first training camp.

“We just thought practice in the morning was the best option for us,” he said. “We try to do what’s best for our team and for this place.”

That should be the goal of any football organization. Whether it is, for Washington, is the question.