Summer officially started just four days ago. Hopefully, you’ve got a full slate of vacation time and long weekend plans lined up.
For those of you longing for a football fix, keep this in mind: There’s only one more month left in this offseason. That’s right, precisely one month from tomorrow is the public opening of 2018 Patriots training camp (Thursday, July 26)!
The start of a new campaign is always exciting, but this summer, I’m already feeling a bit disappointed for those of us who report on the team for a living and for you, the fans who follow everything that goes on here. That’s because for the first time since 2011, New England won’t have any joint practice sessions with preseason opponents.
Before I get into specifics, let’s first briefly revisit the history of joint sessions.
Long before the New York Giants became a perennial fourth preseason opponent for the Bill Belichick-led Patriots, they were an occasional visitor to what was then New England’s summer camp home at Bryant College (now Bryant University) in Smithfield, R.I. That was back when the Giants had names like Phil Simms, Lawrence Taylor, and Mark Bavarro on their roster. Many years passed before the Patriots took up the practice of joint practices again.
That was in 2010, when they hosted the New Orleans Saints in Preseason Week 1, then traveled to Flowery Branch, Ga. the next week to practice with, then play against the Atlanta Falcons. In 2011, the NFL and its players were engaged in a labor dispute (a.k.a. “The Lockout”) which put most league business on hold until just before camps started, so, there was little time to plan joint sessions.
Those resumed in 2012, however, with the Patriots again hosting the Saints and visiting the Buccaneers in Tampa. Every year since, New England has had at least one, and normally two, joint training camp sessions. This year, they’ll have none, but likely not because the Patriots are no longer interested, given Belichick’s affinity for them.
Belichick has always been a vocal proponent of the dual practice format, as am I. From a football coaching perspective, it’s a great opportunity to evaluate your own players for more snaps and in more competitive situations than just the four preseason games. The practice field workouts with other teams can be customized by the coaches of both sides to allow for maximum competitive reps and personnel combinations over a three or four-day period, including the culminating exhibition game.
For scouts, last year’s Preseason Week 1 visit by the Jaguars wound up being an early preview of the AFC Championship Game versus Jacksonville (something that surely helped in some way for that game’s preparation). On a personal and team-building level, the next week’s trip to the Greenbrier in West Virginia (versus Bill O’Brien’s Houston Texans) gave Belichick’s troops a chance to bond on the road during what is often a stressful time on the NFL calendar.
Even in its present-day scaled down format, training camp can become monotonous, and the injection of another team on the field provides everyone – coaches, players, media, and fans – a wonderful distraction from the day-to-day grind.
From a fan’s vantage point, particularly a Patriots fan’s, joint sessions are also a great entertainment value. Here in Foxborough, parking and admission are free, which means it’s not unusual for tens of thousands of fans to descend on the property when the Patriots host a joint session. That creates an atmosphere at camp that is as close to game-like as you can get in August. Sometimes more so, actually, because fans are so close to the action on the field and can see and hear everything that happens on the field so clearly that it gives the crowd a better appreciation for how fast the game is, how talented the players are, and how intense the competition can be.
That infusion of energy will be missing this summer, and it will be doubly missed, based on the way the Patriots’ preseason slate was assembled. Normally, New England arranges joint sessions with its first two opponents. Summer 2012 was an exception, when they faced the Bucs in Week 3, as was 2015, when Green Bay declined to come to Foxborough for the few extra days before Week 1’s game.
Having two consecutive home foes on the 2018 calendar meant that, when the schedule was unveiled in April, we had visions of back-to-back joint sessions here, just like in 2016 when the Saints and Bears came to town for extended stays. Of course, the second of those would have been a fantastic meeting between the Super Bowl LII champion Eagles and the team they barely vanquished.
However, Philly’s head coach, Doug Pederson, chose not to take his team anywhere but their headquarters at the NovaCare Center this summer.
“I don’t think [joint sessions are] an every-year thing,” he told reporters during the Eagles’ mini-camp earlier this month. “Last year it was great for us. It was a great change up to go against Miami. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out. Teams are already booked, teams are already full or doing other things. For us, it’s just, ‘Let’s get better as a team.’”
New England obviously wasn’t booked, so, it’s curious why he wasn’t open to doing what his predecessor, Chip Kelly, did with the Patriots in 2013 and ’14.
Meanwhile, the Washington Redskins announced in early May that they are having Preseason Week 2 joint sessions with the New York Jets, but aren’t coming to Foxborough for Preseason Week 1. This might have something to do with the Redskins’ contractual agreement with the Bon Secours training center in Richmond, Va., where the Patriots made a trip for joint sessions in 2014. Whatever the reason, it’s unfortunate the ‘Skins and Eagles won’t be here, except for the games.
Of course, training camp is still an occasion for fans to come see their favorite team up close and potentially interact face-to-face with players and coaches. If you can come to Foxborough in late July or early-to-mid-August, it’ll be worth your time. Nevertheless, the lack of joint practice opponents this summer will be missed by everyone involved on and off the field. Here’s hoping the tradition resumes in 2019.