It's been a painful few weeks in the Boston sports scene of which we are all a part. Teams from Florida have come out of the paneling like ghosts in all our Game 7s. And not the charming, hilarious, non-threatening multicultural kind of ghosts, like the ones on CBS's top rated comedy. But the hideous, nasty kind that haunt your nightmares and straight up murder you in your sleep. The Red Sox, meanwhile, exist. So for today at least, we get to turn our lonely eyes to Day 1 of Patriots OTAs. Which is to say, what would've been Day 3 if Joe Judge had any sense of time.
So I decided it was the perfect opportunity to generously give my time, my money and my effort to bring you the details of the first step in a journey that hopefully won't end until February. With Duckboats, God willing. I don't want any undo praise. Don't call me a hero. I just take on this selfless duty in the hopes my sacrifice inspires others to pay it forward. You're welcome.
The day began with the rare - for this time of year - Belichick presser.
It was one of those days where he's in good spirits. Even while he squished all questions about Joe Judge's screw up under his heel like roaches. Even joked at one point about how missing those two practices made for a nice long weekend. And he got in his lobligatory metaphor about laying a foundation they can build on going forward. And threw out the first "We're taking it one day at a time" of the 2023 season. On down note for me personally, former podcast guest Alex Barth was sitting right next to me and got this photo, which will probably end up as my profile pic at some point. Unless he copyrights it:
It wouldn't be very professional of me to point out his longest and most expansive answer was to my question about the system Bill O'Brien is installing and whether the veterans on his offense will be more familiar with it, or if it's completely new and he's starting from scratch. "I wouldn't say it's starting from scratch," he said. "Every year is different…some things are the same, some things are modified, I'm sure we'll make other adjustments as we go through the spring and training camp." Then he proceeded to go in to so much depth I had to make a hand puppet and go "Blah, blah, blah, Chatty Cathy. I know we're best friends and all. But these other people have questions and there's a practice to get to." At least that's how I remember it.
Anyway, taking things in no particular order:
--I'll get accused of reading way too much into a glorified walk-through/installation practice with no pads and no one playing competitive defense. Fine. I'll cop to that. But the fact remains, the difference between this practice and what we were seeing this time last year is noticeable. To the point of obviousness. It's more finely tuned. More efficient. Less wasted motion. No standing around. Particularly when they were running 11-on-11s. The receiver would jog back after a catch, flip the ball to someone, line up again, and run the next play. Under Matt Patricia, those moments might have happened occasionally, but they were rare as Sasquatch sightings. And less verified.
--O'Brien is operating more or less autonomously. While Belichick is roaming around to different position groups, especially the defensive Front-7 as he typically does, O'Brien is never more than a few feet behind his quarterback's shoulder. Whether it's running plays or drills where he's got them getting rid of passes while crowded by tackling dummies with arms like wacky waving inflatable arm-flailing tube man, he's a constant presence in his QB's lives. In full squad drills, they're working protection calls, audibles and shifts into the mix, and the defensive front was making counter-calls and adjustments as well. This offense is his fiefdom. And he's its benign dictator, very much in charge.
--There's also no doubt (so far) about who the QB1 is. There's no clear distinction between first team and back ups, but he's getting the first and the most snaps. And if he made a bad throw, I didn't see it. He worked the ball quite a bit to Mike Gesicki, DeVante Parker and Tyquan Thornton, who was used primarily outside the numbers, with out routes or bubble screens. And a particular highlight was a diving catch on a crosser by UDFA Malik Cunningham, who was a quarterback at Louisville, and listed that way on the Patriots roster, but lined up exclusively at wide receiver today. How they utilize him is going to be one the most interesting stories of camp. And probably all season.
--As for Bailey Zappe, he threw behind a few guys, including one that hit Raleigh Webb off the back hip and was picked off by Jalen Mills. While Mac ran up to him, got in his face and screamed "It's not so easy when the whole stadium in chanting your name and cheering when I get taken out, is it punk?" That's a total fiction. But I might have been thinking it, if Jones wasn't. I pretty much spent the practice studying Zappe for signs that being recognized by McLovin went to his head.
--As far as the new offensive veterans, Gesicki was very much involved. But Juju Smith-Schuster didn't participate. Ty Montgomery, who is not at all new but played so little last year (1 game, 3 receptions, 2 rushes for -2 yards) he might as well be, was very much in the mix, lining up wide, in the slot, and in the backfield. As they seek to replace the 3rd down back production they lost with James White and that one shockingly good year from Brandon Bolden, Montgomery is the leading candidate for the role. But he's 29 and probably needs to have a great summer to win the job.
--As far as the rookies, there's not a ton to report at this point. Christian Gonzalez has looked like an elite athlete in drills, but there's nothing you'd mistake for competitive defense going on at the moment. Second pick Keion White looked fine, once you realized he's the No. 51 in short sleeves and that's Ronnie Perkins in the No. 51 with the long sleeves, which took everyone around me half the practice to catch on to, because Belichick loves a good body-swap comedy as much as anybody, I guess. And third pick Marte Mapu was right in the middle of the defense for half the day, but wearing red non-contact jersey as he works his way back from the torn pectoral he got at Sacramento State. So the goal is obviously to give him experience at the mental part of the game, in the toughest position on this team to learn after QB.
--There were a couple of rookies I did get real first impressions of. Beginning with guard Antonio Mafi out of UCLA. He's listed as 6-3, 329 pounds, and looks it. There aren't enough "c"s in "thicc" to describe him. He's just got one of those builds where it's hard to believe the whole thing is held up by a human skeleton. He's more like The Thing from Fantastic Four, but the times I saw him have to get outside on a handoff or pitch, he looked fairly nimble. The other rookie pick who impressed is kicker Chad Ryland. Toward the end of the workout, he kicked toward the skinny uprights at the far end of the field, going 5-for-6, and his only miss would've been good on regulation goalposts. This had better be a sign of things to come. Because only the calamity that was the Patricia offense last year could obscure the unnatural disaster that was their special teams.
--Finally not to make this all about me and my heroism, because I don't want to keep going back to the work I do for you all. But about halfway through the workout, some camera people plunked their equipment right in front of me. Beginning with the biggest tripod seen at Gillette since Brandon Spikes. (Pause for you to process the obscure reference. Hit me up in the comments if you remember his Chat Roulette video.) Basically it was like I had a waterview home and someone built condos between me and the beach. Did I make a scene? Did I pull rank with the "Don't you know who I am?" thing. No. That is not what I'm about. It's not how I represent this company, our readers, or Irene and Bud who raised their baby boy right. I simply moved, because I consider this an obligation, but also a privilege. That's the Old Balls difference. And it's what I will continue to bring as this franchise rights the ship after a rocky 2023.
Damn, it's good to be back.