FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Earlier this month, during a mini-vacation trip to New York City with his girlfriend, a millennial tourist pulled out his phone and took a moment to scroll through his Twitter feed. There, to his astonishment, the young man discovered he'd just been named a First-Team All-Pro – one of the National Football League's highest individual honors.
Six months earlier, as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 appeared to many like The Year That Would Never End. Yet, for the NFL, it also seemed like a season that might not even begin, at least as scheduled.
Last summer, while finishing up a final course at Stanford to complete his undergraduate studies, the Patriots' then-second-year punter, Jake Bailey, waited to hear when – for that matter, even IF – New England's training camp would get underway.
From his hometown near San Diego, Bailey found himself very much eager to build off his very productive rookie season. So, as news of coronavirus protocols dominated NFL headlines, the 23-year-old erred on the side of caution, deciding to fly back to Massachusetts early. While training camps around the league would eventually begin a bit later than planned, Bailey was in place and ready from the get-go.
"Then once we got into it," he now recalls, "it became really routine for all of us.
You kind of put your head down once you got to camp and you're testing [for COVID-19] every day. The whole season went by really fast for me."
At the outset, following a truncated training camp that lasted barely a couple weeks, Bailey soon realized that, if he wanted to outdo his own performance in 2019, he'd need to be at the top of his game psychologically, as well as physically. Playing in stadiums that were mostly devoid of fans gave game days a very practice-like feel.
"So, you had to get yourself in the mindset of 'We're in a game, everything counts even more now,'" Bailey explains, "even though it feels like practice."
Surrounded by several talented veteran teammates, Bailey also understood that he had to hold up his end of the bargain if New England's special teams units were to have success. As he did during his rookie year, Bailey served both as punter and kickoff specialist for the Patriots – jobs that require different techniques and add extra strain to his right leg. To manage his practice workloads, he relied heavily on special teams coordinator Cam Achord.
"Yeah, it is a lot," Bailey acknowledges. "Coach Cam is kind of like my caddy back there. He knows how much I should work during the day, during the week, making sure I'm ready to go on game day.
"I am conscious of my workload, but if there is something I feel I haven't gotten from the day – a certain technique I want to work on, for instance, and I don't feel I got the muscle memory down – yeah, I'll work till I feel like it's good. That's where Coach Cam comes into play and says, 'Jake, we've got another day tomorrow. You're fine. We'll revisit this.' It's helpful having that set of eyes on me."
Bailey concedes that, as a rookie, he didn't always place the ball, whether on punts or kickoffs, exactly where he'd hoped to, so that teammates like Matthew Slater, Justin Bethel, Cody Davis, and others could down the ball or make a tackle in favorable field position. Bailey worked hard to improve on this aspect of his game in Year 2, and it soon became apparent to him and his teammates on special teams that this effort was paying off.
"These guys did not make a mistake once the whole year," he insists. "They did such a good job covering my punts and kickoffs, and protecting on all of them. Midway through 2020, I felt like all of us on special teams realized we're pretty good. Everyone can cover every kick I can hit. We've got a chance to be really, really good. So, we kept grinding, stat-chasing a little bit at the end of the year."
Bailey's stats proved worthy of being selected to his first Pro Bowl as the punter representing the American Football Conference. On his 55 punts in 2020, only five ended as touchbacks, while 31 were downed inside the opponents' 20-yard lines.
"That's a testament," adds Bailey, "to those guys making sure the ball didn't go into the end zone. I can think of five plays right now of just Justin Bethel going down and making sure the ball doesn't go through the end zone, making a circus goal line play to prevent it going in there."
On kickoffs, Bailey also helped New England finish near the top of the league. Where touchbacks are considered a negative statistic in punting, that's not the case when it comes to kickoffs. Nowadays, teams general boot the ball through the end zone to avoid risking a big return by the opposition.
In 2020, nearly three-fourths of Bailey's 75 kickoffs reached the end zone, and more than half of them were touchbacks. Eight Patriots kickoffs were downed inside the 20, all of which contributed to New England's having the fifth-best opponent starting field position average (the 24.1-yard line).
Achord and head coach Bill Belichick phoned Bailey in December to inform him of his league-wide recognition, which made Bailey New England's first Pro-Bowl punter since Rich Camarillo earned the distinction in 1983.
During the call, they mentioned that Slater, a perennial co-captain here in New England, also made the Pro Bowl for the ninth time in his stellar career. Bailey happened to be in a text-message conversation with Slater at the time and broke the news to him.
Then, while sightseeing in the Big Apple, Bailey found out via Twitter that both he and teammate Gunner Olszewski were first-team All-Pros (Olszewski as the punt return specialist), while Slater made Second Team All-Pro. Bailey immediately phoned a bewildered Olszewski to inform him.
"It's so cool. I think we already had a tight-knit team," Bailey remarks. "I have some really good, life-long friends on this team. But just being able to share experiences like I've had with these guys over the last two, three weeks… Those guys have helped me out a ton this year, and they're the reason why any of these awards have happened [to me]. It's a team award and a testament to how talented these guys are. Everybody was so excited. I tried my best to thank them. I'm so grateful to be on the same team as them."
The Pro Bowl was supposed to have been played this coming Sunday, January 31, in Las Vegas, but due to COVID-19, the in-person event was cancelled. Instead, the all-star game will feature Pro Bowlers squaring off remotely in the popular EA Sports Madden NFL 21 video game, using rosters comprised of this year's Pro Bowl honorees, including Bailey. A week-long series of remote events related to the Pro Bowl is also part of the festivities.
Innovative and necessary as that might be right now, the young Patriots punter and kickoff man is once again anxious to get back on an actual football field with his New England teammates. He'll spend the majority of his 2021 offseason back in San Diego before returning to Foxborough, where he and the Patriots special teamers will look to improve further on their 2020 successes.
"It's crazy how fast time flies. Can't believe I've already finished two years," Bailey maintains. "I think we've got a really good opportunity to run it back and do it again."
Though he'll always cherish his 2020 individual awards, Bailey emphasizes that his upcoming third year with the Patriots could top Year 2… if his team can get back to finishing with a winning record and competing in the postseason.
"Yeah," he admits, "that's the most important goal."