FOXBOROUGH — Springtime in Boston usually means celebrating the start of another Red Sox season, planning Marathon parties, and gearing up for a deep Bruins playoff run. Football and the Patriots are out of sight, out of mind in April, what with the five-week lull between March’s free agent frenzy and May’s three-day draft bonanza.
But quietly, slowly, the 2014 season is beginning.
The offseason program can officially begin on April 21 with two weeks of team workouts (no coaches allowed). Then come three weeks of light practices and four weeks of full team practices (no pads).
But several players are already starting to trickle back into Gillette Stadium for workouts after taking a couple of months off to relax and clear their minds. Rob Ninkovich, Devin McCourty, and Jerod Mayo are a few of those already working out at the stadium. Chandler Jones and Rob Gronkowski have been working out in the area (though it’s not clear if they’re doing it at Gillette or on their own, as Nate Solder is), and newcomers such as Brandon Browner are starting to meet their new teammates.
“The guy is bigger than me,” said Ninkovich following a workout Tuesday morning. “When I first met him, I didn’t know he was a corner.
“It’s great to say hello to your buddies and hang out a little bit and enjoy your time together. Once the season is over, guys spread out, go their separate ways. It’s nice to see everybody back.”
The Patriots’ first workout will be April 22, Ninkovich said, and they will begin their 2014 season with an interesting mix of anger, hope, and humility.
The anger is over how the 2013 season ended — with a 26-16 loss to Denver in the AFC Championship game that wasn’t as close as the score would suggest. The Patriots were devastated by injuries by the end of the season, but deep down they must know that the roster was not championship-caliber, especially after watching the Broncos get smacked by the Seahawks in the Super Bowl.
The defense couldn’t lay a finger on Peyton Manning, the secondary couldn’t stop any of his receivers, and Tom Brady couldn’t muster much on offense without Gronkowski spreading the field.
The sting of that loss hasn’t gone away.
“I don’t think it ever does,” Solder said last week. “I think that’s what makes you have drive for the next season.”
But the last month has also provided a lot of hope. The secondary is vastly improved, at least on paper, with the additions of Browner and Darrelle Revis. Vince Wilfork got his contract situation resolved, which ensures that a popular voice in the locker room will be back. And while the offense still needs work — the Patriots need to add a tight end and running back in the draft — it was buoyed by the return of Julian Edelman and the signing of Brandon LaFell.
Nothing gets the returning players more energized about the upcoming season than an aggressive front office making major moves.
“They’re in this thing to win,” Ninkovich said. “Everything that we do is directed toward winning football games. That’s just the way things work around here.”
Gronkowski’s progress in his rehab from a torn MCL and ACL also has generated a sense of hope. Jones took to his Twitter account Tuesday to call Gronkowski “one of the most hardest workers I’ve ever seen!! Sheeshh it’s gunna be scary to see him back on the field!!!”
But there are also a lot of egos being put in check right now.
Yes, the Patriots look good on paper. So do the Broncos, who stole away Aqib Talib and added DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward, and Emmanuel Sanders. The Redskins of the last decade and the Eagles of 2011 also looked pretty good on paper during the offseason. How’d that work out for them?
“We know it’s going to take a lot of hard work going into this season,” McCourty said last week. “No matter who’s on your team, it’s always tough to play well. I can’t wait until we get back and start working together and what looks good on paper, trying to get it playing well on the field.”
That’s why several players are already back at Gillette, putting in their time in the weight room nearly four months out from the start of training camp.
This isn’t to say that games will necessarily be won and lost this time of year. Edelman and Gronkowski missed the entire offseason program with injuries last year, and they were the Patriots’ best two offensive players not named Tom Brady.
But this is the time of year when players start to get themselves back into football shape. The players who push themselves now have a better chance of lasting the long, grueling season.
And it’s certainly a good sign that several players are already back at work, two weeks before things officially begin.
“Like my dad always said, ‘Pain is your friend,’ ” Ninkovich said. “I’m very motivated. I need to get back to that [AFC Championship] game and we’ve got to win it this time.
“Nobody thinks about the time and effort put in to getting to a championship game — the workouts, the offseason, OTAs, minicamp, training camp, 16 games you’ve got to get through just to get to the playoffs.
“It’s a lot of work, and to get back there I have to do it all over again. But I’m up to the challenge.”