NFL training camps should be dirty, grimy and even a little uncomfortable for players as they prep for the regular season with long days of practice in the summer heat and meetings that stretch deep into the night.
But with more and more clubs choosing to hold camps at team facilities across the league, has the idea of taking the show on the road to small college campuses lost its value?
Maybe so—and I understand why teams want to stick to routines while taking advantage of the first-class facilities back home.
That’s easier to manage when players can use the state-of-the-art treatment and rehab facilities, lift in top-of-the-line weight rooms, watch tape in the plush chairs of the meeting rooms and dress for practice in their own locker stalls.
NFL players are molded on structure, schedules and routine. That will never change.
And holding camp at home helps to maintain those same patterns when you walk through the doors of the team facility—down the street from your house.
However, camp isn’t supposed to be comfortable, fun or, well, easy for players.
Instead, it should be challenging while creating the best football environment possible to build a team.
Everything changes—from the routine to your overall focus—when you check into some lousy dorm room on campus with an old, beaten-down bed and an air-conditioning unit that blows stale, freezing air all night long.
Those comforts of home? Forget about it. They’re gone for the next four weeks.
Remember, this ain’t the Ritz-Carlton.
Your schedule (and your lifestyle) now revolves around the chow hall, practices on college fields and meetings in some liberal arts building in the heart of campus.
It’s old-school. It’s simplistic.
And the days begin to mesh together when your world revolves around playbook install meetings, film work, padded practices and the occasional night off to drink beers at some campus bar.
But that’s life on the road in an NFL training camp.
The distractions are limited when you are put in this controlled environment, and football becomes the main focus once you report for the start of camp.
I went through two training camps with the Rams at Western Illinois University in Macomb, a college town rising out of the cornfields just east of the Mississippi River on Route 67.
Our experience there lacked all the benefits (or luxuries) of Rams Park back in Missouri—from the small, cramped locker rooms in Macomb to the semi-constructed weight room in the gym without any real air conditioning.
The meeting rooms? Lecture halls on campus or small, breakout rooms for position groups tucked away in the English department with final grades from the previous semester still hanging up on the wall.
We were tired, we looked like crap, and it was pretty standard to wear flip-flops and the same T-shirt for a week straight on campus.
I can’t ever remember doing laundry or shaving, nor did I have any idea about what was going on in the world around me. Baseball? National news? I didn’t even bother with it.
Check the weather report? Why? It was going to be hot and disgusting—every day.
It was all about football. I mean, really, that’s it.
Our focus was on the game, the film and the never-ending cycle of double practice sessions, meetings and the three square meals a day on the 14th floor of the dorm.
Do you miss your wife, family and friends? Heck yeah you do.
And that’s hard to say goodbye for a month when you hit the road with a car packed with pillows and extra blankets.
But unlike staying at home when you experience those daily family distractions (both good and bad), camp life provides a true break from reality, from life in general, to consume yourself with talk of technique, one-on-one drills, depth charts and competition.
When I was in Washington playing for both Steve Spurrier and Joe Gibbs, we held practice at Redskins Park in Ashburn, Virginia.
Sure, we stayed off site at the National Conference Center on the Potomac River, but the majority of the meetings (and every practice) were right there at the facility.
We jumped on the bus every morning and every afternoon to head back for practice and film.
It felt too normal, too staged. Like an extended OTA practice with pads.
Yes, Gibbs beat us down during two-a-days with the ridiculous amount of hitting we did in those camps, but I was still less than a mile away from my house.
And I never felt consumed by the overall process.
More importantly, I missed those nights in Macomb when we had the rookie show at a bar called the Purple Pride, the chemistry we built as a team while submersed in a football culture, and that final day on the field complete with the anticipation of driving back home after the horn sounded to signal the end of camp.
There was a sense of pride there to make it through camp, to return to the real world after four weeks of nasty living in the dorms.
With the new collective bargaining agreement, training camps have changed drastically since I played some ball in the league.
And given the amount of down time these players have throughout the afternoon, along with the end of two-a-day sessions, I wouldn’t be surprised to see even more teams decide to pack it in and hold camp at the team facility.
But my opinion won’t change when it comes to the value of a true NFL camp—because nothing at home compares to the pure football environment created on campus.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.