The story of this 13th practice of Patriots training camp was, without question, the weather. The Foxborough area, indeed all of southern New England, is in the midst of its third heat wave of the summer.
Despite the beautiful blue sky, the heat index made for rather uncomfortable conditions on the practice field. As Sunday's two-hour session wore on, players in increasing numbers were forced to take a knee and remove their helmets during even the most brief pauses in action.
"It was hot today. It was a humid day," quarterback Tom Brady told reporters after practice in just his second media appearance of camp. "August is pretty unpredictable. We've had some colder days, some rainier days, some windier days, but today was pretty hot and humid.
"It's good because we don't play in a dome, it's just good to get out here and experience all these different elements. We've got to get used to playing in whatever it is, so that's usually what Coach says."
The heat is one factor that weighs on players this time of year, but so, too, the monotony of the practice routine, especially three weeks into it.
"Yeah, I mean there's no easy way about training camp. I think you just have to grind your way through it," Brady continued. "You try to bring as much energy as you can every day. That's the only way you're going to get the best out of yourself and try to get the best out of your teammates. You really, at this point with the limited amount of practices, you can't afford to lose any ground because a lot of teams are practicing hard. You've got to come out here and you see guys giving it all out there, especially today. Maybe a couple days off, we've been off our feet, then you get back into it and your body's not quite ready, so you've just got to fight through it as best as you can."
There are, of course, joint practices - the Saints were in town last week and the Bears arrive on Monday - to help inject some additional enthusiasm into camp, as well as the preseason games, which started last week. Brady did not take part in the opener versus New Orleans, which allowed his backup, Jimmy Garoppolo, to play the entire first half. Garoppolo, entering Year 3 as Brady's understudy, will be New England's starter while Brady sits out the first four games of the regular season beginning Sept. 11 at Arizona.
Brady said he's been impressed with how Garoppolo has handled himself throughout camp knowing that he'll be asked to lead the Patriots offense while Brady is away from the team.
"He works his tail off to prepare and I know he has the respect of everybody. That's what you try to do, you try to come out here and prepare, earn the respect of your teammates and your coaches, and you've got to put the work in. You've got to show that you're willing to show up every day and do whatever it takes to get the job done.
"It's been fun to see his development. We got off to a good start the other night [in the win over the Saints] and hopefully we keep it going. We have three days of practice coming up against the Bears that will be good preparation for our team. We've got to use them really well and hopefully we can come out of Thursday night [against Chicago], after these practices and the game, a stronger team than we are now."
After practices, Brady and Garoppolo are often seen playing a game that the media has dubbed "The Bucket Drill," in which both QBs try from various distances to throw a football into a large, empty blue barrel. It can be quite a challenge even for a future Hall of Famer like Brady, but Garoppolo has shown a knack for coming close, hitting the barrel, and sometimes getting the ball into it.
"He does a good job against me all the time," admitted Brady. "He's a good competitor."
We probably throw 20-25 of those balls, and it's hard to have a receiver, after a two-and-a-half hour practice in 90-degree weather, go run a bunch of 30-40-yard routes. You just put the bucket out there, and... that little sucker is tough to hit, man. It doesn't move, it's got no arms, it can't adjust to anything. It's just good practice."
View a collection of the best images from Patriots Training Camp practice in Foxborough on Sunday, August 14, 2016.
Three's a crowd?
While Garoppolo plays fill-in starter in Brady's absence, the only other passer on the roster - if things don't change between now and September - will be rookie Jacoby Brissett. That fact has led some to wonder if the Patriots intend on adding a third arm in the short term to help shoulder the burden in practice and as an emergency in the first four games.
"We've talked about it," head coach Bill Belichick admitted Sunday, "but we're where we're at right now. I think it's a question of who it is. I don't know that there are a lot of Hall of Fame players just sitting out there not on any team right now.
"Reps are definitely an issue, but again, who are you giving them to? I think just to put a player on a roster just to fill out a depth chart, put a card up there, I don't know how much value there really is in that. There are times when you need players for practice, need players for training camp. I don't think that's the case right now."
Making room for Ebner
Sunday saw a rare occurrence at this summer's Patriots camp: a roster transaction. Rookie offensive lineman Kyler Kerbyson was released, and Belichick acknowledged that his was to make room on the roster for safety Nate Ebner, who's been at the Rio Olympic Games as a member of the U.S. Rugby Team.
With the gold medal already having been won by Fiji in that event, Ebner's Olympic duties are complete, but he has not yet rejoined the Patriots, according to Belichick. That would appear to be imminent, however.
Except to re-sign a two-year deal with the team that drafted him Ebner, entering his fifth NFL season, has been away from the team since the offseason began in late January in order to pursue his long-time dream of playing Olympic rugby. His biggest challenge now, as Belichick sees it, will be readjusting to the sport of football.
"You can go out there and run around a track all you want," the head coach explained, "but you put 21 other guys out there and it's a whole different ball game. You can't train for that. You have to have him out there. It's not his fault, it's not anybody's fault, it just is what it is. He just hasn't played football coming up on nine months, eight-plus months, whatever it is. He's got a long way to go, but nobody will work harder at it than he will."
Buy: Nate Washington - On perhaps his best day on the practice field as a Patriot, the veteran wide receiver caught a pair of long passes during team period action, one each against cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan.
*Sell: *Darryl Roberts - Some observers had high hopes for this second-year corner after an injury-marred rookie campaign, but he's yet to establish himself consistently this summer.