To ask a Patriot player what the phrase “new normal” means to him, be prepared for a list of answers unlike anything members of this franchise have ever known.
New normal? Meet Cam Newton, your new starting quarterback. All he has to do? Step in to a void left by the six-time Super Bowl champ Tom Brady.
New normal? Say goodbye to the eight teammates who aren’t gone by way of free agency, a la Brady or linebackers Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy, but the ones who opted out of the season due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a group that includes another starting linebacker in Dont’a Hightower.
New normal? Get ready for daily COVID tests and temperature checks, and have your daily wellness answers ready, too, so you can enter a building that barely resembles what you’re used to, spread out and redesigned to support proper social distancing.
New normal? Forget those traditional preseason games that used to ease your transition back into football. When this year goes live next Sunday, that first hit is going to hurt.
New normal? Welcome to empty or mostly empty stadiums, no real crowd noise to support the home team or distract the visitors, playing football in an atmosphere more akin to a local rec game than the NFL.
This is 2020. Nothing is normal. And no matter how many times Bill Belichick insists every NFL season is different so there is neither reason nor use in comparing them at all, some seasons are more different than others. And this one — this one — is the most different of all. Of course, Belichick is still here, and the dean of NFL coaches is the obvious beacon of continuity for the franchise that has defined consistent success these past two decades. But there is simply no way to ignore what an unprecedented, unusual, unpredictable year lies ahead.
“When we go out there in training camp and Bill has us out there for hours on hours it definitely feels like football, but I do think at this point now we’re getting accustomed to what our new normal is going to be, what football is going to be,” newly elected captain Jason McCourty said on Friday. “During training camp it felt more like OTAs, you don’t have thousands of fans surrounding practice, watching, cheering us on.
“As we get to game week it’s starting to feel like more what we’re more accustomed to. The meeting rooms are still different, the locker room is still different, but now this is what we’re accustomed to. We’re used to waking up, getting tested, walking into the facility, doing a temperature check, a wellness check, all of those different things are part of our routine. And I think all of those were important parts of training camp, not only what we were doing on the field and in the classroom to improve as a team but also to figure out what playing through a pandemic was going to look like.”
Ready or not, here we go.
As running back Sony Michel said Sunday, exactly a week before the Patriots season starts, “certain things won’t go as planned, so we’ve got to learn and adjust, whatever the circumstances, and take it as it is.”
With roster cuts hitting in full force on Saturday, with Newton removing what little doubt remained that he would outperform both Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer for the starting QB job, all eyes turn to New England in curiosity, and not just because of the pandemic. The Patriots were going to captivate us anyway.
Is there any chance the magical run of dominance can continue, can somehow erase the disappointing finish to last year when an 8-0 record dissolved into a 4-5 finish and loss in the first round of the playoffs? Or was that stumble across the finish line the signs of an inevitable decline, with Brady escaping to Tampa just in time for it all to fall apart?
They are questions destined for the scrap heap of Belichick’s verbal dismissals, but even as he channels his “next-game-up” mentality more deeply than ever during the pandemic, reality can’t be ignored that easily. As interesting as the football questions are this year, the circumstances in which they will be answered amplify everything.
Enter Newton — the former MVP who took Carolina to a Super Bowl and is out to prove himself to the football world once again. Whether he does it in front of the same number of fans he used to see in his Texas junior college days or whether he does it in front of a sold-out Gillette Stadium matters little.
“Let me tell you something about me,” Newton said on a zoom call Friday. “I played a lot of football in my day, college football, high school football, junior college football, professional football, recreational football. I played a lot of football in many different atmospheres. … I have so much to prove with an opportunity of a lifetime.
“I don’t play this game just for the validation of people if that makes sense to you. I love the fans, and I love the energy our fans do bring. I can’t wait, it’s something I’ve never seen and something I’ve witnessed on the other side. I can’t wait till the doors open, but to me, this is not a foreign position I’ve ever been in because I’ve played in front of nobody before.”
How it feels this season? Who knows.
“You try and get used to so many things that are different,” veteran captain Matthew Slater said Sunday. “Everything I’ve done for the last 12 years has been altered in some way, shape, or form. But as we got acclimated to our new normal, as we got on the field to compete and now we’re getting ready to prepare for an opponent, it does feel like football again.”
Football in a new normal.