FOXBOROUGH — Playing in front of fans for the first time since winning Super Bowl XLIX on Feb. 1, the Patriots received the kind of welcome you’d expect of champions, with standing ovations and player chants coming from the crowd of more than 10,000.
But there was also a plane flying over the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium on Thursday, carrying a banner that said, “CHEATERS LOOK UP!” There was no way to identify players without jersey numbers, and there was an unwillingness from players to even acknowledge last year’s championship, the fourth Super Bowl won by the Patriots in franchise history.
Welcome to the first day of training camp, 2015.
Tom Brady was met with multiple “Bra-dy! Bra-dy!” chants for any type of on-field action from the quarterback, who is facing a four-game suspension upheld this week by league commissioner Roger Goodell as the result of the Deflategate investigation. A federal lawsuit has been filed on Brady’s behalf by the NFL Players Association, and a number of “Free Brady!” posters were spotted in the stands on Thursday morning as the Patriots hit the field for the first practice of training camp.
Team owner Robert Kraft was there, too, mingling with fans and posing for photographs.
Before practice, coach Bill Belichick met with the media, but again wouldn’t offer any thoughts on Brady’s suspension, or if the investigation has been a distraction.
“I think Robert addressed that yesterday,” Belichick said. “You go back and read the transcript of what Robert said, he advised everybody in the organization not to talk about it, and so we’re not talking about it.”
Instead, Belichick fielded questions about injuries and additions, the hot summer weather, and whether winning another Super Bowl ring (his sixth overall, and fourth as head coach of the Patriots) gives him a renewed sense of energy as another training camp starts.
“I’m not really worried about some other year or some other time. I’m trying to do the best I can to get our team prepared today to have a good practice,” Belichick said. “I’m not living in the past or dreaming about the future. I’m trying to do a good job with our team today, and that’s what each of our players should be doing as well.”
Brown happy to be with Patriots
The Patriots’ most recent roster addition wasted no time making acquaintances, joining his new teammates one day after signing as a free agent.
Cornerback Tarell Brown has spent eight seasons in the NFL, the first seven with the 49ers, then last season with Oakland. He appeared in 14 games for the Raiders in 2014 and started all of them, before a foot injury ended his season in December.
“I feel great. I feel healthy, I feel young. It felt good to run around with these guys the first day,” said Brown, who has 11 career interceptions, including a season-high four in 2011. “Right now I’m just happy to compete.”
With four cornerbacks from last season’s Super Bowl champions no longer here (Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Kyle Arrington, Alfonzo Dennard), there would appear to be playing time available for Brown, perhaps even a starting spot. Returning cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan figure to get plenty of first-team reps in camp, too.
“I think he’s probably done just about everything a corner would do in this league: Man, zone, press, off, some inside, some outside,” Belichick said. “We’ll see. He’s coming off an injury, an offseason procedure, so we’ll see how he does.”
There might be a new team and a new defense to learn, but the 30-year-old veteran from Texas said there are similarities, too.
“Biggest thing is just learning the playbook and being accountable and trustworthy, earning your respect from your coaches and your teammates. That’s the first thing,” said Brown, who is listed on the roster as wearing jersey No. 9. “Football is football, but you have to do your studying. I’m asking as many questions as I can, finding out the ins and outs of the defense.”
New look for offensive line
Another area where playing time is available would be offensive line, since Dan Connolly announced his retirement after spending the past seven seasons with the Patriots. He started 13 of 16 games in the 2014 regular season (three at center, 10 at left guard), then started all three postseason games at left guard.
Before Connolly’s decision was announced, the Patriots used fourth-round draft picks on offensive linemen Tre’ Jackson and Shaq Mason. With Connolly gone, the line will certainly have a new look. What’s not known is who will be lining up where.
“We’ll see. They’re just all going to play a whole bunch of stuff right now. That goes for most everybody on the line. I don’t think there are very many people that just play one spot,” said offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo. “We move people around, we experiment, we try to cross-train guys. They’ll play where we ask them to play.”
Asked about losing Connolly (he coached him for one season, after taking over for longtime offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia), DeGuglielmo said, “Dan was a great player. He was a team leader, very smart. He had a calmness about him, an intensity about him that maybe wasn’t visible to the fans or to the people watching on the sideline, but he’s an intense player, very good professional, very serious about his craft.
“Any time you lose a guy with that much experience, I don’t want to say it’s difficult ... it’s like a family. It’s like one of your brothers moving to the other side of the country. You’ll still function. We’ll still function. But it’s a loss of somebody who’s family to a lot of these guys. I wish him all the best, but it’s time to move on with these other guys, and I think we have some guys that will step right in and hopefully compete, like he did.”
TE Chandler catching on
Even though he’s been in the league since the 2007 NFL Draft (fourth round, Chargers), tight end Scott Chandler has really only contributed the past four seasons, all with the Bills. All but one of his 182 career receptions have come in that span, but the consistent production wasn’t enough to keep him in Buffalo; the Bills released him on March 11, and the Patriots signed him two days later.
Chandler had the best game of his NFL career against the Patriots last season, catching six passes for 105 yards during a Week 6 home loss to New England (it’s his only 100-yard game). Now he’s hoping to put up similar numbers with his new team, whether it’s Brady or Jimmy Garoppolo throwing him the passes.
“I’ve been pretty close to being out of this league a couple times, so I’m pretty appreciative of the chance that I have here. Every year is different, but they’ve had a good track record, and you hope that you can be a part of that,” Chandler said. “You want a guy to hold you accountable. You don’t want to be running sloppy routes and have him say, ‘Great route.’ You want to be a guy who can be counted on to do the right things, and have the quarterback be able to find you when you do.”