Today was the first day of practices for the Patriots. And probably the 20th training camp I’ve gone to, but the first as a legitimate, respected, credentialed member of the press. Barstool might still be the greatest clear and present danger in NFL headquarters, but the Patriots appreciate professional Journalism. I’m not sure how often I’ll be going, but here are some of the highlights from Day One from the media tent:
–I’ll start with the no-shows. Aside from the PUP list guys, Donta Hightower and Alan Branch, and Joe Cardona who was busy doing his part to defend America, Kony Ealy was curiously not on the field. But more importantly, Rob Ninkovich was nowhere to be seen on the first day of camp. With the Patriots only doing the Veteran’s Day Off thing in extreme cases like Darrelle Revis and his failing legs, this sends up more red flags than the arena in Rocky IV. At 33 he’s the second oldest player on the roster after Brady. And since Father Time is still undefeated, it’s not hard to look at the way this is playing out and not connect the dots. I’ve been expecting maybe one more season in a reduced role for him. But I won’t be shocked if it plays out like it did for Tedy Bruschi in 2009.
–The crowds were massive. Again. On a Thursday morning. To watch 80-something guys practice. And I think they actually had to turn people away. The more Roger Goodell tightens his grip, the more star systems will slip through his fingers.
–I’ve always thought there’s a common misconception that an NFL camp practice is a brutal, punishing grind. Like The Junction Boys or the boot camp scenes from Band of Brothers. Just a montage of grueling workouts, running, Oklahoma drills or Bull-in-the-Ring. But it’s nothing like that. Every practice I was ever a part of coaching kids for 11 years had more calisthenics, running, hitting and actual exercise than I’ve ever seen here. But what a Patriots practice is is efficient. Every few minutes at random an airhorn blows and everyone heads to the next drill. One unit swaps out for another. And it’s constantly moving, with no time wasted. Like a Chinese cell phone factory, without preteen employees throwing themselves off the roof. Some past Patriots like Sam Aiken said theirs are the fastest moving practices they’d ever been a part of and Reggie Wayne just retired because he wanted no part of working that hard.
–And this first day was the quickest I’ve ever seen. Like they found the Mario Kart Double Dash turbo mode cheat code and kept it on all day. With Brady, Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett taking turns leading different units through drills on both fields.
–I haven’t pretended to be a doctor since I was trying to get laid in my 20s, but I know what a healthy Gronk looks like. And one showed up today. For the first time in years he wasn’t wearing that massive Winter Soldier sleeve on his arm. And he tortured the defense, particular Pat Chung, most of the practice working with Brady. And every time he caught a touchdown the crowd went bananas and he played it up, bigly. There’s no way of telling in non-contact passing drills how he’ll hold up, but his showboating game is in midseason form.
–We got one example of how Brandin Cooks can flash on deep routes. At one point he got a step on Cyrus Jones, went deep outside the numbers, got past Duron Harmon in bracket coverage and Brady hit him in stride. It was pure Patriots Cialis.
-Jones also dropped his first kick return attempt coming out of the JUGS machine. I just can’t understand how he was able to field kicks for Nick Saban but treats an NFL ball like Costanza slapfighting Jerry. But his fight for a job seems like it’s at DEFCON 3 right now.
–I mentioned the other day that one of the few questions on defense is the third corner, and Eric Rowe helped his campaign for reelection to the post. He picked off Jimmy G in the end zone and deflected another one defending Julian Edelman. If you’re looking for a surprise roster bubble guy, an undrafted corner named Kenny Moore got his hand on four balls and picked off another from Brissett in 7-on-7s.
–Right before Garoppolo threw the interception to Rowe, Jordan Richards picked him off as well. Brady was taking a knee 20 yards behind him, and seemed to have resisted the natural urge to do a Rene Rancourt fist pump each time.
–While we’re talking about corners, I can watch Edelman facing off against Stephon Gilmore all day long.
–The Play of the Day Made by a Longshot to Make the 53 goes to Austin Carr, who high pointed a ball over a couple of bottom of the roster DBs. It’s hard to imagine anyone cracking this WR group. But keep an eye on him.
–For what it’s worth, I went to Belichick’s presser. And he’s clearly using these to get into reporter-smacking shape for the regular season. We got one “it is what it is,” a couple of “we’re just focused on today” and our first InstaFace reference of the year. But just for shits and grins, I asked one question and got a two minute, expansive answer:
Me (not verbatim): David Harris came into your system late in your offseason program. What’s the process like for getting a guy like that up to speed so he’s ready for the start of camp?
Belchick: Yeah, it’s a little bit of a challenge, although we’ve had this before. Different, but if you remember, I think it was ’09 when we signed [Rob] Ninkovich and guys like that coming right in before training camp. One thing about David, though, he has a lot of experience. He’s, as you said, played a lot of football and been in a lot of different systems. We gave him a lot of information when we signed him that he’s studied over the last three, four weeks. We were able to catch up on some of that in the last couple days and so, I mean, we’ll see. We’ll see how quickly it comes to him or how quickly he’s able to be comfortable with what we’re doing. I think we’ll be alright there, but there’s definitely some work. But he’s put in a lot of work. Coach [Brian] Flores has, as well, and we’re just trying to get him as up to speed as we can at this point. But, you know, in a way, we’re starting all over again in training camp. Even though we did a lot in the spring, and that was important and it certainly built a foundation and he missed that, but we had other players that weren’t able to practice in the spring. We’ve been through that before. Even though they’ve been in our system, in this case, we’ll just have to play a little bit of a catchup with him. But, I think we have enough time to get reps on the field, get communication with his teammates, understand the various schemes and adjustments that we make, and we’ll just have to put in some extra work to try to do it. You know, he’s a smart guy, he has a lot of experience and he knows our division, a lot of our opponents pretty well. Not that we’re at that point yet, but when we do get to that point, he’s pretty familiar. You know, we play the same schedule pretty much every year, with the exception of two games that the other division teams play, so I think there’s a lot of things that will come up that will be relevant – not the same, but at least he’ll be able to relate to them.
And if you can picture his heart glowing like E.T. when he saw Elliot as he talked to me, that would be pretty accurate.