It sure felt like an early fall day when the Patriots hit the double practice fields behind Gillette Stadium for the first day of training camp. It was comfortably warm and overcast skies blocked out the intense summer sun, as the players worked out for more than two hours on Thursday morning in helmets, shells (smaller, lighter shoulder pads), and shorts.
He was one of the last players to arrive on the field, but Rob Gronkowski got the loudest ovation from an overflow crowd of fans. Gronk, sporting a giant black brace on his left arm and a smaller black brace on his right knee, was very active in the early portion of practice, when individual and position drills dominated. He was less involved in the 7-on-7 and team period action.
After his season was cut short last year due to a right knee injury, his appearance on the field on the first day – and not on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list – was very encouraging.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork (right Achilles) and linebacker Jerod Mayo (pectoral), both of whom missed nearly all of 2013 with their respective injuries, were also fully involved in the workout. Afterward, both players spoke to the media.
"So far, so good," Wilfork announced. "I feel fine. I'm pretty sure there's going to still be some stuff that I may need to do. I'm not looking back. I'm looking forward. I'm just excited to be here."
"It was tough watching the games [last year]," Mayo conceded, "but at the same time I was pulling for those guys every week. Obviously we had a lot of injuries last year but it's all about this year and the guys that we have now. I'm happy to be back."
"It's always good to see the team out on the field for the first time," head coach Bill Belichick told reporters before practice.
"We have a long haul ahead of us. We have a lot of big challenges ahead, but we'll just take it day by day and see if we can just keep putting one foot in front of the other, string some good practices, good days together, keep improving here as a football team."
Belichick made mention of the upgraded facilities here at Gillette – a construction project that started late last season and continues in various stages as camp gets underway.
"We've moved into a new office setup, new meeting rooms, new training facility, upgraded the weight room – so we made a lot of capital improvements here. My 15th year with the team now, [I] kind of reflect on where we were in 2000, at Bryant College and the old stadium and so forth.
"Robert [Kraft, the owner] has made a huge commitment in many ways, financially and otherwise, given us great support, great opportunity to field a competitive team. With some of our new facilities in place and kind of the start of a new year here, we're excited to get going."
12 on 15
Like Belichick, Brady is in his 15th season with the Patriots, and after Thursday's workout, he made note of that fact.
"It goes pretty fast, so I just think you appreciate it. There are very few people who have the opportunity that I have, and I'm very appreciative of it. You never know when the last one is going to be, so you just appreciate the moments that you have. Every year, it's something different. This could be your last training camp; you never know. So you've got to make it count, and you can't take anything for granted in the NFL. I try to do the best I can for this team and hope it leads to a great year.
"Communication is a really important part of the quarterback position," Brady continued. "It's how you communicate, and hopefully I can bring real positive leadership and energy to the team. If the quarterback won't do it, then who else will? That's kind of how I've always looked at it. It's fun to be in this position. I don't ever take it for granted. I appreciate the opportunities that I get. It's a great group of guys most importantly. It's the guys who really want to work hard and put the time in and have really made so much improvement over the time that they've been here.
"It feels great," he said of the first day of camp. "I'm excited to be out here with my teammates and working to get better. It's a long training camp. I think we've got to string a lot of good days together to be the team that we want to be. It's just going to be a lot of effort, a lot of work. There's no easy way about it. You've just got to grind, put the work in, listen to the coaches, try to make improvements, and hopefully when we start the season we'll be a lot better of a team than we are now."
Spotlight on DeGuglielmo
Not many new assistant coaches are scrutinized as much as Dave DeGuglielmo has been since arriving in Foxborough this offseason. He's taking over the offensive line duties, a task held formerly by long-time assistant Dante Scarnecchia.
DeGuglielmo was out of football last season, but spent several years as an o-line assistant in the NFL, including stops in the AFC East with the Jets and Dolphins. He has been taking the many questions about him and Scarnecchia in stride.
"I know Dante. I've known him for a number of years. I studied his work before I got in the league. Had a chance to meet him and kind of interact a little bit in my time in the league.
"As far as following him, you know, I have a job to do and I'm trying to do the best I can every day. The system is in place, so, it's not like we're reinventing anything here. I'm trying to teach the system. I might use different coaching phrases, but it's the same stuff: same technique, generally same offense. I'm not changing anything, that's for sure."
DeGuglielmo credited his players with helping him make the transition to New England.
"It's going very smooth. They're a great group of guys. They study hard, they work hard, they're very intelligent.
"I have a very good appreciation for the team. I've always had great respect for the program. I don't think that's changed, it's actually enhanced because I'm in the building, and I'm honored to be here. You're very competitive when you're playing against the team, obviously, no matter who you're playing against. I knew how things worked here, I just wanted to be a part of it. Thankful to have that opportunity."
Buy**: Roy Finch – The rookie running back was among the nine Patriots placed on either PUP or NFI prior to camp, but not for long. Finch was on the field and taking part in a considerable amount of the first practice, particularly on kickoff returns.
Sell: Tommy Kelly – It was a bit disappointing to see the veteran DT on the sidelines, continuing to rehab his right knee injury suffered last October. Perhaps he'll be out in uniform sooner rather than later, but this wasn't an ideal way to start camp.
Play of the Day: During the 11-on-11 team period near the end of practice, second-year wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins made an athletic, diving touchdown grab in the right corner of the end zone, with a defender bearing down on him. It was during a red zone period, and Thompkins made a great cut to the corner, something he'd been working on earlier in practice with QB Tom Brady. The two were able to connect again when it counted. Thompkins followed up with a similar catch on his next opportunity. Good day for him overall.