FOXBOROUGH — The biggest challenge facing the Patriots rookies so far this training camp didn’t take place on the practice field.
The Patriots held “skit night” for the rookies this past weekend, a time-honored tradition of NFL training camp. If the rookies didn’t make the room laugh, they have a 5 a.m. wake-up the next day.
“Mac [Jones], he came in dressed as Cam [Newton],” defensive back Jalen Mills said. “He had the big hat on, he had the scarf on, came in, saying Cam’s slogans, different things like that.”
The other rookies also mimicked teammates at their positions. Christian Barmore made fun of Deatrich Wise’s giant feet. Rhamondre Stevenson did his impression of Damien Harris.
The reviews? There was not a 5 a.m. wake-up the next day.
“They killed it,” Mills said.
“That was definitely one of the best rookie skits that I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” left tackle Isaiah Wynn added.
Building camaraderie has always been an important aspect of NFL training camp. And it’s arguably more important for the Patriots than ever before. An unprecedented offseason spending spree added anywhere from 10-13 new starters out of 22 positions. Bill Belichick now faces the challenge of trying to make all of his players fit together quickly and seamlessly, in the midst of a pandemic.
But training camp in 2021 is not like the old days of going away to Bryant College for three weeks, or even like recent pre-COVID seasons at Gillette Stadium.
Prior to the pandemic, all 90 players were required to live in the team hotel at Patriot Place for approximately three weeks, saying goodbye to family and friends and spending every waking moment together.
This year, the team hotel is optional, as part of the NFL’s COVID protocols. The hotel is being used mostly by rookies, newcomers, and roster bubble players. Mills, signed this offseason after spending four years in Philadelphia, said living in the hotel has “100 percent” helped him build relationships with teammates.
“We leave from here, and then you see everybody go over to the hotel, and you see guys outside of football, whether we’re sitting in the courtyard, or wherever it may be, not having to talk about football,” Mills said. “Just talking about life, and things like that.”
But most of the veterans have chosen to live at home. Ninth-year running back Brandon Bolden said he doesn’t miss the team hotel.
“Not even a little bit,” he said. “I appreciate a clean room every time you come back, but no, no, no. I’d much rather be at the house.”
Kendrick Bourne, new to the Patriots after four years with the 49ers, chose to live in his new townhouse.
“Everybody probably hates the hotel,” Bourne said. “We get to have our whole house and just be able to be free. I guess COVID did a little positive for us.”
The Patriots are still able to get plenty of together time. As Wynn said, “We’re here most of the day.”
They have practice in the morning, a walk-through in the afternoon, position meetings, team meetings, weightlifting sessions, film study, and meals. They are allowed to be together a lot more than they were last year, when the entire offseason program was canceled and social distancing was more heavily enforced in training camp.
“There’s no comparison from last year to this year,” Belichick said. “Last year this was kind of the first time some of us even met the players or the players met each other or anything. We’re a lot different than that.”
Bourne said he appreciates being able to just hang with the guys in the locker room again.
“There ain’t no split locker rooms and stuff like that,” he said. “Six feet, half the guys over here/half the guys over here. Just the team aspect; you can do more team stuff together, so it’s just a lot more things together than how they separated us.”
Still, it’s not like the old days when teams isolated themselves from family and friends for three weeks. Bolden said the players have had to take it more upon themselves to bond with each other.
“Right now, being able to contact each other on the phone has been the biggest help,” said Bolden. “But we’re still able to study, still ask questions, be in the building, we’re still able to hang out with each other. Especially like our running back room, we’re still tight and thick as thieves.”
The traditional training camp experience has been scrapped for 2021, perhaps forever. Players, particularly veterans, know how to prepare on their own and don’t need constant supervision.
But teams still understand the importance of bonding and camaraderie. Rookie skit night may not help the Patriots improve their red zone offense, but it certainly helps to have tight relationships and shared experiences among the players to help keep the team on the same page during the season.
Now, the Patriots have their bond: Mac Jones dressing up and impersonating Cam Newton.
“This is my fifth year in the league,” said linebacker Raekwon McMillan, a free agent addition from Miami. “That’s probably the best rookie impersonation I’ve ever seen.”
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.