Patriots quarterback Kevin O'Connell
More than a few anxious folks around New England have been concerned with the state of the backup quarterback position – particularly in light of last year's events and Tom Brady's return. Various published reports had former Dolphins quarterback Cleo Lemonin Foxborough on Friday and indicated his signing with the Patriots was imminent.
Kevin O'Connell has heard the fears – and the rumors – and has a message for Lemon and any other potential quarterback addition: bring it on.
"We have a very competitive group as it is right now and I'm sure that wouldn't change with a quality player coming in," said O'Connell, who stands as Brady's backup at the moment. "But it's more about me right now personally just trying to do what I can to be successful on a play-to-play basis and being as consistent as I can because that's what I know is being asked of me."
The Patriots signed two players Sunday morning but neither was Lemon. Safety Jamar Loveand linebacker Rob Ninkovichwere added to the roster while punter Tom Maloneand linebacker Vince Reddwere sent packing. But in terms of transactions, there's been nothing on the backup quarterback front.
O'Connell joined his fellow red-jerseyed quarterbacks again on Sunday for the seventh practice of camp. Each of the four – Brady, O'Connell, Matt Gutierrezand rookie Brian Hoyer– has been present for each of those workouts. If there's another added to the mix, that's fine with O'Connell.
"If I was thinking about that stuff then I would come out here and not be prepared for practice," O'Connell said when asked if Lemon's addition would affect him. "That's all up to Coach [Bill] Belichick and those guys that make those decisions. I'm just trying to have good practices and preparing myself every day."
When asked about the impact of rumors about acquiring players and how that might affect the team, Belichick explained how that's a way of life in the NFL.
"I've talked to the team about the personnel situation of the league," he said. "You can look at the papers every day and see transactions -- that's part of training camp. I think our players understand that's the time of the year we're in. What's important is for the player to control what he can control and that's the player's day-to-day work and improvement."
After a slow start to camp, O'Connell appears to be improving by the day. There were times when his reads were a tad slow and his throws subsequently were late. And there were also times when his decisions weren't the best and he too often tried to stick a ball into double coverage.
But the last couple of practices have seen some of the development he's felt all offseason. With a full year in the system, the former third-round pick out of San Diego State said he feels much more comfortable in the offense and is no longer reacting to situations but instead understanding them much more efficiently.
"It's more that you know what to expect when you come to practice, even more so now that I've learned a lot of the things that I need to learn," O'Connell said of his Year 2 development. "It's more about execution and it becomes trying not to outthink yourself and trying to do the best you can to put the offense in a good situation.
"Obviously a year into it I expect a lot out of myself and I expected a lot out of myself last year. It's a long training camp and you have to focus on the next practice and try to string good practices together."
"I think Kevin has made progress over the spring," Belichick added. "I think he certainly understands the offense better than he did last year. He's got to continue to work on the execution. The offense demands a lot of different things and has a lot of different elements to it. Multiple receivers, multiple tight ends, play actions, spread offense – all those kinds of things. I think Kevin's come a long way."
One specific area Belichick felt O'Connell improved was operating under center, which wasn't something he did much of in college. The Aztecs worked almost exclusively out of the shotgun so he had some adjustments to make mechanically and Belichick said he's seen a noticeable improvement in that area.
O'Connell admitted the change was a bit difficult at first but has felt more comfortable with time. "It definitely was a bit of an adjustment with the timing and the rhythm throws from under center. Every day I come out here it feels better and better. I worked really hard on it in the offseason and I'm just trying to continue to improve as we go through training camp."
One major change for O'Connell this summer from last, beyond the actual playing on the field, has been the constant presence of Brady. Last year the Pats starter was in and out of uniform during training camp and missed the entire preseason with a foot injury. This year he's relished the opportunity to have Brady around on a more regular basis.
"It's a great situation to be in to watch him do things because he does everything the right way," O'Connell said. "Whether it's interaction with his teammates or [being] fundamentally sound when it come to running this offense because he's been doing it for a long time and he's got it down pretty good. Whenever you have a question you can go it him and ask him and he's always working with us so it's been really great having him around every day."
The Patriots obviously hope they don't need to find out if indeed O'Connell is ready to take over, as Matt Casselproved to be last year when Brady went down. But if the situation presents itself, the second-year quarterback is going to make sure he's as prepared as he can be – whether Lemon or any other veteran is around or not.
"We're coached in a way where we might get five or six plays during practice where you have to come in and be ready, and fortunately we get the chance to simulate what it might be like to come off the sideline in a game and be ready to go," O'Connell said. "All of us quarterbacks, when we get the chance we want to be ready to have the offense not miss a beat."