FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The Patriots faithful started arriving early Saturday morning and they kept coming, until they filled the bleachers the length of one field and took all the spots on the green hill beyond the end zone, until all the space left was for them to along a ramp attached to Gillette Stadium overlooking the fields, lining the railings for four stories.
They came to watch the Patriots practice in pads for the first time this season, 27,781 fans, and, when the team finally took the field, Bill Belichick had everyone immediately jump into a drill … how to cover kickoff returns.
“Where’s Tom Brady?” asked one young boy who looked no older than five years old and was sitting on his father’s shoulders wearing a Brady jersey. Brady was on the next field, taking snaps under center. Riveting stuff. But when the boy spotted him, he lit up.
Much of the three-hour practice went on like this. It felt militaristic, mundane, Belichick drilling everyone on a series of tasks, practicing fundamentals that would help them come next January. The fans couldn’t get enough, even though they weren’t really seeing much.
This was my first time attending Patriots camp. Before coming to The MMQB, for two and a half years I covered baseball, a sport where a reporter has the freedom to wander the clubhouse before the game, watch batting practice up close and bump into a player on his way to the trainer’s room. The NFL, obviously, is a bit more guarded, and no team is more so than the Patriots. So the bossman Peter King asked me to write my observations.
Unlike some other NFL teams, who use training camp as a way to go off to secluded small towns and bond, the Patriots conduct their training camp in the shadow of their stadium. Maybe they figure they’re so focused they don’t need to worry about distractions. On Saturday a crew was preparing for a Coldplay concert at Gillette, and the noise from the sound check occasionally echoed in the distance. No one turned their heads. The music at practice was eclectic enough; the playlist sounded as if Belichick let his players choose every other song.
Four songs they played at the start of practice:
“Noise,” Kenny Chesney
“Born in the U.S.A.,” Bruce Springsteen
“The Devil is a Lie, Rick Ross,” featuring Jay Z
As the players split into their position groups for drills, Belichick sent the majority to the far end of the second field and to a patch of grass beyond it, the point farthest from the fans and media. And he had Brady and the other quarterbacks practice dropping back and throwing short passes—nothing of real consequence—front and center, in front of the fans. It looked as though Belichick was using Brady as a distraction from the real strategizing in the back. Reporters used binoculars to see the far end of the field. Two signs hung on the entrance to a set of bleachers on the hill: NO VIDEO TAPING ALLOWED.
Brady, for the most part, looked sharp every time he threw the ball, even just playing catch with a staffer. “Brady! Brady! Brady!” a fan yelled, and they all cheered as he took the field near them. These were the people who’d been calling sports talk radio shows and arguing with opposing fans on Twitter, message boards and comments sections, defending Brady in the ongoing Deflategate saga.
Brady smiled and waved and appeased the crowd, but he turned serious for every drill, even though he won’t be playing in the first four games of the season. When a staffer waving a paddle knocked down one of his passes, simulating the long arms of a defender, he cursed loudly. He had reportedly slammed his helmet when that happened the previous day.
The Patriot Way—Belichick constantly cycling players around Brady, in and out —made it so that Brady was one of the few players the fans could even identify with. Practice kept on humming with precision and came to a crescendo in the final moments, when Brady lofted a pass to Rob Gronkowski in the corner of the end zone. The loudest cheer of the day.
Afterward, as the players exited, the media huddled around a podium and backdrop to the side of the field. I was steeling myself for my first Belichick press conference. The day before, when asked yet again what would happen if Jimmy Garoppolo was playing well when Brady’s suspension ended, Belichick had shaken his head, rolled his eyes, and muttered “Jesus Christ” under his breath. Turned out, Belichick wouldn’t talk on Saturday because he had spoken the day before, which, in baseball would be unheard of for a manager. Belichick needed a day off from the media.
Instead, Chris Long, the longtime Rams defensive end who was in his first Patriots camp, discussed buying into Belichick’s no-nonsense manner and his mantra, Do Your Job. “Doing my job, what it means to me, it takes a lot of complication off my plate. I’m allowed to just work my hardest at doing something specific each play and not try to do too much.
“It sounds like just a saying, but if you embrace it, it’s pretty awesome.”
Terrance Knighton, another veteran in his first Patriots camp, pointed out that players here had been conditioned to be productive when they were around the facility. They weren’t joking around. They arrived on time for meetings, and they actually took notes. “You don’t see that everywhere,” he said. To do his part, Knighton decided to quit Twitter during camp.
“I just want to focus on football,” Knighton said. “Not worry about the outside stuff. Always hearing about the Brady [Deflategate] stuff.
“You don’t see guys here on Instagram, on their phones, taking pictures. They’re always talking to each other, working out. It’s all about football. Now that I’m off Twitter, I don’t have a reason to pick up my phone.”
I imagined that Belichick was smiling somewhere. He had built a culture that forced everyone in the organization to take their jobs seriously, and though it was not always fun or exciting, everyone accepted and embraced it, including the fans, because it produced results.
After all the players had exited the field and the media and the thousands of fans had left, four carts drove up and down the practice fields, clearing debris and trash and spare grass with heavy-duty blowers, ensuring that every last blade looked pristine for the following day.
FIVE THINGS I THOUGHT ABOUT THE PATRIOTS
1. Jonathan Cooper getting carted off with an apparent leg injury is not a good sign. Cooper, the former top-10 pick, is projected to start at guard for the Patriots. Coming off three underwhelming seasons with the Cardinals, he is someone to watch this camp. The Patriots traded Chandler Jones to acquire Cooper (and also a second-round pick.)
2. Only in America—and maybe only in New England—would 21,000 people show up for a football practice in July, more than a month before the start of the season, under a brutally hot sun. All the Deflategate drama and news seems to have only unified and inspired the fan base even more.
3. Maybe it’s because they all adore Tom Brady. Every man, woman and child seemed to be wearing a Tom jersey on Saturday. That’s who they all wanted to see. Every time he came anywhere near the stands, the weary crowd mustered the strength to cheer. Tom can do no wrong in New England.
4. I wonder if Bill Belichick cuts his own sleeves off his sweatshirts. He was rocking a sweatshirt with sleeves that had been cut too short. Maybe he could get Kanye to design a Patriots sweatshirt for him. Not full-sleeved or too-short sleeved. Something in between would look good.
5. Jimmy Garoppolo still has a month to prepare, but it’ll be interesting to see how Belichick doles out first-team reps as camp goes on. How much do you focus on preparing Garoppolo for the first four games versus prepping Brady for the 12 after that? The two of them have mostly shared the first-team reps so far, but Brady has the experience. He shouldn’t need as much preparation later on. Garoppolo needs it more.
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