The thump of the pads, the bark of the quarterback, the smell of freshly cut grass — after a six-month hiatus, football is finally back.
The Patriots hit the field again for their first four training camp practices Thursday to Sunday, from 9:15 a.m. to about 11:45 each day. The practices are free and open to the public, and offer a great chance to see the team up close as the starters prepare for the season and the bubble players battle fiercely for the precious few roster spots available.
Bill Belichick and his staff have exactly six weeks to pare the roster from 90 to 53 and get the Patriots ready for their Sept. 10 kickoff game against the Steelers.
Of course, NFL practices aren’t quite as exciting as the games on Sunday, as the players focus on fundamentals, ball security, and rote repetition. As a fan, it can be easy to drift off and lose track of the action, particularly during the individual portions of practice. And per the collective bargaining agreement, the first two practices are non-contact and without pads, so there won’t be any live tackling or real combat between offensive and defensive linemen until Saturday’s practice.
But Patriots practices can be fascinating if you pay close attention. Which players are winning the position battles? Which combinations are the coaches using on the offensive line, and in the secondary? Which undrafted rookie is standing out? Which esoteric game scenario is Belichick working on repetitively today?
Here are some tips on how to watch practice and have a good feel for what the Patriots accomplished:
1. Pick a low vantage point for individual drills, and a high one for team drills.
For the one-on-one drills, such as offensive line vs. defensive line or cornerback vs. wide receiver, sitting closer to the field gives you a better feel for the individual battles. How well does the wide receiver use his hands at the line of scrimmage? How quick is the offensive lineman’s first step? But when watching the passing drills, I like to sit up higher, to get the full picture of the defense and what the quarterback is seeing in the pocket.
Also, do yourself a favor and buy a pair of binoculars for $25 or $50 at a store such as Sports Authority or Target. The stuff going on at the far end of the practice field is just as important as the stuff happening right in front of you.
2. Memorize the roster and jersey numbers cold.
At least 37 of these guys won’t be here come the regular season, but it doesn’t matter. If you want to follow the action, you need to know that there are seven running backs on the roster, that they wear jersey numbers 28, 29, 33, 35, 36, 38, and 39, that two of them have long hair, that 36 is coming off a knee injury, that 29 and 35 are competing for the first-down role and 28 and 39 are competing for the third-down role, and so on. And you need to know all of this information about all 10 position groups.
3. Take notes of the pairings and combinations.
Once you know everyone’s name and number, you start to notice patterns — which players usually get the “first-team” reps, which players are most often paired up with each other, which players are being held out, and so on. Take note of the pairings at cornerback, offensive line, nickel defense, goal line offense, third and long, etc.
That said, keep in mind that just because a player is working with the first team or getting a lot of reps doesn’t mean he’s winning a position battle. Could be that he’s on the roster bubble and the coaches just want to get a better look at him. Or the coaches don’t believe he is starter material and giving him reps with the starters is a good way to confirm that. With Belichick, you never really know.
4. Grade the one-on-one battles, and be descriptive.
The drills happen quickly, so you need to be attentive and a fast worker. When I’m watching pass-rushing or pass-coverage drills, I’ll write down the numbers of each competitor (68 Blue vs. 71 White, for example), then judge the battle based on three highly unscientific criteria — something like Convincing Win, Slight Win, and Draw. And after determining the winner (or not), it’s good to provide a short description of what happened: “swim move,” “bull rush,” “total stonewall,” and so on. After practice, you should be able to tally everything up, and maybe get a sense of what each player needs to work on.
5. Take note of the game situation.
Are the Patriots working on the two-minute drill? Third downs? Goal-line situations? Two-point conversions? Context matters when watching and grading practice. And you’ll notice that throughout the course of training camp, Belichick practices almost every game scenario imaginable. My personal favorite is when they practice having the punter step out of the back of the end zone for a safety. No detail is too small.
6. Listen to what the coaches are telling the players.
Coaches are really teachers, and it’s always fascinating to hear them get hands-on and teach fundamentals and techniques to players with varying degrees of football experience. Just don’t blog, tweet, Facebook or say a peep about what you hear on the field. Store it away upstairs.