RICHMOND — For the first day since training camp opened, the Redskins drew a near-capacity crowd Saturday, the final day of three hard-hitting joint practices with the Houston Texans.
Amping up the buzz factor, HBO’s “Hard Knocks” was on hand chronicling the hard slog of the preseason, and ESPN was broadcasting live.
Add two more combustible elements — steady, aggravating rain and the testosterone of 180-odd football players battling for roster spots and starting jobs — and the result was a three-brawl, two-field circus.
With coaches from both squads unable to subdue their players any better than the officials with whistles, the punches flew and the piles of brawlers grew like fast-mutating blobs.
ESPN’s coverage rolled on despite pleas from a Redskins spokesman to stop broadcasting, while nearly everyone with a cellphone in the crowd of 19,450 snapped photos and shot videos to air on social media.
When order was finally restored, plans for resuming the joint practice were scuttled. Instead, the two teams were separated like squabbling children in the back seat of the family car. The Texans held an intrasquad scrimmage on one field, while the Redskins staged theirs on the other field.
“It wasn’t worth it,” Coach Jay Gruden said of continuing the joint practice, alluding to the risk of injury if tempers reignited. “Obviously it wasn’t a good situation. We missed an opportunity to get better today against a good team.”
The fighting erupted so suddenly it was tricky to pinpoint the flash point.
But according to players interviewed on both teams, the 10:35 a.m. practice started with bad blood still simmering from an incident in Friday morning’s session, when the Redskins’ 6-foot-2, 231-pound rookie running back Matt Jones drew wild cheers from his teammates for bulldozing Texans rookie cornerback Kevin Johnson (5-11, 188) on a spectacular carry.
That was the kindling.
Then, less than an hour into Saturday’s practice, Houston defenders piled on 5-8 Redskins running back Chris Thompson in what fullback Darrel Young felt was a cheap, retaliatory shot. Young tangled with a Texans defender in protest, and their skirmish was short-lived.
So was the truce.
Two plays later, Redskins backup fullback Jordan Campbell, going out for a pass, had his legs taken out from him by Johnson, the Texans cornerback who’d been shown up the previous day.
That set off a full-blown fracas.
Redskins wide receiver Pierre Garcon was quick to Campbell’s defense, as was Andre Roberts, who shoved Johnson in retaliation. What seemed like Houston’s entire defensive front joined the fray, and Garcon took on all, refusing to retreat.
Almost simultaneously, a third fight erupted on the adjacent field, triggered when Chris Baker, the Redskins’ 325-pound nose tackle, got into a shouting match with Texans center Ben Jones. Baker flung off his helmet; Jones then sucker-punched him, according to Baker and his teammates. That was brawl No. 3.
In a regular season game, NFL officials would have halted the nonsense and ejected the chief participants in short order.
But authority was in as short supply Saturday as restraint.
The upshot shortchanged the fans who’d come for a close-up look at an NFL practice. It also cost Redskins coaches and players a valuable opportunity to test their readiness against the Texans, who handed Washington a season-opening defeat in 2014.
“We got half the practice in,” said Redskins defensive lineman Kedric Golston. “I’d love to have gotten the [full] reps against another opponent, but at the same time, I think we would have spent more time breaking up fights.”
Said Young, who trudged off the field with smears of blood on both shoulders of his white No. 36 Redskins jersey: “It’s just emotional. You go against teams for a while, and tempers flare. But they are a great football team. We got better this week. Unfortunately, we lost a day to get better.”
Many in the crowd had come to size up the Redskins’ first-round draft pick, rookie offensive lineman Brandon Scherff, as he squared off against Houston’s pass-rushing phenom, defensive end J.J. Watt. Others were eager to see the next step in the evolution of quarterback Robert Griffin III.
With a steady rain and slick field making things tough for quarterbacks and receivers alike, what they saw instead were a few glimpses of offensive proficiency and plenty of glitches as backs skidded on the wet turf and balls slipped through receivers’ hands.
Garcon, who had caught a pretty touchdown pass from Griffin the previous day, joked afterward that the melee had actually been players’ master plan to force coaches to cut the session short.
None of his teammates backed him up.
Some shook their heads with regret.
Others saw it as a sign of camaraderie.
“At the end of a day, we’re a family,” said veteran cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who tried pulling teammates out of the brawl despite the fact he wasn’t even dressed for practice, wearing sweats instead of full pads and a helmet, as he recovers from a groin strain. “We’re going to have each other’s back no matter who was right, who was wrong. We’ll figure that out later.”
Mike Jones and Aaron Dodson contributed to this report in Richmond.