WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.V. — The training camp trip is made for days like Tuesday. The Patriots have journeyed to a home-made training-camp site at one of America’s classic old resorts, the 104-year-old Greenbrier, nestled in the fog-swept Allegheny Mountains, to practice with the Texans. Houston is wrapping its first training-camp summer here. Talk about history: A cold-war bunker was built below the resort in 1959 to house the U.S. Congress in the event of a nuclear war. That’s where the Patriots’ makeshift locker room is housed for their three practices here this week.
This was a sneaky cool day. The Patriots, winners of five Super Bowls this century, with the ageless Bill Belichick and Tom Brady at the helm, versus the Texans, with the number one defense in football last year, and the best defensive player in recent history, J.J. Watt, back from back surgery to fortify the pass rush.
You hear at some joint practices of fights between teams; you heard of some at the Jags-Bucs practice in Jacksonville this week. Not at the Greenbrier. The collegiality here was noticeable; that stemmed from the fact that Houston coach Bill O’Brien was a Patriots’ assistant on Bill Belichick’s staff from 2007 to 2011 and was Brady’s position coach for two years. “”How’s Colleen and the kids?” Brady asked O’Brien with a wide smile when he took the field Tuesday, mentioning O’Brien’s wife. Both coaches told their players that anyone who skirmished would be thrown out of practice, and there was nothing close in two-plus hours here.
O’Brien reveres Belichick, and the fraternal feel went further. Music plays at the vast majority of camps and team practices now, loud music, very often rap and hip-hop. But there was little of that. “It’s My Life” by Bon Jovi blared at one point, and “Born to Run” and “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen, and “Wild Horses,” by U2. Not normal fare at Texans practices, observers said, and so I asked O’Brien about it. One of Belichick’s good friends is Jon Bon Jovi, and he is partial to Springsteen too. “That was for Bill [Belichick],” O’Brien said.
The Greenbrier just had the feel of two teams that, as much as possible in this competitive and oft-spiteful league, like and respect each other, a lot.
One thing I found odd: The Patriots played Houston in Week 3 last year. The Patriots played Houston in the playoffs last year. The Patriots play Houston in the preseason this weekend. The Patriots play Houston in Week 3 this year. That’s four exposures against a potential 2017 playoff foe in 53 weeks—and Belichick and O’Brien elected to add two more days of practice against each other on these pristine fields in southern West Virginia.
“We don’t scheme against each other here,” O’Brien said between meetings late Tuesday afternoon, the sun finally peeking through the clouds over the Alleghenies after a day of spitting rain. “There’s no danger of giving away secrets, I don’t think. This isn’t a scheme-fest. Blocking people, getting off press coverage, just really practicing basic football. Ninety-man roster on each side. Really professional. You set ground rules. Things come up here that don’t come up in preseason games, and you can script them. You can practice whatever you want to practice, and that doesn’t happen in games. Today, late-minute field-goal situations came up, last-minute touchdown situations. It’s a controlled environment, with two teams that know how to practice, that respect each other, and there’s no live tackling, relative to player safety. There’s no downside for either of us.”
To that point: no blitzing, no exotic plays, no motion, no overloads on either side of the ball. Just the basics. But that didn’t stop the Patriots from treating it like it was a big deal.
Ones against ones. Watt breaks through and nudges Brady, back to pass, and Brady falls. It wasn’t a sack, nor would have been; Brady just slipped. But the pressure and the leakage seemed to bug Brady. The New England offense had some good moments—Brady’s 55-yard bomb to Chris Hogan in tight coverage against Houston cornerback Johnathan Joseph over the middle for one thing—but this was not a great day for the New England offense. After one series in which Brady threw incompletions to Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, and in which Houston’s defense kept getting penetration, Brady yanked off his helmet on the way to the sidelines and reamed out his teammates. Five seconds, eight, 10, maybe more. And then he knelt near the sidelines, near none of his mates.
“Tommy being Tommy,” Edelman said later.
These are joint practices, not games, and the opening game is 22 days away. Should it be vein-popping time for Brady?
My theory: The Patriots are halfway between the start of training camp and the start of the regular season. The Watt-fortified Texans, likely to have better quarterback play with Brock Osweiler gone, are the kind of team New England is going to have to conquer to have another deep playoff run this year. Twenty days into training camp, Brady quite likely would expect to see his offense sharper, and his protection cleaner—and, honestly, some of his rancor could well have been his own inaccuracy.
This is what the Patriots have built. They’ve constructed a team that has great expectations every August. Even against the best defense in football (when the real games are played), the Patriots get ticked off when they sputter.
I remember covering the Giants in the late eighties, and Bill Parcells (with Belichick on his staff as defensive coordinator) would never care very much about how his team played in preseason games. But he would care a lot about practices, particularly when he saw lapses he felt were correctable. Some of his angriest moments would be when camp practices wouldn’t be up to his expectations. So Tuesday’s practice for the Patriots is not necessarily a bad thing. It allows Belichick and his coaches to play the urgency card. We’re three weeks into practice now. If we’re letting a good line cave us in now, what’ll happen when we face the Chiefs in three weeks?
I wouldn’t be surprised if Belichick walks into meetings today in West Virginia and puts a couple plays up on the screen from this Tuesday practice, pointing out why this play didn’t work, in no uncertain terms. It’s time for corrections, and it’s time for a sense of urgency from a team that expects great things.
For Belichick, it’s good to face a good team. It’s good because it lets him light a fire under guys if some of them need it.
For the Texans, it’s a day to prove they belong. “A great day to measure yourself against the best,” said cornerback Kareem Jackson.
For the cadre of fans, maybe 2,000, who came on this misty day with low clouds making it feel like Scotland, it was a day to appreciate the push for greatness by both teams. A very fun day at training camp.
Now for your email...
A PRESEASON IDEA
I cannot overstate how terrible it is that people pay full price for preseason games and then don’t get to see the stars play. I knew that it was going to be sketchy with the superstars, but that list you printed was appalling. This may be the only time in the year some of the kids who get taken to these games get to see their favorite players in person, and they just won’t get that chance. With that said, I’ve got an idea on how to at least make the games mean something. It won’t force superstars to play in these games, but it might at least avoid another one of those 7-3 debacles like Titans-Jets. Make the standings in the preseason count as part of the tie-breakers when it comes to the end of the regular season as far as seeding and who advances to the playoffs or not.
Cool idea, but it will never work. You do not want to incentivize teams to play stars in the preseason games for significant periods, because that increases the chance of injury to a vital player. The solution, I believe, is to simply make the cost of preseason game tickets a fraction of what they are now—say, $20 or $30 per game.
ANOTHER PRESEASON TAKE
Every time that you bring up the subject, I always reply with a response, and I will continue to do so now. You wrote in your MMQB column: “The absurdity of paying legitimate NFL prices for preseason games cannot be overstated. When is a responsible owner going to do something about it and slash prices to preseason games?” Newsflash: As long as people are willing to pay an exorbitant amount of money to attend these preseason games (in order to keep their season tickets), then ownership is going to simply sit back and collect. Is it right? Maybe not, but owners have every right to charge full price for preseason games. Any fan who doesn’t want to pay full price for preseason games has every right to forfeit their tickets and/or not pay for a P.S.L. It’s called free enterprise.
—Christopher T., Parsippany, N.J.
You’re right, of course. You’re suggesting the only way for a consumer to buy season tickets is to pay for eight games that count and two that are shams. So I buy tickets to the New York City Ballet’s 10-performance season, for $750. Is there an allowance for two crap performances, and eight good ones? No. The tickets are sold with the expectation that all 10 performances will have the best dancers dancing. I don’t begrudge owners asking for big money for crap games. I do begrudge them making it mandatory for you to buy the two crapola games as part of the season tickets.
THE SIX-GAME BASELINE
You wrote, "The NFL gave Baltimore running back Ray Rice a two-game ban initially; howls of protest. The NFL gave Giants kicker Josh Brown a one-game ban; howls of protest. The NFL draws a line and says “a baseline suspension of six games” for league employees found to have engaged in domestic violence. Then the NFL gives Ezekiel Elliott a six-game ban." That's not what happened at all. The Josh Brown suspension happened AFTER the baseline had been established. Which makes for a radically different reading that raises all kinds of questions about the NFL's handling of these cases, including (but not limited to): Why did the white guy only get one game? How could a prominent national football writer not know this? A better question: Is this type of misrepresentation of the facts (again) the price of NFL 'insider" status in today's NFL universe? I choose the latter. You're a house man. You're bought and paid for, no doubt. You spin it how they want it spun, while mixing in the occasional faux criticism and outrage.
1. Why introduce race into this? Do you really think the NFL gave the white guy, Josh Brown, a shorter ban because he of his skin color?
2. You are correct; I should have reversed the second and third sentences in the part of the column you picked out to put them in chronological order. Were I to do it again, I would have done that. But one: I didn’t say the first three sentences were in chronological order. And two: The point is that in the Rice and Brown cases, people howled that the league was soft on miscreants. Now many yell for being too tough on a player. Which way do you want it?
3. Yell, throw tomatoes, make accusations of me taking bribes. You read, and you think what you think. It’s been happening to me for 34 years. I’ll be here tomorrow.
ZEKE ELLIOTT’S SUSPENSION
Regarding the Ezekiel Elliott suspension, to me it was mind-blowing that Jason Garrett actually had a sit-down with him explaining how much money he can make off-field ($200M versus $1M) if he cleans up his act. Is that something coaches do? Don't know what if any impact Tom Brady's suspension had on his “brand,” but even if it did, I can't imagine Biil Belichick having that talk with Tom Brady, do you?
—Azhar K., Toronto
Garrett, as I reported recently, has had a couple of heart-to-heart talks with Elliott to ask him, essentially, “What do you want to be, and what do you want your career to be?” His point was not to ask him how much money he wanted to make—though in the example he used, money was the carrot. Garrett was right-minded, asking him to think of his actions and the consequences for them.
ON FULL-TIME OFFICIALS
I understand, though may not completely agree, with your point about full-time officials. I think the point is, it may not substantially affect officiating, but it almost certainly is not going to make officials worse, and it might even help to some level. If you spend more time working around and with the people you will be working games on Sunday, isn’t there naturally going to be some improvement in communication and chemistry?
—Steve M., Idaho Falls, Idaho
You’re absolutely right, Steve. It certainly can’t hurt. But I’ve been listening to the full-time advocates for years talk about the significant improvement it would make in officiating, and I just have never bought it. I hope it helps; I see no proof that it will. Still, it’s fine that the NFL is urging a bigger investment of time by officials in their craft.
ROBERT KLEMKO’S STORY ON WHY PLAYERS PROTEST
Mr. Klemko, thank you and God bless you. Articulate, succinct, historically based and pointed, your article speaks for the many, black, white, Asian, Latino Americans who have no platform from which to be heard.
A refreshing breath of fresh air! However any person might feel about the protest, what on earth makes them think that they have the right to tell others not to make it? Watch your football. Or don't. Your call. But in the world we live in today, if your true outrage is directed at athletes choosing not to stand for a minute before a game, you should SERIOUSLY take a look at that.
Robert’s point, as usual, was made with vigor and passion, and from a crucial place. Thanks for praising him. He deserves it.
THE AGUAYO PICK WAS AN OKAY GAMBLE
You quoted Tampa Bay GM Jason Licht saying of Roberto Aguayo: “His performance is affecting the lives of men who have families to support. That got tough.” That's a little over-the-top, even if it's true. But as to moving up to take a kicker high in the draft, Al Davis reached for Sebastian Janikowski in the first round of the draft, and no one is complaining about it now 15 years and a couple of NFL records later. It's an important position. You’ve got to gamble every now and then.
Agreed, Scott … with an asterisk. Aguayo was a 71-percent college kicker from beyond 40 yards. As I wrote today, I like a bold GM. I don’t like a GM’s decisions grounded in bold but dubious logic.
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