FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – For a few hours, the New England Patriots escaped the maelstrom. Even with media locking the GPS onto owner Robert Kraft's every move and griping for an interview with Tom Brady. And despite a single-prop plane circling overhead for the better part of 40 minutes, towing a banner allegedly from a contingent of New York Jets fans, that screamed "CHEATERS LOOK UP".
The only way it would have gotten more interesting is if that plane had crash landed into Gillette Stadium. At which point both the NFL and the Patriots would have blamed each other for that, too.
But it didn't, and the Patriots found a way to move on. All of which started with coach Bill Belichick arriving to his news conference with a mild smile and a verbal banner of his own: PATRIOTS LOOK FORWARD. That was pretty much the theme of the day – look at what is in front of you, put one foot in front of the other and treat this like any other training camp.
And it seemed to work.
Players asked about Brady just distributed more of the Belichick "think about today" Kool-Aid. And the banner? Well, maybe it was just too high for anyone to notice on the field.
"What plane?" asked Malcolm Butler. "No, I didn't see that."
On the field, Belichick seemed to have gotten what he wanted. Despite all the talk of getting backup Jimmy Garoppolo ready for Brady's potential absence, you couldn't see that plan being implemented on the field. Brady was sharp taking all the first-team reps. Garoppolo was steady taking all the second-team reps. If you pulled film from last year's first training camp practice, this looked pretty much like a rinse-and-repeat from Day 1.
The one difference might have been the fans in attendance, who regularly cheered Brady and screamed like Beatles groupies every time he took his helmet off or made an impressive throw. At one point, Brady ran an end-around gimmick play that resulted in him going downfield and snagging a one-handed touchdown thrown by wideout Julian Edelman. Brady even hot-dogged it a little, catching the pass with his right hand and then switching to his left to stretch over the pylon for the score.
Afterward, you had to wonder if that play was a last-minute addition for the fans – and Brady, too. Brady didn't speak with reporters afterward (whisked away on a golf cart through an entrance not accessible to media), but that didn't stop the team from getting some fan love for him. Within seconds of his gimmick play, videos of the score were bouncing around social media from fan accounts, plenty of positive vibes for the much maligned superstar.
"We thought people would like that," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said with a grin.
At the very least, Belichick got what he wanted: a good, hard practice in which his star quarterback looked as sharp as ever. And when Day 2 rolls around, the Patriots will be one more day removed from the Brady drama.
"We're practicing for today," Belichick said. "That's all I'm thinking about. I'm not thinking about a month from now, a year from now, 10 years from now, six months from now. I'll leave all that up to you guys and the experts. Just today."
As you might expect, this whole mantra didn't happen without a plan. Indeed, Kraft's fire and brimstone statement on Wednesday was implemented in part to remove Belichick from the media equation. Kraft didn't make the final decision to speak until the morning of Wednesday's news conference, a team source told Yahoo Sports. Almost nobody knew it was going to happen until Kraft walked into the press box behind Belichick.
Kraft had a few goals with his statement. First, he wanted to apologize to the fan base for not taking a fighting posture with the league. Second, he wanted to completely block Belichick from having to answer any questions about Brady's future, which is why the owner stated that he had asked that nobody answer questions before a decision was handed down. Third, Kraft wanted to make certain that he put the onus on the NFL for being deceptive and underhanded during both the investigation and Brady's appeal. Finally, and more interesting, Kraft wanted to keep players, coaches and any other team personnel from making statements about Brady that could ultimately lead to individuals being deposed as part of the NFLPA's lawsuit against the NFL.
As far as the Patriots are concerned, the less the ancillary figures in the franchise get sucked into the Brady suit, the better for everyone. That means no talking, just playing. Fewer league-related statements from Kraft, more team-related crumbs from Belichick.
And until something changes, more Brady and less Garoppolo.
Some other camp observations …
Rookie playing a role
Draft pundits panned second-round pick Jordan Richards as a reach – which means less than nothing to Belichick. Thus far, the coaches feel like Richards has shown his worth, absorbing defensive concepts and implementing them immediately. He picked off a poor Jimmy Garoppolo pass in the red zone Thursday and looked like a live player in the secondary.
Coming out of Stanford, Richards played safety and was touted by his college staff as essentially being another coach on the field. We know Belichick loves smart players. I'd bank on the coaching staff finding ways to get him on the field as the season goes along, a la Malcolm Butler in 2014.
Veteran fighting for a job
Wideout Aaron Dobson. Dobson could have easily been cut last year, which is remarkable considering the Patriots' needs for production at receiver heading into 2014. The 2013 second-round pick regressed in his sophomore campaign, looking like a potential bubble player coming into this camp. Yet, with wideout Brandon LaFell on the physically unable to perform list, the Patriots were getting Dobson some quality opportunities on Thursday. Those included some skill position packages including Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman. It doesn't get much better than that, and Dobson responded at one point with a touchdown catch in 7-on-7. All of which is exciting for the Patriots, except that Dobson has gotten some good opportunities before, only to fritter them away and tumble down the depth chart. This may very well be his last chance to show he can be productive when given chances. If he slides to the back of the pack again, it wouldn't be a shocker to see him cut.
Key guy in a contract year
Left tackle Nate Solder. Solder has been a respectable but not elite left tackle for the Patriots, starting 70 of 73 games in his four-year career (including 10 playoff games). He started and protected Tom Brady's blind side for all 19 games in 2014 as well, allowing seven sacks (only one in the playoffs). Solder has said he wants to come back, and the Patriots haven't made any obvious attempts to draft a replacement, so the door is open for a contract extension. If that doesn't happen, and Solder hits the free-agent market at 27 years old, he'll be one of the most coveted players in the 2016 class.
Running back LeGarrette Blount didn't practice for the second straight day because he's too out of shape to pass the team's fitness test. Heading into a contract year in 2015 and with the Patriots' backfield opportunities tilted in his direction, you would think he would have arrived ready to go. It's a frustrating situation for the Patriots, who would likely start Blount in Week 1 – if he wasn't suspended for that game for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Blount's attitude and motivation issues led to him being bounced out of Pittsburgh late in the 2014 season. Now New England needs him to take charge of a less-than-loaded backfield. To get off to this start is disappointing.
One extra point (OK, two) …
1.) You've got to hand it to Patriots head of public relations Stacey James, who is often in the unkind position of acting as the firewall between Bill Belichick and the media. To his credit, James has managed to maintain a wry sense of humor. When a Patriots flight was struck by lightning in 2006, it was James who dryly quipped that if the plane had crashed, "It would have been hard from our perspective to spin that positively."
On Thursday, with James juggling the NFL/Robert Kraft/Tom Brady drama, reporters began needling him about whether or not Brady was going to finally speak to the media. When Brady didn't, it led one reporter to ask sarcastically whether the Patriots' public relations department would transcribe and distribute quotes from Brady's non-interview. James, as is his style, said yes and obliged, handing the reporter a blank sheet of paper.
2.) This was actually asked of Garoppolo:
"Do you like your football hard or soft?"
He said no preference. Smart.