"On the road again ..."
As Willie Nelson hit theaters in "The Dukes of Hazzard" this past weekend, I had already begun a journey that would cover 2,500 miles over six days. I loaded up the car and hit the road for visits to the training camps of the Northeast. My travels took me to Foxboro, Latrobe, Albany and Rochester, providing a glimpse of five teams in four locales.
The first stop on the tour took me to visit the defending champs, where thousands of fans braved a draining heat for a glimpse at this year's edition of Camp Belichick.
New England Patriots
Wednesday, August 3rd – Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, MA
My trip to Foxboro during last year's tour was marred by an unseasonably cool day, with windy and rainy conditions. The workout was ultimately conducted in the practice bubble. This past Wednesday, it's likely that everyone in attendance wished for a little cloud cover. I was no exception, as I started to break a sweat in the 98-degree heat while walking from my car to the parking lot. With practice still 45 minutes away and a two-hour session on tap, I knew I was going to be in trouble.
Normally, I would openly rage against a machine with the audacity to charge $5 for a bottle of water. On this day, I couldn't dig into my wallet fast enough. Armed with the confidence that I wouldn't succumb to dehydration (so long as the $5 bills kept appearing from my wallet), it was time to hit the bleachers.
A quick scan of the crowd featured signs with birthday wishes for QB Tom Brady (his 28th). I was looking forward to watching Brady work with head coach Bill Belichick on this day, but it was not to be. As the players hit the field for the workout, Brady emerged in a cut-off T-shirt and cut-off sweatpants. Small sections of the throng sang "Happy Birthday" to Brady throughout the practice and, of course, the rookies were forced to do the same.
With Brady on the sidelines for this practice, my attention turned to the battle for the backup role. Rohan Davey and fan favorite Doug Flutie, considered to be neck-and-neck as of this moment, were joined by rookie QB Matt Cassel in drills. From where I sat, Cassel blew them both away and was the sharpest of the trio.
Cassel, truly a player at the right school at the wrong time over the past several seasons at USC, looks like a long-term find for the Patriots. He showed a big arm that wowed the fans in attendance, effortlessly tossing deep balls and showing great touch on middle routes as well. One play that got fans fired up was an attempted deep-corner route to Jason Anderson. Hank Poteat (former Steeler and Buccaneer who is attempting to join this secondary or make an impact in the return game) was with Anderson stride for stride and batted the ball away to roving safety James Sanders for the pick. Even though the result of the play was an interception, Cassel made an impression.
Davey and Flutie shared the bulk of the reps, working early on screen passes and short routes with running backs and tight ends. Christian Fauria showed good hands in these drills, trying to solidify a place in the action alongside red zone threat Daniel Graham and second-year player Ben Watson. Both Graham and Watson sat out this particular workout, leaving Fauria and rookie Andy Stokes to carry the day. Stokes, the so-called Mr. Irrelevant in the 2005 draft, was cut on Monday.
Davey certainly has the arm to make the throws, but continues to struggle with accuracy. On several intermediate routes, he either overshot the receiver or threw behind his target. The mix of coverages and blitzes also caused him to short-hop receivers. As for Flutie, he also struggled with his passes, coming up short on several intermediate routes. He has established a solid rapport with fellow offseason addition Tim Dwight. The two spoke frequently during breaks, and took that into 7-on-7 drills to connect on a TD.
Corey Dillon demonstrated his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield with a couple of one-handed grabs. He looks ready to get rolling right now.
The two wide receivers that stood out to me were Deion Branch and David Terrell. In working with the position coaches and later in full-team drills, both ran solid routes and accounted well for changes in coverage and defensive schemes. Branch isn't resting on his laurels after winning the Super Bowl MVP Award last year. And Terrell is showing a burst of speed off of the line that hasn't been seen since his days at Michigan. He hasn't been afraid to use his size (at least early in the preseason) and has shown an ability and willingness to catch the ball over the middle.
Branch will have a huge year, allowing Brady to stretch the field, turning short slants into big gainers. Terrell is also a player to watch. He's rededicated himself to the game and knows that no corners can be cut in a system that uses so many receiving options. Brady will enjoy having another big target in the red zone.
The most interesting part of the practice occurred during 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills. The Patriots brought out the referees to work the field and kept a close eye on the clutching and grabbing in the New England secondary. With continued emphasis on the non-contact rule expected in '05, the Pats worked the defensive backs hard. Yellow flag were strewn about the field, as the cornerbacks clutched and grabbed Branch, Terrell and Givens coming off of the line. For their multiple infractions, they gave the fans a thrill and ran a lap.
The offense generated some laundry of their own with several false starts. They, too, took a victory lap for the adoring crowd. It's a bit strange to see the same motivational tactics used on grade school football teams, but who am I to question Belichick. He's setting the tone early in camp that imperfection and sloppiness will not be tolerated.
Granted, it was only one workout with a number of non-participants, but I came away with a couple thoughts on this squad. The defense still looked strong. That isn't to say that it won't be different without Tedy Bruschi, but Monty Beisel and Chad Brown (if he can stay healthy) appear comfortable in the system and the secondary gained valuable trial-by-fire experience a year ago.
One special angle to this camp session was the return of Richard Seymour. He ended his holdout and hit the practice field for the first time. He didn't miss a beat. He was clearly in shape and ready to roll.
With more birthday wishes extended to Brady, practice ended and Belichick and company retreated from the field. I spent my last $5 on another bottle of quality H2O for the road.