Reporting David Elfin
It’s 96 feet high with approximately 23,000 square feet of surface space. No, it’s not the mega-mansion that was recently stopped after protest from neighbors before it was built in Great Falls.
It’s the Redskins’ shiny, new indoor practice facility, one that Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs, Washington’s coach when the team moved its headquarters from Herndon to Ashburn in 1992, never wanted to see built.
Gibbs, whose 1982 team clinched Washington’s first playoff berth in six years in RFK Stadium’s swirling snow and whose 1987 edition won a spot in the NFC Championship Game by beating host Chicago in frigid Soldier Field, loved to talk about “Redskins weather.”
Rain, snow, wind and sleet were all “Redskins weather” to Gibbs, who coached the burgundy and gold from 1981-92 and from 2004-07. His last two road victories en route to the 2007 playoffs were won in frozen, windswept Giants Stadium and in Minnesota’s Metrodome. Outside or inside, Gibbs didn’t care.
However, Raleigh McKenzie, a near-original Hog and part of two of Gibbs’ three Super Bowl champions, said he wished that he had been able to practice in such a pristine environment instead of the mud and chill of a Washington winter.
“I wish we had had something like this,” McKenzie said last Thursday as the Redskins officially unveiled the facility which was built last season on part of Redskins Park’s parking lot and unused grassy space.
“Joe thought something like this might make sissies out of us, but this is the new millennium,” said defensive end Dexter Manley, Washington’s career sacks leader. “It’s what everybody’s going to.”
Indeed, most teams that don’t have an indoor practice facility of their own have warmer winters than Washington: Arizona, Carolina, Dallas (which hasn’t replaced the one that was wrecked in a 2009 storm but can shift to Cowboys Stadium in half an hour), Jacksonville, Oakland, San Diego and San Francisco. The ever-cheap Bengals are able to use the University of Cincinnati’s bubble when the Bearcats aren’t.
Chicago has been able to practice indoors all the way back to 1990 while Buffalo, Cleveland, Green Bay, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Minnesota, New England, the New York Giants, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Tennessee all followed suit before the turn of the millennium.
So Washington was definitely late to the party and not solely because of Gibbs. Don’t forget that he was away from the Redskins for 13 of the first 17 seasons the franchise called Ashburn home.
Current Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, who spent all but a year and a half of his 25 NFL seasons before coming to Washington in the uncertain climates of San Francisco and Denver, wanted to build a bubble as soon as he took command of the Redskins 28 months ago. But the lockout prevented it and postponed construction into last fall.
The Giants were the ninth straight Super Bowl winner who were able to practice indoors. Is it just a coincidence that Washington hasn’t even won the NFC East since 1999?
“It will help us,” said Shanahan, whose team endured an especially rainy fall in 2011 which left them either soaked or working in a nearby airplane hangar, gym or fitness center en route to a third straight season of at least 10 defeats. “It’s the perfect situation, perfect conditions. If (we have) 40 miles per hour winds, we’re looking forward to going inside and throwing without the wind. It’s a big plus.”
General manager Bruce Allen, noting that the Redskins play their first two games this season in the domes of New Orleans and St. Louis, said that they can do a much better job of simulating the noise of those stadiums than they could with speakers set up alongside Redskins Park’s outdoor fields.
What’s more, Allen said that with the bubble having been built, the Redskins, who have been mulling moving elsewhere in the area, are “hoping” to stay put in Ashburn.
“We’ve been looking at different ways to improve Redskin Park,” said Allen, whose late father George had the previous model built when he became the Redskins’ coach and GM in 1971. “This is going to give us a great opportunity to work when we have some inclement weather. We’re trying to find ways to maximize the players’ health and efficiency.”
Which, along with winning, should be what the NFL is all about after all, right?
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March.