by Chris Warner
In 2002, with the team fresh off of their first Super Bowl win, my best friend and I attended our first Patriots training camp session at Bryant College in Smithfield, RI. We had many questions: could the team repeat? Would Tom Brady thrive for a full season? Would seventh-round receiver David Givens win the roster battle over NFL Europe standout Scott McCready? (Okay, some questions were less pertinent than others.)
My clearest memory of that afternoon involved standing in the hot sun, polishing off a Del’s frozen lemonade. Let’s just say that the venue switch has changed the experience.
Because most fans never get a chance to attend camp, we here at PD have taken it upon ourselves to give a blow-by-blow account of Friday, July 25 (oh, the things we do for our readers). The skies finally cleared to allow fans to watch the first open practice of the 2008 season. Both the stands and the hill beyond the southwest end zone were packed. On the team’s site map, the fields sit southeast of the stadium. Fans sit in bleachers along the southwest sideline (between the fields and the Dana Farber practice bubble) and on the aforementioned hill close to the stadium.
Here’s a rundown of the day.
2:30 p.m. – Arrival. My best friend and I have nephews Johnny and Owen in tow. One of the first things I notice is how far away we have to park due to construction (I’m almost 40; it’s 86 degrees. Distance means something to me). No big deal, though: we’re off and walking (and walking), passing a fan wearing a Logan Mankins jersey. When you see offensive lineman represented, you know you’re headed where the fans are.
We walk past The Patriots Experience located in the parking lot southwest of the stadium. The Experience (a name that makes me wonder what Jimi Hendrix’s band is up to) contains about a half-dozen versions of the old carnival moonwalk. You can jump over inflatable defensive lines, run through inflatable linebackers, or slide down inflatable slides. And by “you,” I mean the young people with you. As with every area, refreshments are available. On a day like today, that’s a very good thing.
In order to get up on the hill, we have to go through the same giant inflatable helmet that the Patriots emerge from on game day. This always makes me smile. I resist the urge to raise both index fingers and shout, “Number one!” like the last time I came here. We take our post on the top of the hill (there’s really nowhere else to sit) and absorb the football action.
2:35 p.m. – Special teams. Coach Brad Seely puts his players in position for a kickoff return. He has a certain tone in his voice, a mix of encouragement and urgency, where even I want to get out there and do right by him. Rookie Terrence Wheatley looks like the returner with the most potential: he seems on the brink of breaking a run, even at half speed.
On the far field (or “northeast” for those of you blessed with a sense of direction), quarterbacks take shotgun snaps from Dan Koppen, Mankins and an assistant coach. This, I would imagine, is why some players resent QBs.
2:42 p.m. – A horn sounds. Offense stays on the near field while the defense moves to the other. During full team offensive drills, Brady hands off to Laurence Maroney against a scout team defense to give the linemen a look. Rookie QB Kevin O’Connell plays safety. I hope this is the only situation where that’s true, for everyone’s sake.
On the far field, Vince Wilfork gets instruction on technique and has a question (I can tell because he’s pointing at certain spots and the coach is answering). Even from 75 yards away, that dude looks big. In the defensive drills, rookie linebacker Vince Redd plays running back and goes in motion. From pros to preschool, everyone wants to play halfback. Meanwhile, in the narrow space between sidelines, Lonnie Paxton snaps to punter Chris Hanson.
I get that “Oh, I recognize him!” mind flash and, as a reflex, wave to NBC’s Tom Curran like we’re old pals. Here’s what a nice guy Curran is: he waves back. Could have left me hanging in front of my nephews, but even though he had no idea who I was, he gave a little return recognition. Remind me to bookmark his blog.
AC-DC’s “Hell’s Bells” is playing on the stadium P.A. Not sure if that’s the proper warm-up for the Country Music Festival, but fine.
2:52 p.m. – Horn. The entire team meets on the sideline between the fields.
2:54 p.m. – Sprints on the far field, sideline-to-sideline.
2:55 p.m. – Stretching. Players call this calisthenics, from the Greek “kallos,” or beauty, and “sthenos,” strength. Watching this for a few minutes, I don’t see much resembling either one. From now on, I’m just calling it stretching.
I make an effort to find Belichick in the crowd. I know he’s wearing a blue shirt and blue shorts, but only because everyone is. From my perch on the hill, I might as well be watching from Norwood.
Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” comes on the P.A. If I use my imagination, the players’ back stretches look like slow-motion breakdancing. (Ah, 1983. You really had to be there.)
3:03 p.m. – Position drills. Backs show off their footwork running over pads. At the end zone of the far field, the O-line sprints out of three-point stances. The D line works on technique. I realize that within one month these same types of drills will be happening in just about every town in the country.
3:06 p.m. – Horn. More position drills, on the technique side. Quarterbacks gather midfield and toss medicine balls to each other to warm up. The crowd cheers because the QBs are close enough to hear. Once loose, they throw five-yard spirals to each other. I wonder if Damon Huard dreaded catching those passes from Drew Bledsoe. I mean, I dig Drew, but he didn’t show a ton of touch on the close ones, you know?
On the far field, Seely works with special teamers (of course) in one-on-one drills where one blocker drops back to take on an onrushing defender. Some cool collisions over there. Defensive backs practice three-step drops and reacting to passes. Linemen go against various pads. The pads do not fare well.
Linebackers simulate pass rushes, trying to get to a phantom QB. Rookie OLB Shawn Crable avoids his “blocker” (an assistant coach) with a swift move to the outside.
3:12 p.m. – Horn. Position drills, with some matchups. The crowd cheers for one-on-one blitz drills, with pass-rushing linebackers vs. pass-blocking running backs. Tedy Bruschi has some success, to much fanfare. At this point, Bruschi’s following is such that he could get applause sipping Powerade. O’Connell plays the scout QB. It’s surprising to see Eric Alexander shuffle past Kevin Faulk. Larry Izzo busts through rookie RB Benjarvus Green-Ellis like an action-movie hero through a door. As Rookie Jarod Mayo gets blocked, a fan yells, “Come on, rookie!” in a tone that makes me wonder how much leeway the first-rounder will get. Not sure if rookie Gary Guyton will be around long, but his quickness makes him tough to block one-on-one.
The wide receivers have been warming up in the other half of the field. Robert Ortiz makes a nice catch. Who is Robert Ortiz? Someone who looks good on Youtube. Be prepared for an O’Connell/Ortiz San Diego State reunion this preseason. (Editor’s Note: Um, well. Heh, heh. This is awkward, isn’t it? Ortiz was waived Saturday to make room for Lamont Jordan. The way things go around here, though, he could be back ten times over before the season starts. The clip stays!)
3:19 p.m. – Horn. Position drills, with more one-on-one. Outside linebackers take on tight ends. Defensive backs work on press coverage vs. each other. QBs throw to running backs, while wide receivers try blocking downfield during so-called bubble screens (those quick passes along the line of scrimmage that helped make Brady a star).
The offensive line has been as far away as possible (the other field’s distant end zone) for a long time. Makes me wonder if the team likes to keep Coach Dante Scarnecchia’s colorful language away from the fans. Given what I’ve seen on various “Three Games to Glory” DVDs, that’s understandable.
3:25 p.m. – Horn. Linemen/backer scrimmage. The offensive linemen, on their best behavior, join the offensive backs. The defensive line joins the linebackers. We’ve got a running game, my friends! The crowd cheers Maroney’s solid scoot up the middle.
On the far field, DBs compete with WRs. Brady zips a pass to Chris Dunlap who makes a nice catch, or at least I think it’s nice until I compare it to Randy Moss’ reception over Antwain Spann. Remember when Moss first practiced last year and certain members of the media thought he was dogging it? Think of a gazelle among wildebeests. A pack of wildebeests has speed, but you see the effort required for them to lumber along. A gazelle glides by, taking what look like impossible strides. Is the gazelle “dogging it,” or is he just a different type of animal?
I think 2007 answered that one.
3:31 p.m. – Horn. Full team scrimmage. The offense’s running plays have some success, but it’s hard to tell without full contact. This reminds me of the lettuce in my fridge: not the most crisp in the world.
3:39 p.m. – Horn. Passing drills in groups. LBs team up with DBs to practice dropping into a zone. RBs and WRs take passes from QBs. Once again in the far corner, the OL and DL go through drills together.
3:45 p.m. – Horn. Seven-on-seven drills. Two linebackers and five defensive backs (the ol’ nickel package, which had an entirely different meaning in high school) defend against backs and receivers. Jabar Gaffney catches several passes, mostly underneath. Rookie DB Jonathan Wilhite knocks a Brady pass away from Kelly Washington. Not exactly oracle-worthy, but a pleasant sign nonetheless.
3:53 p.m. – Horn. Special teams revisited. The crowd rises and moves to the rope, but they’re jumping the autograph gun by over 30 minutes. Chad Jackson runs back some kicks. So does C. J. Jones. Rookie Matt Slater makes a sharp cut to the right side for a potential TD. You go, fifth-round pick!
What I’m saying is, I have no idea what any of these returns mean, personnel-wise.
4:00 p.m. – Horn. The players take a water break. Bunch of pansies.
4:02 p.m. – Full scrimmage. Brady takes command, hitting Faulk and Moss in succession. He tries a fake end-around bomb that glances off Moss’ fingers. When Moss eventually gets back to the line of scrimmage, Belichick take a few seconds to talk to him alone. I’d give all the money in my wallet to hear that conversation. Of course, that’s about $21 right now.
A fan in front of me notes that “the defense doesn’t look so good.” They’d look better if they could touch the QB.
4:10 p.m. – Whistle (What? No horn?). The offense moves to the far end zone and works their way toward the hill. Slater has a tumbling catch along the sideline. Green-Ellis makes a strong cut to find space and gain about 30 yards. Wilhite almost picks off an O’Connell sideline pass.
4:18 p.m. – Whistle. Two minute drills. Brady moves the offense along with help from Moss, Jackson and Benjamin Watson. Everything stops as Jackson fails to run a route. Sounds like a miscommunication, with which the coaches are not pleased. Gaffney converts a fourth down with a catch along the sideline. Time runs out. On the way back to the opposite 20-yard line, Brady walks with Jackson and talks to him. I’m going to assume that’s a positive sign.
Cassell’s turn at the helm. Completes three (two to Sammy Morris, one to Jones), misses one, then Jones, Sam Aiken and David Thomas move the ball to the five before time runs out. Gutierrez takes over and revels in the fact that QBs go untouched, taking a couple of extra seconds and stepping up in the pocket to complete a pass even though Redd had him sacked. When O’Connell takes the field, rookies and players less familiar with the Pats’ system keep scrimmaging in seven-on-sevens as the rest of the team takes the far field to run sprints. Wheatley knocks down one pass and intercepts another.
4:35 p.m. – Horn. Extra-point kicks. I can’t reveal details about the fake field goal because I don’t want to provide a scouting report for future opponents, but let’s just say it involves a trampoline, the Pat Patriot mascot, and six tubs of ice water. And it’s amazing.
4:39 p.m. – Whistle. Players huddle in the middle of the field. After a couple of minutes, they take their spots with fellow position members and stretch (or, hey, do calisthenics. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder). Slater receives kickoffs from Stephen Gostkowski. The defensive linemen head toward the stands to sign autographs. Randy Moss does, too, which comes as a pleasant surprise to everyone. I just hope he doesn’t dog it this year.