Our long, boring summer is over. Football is back.
The Patriots’ 2016 Vengeance Tour begins Wednesday when players and coaches report for training camp and hold their first four practices Thursday to Sunday at Gillette Stadium, from 9:15 a.m. to about 11:45 a.m. each day. Fans should arrive early to ensure a good seat, but the Patriots provide ample bleacher seating for the 10,000-plus fans expected in attendance.
Bill Belichick and his staff have a little more than six weeks to pare the roster from 90 to 53 and get the Patriots ready for their Sept. 11 season opener at Arizona. The first three weeks of practice will be free and open to the public, offering a great chance to see the Patriots up close as the starters prepare for the season and the bubble players battle for the few roster spots available.
And New England fans get a special treat this year, with the Patriots hosting not one but two joint practices at home (the Patriots usually do one at home and one on the road, but this year’s preseason schedule allowed them to host both at Gillette). Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints will practice with the Patriots on Aug. 9-10, allowing fans a rare and incredible opportunity to watch two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks (including that Tom Brady guy). The next week, Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears come to Foxborough for practices on Aug. 15-16.
NFL training camp practices aren’t quite as exciting as the games on Sunday, and it can be easy to drift off and lose track of the action, particularly during the individual portions of 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 repeatedly?
Here is a guide we developed last year and tweaked this year for tips on how to watch practice and have a good feel for what the Patriots accomplished during practice:
1. Weekdays offer better access
Gillette Stadium is going to be packed with fans on the first weekend of training camp, the first days that the Patriots can hold full-padded and full-contact practices. If you can take a vacation or a (cough, cough) sick day, the weekday practices are much less crowded. You can get a better seat to watch the proceedings, and it’s easier for the kids to get autographs after practice.
2. Pick a low vantage point for individual drills, and a high one for team drills
For 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 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. The drills going on at the far end of the practice field are just as important as the drills happening right in front of you.
3. Memorize the roster and jersey numbers
At least 37 of these players 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 eight running backs on the roster, that they wear jersey numbers 27, 28, 29, 33, 34, 36, 38, 47, that 33 is coming off a knee injury, that 28 and 34 are competing for the third-down role, that 27 is a hybrid running back/slot receiver, etc. And you need to know this type of information about all 10 position groups.
4. Watch Belichick — a lot
These open training camp practices are a gift for football fans, a rare opportunity to watch a legendary coach working in his element. Which position group is Belichick watching? Who is he talking to on the sideline? Who is he taking aside for a pep talk or a quick lesson in fundamentals? You can never go wrong just by tracking Belichick and following him all practice.
5. 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. It 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.
6. 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.
7. 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 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.
8. 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.