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Letters From Patriots Camp: Volume 3

It's been a long time coming. But the NFL's restrictive media policy during Covid Camp 2020 does not apply to a man of my standing in the community. And I got credentialed for the first time since last season. Some random observations from the media section, where the reporters are spread out and the face coverings do not come off. Not even for this handsome face:

--The weirdest thing about a training camp without fans is that it's not weird at all. Normally there'd be thousands there, filling the bleachers and the grassy hill behind the end zone. But I barely noticed. It's taken less than six months and the new normal has become routine. To the point where I'm finding myself watching movies and TV shows and the crowd scenes feel odd. I catch myself saying "How are all those people at that concert? And where are the masks?" or whatever. And group hugs feel like a weird ritualistic rite from some long extinct culture. Now I'm not sure if mobs of people ever filled this place or if I just imagined it. 

--So today was helmets and shells. For the early part of practice they ran 7-on-7s, with the quarterbacks alternating pretty evenly and hitting all their passes against a non-competitive defense.They also ran a drill where they threw out of 3- then 5- then 7-step drops. In all of his reps, Jarrett Stidham showed no effects of whatever hip injury was limiting him over the last few days. But ater they went to 11-on-11s, he sat them out. 

--Cam Newton got twice as many throws as Brian Hoyer. Though neither looked particularly sharp. Newton overthrew Mohamed Sanu on a Go route where he had a step on his man. Then threw one behind Dalton Keene. And got picked off by Terrance Brooks on a ball that sailed over Keene. Add a pass broken up by Stephon Gilmore and a couple of Julian Edelman drops and it was pretty much an ugly stat line, if practice had a stat line. Newton did connect on a touchdown where Rex Burkhead made a nice diving catch in the corner. The ball may have hit the ground, but since nobody knows what a catch is any more and I didn't have Tony Romo there to spend 10 minutes debating whether it was a catch or not, I'm just going with what my heart tells me. My feelings do not have a challenge flag and the replay is always conclusive. 

--Hoyer didn't look much better. Twice he had passes broken up while missing on N'Keal Harry, once by Justin Bethel and the other by Myles Bryant. In between he overthrew Gunner Olszewski. So both quarterbacks did a nice job of spreading the inaccuracy around. 

--As for Harry, he did have some nice battles with Michael Jackson, two days removed from them throwing knuckles after Harry put Jackson on his ass in a blocking drill. The two were hand-fighting up the sideline when Harry freed his hands and turned to make a back shoulder catch. So Harry had his PBUs but won his share of battles too. 

--Just to get myself into midseason form, I'm declaring a ban on all Michael Jackson song title puns. No "They tried a pick play but he really Beat It" or "He's got to look at the Man in the Mirror after that." I will not have it. Common first name. Common last name. The guy's been hearing it his whole life. So just stop. The career you save may be your own. DAMMIT …

--This being my first visit, I'm still struggling to translate uniform numbers. Once again Belichick is doing that thing where he gives rookies these wacky, inappropriate numbers, and the draft picks are all by the order in which they were selected. Sort of. Kyle Dugger is 50, Devin Asiasi is 53 and Dalton Keene is 54. But for some inexplicable reason, second and third picks Josh Uche and Anferee Jennings are in the 70s. It's bizarre. Like this year he's created a math problem where you have to figure out the pattern. Next year I expect him to start assigning his rookies polynomials, just to piss off the NFL. 

--Speaking of Belichick (which is how I could begin half my sentences every day of my life), they ran one drill where they worked on ball security, with receivers and then defensive backs starting out at the 30 outside the left hash and carrying the ball with their left (sideline) arm while a defender tries to strip it out. And Belichick was in the middle of the drill, working on the finer points like the alignment and making sure the defender started with a backpedal. (And probably reminding everyone that ball theft is not a joke, Jim! Millions of families are affected each year!) And the players had a blast with it, laughing through each rep. Especially one where Gilmore broke Brooks' legs and put him on his ass with a head fake. Anyway, watching a section of practice like that, with the head coach teaching fundamentals and fine points and his players responding so positively, is something to keep in mind in February when the inevitable rumors float around that he's unhappy in his job and wants to retire. Or worse, coach the Giants. This is a man in full, doing exactly what he wants to do where he wants to do it. 

--Another coaching point on the day for the receivers was working on "stacking" a defender on seam routes. Meaning getting past him, then directly behind him, to make it harder for him to impact the play by using your own body as shield, more or less. First they ran it with tackling dummies, then against live competition. Just another one of those subtle nuances of the game you don't think about when you're on the coach with your lips around a Pringles can. 

--In the words of 17th century poet John Donne, "No man is an island." Except Matthew Slater, who pretty much operates on his own for much of practice. When he's not specifically assigned to work with any of the special teams units, he's off to the side with a coach who wears an umpire's chest protector type of thing, trying to jam Slater while he fights to get up field. That's how he's managed to define - in fact, perfect - the art of being a gunner for more than a decade.

--The kickers didn't kick. Which was a crushing disappointment. And that's not something I ever thought I'd be saying because field goal attempts have been the most boring part of camp since Adam Vinatieri beat out Matt Bahr in 1996. There's a genuine competition going on between Justin Rohrwasser and Nick Folk. And by all accounts Folk is lapping the rookie. They didn't even get to the field until practice was half over. And they walked in with Joe Cardona and Jake Bailey, their snapper and holder. Which tells me they were practicing in the stadium, away from the prying eyes that have been keeping score and reporting on them. For what it's worth, Rohrwasser has been wearing long sleeves, even though today was what the weather is like in Football Heaven. I don't know what that means in terms of his plans to get his controversial tattoo lasered off. Maybe he's waiting to see if he makes the team first? Your guess is as good as mine.

--Even without a punter competition, watching Bailey work is strangely compelling. His ball just travels different. It's not a spiral and it's rarely end-over-end. It sort of rolls on its center axis. Like Apollo 13 when it was in gimbal lock before Tom Hanks straightened it out using his Tom Hanks Hero Powers. I enjoy watching him boom punts way out of proportion to how entertaining it should actually be. 

--Fielding the punts were a rotation of Olszewski, Damiere Byrd, Isaiah Zuber and J.J. Taylor. And not Edelman, which is a relief with him at the age of 34. Who's leading in that race is anybody's guess. It feels more and more like Olszewski's roster spot is safe. And I'm still pulling for Taylor to make the cut because he's a folk hero in the making. Every time I see him I want to do my D-Bob voice when Rudy came out onto the field, "He's so LITTLE!!!" But even at 5-foot-6, Taylor is 185 pounds, and could no doubt snap my pencil neck with a flex of his mighty bicep. I just want that man on my football team.

--I might have buried the lede here, but Sony Michel was back on the field for the first time. The conventional wisdom has been that he was likely to start the season on PUP. But he wasn't held back in the slightest. At one point they worked on between-the-tackle running plays out of 22-personnel, with two tight ends and Jakob Johnson at fullback. And Michel and Damien Harris took turns carrying the ball. It's hard to say exactly since there's no tackling, but he looked sharp. I didn't see any issues with him getting in and out of his cuts, planting his feet, none of it. His return is a big step toward the team's expected evolution into more of a ground attack offense, to say the least. 

--Another guy who practiced, though he seemed somewhat limited, was Devin Asiasi, who had to go to the sidelines the other day and get his ankle taped. His development into a viable threat at tight end is mission critical. So that's something to keep an eye out for.

--One thing that stood out at today's workout as opposed to your typical camp practice, was the utter lack of Belichick's typical Jersey Rock playlist. Instead we got "Type of Way" by Rich Homie Quan with Jeezy and Meek Mill, followed by Migos' "Handsome and Wealthy." My guess is Mr. Kraft had his phone hooked up to the Bluetooth so they just went with it. (By the way, I'd need to credit my Shazam app for assisting me with this paragraphs. I'm not exactly a guy who can beat you at "Name That Tune" in this particular musical genre.)

--Occasionally they blasted crowd noise, particularly in no-huddle drills during 11-on-11s. But not just any crowd noise. It was mixed with jumbo jet engine sounds for some reason. So I guess the coaching staff is getting them ready in case they have to go on the road to play the 1970s Jets at Shea. 

--When Stidham was running the no-huddle in 7-on-7s, the calls he made were "Poison! Poison!", "Jordan! Jordan!" and what I'm 99% certain was "Charlie Sheen!!!" So I guess the common theme of the Pats hurry up offense is people who peaked in the early 90s? 

--The punt coverage unit didn't get all 11 onto the field in a scramble drill and had to run a lap. A minute later, they weren't aligned properly and had to run a lap along with their coach, around each goal post. And they kept reinforcing the drill, alternating personnel over and over until it was perfect. I can't help but picture that somewhere Shannon Sharpe dropped a coffee mug as he could feel the great cosmic injustice of it all.

--It's not always easy to tell from a distance if Newton is bringing the "juice" to practice everyone says he is. But there are moments that stand out. Like one time when the were returning to a drill and he randomly decided to sprint and then stick out his chest at the end like a sprinter breaking the tape at the finish line. Or calling out to receivers after a catch and whatnot. By all means it looks like he's got the QB1 job. But at bare minimum, if he's done nothing else he's made post-GOAT camp interesting as all hell.