After an offseason spent restocking the wide receiver and tight end positions in free agency, and then seeing rookie Mac Jones win the starting quarterback spot, the Patriots offense that takes the field against Miami on Sunday will have a distinctly different feel from last year.
"I think there will be a tremendous amount of excitement to be here in front of our home fans," said Josh McDaniels on Monday afternoon. "I think opening day is a day where you want to get out there and do the things you're confident doing and when it's time to make an adjustment, if you need to, you go ahead and do it. Go in with an open mind, jump in with both feet and start swimming."
While the veteran free-agent additions have already logged their share of NFL games, it will be Jones' first time taking the field as an NFL starter against an opponent that is fully focused on shutting him and the Patriots offense down.
"I think the biggest change is just understanding that there's actually a specific opponent there in front of you," said McDaniels of how things will change for Mac, beginning with this week's preparation. "Now, being familiar with the players on the other team, the staff, the scheme and some of the specifics that we can now pinpoint and prepare for that we see on film. Prior to that, it's been a lot of practice against our defense and some other defenses that were rotating a lot of players.
"The best thing we can do is focus on the things we can control. I think that's what [Mac] will do and that's what we're going to advise him to do. We can't worry about the outcome, the outcome will be what it will be. We have to focus on the process, working hard to understand one, what they do, two, what we wanna do and how we're asking him to do his job. It's really going to be the same process that we'll use all year."
The rookie quarterback won't go it alone and the vets around him should provide plenty of help. But how exactly it will all come together is anyone's guess after injuries limited the availabilities of Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith this summer.
But it's nothing new for the offensive coordinator as he enters his 21st year in the league.
"That happens every year, you have some expectations or some hope that maybe you'll be further ahead in the scheme or this type of thing before we start playing games and maybe it didn't materialize," said McDaniels. "That way you decide to kind of hold it and work on it in practice. I have no doubts about those two players in terms of their ability to go out there and perform."
Smith was not interested in predictions for what the new tight end duo might accomplish.
"We're not in the business of making predictions," said Smith. "We're in the business of making things happen."
"Mac's done a great job," said Henry of the rookie QB. "He's continued to get better every single day… I'm excited to go out there and compete with him this weekend."
For all the unknowns, the idea of opening day with fans back is enough to have the excitement boiling just below the surface, even with six days to go.
"I certainly don't have any expectation that we will go out there and be a completely finished product," said McDaniels. "I don't think we've ever been that on opening day. There's a natural growth and maturation process that you have to go through every year regardless of what side of the ball you coach, regardless of how many players you return or don't return. You have to reestablish what's important to you on your side of the ball, reestablish your level of practice and preparation. And then ultimately reestablish it out there in terms of your performance on game day."
The Patriots welcomed full attendance at the Labor Day practice, with the team donning shorts and shells as they got the week of preparation for the Dolphins started. Brandon Bolden and practice squadder D'Angelo Ross were the only two players spotted in red "no contact" jerseys, while Matt LaCosse ditched the red jersey he was in last week for a white jersey, showing his progression in getting over an injury suffered during joint practices in Philadelphia.
Quotes of Note
Cam Achord on having fans back at the opening game:
"It's an atmosphere we're looking forward to. I know the fans are going to do a great job coming out and cheering the guys on. It's definitely going to be a welcomed environment. When you're going out there and going into games last season and it's just quiet, it's a hidden aspect that the fans bring to it. There's a reason they're there, there's a reason you like to play at home. Our fans, they show up every game, they're there, they're loud. Definitely excited to get them back out there. Hope it's a full house, full capacity."
Steven Belichick on having fans back:
"It's going to be fun. Last year felt like a Massachusetts high school football game with no fans, now we're getting back to how it used to be. Just embracing every opportunity to be out there on the field competing. Last year was humbling not being out there with the fans. I'm sure they wanted to be there, we wanted them there but that didn't take away from our intensity, preparation and effort. We still went out there and played."
Nelson Agholor on his mindset moving into the regular season:
"I have no expectations besides work hard and prepare, that's what I'm doing. Pre-season is pre-season...things are going well, but lot of room to improve."