Being back on the practice fields in Foxborough brought back fond memories for Brian Hoyer. The path up the cement stairs from the locker room was certainly familiar, so were many of the faces of the players and coaches that he knew when he played for the Patriots from 2009-11.
"Doesn't seem like a whole lot's changed since I left … it does seem like a long time ago," Hoyer acknowledged with a smile.
The big difference this time around was the large crowd of media surrounding the quarterback after practice. Hoyer rarely drew significant media attention during his time in New England. However, his experience as Tom Brady's backup for three seasons is topical these days, as Brady's current understudy, Jimmy Garoppolo, is poised to become the first player not named Brady to start at QB for the Patriots in a season opener since Drew Bledsoe 15 years ago.
Brady has seen multiple backups come and go over the years, and most rarely get a chance to see the field. Hoyer is an exception. After being released by the Patriots after 2012 training camp, the Cleveland-area native was out of work for a few months before reemerging with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals that same season.
The following season, he signed with his hometown Cleveland Browns and played well in several games in relief of then-starter Brandon Weeden. Hoyer appeared on his way to becoming Cleveland's full-time starter before suffering a knee injury that ended his 2013 campaign. The next year, the Browns drafted Johnny Manziel and the handwriting was on the wall for Hoyer, who wound up with Houston in 2015. He started and ended the Texans' season as the starting quarterback, despite losing the job for a month or so early on to another former Patriots backup, Ryan Mallett.
Now, Hoyer finds himself back in the Midwest, as the backup to Bears starter Jay Cutler.
"It's been harder on my family than it's been on me," Hoyer maintained. "I've had chances to play and my time in New England really prepared me for that."
Hoyer recalled that he learned a great deal about how to play quarterback in the NFL by simply observing Brady.
"He's so humble and a great guy. To be able to stay in touch… he's always been one of the first guys to text me after a game… It's a friendship I've really cherished over the years.
"He's also a guy who goes out of his way to help," added Hoyer. "I remember those years just trying to sit back and watch and soak up everything, whether it was in the meeting room, on the field, training, whatever it might be. He's such an intense competitor. If you can just soak it all up, you just kind of gain it by being around him."
At the same time, asking questions of one of the game's greatest signal callers is also a piece of advice Hoyer would give Garoppolo as he prepares to relieve Brady in the first four games of 2016.
"At some point," Hoyer continued, "you have to say, 'Well, how are you seeing this?' or 'How did you know that?' I remember asking, 'How did you know this was going to be the coverage?' And he's just going, 'I've seen it years and years and years.' There's definitely time you have to stop and ask him and be like, 'How are you even knowing to take the ball here or check this play?' But a lot of it was just seeing him operate. The intensity, demanding so much out of his teammates, that type of thing."
Of course, the dynamic between Brady and Garoppolo, a second-round draft choice, is different than it was with Hoyer, who made the team as an undrafted player and never had a chance to play any significant regular season minutes as a Patriot. Garoppolo knows he'll be the starter while Brady serves a league-imposed suspension this fall, and with that knowledge comes burden – fairly or not – of expectation and inevitable comparison with Brady.
"I think," he observed, "there's a saying: 'When you win, the quarterback gets too much credit, and when you lose, he gets too much blame.' That's the way it goes. You keep on fighting."
The public and media portion of training camp has come to an end. With Wednesday's walkthrough with Chicago complete, the Patriots will host the Bears in preseason game number two on Thursday night at Gillette Stadium.
Thereafter, Patriots practices will be closed to the public and only limited access granted to media through the end of the season and/or post-season.