FOXBORO, Mass. — Are NFL joint practices really a smart idea?
One longtime New England captain raised that question Wednesday after the Patriots and Carolina Panthers brawled on the field in back-to-back practices.
On Day 1, a total of five players were ejected from practice — three Patriots, two Panthers — after multiple fights broke out during a single 11-on-11 period. Day 2 featured three more ejections and a massive melee that spilled over into the fan bleachers and caused a minor foot injury to one spectator.
“I’m not surprised,” special teams ace Matthew Slater said after Wednesday’s practice. “I mean, look, these joint practices, you’ve been seeing it for years across the league. I don’t know what we expect. I know we were trying to come out here and get better and compete, but ever since I’ve been in the league, you see joint practices and there are fights.
“Our union and the league think it’s a good idea to keep going, so we’ll keep doing them, but I’m not surprised when stuff like this happens.”
Wednesday’s fight — sparked by a Deatrich Wise hit on Christian McCaffrey — came one play after Panthers defensive back Kenny Robinson leveled Patriots receiver Kristian Wilkerson on a kickoff, then celebrated while the wideout lay injured on the ground. Wilkerson had to be carted off the field, and Robinson’s reaction drew the ire of many New England players and coaches, including Slater.
Many around the NFL view joint practices as a valuable preseason exercise, allowing players to log reps against different opponents in a more controlled setting than exhibition games present. They’re a near-annual tradition in New England, with head coach Bill Belichick often scheduling multiple rounds each summer. (The Patriots will practice with the Raiders in Las Vegas next week.)
“In some respects, you get a lot more out of it (than preseason games),” Belichick said Tuesday.
Slater recognizes the value of joint sessions but can’t ignore the negatives.
“It’s good to get that work against guys that don’t know your techniques that are competing at a high level, and I think that’s one of the benefits of these practices,” he said. “But as I said, all aspects of these practices are not beneficial. That’s just the reality.”
After the final scrap during Tuesday’s practice, Belichick and Panthers coach Matt Rhule gathered their players for full-team huddles, after which the fighting ceased. They did so again after Wednesday’s round of ejections, with Rhule telling his team that any additional after-the-whistle antics would result in the rest of practice being canceled.
The Patriots and Panthers will play a preseason game Friday night at Gillette Stadium.
“Look, when we get into a game situation, we can’t have the type of issues that we’ve had this week,” Slater said. “It’ll cost our team. So I think it was a time for us to refocus and get back to playing football. We’re not MMA fighters. We’re not Mike Tyson. We need to come out here and play football.”
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