Bill Belichick’s message was simple and straightforward following Sunday’s loss to the Broncos.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to practice this week,” the coach said. “We certainly need it. We’ll see.”
It’s the comment every toddler and teen hates to hear from a parent, but this year, it’s also the caveat that’s attached to every decision every NFL franchise makes, be it major or minor.
The Patriots did get back on the field Wednesday, holding a crisp full-pads workout in a light mist as they hope to return to a sense of normalcy.
The COVID-19 pandemic has kept teams off-schedule, off-kilter, and in many cases, off the practice field. Positive test results don’t affect just individual players; the ramifications run throughout the organization.
The Patriots have been affected by positive tests the last three weeks and have had several key players placed on the COVID-19 reserve list. It left them shorthanded on the roster and short on practice time. Both had an affect against Denver.
The Patriots had one light practice, one padded practice, and one walk-through in the two weeks between the Kansas City game and the Denver game. The two practices were nearly a week apart. That meant a lot of Webex meetings. While video chats have become part of the norm this season, they are hardly ideal when preparing to play an opponent that’s been practicing for two weeks.
The routine players get into once camp breaks is an important one, as most are creatures of habit. They know what to expect and when to expect it. Adjustments are made, of course — for Monday and Thursday night games, for example — but those are known well ahead of time.
Consistency is one of the keys to success in the NFL, and that starts way before the first game-day whistle.
"If there’s one organization that values the practice day, it’s the New England Patriots," former linebacker Tedy Bruschi said Wednesday.
While the Titans came off two weeks with relatively little practice time and steamrolled the Bills in Week 5, it’s unfair to compare the Patriots' and Titans' situations, said Bruschi, pointing to the number of players with deep experience in the Tennessee system, particularly when it comes to quarterback.
“Couple that with all of the players that have inexperience within that system due to opt-outs and due to free agent losses, it’s just incredibly difficult for a team with a new coaching staff or a team with a lot of new players," Bruschi said.
Though every team has its own practice structure (in New England, said Bruschi, “Every 10 minutes is accounted for"), the following is a rudimentary breakdown of what a player goes through in a regular NFL week:
This is when the team meets to watch film of the previous game. Win, lose, or draw, these sessions are vital. Coaches point out what was done well and, more importantly, what needs to be corrected.
When the movies are over, there’s a brief on-field period where the corrections are reviewed again in a more intuitive manner. This closes the book on the previous week’s game.
Players will fit in their first weightlifting session of the week before scooting out the door for their one day off.
A win on Sunday sometimes leads to a “Victory Monday,” a bonus day off for players, particularly late in the season.
While players aren’t required to report, many do in order to get in a workout and/or rehab. Coaches don’t really get days off, so they are preparing their contributions to the game plan.
Perhaps the busiest day of game week.
Players are given scouting reports, including the facts and tendencies of the opponent, as well as game plans. It’s like a syllabus for the week.
Clubs often conduct their only full-pads practice of the week with a concentration on game installation, first and second down, and kickoffs and kickoff returns.
After heavy contact the previous day, players are in helmets and shells for this workout.
The team sorts out corrections from Wednesday. More of the game plan is installed, with an emphasis on third downs and sub packages. This is a particularly important day in New England because of the amount of sub packages the Patriots use.
Another helmet-and-shells practice. Corrections from Thursday are pointed out. Big emphasis areas include red-zone planning and tweaking (on offense and defense), two-minute offense, and special teams. If there’s a trick play in the works, this is the day it gets worked on.
Walk-through days are quick and usually painless, as the hay is generally in the barn at this point. Last- second corrections from Friday and minor tweaks from the week are pointed out.
The correction sessions are vital, according to Bruschi.
“It’s all the way through to the Saturday walk-through,” he said. “Sometimes if something happened in the Saturday walk-through that there’s still something they don’t like, they’ll handle it in the Saturday night meeting.
"It’s a fluid process that they’re trying to feel comfortable with all the way to Sunday in terms of, is it smart for us to make this call? Can this player execute this call? If that’s the case, what is it based on?”
Patriots players refuse to cite missing these valuable sessions as a reason for the loss to Denver, but it was clear that they were affected, particularly Cam Newton, who never was able to establish a rhythm in the passing game.
"The quarterback position is sort of important," Bruschi said with a chuckle. "If your quarterback isn’t there to run the operation, to feel comfortable himself, it can make things very, very difficult."
Belichick was asked Monday if time would be needed for review sessions before expanding the scope of the sessions, with so few practices over the past two-plus weeks.
“I think that’s something that would really help us," he said, "and the more we can get out there and practice and improve our timing, our execution, our awareness, our communication, the more I think those things will help us.
"We’re going to do everything we can to maximize that, and I think that will definitely help our individual performances and it will also help our unit performances the more we can do that. Hopefully, we’ll get a full dose of it this week.”