Last year, as if 2020 wasn't enough of an all around goatfuck, I was limited by NFL guidelines (and maybe common sense; the science is not settled on that) to just one Patriots practice. Which is a record low for me going all the way back to the early '90s, when I used to go training camp in Smithfield, RI just for fun. At a time when Barstool was just a gleam in a young Dave Portnoy's eyes. Meaning before it became part of my job. So if there is a short list of things I've been looking forward to doing to feel like we're back to something resembling normal life, going back to Pats practice is one of them. And today I got to check that item on the post-quarantine punchlist. Life is good.
With that as preamble, here are some random observations:
--We all grasp the concept that training camp is not real football. Well OTAs are not real training camp. These practices are more or less practice for the later practices that get everyone ready for the real practices, if you get my meaning. As Bill Belichick himself has said a million times but still can't be stressed enough, these are not for evaluation purposes. They're for learning purposes. And it's the first week of kindergarten. The emphasis is on communication, fundamentals and assignments. The football equivalent of the Close Encounters mothership showing us how to play the five tones.
--Keeping that in mind, a ton of work still gets done, even just in helmets and shorts. Unfortunately, I'm limited in what they'll let the media report. For instance, I can't go posting what the coaches were instructing guys or the hilarious things that get yelled in these things. Which is something that I've come to find out is referred to unofficially as "The Charlie Weis Rule." Since he probably never finished a sentence in his life that didn't have a least 1.5 "shits" in it, you can figure out how this rule was originated. I will say this though. The coaching staff is not yet in midseason profanity form. The "Shut the" and "up" I heard were fine. But the cadence and emphasis was off on the "FUCK." Fortunately there's time to work on it before camp officially starts in July.
--The best news I heard came courtesy of one stadium employee I'm friendly with who reports that the new guys are awesome. That they've come in with great attitudes and appreciate being with this team. Specifically mentioned were Jalen Mills, Hunter Henry and Nelson Agholor, who have told people they love it here. Which, admittedly, won't help them win games. People love Venice too, but their football team is trash. But when the narrative last year was that Tom Brady was the only thing that drew players to New England and they'd never be able to attract free agents without him, it's not nothing.
--Again, this isn't supposed to be about evaluation and I'm not about to contradict myself by trying to draw conclusions based on 90 minutes of what pretty much amounts to taking a lesson from the pro at the club's driving range. But let me contradict myself contradicting myself and talk about Mac Jones. Yes, he looks smaller than you're ready for. At least from a distance. And with Cam Newton as your reference point to measure him by. Not Doug Flutie-caliber small. Just not as big as he looked at Alabama.
--I know even less about quarterback throwing mechanics than I do actual mechanics. With the exception of Mikaela Banes in Transformers, who I know a lot about:
--Also for what it's worth, at one point between drills, Jones casually launched a pass that hit the crossbar at the far end of the field. With minimal effort. Mnd you, he was standing on the opposite 40. Even though the practice field is like 5 yards shorter than a regulation field, the ease at which he flung an accurate ball that distance was impressive.
--As with the last OTA that was open to the media, Newton is still getting the first reps. Followed by Jones, Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer, in that order. In the part of practice that was mainly focused on the offense, it was Josh McDaniels calling all the shots. With other offensive players standing in for the defense, and the D-linemen holding up blocking pads, he rotated the QBs through, having them work on recognizing the defense and blocking assignments. For instance, the two ILBs wore pinnies with linebacker numbers on them and the QB had to identify the Mike for run plays and then for checkdown screens. At one point with Newton under center, McDaniels did light them up, but it's unclear who he was pissed at.
--While this was going on, Belichick was on the far field, running his defensive backs through a coverage drill against both 5-man and 4WR/1RB spread formations. And at one point was coaching up Mills 1-on-1 on some finer point. That was the first time I ran afoul of the NFL's new, laxer rules on uniform numbers, since Mills is No. 2 and it took my preconditioned brain a minute to figure out that he wasn't converting a punter into a nickelback like he did Troy Brown and Julian Edelman.
--Later it was full squad 11-on-11s, actual offense against actual defense, with neither unit dominating. With a combination of shotgun and lining up under center, Newton hit a back on a wheel route, Isaiah Zuber on a stop, took a simulated sack, then put one behind Agholor who was running a Go. Then, as if he was instructed to follow Newton's lead, Jones put one behind Zuber and out of bounds, hit JJ Taylor on a checkdown, then also took a "sack." The highlights of that one were when a Stidham pass got broken up and the defense went bonkers. And then when Kyle Van Noy let an interception (I think from a Jones pass but don't quote me; it's been a while since I've had to focus on anything that wasn't on Netflix) go right through his hands. He immediately dropped to the ground and gave his team 20. Damn, as much as I'm excited about the new guys, Van Noy's return might be my favorite move of an unimaginable free agent period.
--For an extended period, McDaniels worked just with his QBs 2-4 on fundamentals, with Newton exempt. For instance, he had them making short throws with a pad on the ground between their feet. They were only a power ballad away from the drill being part of an 80s sports movie montage where a kindly old trainer teaches a scrappy underdog confidence as he starts to believe in himself.
--While that was going on, Mr. Kraft came onto the field in a stylish track suit to chat up Newton. Since we'll never know what they were talking about, let's just assume the topic was fashion-forward men's leisurewear, since they are two of the true experts.
--Some of the other QB drills looked to emphasize getting the ball out quickly on a 3-step drop, with bubble screens, slants and assorted hot routes. Again, that looks like a natural part of the tools Jones keeps in his junk drawer. Along with another they ran just with him, where two coaches would simulate a pass rush and he was expected to evade them while keeping his eyes upfield. I don't know what to make of the fact only he was put through that one. But I'll just jump right ahead and wildly and irresponsibly speculate that it means he'll be the starter in Week 1 and they're getting him ready. Just because I want to believe it.
--It will be great to see something approximating an actual depth chart of actual NFL tight ends. If Jonnu Smith or Dalton Keene were there, I missed them. But in addition to Henry there was Devin Asiasi, Matt LaCosse and Troy Fumagalli. They were run through paces like identifying their blocking assignments against pressure coming from both inside and outside gaps with a particular protection called that I'm probably not at liberty to mention. Then it was finer points like flattening off their routes on a 5-yard incut.
--For what it's worth, there are three kickers on the roster. One of them is rookie Quinn Nordin, the UDFA from Michigan. At one point he was putting a ball on the back line of the end zone and kicking them at the goal posts, and doinked one dead center of the upright. I don't know if that's an applicable skill or not. But it weirdly reminded me of the time Larry Bird chased a ball over the baseline, turned in the air and sunk a jump shot that went up and over the back of the glass. If Nordin somehow makes the roster, I fully expect Belichick to use that skill in a game somehow.
--Newton is that guy you work with who's always "on." And I mean that in a good way. Not in that way that some comics you talk to are always in comic mode and never stop trying to do bits. He just sort of carries himself with an enthusiasm that has him screaming at the clouds just going from one drill to the next. Since we've all worked with the guy who's the total opposite of that and has never had a day where he was ever in a good mood no matter what, you know what a drag that can be on your soul. And understand why his teammates take to him. If he get that much pleasure out of moving from the back field to the forward field in an optional practice at the beginning of June, I'm sure there's something to all the talk about how "infectious" his attitude is. Let's just hope it'll be just as easy to catch his passes.
Damn, it's good to have pretend football again.