There is a method behind the madness that is training camp in the National Football League. Bring in around 80 players. Put them through practices day after day, sometimes twice in a day, for three weeks. Put them in front of each other during meetings, films, meals and heck, even in a hotel so they can live together too. Push their bodies with football. Push their football minds farther. Now tell them that only 53 of them – with some exceptions of course – will be around at the end of it all.
The theory is that greater internal competition will push players to play at a higher level, thus raising the overall performance of the entire team. Ideally, the better the quality of players brought to camp, and the fewer roster spots open, the greater the competition will be. As they say, the cream rises to the top.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick sees this scenario playing out as he surveys the roster competition.
"I think that the players, at some positions where you can see that there is some real tight competition there, that everybody is maybe a little bit more up to that competition," he said. "They know that there are a lot of other people right there that are looking for the same spot that they are looking for, and they have respect for them and recognize their abilities. In the end, everybody is trying to get the most out of themselves. You can't really control what anybody else on the team does or doesn't do. As a player, what you can control is your performance and do everything you can do make it good. I think they're aware of some of the other good players at their position, and I think that motivates competitors to try to compete to a higher level.
"So I think that's a healthy thing. Do we see it? I see it, yes."
There isn't exactly a help wanted sign outside the Patriots door. Job openings for starters and reserves are at a minimum, bringing urgency to every phase of camp for those on the outside looking in. You have returning veteran players like receiver J.J. Stokes, defensive back Je'Rod Cherry and linebacker Ted Johnson, wanting to show they are still productive. Veterans like quarterback Jim Miller and defensive lineman Dana Stubblefield were brought in as free agents. Then there's the fringe players, names like linebacker Justin Kurpeikis, safety Sean Mayer and receiver Chas Gessner, working feverishly to make yet another final cut.
Circumstances have dictated that this annual survival of the fittest will be interesting again this year. Many of the Patriots veteran players – Willie McGinest, Rosevelt Colvin, Christian Fauria and David Givens to name a few - missed significant time at some point during training camp, allowing their reps to be taken by younger players. It has only heightened the already intense competition.
"If you look at every position, there's competition," veteran linebacker Larry Izzo said. "That raised the level of play for each individual, which in turn when you look at it collectively, it helps out the team. You raise the level of play. This is an extremely competitive camp; we have a lot of talent here. The organization – [Scott] Pioli and Bill [Belichick] and everyone in the personnel department – has done a great job of collecting talent and putting guys on the field to compete. The rest is up to individual himself to go out there and get it done when he's in a position to do that. But by looking at it, there is an extremely high level of competition. There are obviously going to be some tough calls."
The depth for the Patriots is very clear at several positions, where the competition is playing out at a very high level. At wide receiver, Givens, Troy Brown, Deion Branch and Bethel Johnson appear to be set. Veteran David Patten is having a strong camp after playing in only six games last season because of injuries. Veteran Stokes is back, along with second-year guy Gessner and rookies P.K. Sam, Ricky Bryant and Michael Jennings.
A similar situation plays out in the defensive backfield, a group led by veterans Ty Law, Rodney Harrison and Tyrone Poole. Second-year cornerback Asante Samuel has come on strong, as have rookie draft picks Dexter Reid and Guss Scott. Veteran Terrell Buckley is back for another tour. Cherry has been a fixture on special teams for the Patriots, while younger players like Mayer, Scott Farley Earthwind Moreland and rookies Randall Gay and Christian Morton are looking to make an impact any chance they get.
The linebacker situation is no different. The Patriots currently have 15 linebackers on the roster, led by a group of seven productive veterans. That numbers game means that Kurpeikis, Matt Chatham, Lawrence Flugence, Grant Steen, Don Davis, Eric Alexander and Tully Banta-Cain could be competing for as few as two open spots.
Belichick's strategy is to let the competition play itself out. Over a long enough period of time – say, the preseason for example - players will ultimately give an accurate indication of their skills and where they belong on the depth chart. The evaluation isn't based on one practice or one performance, but rather the big picture. The competition tends to make the decisions for the coaches, even though it's never an exact science. Belichick was hesitant to assess this year's roster.
"I think it is still too early for that," Belichick said. "Let's see where we are in a couple of weeks. I think we have good competition at a number of spots, but I think in the past we have had good competition and we have had players that we released go on to play for other teams. We have also had players who we released, that we brought back and have played well on our team. I think that is indicative of good roster competition, that whoever those final 53 are, there are players in addition to that who either play for somebody else or come back and play for us."
The common bond the players share is their focus within the competition. To a man, they say it's best to worry only about what they can control and to let the coaches dictate the rest.
"It's all you can do," Mayer said. "Once you start getting into the numbers game and thinking who they're going to keep and this and that, that's when you start messing with yourself and messing with your mind. You have no control over what they do and whom they pick. You just go out there and try to play your [butt] off."
Adds Kurpeikis, "It's not a matter of having them see you do anything, it's a matter of just doing things right for the fact of how good can you be. You're not worried about anything out of your hands or what they're looking for or anything like that. All you worry about is what you have direct control over. And then the chips will fall where they may regardless."
The training camp toil isn't just for the unfamiliar names. For every young player making a push for the final roster, there's another player – sometimes a veteran – feeling the other side of the equation. Johnson, a 10-year veteran, has been a vital part of past teams and is the third-longest tenured Patriot. He didn't practice until the final two days of camp, allowing younger players to get valuable reps, making his job security an issue.
"I'd like to say I can let things out of my control go, but it's human nature to worry," Johnson said. "Whatever happens is supposed to happen. Do I worry about it? Yeah. Is there anything I can do about it? No. So I try not to worry too much. There's a reason I'm still here after 10 years. There's a reason why they signed me to a new deal last year. So I must be doing something right. That's all I can worry about. Do I feel secure? Yeah I feel secure. But it's a league of youth, there's new guys coming in and out. But it's out of my control so I try not to worry about it."
For some players the training camp setting – both an opportunity and a grueling ordeal at once – plays out at the end of every summer. Mayer, a 25-year-old safety, was signed as a rookie free agent in 2003. He was released, signed to the practice squad, added to the active roster, waived, signed back to the practice squad and then again to the active roster all in the course of one calendar year. His perspective on the right of passage that is training camp is fully tested.
"That's the way it is every year," Mayer said. "They bring in people to compete against. We're still a team though, we don't forget about that. We just go out there and practice hard and play hard and help each other out. If someone makes a mistake, we'll correct it together even though the competition is right there. Competition is always going to be there, that's what the NFL is about."