FOXBOROUGH — The weather accompanying the start of Patriots training camp on Friday morning was appropriate.
“Of course it’s going to rain,” linebacker Brandon Spikes said.
A dark cloud hovered over the Patriots as they officially opened their 2013 season, and not just the one that dumped a half-inch of rain on the area.
They finally got back to work after a dreary offseason mercifully concluded this week — one in which Wes Welker, the heart and soul of the team, walked out the door in a squabble over a few dollars, and Aaron Hernandez walked out the door in handcuffs as he awaits trial on murder and gun charges.
The Patriots have dealt with controversy before, and have even thrived because of it — the 2007 perfect regular season was mostly fueled by the team’s “us against the world” mentality that derived after the “Spygate” fallout. Bill Belichick has proven consistently that he is a master of motivation and has an uncanny ability to get his players to “block out the noise,” as Jerod Mayo said this week, and focus on the task at hand.
But the events of this offseason — which also included another arrest, for cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, and three more surgeries for Rob Gronkowski — have left the Patriots in a collective funk that won’t be easy to get out from under. Particularly the Hernandez situation, which is unlike anything with which the Patriots and Belichick have ever dealt.
This isn’t “Spygate,” where Belichick can use the critics to motivate his players. Hernandez’s murder charge, simply put, is a major bummer. For more than a month now, Patriots players and coaches have had nothing to think about other than the tragic loss of Odin Lloyd’s life, and how Hernandez threw everything away — the promising NFL career, the $40 million contract, and the normal life with his 8-month-old daughter.
“It was heartbreaking,” said Tim Tebow, Hernandez’s old running mate at the University of Florida. “And it was sad.”
Belichick and a few team captains addressed the Hernandez situation carefully and respectfully on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively. By Friday, the rest of the team was on high alert to avoid the topic.
“I can’t even comment,” said Spikes, another Hernandez confidant from Florida. “I want to, but I can’t.”
Friday’s practice, the first time the team congregated on the field since Hernandez’s arrest, was about trying to regain a sense of normalcy around Patriot Place, as difficult as that was.
“Coaches have to get back to coaching, players have to get back to playing,” Belichick said. “We all have to get back to working together and it’s a long process that starts today, really.”
The 2½-hour practice appeared to be a welcome respite for everyone in the organization.
“It’s good to be back to football and back with the guys in the locker room,” special teams captain Matthew Slater said. “It definitely did everybody’s spirit good today to get out here and get back to football, and just focus on the Patriots and trying to improve as a team and focus on the 2013 season.”
But pushing the events of this offseason to the back of their minds won’t be so easy for this Patriots outfit — especially when you look at the roster assembled for Day 1 of training camp. It’s nearly impossible to make the case that the Patriots are a better team now than they were six months ago when they lost to the Ravens in the AFC Championship game, and privately, the players probably know it.
The receiving corps, first and foremost, is a giant question mark. Danny Amendola might be as good as Welker, but his track record says he’s going to get hurt at some point this season. The other receivers lining up next to him with the first-team offense? Rookie Aaron Dobson and 24-year-old Kamar Aiken, who spent last season on the practice squad. The rest of the unit is filled with untested youngsters and aging veterans grasping for one last season in the NFL.
The tight end position is an even bigger mess, with Hernandez now gone and Gronkowski out indefinitely, perhaps from one to six games. Daniel Fells, an eight-year journeyman with four teams, now must prove he’s capable of being a No. 1 tight end. Jake Ballard, who limped over to his post-practice media session 17 months after ACL and microfracture surgery on his knee, has to prove he is healthy enough to play in the NFL. Rookies Zach Sudfeld and Brandon Ford must prove that they belong in the league.
And the defense will still have question marks — Can they rush the passer? Can they shut down the pass? — until they actually do it in the regular season.
Friday’s practice was sloppy, with backup quarterbacks Ryan Mallett and Tim Tebow throwing a handful of interceptions and off-target passes. It’s just the first day of practice, of course, and the slick conditions no question played into it. But it’s fair to wonder if the events of the offseason have sapped a lot of the fun and energy out of playing football for the Patriots. Coming to work and seeing a new face in Hernandez’s locker must have been a jarring sight for the returning players.
Belichick has played the master motivator time and again. But this year, it might be up to the players to get them out of a post-Hernandez funk.
“Can’t really look back. It won’t change anything,” Spikes said. “We all got to get through it and push forward.
“All we have is us.”Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin