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Sebastian Vollmer used to arrive at Gillette Stadium at the crack of dawn and immediately get to work.
Not in the weight room, film room, or on the football field — in the kitchen.
“I was always a guy that struggled to keep the weight on,” Vollmer, who last played in 2015, said last month. “First thing, you go in and you have three cups of oatmeal, and you put your protein powder in there and a lot of nuts and peanut butter. You had 1,000 calories. Then you had breakfast — it’s a lot of liquid stuff, always putting on all these calories, these fancy shakes in the morning. It was a struggle.”
Football players have plenty to worry about during training camp — learning the playbook, executing on the field, avoiding or managing injuries. But right there at the top of the list is managing their weight.
The old caricature of training camp is of guys shedding weight in order to get in shape for the season, but in today’s NFL the opposite is mostly true. The challenge now for many players is keeping their weight up in August, when temperatures are routinely above 90 degrees and players are losing 10 pounds of water weight during practice.
It can be particularly challenging for the 300-pound guys, many of whom aren’t naturally that big and have to eat a great deal of food just to get up to their playing weight. The last thing the Patriots want is a left guard losing 20 pounds in camp, or a defensive tackle losing some of his strength in the hot August sun.
“Back in the day I was kind of on the opposite side, I was a guy who had to get weight off. But now it’s more making sure I keep good weight on, making sure I stay hydrated,” Patriots backup tackle LaAdrian Waddle said last week. “Definitely want to come back tomorrow right around what you started today in terms of hydration and weight. I guess it is a struggle, but that’s part of training camp — exhausting yourself and then recovering and getting back to where you need to be.”
The Patriots’ team dietician, Ted Harper, is in his seventh season with the team, and he keeps the team’s snack room well-stocked with healthy foods to help each player reach his desired weight.
Harper has a protein shake waiting for players as they come off the practice field. And this time of year, Harper keeps a few extra snacks and special treats in the kitchen to help players keep their weight up.
“We’re fortunate here having Ted, who weighs everything out,” safety Devin McCourty said. “One of the key things for me is the cookies we have in training camp that we won’t get during the season.”
“Daily, we get chocolate chip cookies in camp,” McCourty said. “Always trying to find the snacks and stuff to find little added meals.”
It’s not enough just to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with a shake after practice. Players are munching on food throughout the day to recover from a grueling practice.
“I’ll eat a lot of fruit during camp, watermelon, grapes. That helps with hydration, too,” McCourty said. “But I don’t pay attention to calories. I’m one of the small guys. [Rob Gronkowski’s] a guy, I think he only eats for fuel.”
Maintaining weight in camp isn’t just about drinking protein shakes and wolfing down a plate of peanut butter sandwiches. As Tom Brady espouses, the Patriots know they have to drink a lot of water.
“One of the biggest things as a group we focus on this year has been hydration,” McCourty said. “Paying attention to how much weight you lose, your weight before practice, after practice, being hydrated in the morning when you come in. All of that plays a big part. We talk about injuries and stuff. [Hydration] also plays a part of staying healthy and staying on the field in training camp.”
Of course, not everyone is trying to lose weight in camp. Patriots offensive tackle Trent Brown, who is listed at 380 pounds, is probably eating more salads than steaks this time of year.
“It’s always two ends of the spectrum — some guys are heavy and eating salads, trying to keep their weight down, and you see other guys trying to stay up,” he said.
McCourty remembers seeing Vince Wilfork monitor every bite of food that entered his mouth — or having someone tell him what he could eat, at least.
“I remember seeing Vince talk to Ted, and Vince would know exactly to the brink of what he was allowed to eat,” McCourty said. “And you’d see Ted be like, ‘You can have a chicken sandwich. [Vince] would be like, ‘All right, cool, chicken sandwich with a plate of broccoli.’ It’s always good seeing guys paying attention.”
The Patriots have a great many things on their mind this time of year — working on new technique, memorizing the playbook, remembering which special teams units they are on — and keeping their weight up is right at the top of the list.
“Everyone’s just got to be aware. You can lose a bunch of weight practicing in this heat,” Patriots left guard Joe Thuney said. “Everyone’s different, but it’s an all-day thing. Just got to be aware, be on top of it.”
Brady’s reps being monitored
A strange offseason for Tom Brady has turned into a strange training camp. Brady hasn’t had a full day of practice since Aug. 1, with Bill Belichick instead choosing to give more reps to Brian Hoyer and Danny Etling, and hold walkthrough-type practices, and keep Brady out of the preseason opener on Thursday night. Per colleague Jim McBride, Brady has been dealing with a sore back through the early stages of camp.
Knowing what we know about Brady, here’s betting that he’s not too pleased about his inaction thus far. Brady has made a career out of always being available and never taking a snap off in practice, for fear of giving Belichick the idea that someone else could do his job.
If this were the regular season, Brady would be playing through the back soreness, and we’d never know about it. And Brady surely wants to go out there and prove to everyone that training on his own this offseason has prepared him for the 2018 season just fine.
No, I don’t believe Belichick is being vengeful or spiteful toward Brady for skipping the offseason program or anything related to Alex Guerrero.
It looks like nothing more than a case of Belichick managing Brady’s workload this camp. Belichick spoke at length on Friday about the need to manage players during training camp, and how Brady is no different in that regard. And Brady will have to bite his lip and accept it, because resting/managing him is the right thing to do.
Brady, who you may have heard just turned 41, seemed to hit a wall last December, as his stats took a nosedive.
In December, he threw five of his eight interceptions on the season, and posted his lowest totals of any month in several categories, including yards per game (240.6), yards per attempt (7.0), touchdown passes (6), completion percentage (61.3), and passer rating (81.6). That passer rating ranked 18th among all NFL quarterbacks.
Compare that with the 2016 season, when Brady threw 10 touchdown passes against one interception in December and January, and his 105.6 passer rating ranked third in the league.
The difference between 2016 and 2017? Brady missed four games in 2016. He only played 1,061 snaps that year (including postseason), compared with 1,336 snaps last year. He was much fresher in December, when the Patriots were playing their most important games.
Considering Brady’s age, and that he’s already dealing with back soreness, Belichick is smart to manage Brady’s workload during training camp, even if it means the offense starts slowly over the first few weeks of the regular season.
It remains easy to knock Browns
Two immediate impressions after watching the first episode of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” with the Browns: 1. This season is already far more entertaining than the last few with the Rams and Buccaneers; 2. The Browns are still a dysfunctional mess.
Specifically, the Browns look like the perfect example of why you shouldn’t try to hire an all-star coaching staff. They have collected an impressive array of names, but none of the four principles on the football side — general manager John Dorsey, coach Hue Jackson, offensive coordinator Todd Haley, and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams — had ever worked with each other.
And already we have seen them butt heads. Haley and several position coaches implored Jackson to not let so many players sit out practice, and to push them to play through pain and get “mentally tougher.” Jackson pushed back forcefully.
“At the end of the day, I get to drive this bus, and I’m going to get it the way I want it,” he told his coaches. “Al [Davis] taught me a long time ago, when it’s your team, you can do whatever the hell you want.”
As one league source pointed out, the fact that Jackson played the “it’s my team” card just a few days into training camp is a telltale sign of dysfunction. If they’re already squabbling like this now, what’s going to happen when the stakes are real during the regular season?
And how is it that Jackson and his staff are even squabbling about how to handle injuries in camp? The team’s approach should have been decided and communicated in meetings in the days and weeks leading up to camp, so that all of the coaches would be on the same page by now.
This is what happens when you throw a bunch of personalities and egos in a room with little concern of how all the pieces will fit. If the season starts poorly, it will be every man for himself as each coach tries to deflect blame and salvage his reputation.
Thursday night takeaways
■ Andrew Luck played two series, completing 6 of 9 passes for 64 yards in his first game action since 2016. Most importantly, his right shoulder didn’t seem to bother him, and he bounced right back up from a hit on a 1-yard scramble.
“It’s the most excited I’ve ever been and ever will be about getting hit,” he said. “I was very nervous, very nervous. And only game-type action could alleviate that.”
■ Colts safety Shamarko Thomas was the first player to be ejected because of the NFL’s new leading-with-the-helmet rule. In the fourth quarter, Thomas launched himself at Seahawks wide receiver David Moore, shaking up Moore with helmet-to-helmet contact and earning a 15-yard penalty in addition to his ejection.
“That was a good call, that was the appropriate call, he should have been ejected,” Colts coach Frank Reich said. “That could have been avoided, should have been avoided, and the referees did the right thing.”
In the same game, Seahawks cornerback Akeem King was penalized 15 yards under the helmet rule but was not ejected.
■ Seahawks rookie Shaquem Griffin, who only has one hand, was flying around the field at weakside linebacker, leading Seattle with nine tackles (six solo).
“I am really fired up about it,” coach Pete Carroll said.
■ The NFL stood by its word that it has put its new national anthem policy on hold, saying it wouldn’t punish the handful of players who demonstrated Thursday night. Dolphins receivers Kenny Stills and Albert Wilson took a knee, while Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins was one of several players who raised his fist. Four Jaguars and three Seahawks remained in the locker room.
■ The Steelers were “caught” using an underinflated football in their game against the Eagles, but the NFL quickly explained it away (almost too quickly).
“All footballs were in compliance with NFL rules following the pregame inspection process and all proper procedures were followed,” the league said in a statement. “In the third quarter, a football that was found to be defective was removed from play and will be sent back to Wilson for review.”
Forced to play by the rules
Fifth-year NFL referee Brad Allen was in New England this past week to explain some of the new rules to the media, and one thing became clear: It’s going to be a big trial-and-error process.
For example, will the new helmet rule be called against quarterbacks pushing forward on a sneak? The rule penalizes players for initiating contact with the helmet but does allow for runners to lower their helmet in order to brace for impact. So on a QB sneak, which is it — the quarterback initiating contact or bracing for contact?
“I think we have to see that play play out,” Allen said.
And the catch rule has been changed, forcing officials to determine with no concrete definition whether the receiver held the ball long enough to make a “football move.”
Allen agreed that the standard for a catch is basically, “I know it when I see it.” Former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart would be proud.
Interesting study published by the University of Buffalo this past week, which did not find any evidence of CTE in the brains of 21 retired Bills and Sabres players, and concluded that “the risk of developing CTE is not as great as once believed.” The researchers acknowledged the small sample size, including using only eight former football players. “News coverage has given the public the impression that CTE is inevitable among professional contact sport athletes,” the researchers wrote. “The results of our comprehensive investigation . . . do not support this notion.” . . . Good for Jon Halapio, a Patriots sixth-round pick in 2014. He never played a snap for the Patriots in two stints, and bounced around between the Broncos, Cardinals, the Fall Experimental Football League, and selling cars. But Halapio was the Giants’ starting center on Thursday night and is the front-runner for the job . . . Bears linebacker Roquan Smith continues to hold out, with no end in sight. The player and team are in a stalemate over language that could void Smith’s guarantees if he is suspended for an on-field violation, and the sides aren’t even talking. Smith is only the second player to stage a prolonged holdout since 2011. The Chargers’ Joey Bosa held out until Aug. 29 in 2016, then collected 10½ sacks and was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year anyway.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.