FOXBORO, Mass. — For a guy who surely romanticizes the bygone era of two-a-days and war-like NFL training camps, Bill Belichick sure has created a relaxed, relatively mild environment for the Patriots this August.
That should change this week.
During New England’s first week of training camp (the first practice was July 27), nearly every player and coach downplayed the sessions with an eye toward the next Monday, when padded practices were set to begin. “That’s when camp really starts,” they said, in one way or another.
And although the pads did arrive as scheduled, it feels like “real” camp still is lagging behind. From practices in shells to less-than-full-speed team drills to more off days than usual, intensity has been hard to come by in Aug.
Consider this schedule:
July 27: No pads
July 28: No pads
July 29: No pads
July 30: No pads
July 31: OFF
Aug. 1: Pads, competitive
Aug. 2: Pads, competitive
Aug. 3: Shells, non-competitive
Aug. 4: Pads, competitive
Aug. 5: In-stadium walkthrough
Aug. 6: OFF
Aug. 7: OFF
Aug. 8: Pads, competitive
Aug. 9: Pads, 50-75% competitive
Aug. 10: OFF
Aug. 11: Preseason game (many starters inactive)
Aug. 12: OFF
Aug. 13: OFF
Aug. 14: OFF
Aug. 15: Shells, non-competitive
“I don’t know, man. I feel like every year training camps have been different,” center David Andrews said Monday when asked about the unorthodox schedule. “I’ve had different off days, I’ve had two days off in a row, one day off. … I feel like it’s all been different — walkthroughs some days. Whatever (Belichick) decides, that’s kind of what it is.”
Along the way, the offense has struggled mightily as it works to install a new, McVay/Shanahan-inspired scheme. You know that story by now. And with such a lack of intensity, so much off time and the starters not playing in the preseason opener, the Patriots offense has yet to author a breakthrough training camp moment. The group looked better in the last two practices (separated by nearly a week), but those sessions weren’t full-speed.
Thus, all eyes are on this week’s joint practices and preseason game with the Carolina Panthers, who’ll invade Foxboro for what should be a fascinating few days of football.
The offense will get to go up against a defense that hasn’t been learning its tendencies since spring practices. The defense will get to see how it stacks up against an offense that hasn’t been in neutral for a month. Players won’t be worried about injuring their teammates. There should be far more contact.
“That’s the benefit right there: seeing some different guys, different bodies,” offensive tackle Trent Brown said after Monday’s practice. “Definitely, I think the competition level will go up — it has to, or you’ll get your ass beat out here.”
Brown added: “I think this will be our first test. … Tomorrow will be our first big test. … Tomorrow will be a nice gauge to see where we are and see what we need to do before Week 1.”
Andrews also is looking forward to switching things up in a meaningful way.
“It’s a great opportunity,” he said. “It’s a welcome break to some extent if that makes sense. You kind of come together as a team. You’re no longer going against your defense. You’re no longer doing 1-on-1s against your guys. It’s really the Patriots versus the Panthers. And so, that’s what it’ll be. It’s great competition. It’s ways to see different looks. … It’s great learning experiences.”
With the offense scuffling and fan attendance dwindling, it’s been increasingly quiet at Patriots training camp practices over the last two weeks. The loudest moments came last Monday, when the defense hooted and hollered as it dominated Mac Jones and the first-team offense.
Hopefully, joint practices with the Panthers will offer more spirited and lively competition, playing into the strengths of energetic players like Kendrick Bourne.
“Definitely enjoy them,” the Patriots receiver said Monday. “Going against somebody else. Getting a feel, getting ready for the season. Just good to go against somebody else. Playing against your own teammates, it gets kinda old. So, it’s exciting to go against somebody else, see where you’re at.”
It’s no secret that Belichick puts a great emphasis on joint practices. Many reporters believe that Jones seized control of New England’s starting quarterback job last summer when he shredded the New York Giants during a joint session in Foxboro.
Ahead of Monday’s practice, Belichick offered insight into why he values joining practices perhaps more than regular practices and preseason games. (You can click here for the transcript.)
By the way, New England will visit Josh McDaniels and the Las Vegas Raiders next week for another round of joint practices that will culminate in the preseason finale. Those should be some interesting days, too.
Belichick’s team remains a peculiar, somewhat concerning mystery with the regular season now less than a month away. The good news is there still is plenty of time for the prevailing issues to be worked out.
This week should provide our best, most authentic look yet at the 2022 Patriots — for better or for worse.
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