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The Redskins' only training camp with Vince Lombardi started 49 years ago

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Associated Press

The Redskins' only training camp with Vince Lombardi started 49 years ago

It was on July 9, 1969, that Redskins were to start training camp at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. For months, the Redskins players looked towards that date with a mix of hope and fear. The hope was that Vince Lombardi, who had been hired as head coach in February of that year, could lift the moribund Washington franchise to glory. The fear came from what they had heard of the methods he would use to do so. As cornerback Pat Fischer said, “Lombardi was preceded by his reputation.”

 

That reputation came from comments such as those made by Henry Jordan, a player for Lombardi in Green Bay.

 

“He treats us all the same,” said Jordan of his coach. “Like dogs.”

 

Especially notorious was the grass drill. The players would run in place, knees pumping up high and then, on Lombardi’s command, flop onto the ground. Failure to spring back up immediately and resume the fervent churning of the legs would usually result in a public tongue-lashing by the coach. In Carlisle he ran the grass drill unmercifully, cursing at the non-performers so loudly that Dickinson secretaries working near the field complained to the dean of the college.

 

“There are two ways of motivation,” said Sam Huff, who had come out of retirement to become a player-coach under Lombardi. “One is through fear and the other is through group motivation. Lombardi motivated through fear.”

 

A big fear that players had was for their jobs. Being cut was always a clear and present danger for those who did not do things Lombardi’s way. Even being a recent first-round draft pick didn’t grant any immunity. When fullback Ray McDonald showed up late for the team’s first meeting in Carlisle, Lombardi stopped speaking and asked the third-year player what his name was. “Ray McDonald,” the player said. Those were his last words as a Redskin as Lombardi announced to the team right then and there that McDonald had been cut. From then on, job security dictated that one should keep one’s watch set to Lombardi Time, which was ten minutes ahead of Eastern Time.

 

One player whose job appeared to be safe was quarterback Sonny Jurgensen. Not only did he have Hall of Fame talent, but also he fully bought into Lombardi’s methods. The signal caller who NFL Films’ John Facenda once described as possessing “a hairline going north and a belt line going south” had once blown off his head coach’s suggestion that he improve his conditioning, telling Otto Graham, “I don’t throw the ball with my stomach.” Now, however, he was flopping on the Carlisle turf with the rest of them.

 

Nobody was spared the wrath of Lombardi, not even his own flesh and blood. His brother Joe had recently been hired by a sporting goods company and thought he would take advantage of his family connection to bring a couple of the company’s executives out onto the practice field. Lombardi ejected all three of them, using more of that language that made the secretaries blush.

 

As players such as McDonald and some rookies who packed up and bolted in the middle of the night fell by the wayside, replacements had to be found. Vince Lombardi wasn’t a mere raving tyrant; he had an uncanny knack for finding talent. The coach was chatting with Jurgensen after the first practice when Lombardi pointed to a rookie running back out of Kansas State. “See that [rookie] over there in the overalls?” said the coach of the eighth-round draft pick. “When the rest of these guys are gone, he’ll still be here.” Lombardi was pointing at Larry Brown.

 

As camp wore on Brown continued to impress the coach with his ability, but the back always seemed to be a half step slow getting off the ball. “Does that Brown hear,” Lombardi asked one night at a coaches’ meeting. They decided to find out and, sure enough, a test revealed that Brown was quite deaf in one ear. 

 

The team fitted Brown’s helmet with a hearing aid that transferred sound from the side of his head with the bad ear into the good ear and the results were immediate and impressive. A couple of days later Brown scored two touchdowns in the exhibition season opener at RFK Stadium. A few days after that, assistant coach George Dickson saw Lombardi with his arm draped around Brown’s shoulders. Later on, knowing that Lombardi doesn’t show such affection to just anyone, Dickson went up to Brown and said, “Son, you’ve got this ball club made.” Brown went on to rush for 888 yards in his rookie season and 5,875 in his seven-year career.

 

With Brown and a fit Jurgensen in starring roles, Lombardi led the Redskins to a 7-5-2 record, their first winning record since 1955. 

 

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, Facebook.com/TandlerNBCSand follow him on Twitter  @TandlerNBCSand on Instagram @RichTandler

 

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Ron Rivera sees releasing Josh Norman as an opportunity for Redskins to get younger

Ron Rivera sees releasing Josh Norman as an opportunity for Redskins to get younger

On Friday the Redskins released veteran cornerback Josh Norman, and on Saturday head coach Ron Rivera explained that the decision allowed the team to get younger at a key position. 

"The big thing is it's an opportunity for us to get younger. Josh is a veteran guy and again, just looking at the young guys that we have, we got to get these guys on the football field and more exposed," Rivera said. 

Rivera spoke to reporters at a charity event in Charlotte, and while everything he said is true, it's also not the full story. Yes, Norman just turned 32 in December, but Washington's decision to cut him was not solely about age. 

Norman was set to make $15 million in 2020, and the team will save $12.5 million on the salary cap by letting him go. And his level of play no longer validated the hefty price tag and probably hasn't for the last two seasons. Norman finished the 2019 season on the bench and only played in rare situations when the other active cornerbacks were hurt. 

As for a youth movement at cornerback, it's coming, ready or not. Quinton Dunbar is in the last year of his deal and will be 28 when the season starts. Fabian Moreau will be in the last year of his rookie deal and will be 26 when the season starts. Jimmy Moreland had an up and down rookie year in 2019 and will be 25 when the season starts this fall. 

Some NFL sources also expect the Redskins to be quite active in free agency, particularly at the cornerback spot. Two names to watch are unrestricted free agents James Bradberry and Bashaud Breeland. Bradberry played for Rivera in Carolina while Breeland nearly signed with the Panthers as a free agent in 2018 before a foot injury voided his contract. 

So sure, the Redskins released Norman in part of an effort to get a younger roster. But there was plenty more involved, Rivera just decided to take the high road with his public comments. 

NOTES: Rivera also got asked about taking the Redskins job earlier this offseason: "It's going well. It's a little bit of a transition obviously as well. It's an opportunity to change things and kind of put things in the way we want to have them done. "

The coach also got asked about the difference between coaching in Charlotte and coaching in D.C. "The area is huge. Compared to here there's a lot of people," Rivera said. "It's very loud. All the restaurants are very loud." True words. 

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How much do people love Ron Rivera? Watch this video from Charlotte

How much do people love Ron Rivera? Watch this video from Charlotte

Panthers owner David Tepper fired head coach Ron Rivera after Week 12 of the 2019 season. Usually an in-season firing means that fans have turned on the coach amid a lost season.

In Carolina, that wasn't exactly the case.

When Rivera was fired, he and his wife Stephanie took out a full-page ad in The Charlotte Observer to thank a number of people and show gratitude for his nine years as head coach of the Panthers. That's unusual.

It seems that many Panthers fans were waiting to get their opportunity to thank Rivera, and on Saturday, it came.

Hundreds of Carolina fans showed up in Charlotte to say goodbye to Rivera as well as raise money for the Charlotte Humane Society. Why? Rivera decided to hold a yard sale of sorts, selling much of his Panthers gear, signed shirts and memorabilia going to the Humane Society. The event raised more than $30,000. 

The whole idea is admirable, and it appears from social media that the execution was a hit. 

Rivera's relationship with Redskins fans is just beginning, but if the crowd in Charlotte is any indication, it should be a fun ride. Winning helps too, and for most of his nine seasons in Carolina the Panthers won. That will build goodwill with any fan base, and in Washington, fans are desperate for some playoff football. 

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