FOXBORO, Mass. — Most of the reporters at Gillette Stadium this week have been covering the New England Patriots for more than a few years. Some even have been coming to training camp for decades.
But this is my first crack at covering the roughly month-long period that, ultimately, produces the product we see in Week 1. It’s my second year on the Patriots beat, but I didn’t officially start last year until early September. So, I missed everything that happened in August, including the Mac Jones-Cam Newton quarterback competition.
But what’s apparent after only one week is that camp is about much more than the headline-worthy position battles. At least, that’s how I, someone who’s new to the entire thing, feels about it. That likely will change next year, which is why I thought it might be worthwhile to dump a bunch of random notes about things that probably interested only me.
Here are all 21 of them, in no particular order:
1. It’s a legitimately good fan experience
A lot of people poke fun at the idea of devoting any free time to watching a bunch of people practicing a sport, but the fans who show up to training camp practices clearly have a great time. They’re loud. They get autographs. They yell goofy stuff at players. Young kids get to see their favorite players up close and personal. The players acknowledge them and consistently fire up the crowd. And the Patriots do a great job of enhancing the experience, from various concession stands to games and activities surrounding the facility to engaging with the fans in a variety of ways. At times, it feels like a mini game environment, like when Jones gets a standing ovation as he takes the field. I can’t imagine what the atmosphere was like when Tom Brady was around.
2. It’s always interesting watching Bill Belichick (through binoculars)
Sometimes, I like to just watch Belichick for a few minutes to see what he’s doing. Maybe it’s just me, but watching the greatest head coach in NFL history do anything is kind of interesting. Belichick obviously does plenty of hands-on coaching — he worked on route-running with receivers Wednesday — but he also spends a lot of time floating around. With whistle twirling in hand, he’ll go check out running backs for a bit, then watch safeties, then mosey over to punt returners, or something. On Saturday, he spent the first 10-ish minutes pacing around and flipping through papers. On Friday, he spent a good chunk of competitive drills talking to Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, whose son, James, is a backup offensive lineman for the Patriots. Back in minicamp, Belichick spent virtually an entire practice shooting the breeze with Utah State defensive coordinator Ephraim Banda. Honestly, it’s something different every day.
3. Some pretty notable people will just show up.
That was especially true during Thursday’s practice. Star agent Drew Rosenhaus, who represents Davon Godchaux, was in the friends-and-family tent (located directly next to the media tent) a day after his client agreed to a contract extension with the Patriots. Belichick stopped to speak with him before his morning news conference, and Rosenhaus was all over Godchaux after practice was over. Thursday also saw an appearance from famed football columnist Peter King, who himself got interviewed by some of the reporters in attendance. No sign yet of Jon Bon Jovi, who spent one of the minicamp practices hanging on the sideline with Robert Kraft.
4. Head on a swivel
Like, literally. Both the media and friends-and-family tents are located on top of a small hill directly behind a goal post. During each practice, without fail, kickers would boot balls through the uprights, with half-a-dozen people soon shouting “heads!” Sometimes, the warnings worked, as multiple reporters looked up in time to catch a ball. Other times, a ball would smash into someone’s laptop when they weren’t paying attention. One ball slammed into what looked like a very expensive, and unattended, camera. As someone who’s had two nose surgeries, I’m legitimately worried about a ball detonating my stitched-together schnoz.
5. The free Gatorades are life-saving
It was hot during the first week, with temperatures regularly in the upper-80s and dew points making it feel more like 95. And that always sucked, but the situation was made slightly better by the Patriots keeping a huge cooler stocked with blue Gatorades. I might’ve snagged a few extra to keep in the fridge at home.
6. You’ll look stupid in a photo at some point
This also is true of the regular season, when locker-room availability inevitably leads to reporters/photographers taking photos that show you in the background. But there was no locker-room availability last year (COVID), so I was spared. Training camp also is a different animal, as your sunglasses game will be scrutinized.
Exhibit A: This person, who definitely isn’t me:
7. The conditioning work isn’t that crazy (yet)
I’m assuming the Patriots do a ton of conditioning work behind the scenes, and padded practices, which begin Monday, surely will be more intense than what we’ve seen so far. But, aside from the infamous hill sprints, there’s not much conditioning-specific work going on. Disciplinary laps are run at a jogger’s pace. Belichick never goes full-Herb Brooks and makes his players run suicide sprints. Even actual drills seem to be rough at half speed. Again, maybe it was different in past years, and perhaps the following weeks will be different, but these were not the military-esque practices some might expect Belichick to run.
8. But some Patriots seem eager to sweat as much as possible
Again, it was hot this week. But that didn’t stop a bunch of players and coaches from wearing long-sleeve shirts, sweatpants or sweatshirts. It made no sense. Matthew Judon wore full sleeves and pants when it was 90 degrees out. Maybe players have real, practical reasons for doing it, but there’s no explanation for Steve Belichick wearing a thick hoodie or Joe Judge wearing an undershirt.
9. Some reporters bring beach chairs and wear sun hats like they’re on the Cape
Looking at you, Tom E. Curran
10. It’s really hard to see what linemen are doing
Both offensive and defensive linemen spend much of practice doing positional drills on the far end of one of the practice fields. I wish I could give you an actual Cole Strange review, but I either had to pick him out in a crowd while looking through binoculars or watch him and other linemen go through competitive team drills without pads on. I’ve been told that one-on-one drills in joint practices probably will take place on the same part of the field, so this complaint might be evergreen.
11. The music gets really loud during team drills
The Patriots blast music during competitive 11-on-11s, likely to make communication tougher for both the offense and defense. That’s all well and good, but that sound carries across the field, up the hill and into the media tent, forcing reporters to shout out at each other for a little while. It’s more humorous than anything. I am getting sick of Guns N’ Roses, though.
12. Damien Harris constantly is making noise
It never stops. The star running back either is hyping up his teammates, firing up the crowd or just making random barking sounds after practice. The guy has a ton of energy, which he brings to each and every practice. It’s clear Harris has become a vocal leader inside the Patriots locker room — and it’s a role he’s embracing.
13. You get to see a different side of the players
After every practice, many players walk over and hang out with their friends and family on the field, mere feet away from reporters and fans. On Wednesday, Kendrick Bourne’s girlfriend led him through prayer. On Saturday, Lawrence Guy lifted up one of his children so they could grab onto the crossbar. Kyle Dugger was laying on the grass nearby with his family. Matthew Slater’s kids always are running around with their dad’s jersey on. It’s a cool reminder — one which we shouldn’t need — that these athletes, for all their fame and fortune, are real people like the rest of us.
14. To that end, the access is unmatched
The Patriots prefer you go through them to request one-on-one access with a player, but the reality is you can approach most anyone and ask them for an interview. And many of the players have no problem helping out — it’s a great opportunity for all reporters, especially those without experience. Some fans who hang around after practice benefit, too, as it’s not uncommon for players to pause for photos or meet-and-greets.
15. Your eyes will hurt by the end of practice
Maybe my eyes just stink (it’s been said), but they were sore after each practice. From constantly looking through binoculars (the ends of which can get pretty hot) to squinting when you’re not looking through them, it can be a tough day for the old oculars. Having the sun in your face all day doesn’t help, either.
16. I can’t figure out what Ivan Fears is doing
The legendary Patriots running backs coach confirmed his retirement in June. However, Fears was present throughout minicamp, always watching from afar but not participating. In a conversation with Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald during minicamp, Fears indicated he might be open to an informal role with the team, which still doesn’t list him as a coach. Fast-forward to Friday, and Fears was doing the same thing, this time sitting next to some Gatorade coolers. Maybe he just loves being around the Patriots.
17. Friday’s punt challenge was pretty neat
At the end of practice, the Patriots held a punt return challenge between Marcus Jones and Tre Nixon. Each player had to see how many balls they could catch while holding onto the ones they already caught. As you might expect, both struggled once their arms got full. In what looked like a tiebreaker round, Belichick sent out Strange for the offense and DaMarcus Mitchell for the defense — with Strange coming out on top. I’m still not sure what the stakes were, if there even were any, but it was a neat moment of levity.
18. Cam Achord is one seriously animated coach
The special teams coordinator is all over the place. He (aggressively) walks with his arms flailing, and he’s constantly pointing and moving toward something or other. It’s hard to explain. The guy looks like he’s simultaneously having the best time ever and wearing himself out. He also doesn’t hesitate to swear (a lot) after someone screws up during kick-return drills.
19. Matt Patricia’s pencil
Can confirm he doesn’t use it during practices, either.
20. The vibe doesn’t match the importance
There’s a weird contrast going on at training camp. On one hand, you have what feels like a very loose, carefree environment with players, coaches, fans and reporters all having a good time and glad to have football back. The Elton John concerts loomed large the first couple of days, and on Saturday there were a ton of people around because there was a youth soccer camp happening inside the stadium. It’s all quite fun, and at times can fool you into feeling like everything is low stakes. But in reality, this is an incredibly important time for the team, especially for players on the roster bubble. For some of them, their performance during training camp could dictate whether they get a chance to accomplish their dreams.
21. The construction at the stadium is pretty crazy
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