The learning process for 2002 began in earnest Thursday when the Patriots kicked off a three-day mini-camp in cold, rainy conditions.
New England's first full-team workouts of the offseason are the culmination of a passing camp that began last week. While player evaluations are always taking place to some degree, the key for the no-pads drills is to give all players a chance understand what is expected of them once training camp opens late next month, tentatively July 26.
As far as Head Coach Bill Belichick goes, there is plenty for him to be looking at. With several rookies and second-year players who spent all or most of last season on injured reserve, he has to make sure the younger players are keeping up, but he also has to begin fitting the pieces of the team together.
"There's a little bit of pull from several different directions," Belichick said. "Certainly with the young players you want to see how they are coming along, what kind of progress they are making and where they might or might not be able to fit in. But at the same time you want to see how your team is coming together and how that group is functioning.
"From a coaching standpoint, we have some new things scheme-wise with some new pass patterns and adjustments on defense. You want to see how those things are coming along as well. It's really a combination of looking at the younger players, seeing how they fit in to the more veteran groups, and how the veterans are fitting in, of course we have some new faces there as well."
One of the notable new faces, wide receiver Donald Hayes, was excused for personal reasons, but he is expected back by Thursday night. Another new face, defensive tackle Steve Martin worked with what looked to be the first defense, but there is plenty of time to go before any kind of personnel decisions are even close to finalized.
"It's way too early to see how they are going to fit in," Belichick said when asked about the offseason free agent acquisitions. "Obviously we would not have signed them if we didn't have good feelings about them. And I don't think they would have come here if they didn't feel they had a place here. A lot of that needs to be worked out."
In the practices, both sides of the ball focused on the passing game. In the afternoon session, the defense appeared to have the upper hand during red zone passing drills. Cornerback Ty Law intercepted a Tom Brady pass intended for Jimmy Farris, and safety Antwan Harris nicely broke up a Rohan Davey pass intended for T.C. Taylor. Second-round pickDeion Branch had the catch of the day, making a diving grab of a ball over his shoulder in the corner of the end zone.
"It's mostly mental work and guys trying to get back into a groove," wide receiver Troy Brown said. "We want to be thinking about what we're supposed to do and concentrating on the plays. Our timing is kind of off right now, but that's what this is for. This gets you thinking about everything before you are going full tilt in training camp."
Performance, though important, wasn't the key as much as making sure all the players knew where they were supposed to be and what adjustments or shifts they had to make.
"We're really trying to roll everyone through equally so everybody learns and understands their positions," Belichick said. "This isn't really any kind of an evaluation camp. Because there is no contact it is more of a teaching camp, although we are certainly looking to see people do things without the contact, in terms of executing the plays and learning their assignments. The real evaluation won't really start until training camp."
Big Kat a no show
The only player besides Hayes not on the field was linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer. Belichick said there was nothing new to report on the situation, and he has not spoken with Katzenmoyer any time recently.
Though the rest of the team was there, several players either did not participate or were limited by injuries. Those who did not work in team sessions were tackle Matt Light (shoulder), tight end Cam Cleeland (Achilles), cornerback Ben Kelly (foot) and running back Antwoine Womack (knee).
With Light doing limited work on the side, Kenyatta Jones worked with the first line at left tackle. The rest of the line across was Mike Compton at left guard, Damien Woody at center, Joe Andruzzi at right guard and Greg Robinson-Randall at right tackle. Adrian Klemm worked at right tackle with the second group.
Harris (shoulder) and cornerback Tommy Knight (scraped hands) participated in drills while wearing red "no contact" jerseys.
This is what we want
Though they are no longer thinking about the fact that they won the Super Bowl, the Patriots will not soon be forgetting the feeling of winning it all.
In fact, team captain Lawyer Milloy said the experience of the postgame celebration and exuberance has only made him hungry to get there again.
"It's all starts here in the offseason," Milloy said. "[Winning the Super Bowl] is just a great, great feeling, and it's a feeling I'm going to be striving for the rest of my career. I'm glad I had a chance to experience that before my career is over. As a captain, you have to be able to tell the team what it is you are looking for. Now I can actually back it up and say this is the feeling we are looking for."
One face obviously missing was quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who is now with the Buffalo Bills. Not having him around is a definite change for Brown, now the longest-tenured Patriot. Brown came in with Bledsoe as part of the 1993 draft class and the two stayed in touch throughout the offseason.
"Yeah it is, it's really strange," Brown said. "These days in the NFL, that's something that you have to get used to. People are always moving around now, but I always thought he'd be the last person to leave."… It's hard to gauge without the pads, but rookie tight end Daniel Graham made a solid first impression as a receiver. He made catching the ball over the middle look easy, displaying very soft hands in both practices… During the special teams work in the afternoon the focus was kick returns. The first unit had fullback Patrick Pass and running back Kevin Faulk deep, followed by running back J.R. Redmond and Branch. The third pair was running back Walter Williams with wide receiver David Patten… Milloy on the team's new digs in CMGI Field: "I want Foxboro [Stadium] back. This is too nice, too big. It's nice because I can breathe in here. I don't need an oxygen tank to help me catch my breath."