It's March 2006, just two months after the Patriots' final game of the 2005 season, and Gillette Stadium looks as far away from football as a football stadium gets. With the parking lots mostly empty and the goalposts in storage, the only reminders that the stadium is home to the three-time Super Bowl champions are the three banners hanging in the southeast corner and the muffled sounds emanating from the Patriots' weight room. Through the stadium's cinderblock walls observant employees can hear blaring music interrupted by the sharp sounds of clanging weights and the laughter of players. Months from the start of training camp, the preparation for the 2006 season has already begun.
For many Patriots players, the season begins not in July when they report for training camp, but in March at the start of the team's off-season conditioning program. The program, which runs throughout the spring and early summer, is a voluntary team activity overseen by the Patriots' strength and conditioning coaches. Since Bill Belichick became head coach, it has been one of the bestattended and most respected off-season programs in the NFL. Designed to increase the players' speed, strength and explosiveness while also providing a valuable team-building opportunity, the Patriots' off-season conditioning program is a key component to the team's success.
Much of the credit for the program belongs to Mike Woicik, the strength and conditioning coach Belichick brought to New England from the New Orleans Saints in 2000. Woicik had previously implemented a conditioning regimen that helped the Dallas Cowboys win three Super Bowls in the early 1990s. After winning three more rings with the Patriots,Woicik has an impressive jewelry collection and the unending respect of his players.
"This is one of the elite strength and conditioning programs," said linebacker Don Davis. "Mike has six Super Bowl championships. Obviously there is something to that. It's not coincidental."
Davis, an 11-year veteran and a Woicik disciple since the two were in New Orleans in 1997, is one of the Patriots' nine off-season award winners, players whose commitment to the Patriots' 2006 off-season conditioning program has earned them special recognition from Woicik and the rest of the Patriots' coaching staff.
Woicik and assistant strength and conditioning coach Harold Nash develop personalized workout plans for each player in the off-season conditioning program, taking into account their individual needs. "The first thing is if they have any injury concerns we work to be proactive and prevent reoccurrence," said Woicik. "Overall, we want them to become better. We evaluate them through a series of tests and we know what their strengths and weaknesses are. For one player it might be his explosiveness while another player might need to work on his speed. We show them where they are, set goals, and try to improve upon it."
The results of the players' hard work and Woicik's tutelage in the weight room are evident, as the Patriots' have compiled a 46-9 record in games played after November 1, a mark that exemplifies the solid conditioning approach employed by the 29-year coaching veteran. Continuing contributions from ageless veterans and rapid improvement by young players are hallmarks of the Belichick-era Patriots, and can be attributed in part to the off-season conditioning program.
In addition to improving the overall conditioning of the players, the program provides an opportunity for coaches to evaluate how hard a player is willing to work to improve. Current stars such as quarterback Tom Brady first made their mark in the weight room in the off-season, and, for younger players and veterans alike, the recognition of being named an off-season award winner is a badge of honor. The award winners receive small considerations from the coaching staff, such as the right to choose the music during stretching periods at training camp practices and preferred parking spaces in the players' lot.
"There's a tangible motivation. That's why we do testing and we measure guys and evaluate guys," said Woicik. "You don't play the games without keeping score. So in the off-season, we try to keep score so that we can say that this guy had a good off-season or this guy didn't do as well. And the players get into it. They like the parking spots, their pictures on the wall and the recognition." But it's not all about the perks. Among the benefits of a superior effort in the off-season conditioning program are the results the players see on the field.
"The conditioning program has helped my all-around game," said Mike Wright, a rookie free agent defensive lineman in 2005 whose strong off-season earned him an award. "It's not one particular thing, it's everything. Working out is what you put into it, and you get back what you put into it."
"I worked a lot on my speed, lost a little weight and cut my body fat percentage down," said James Sanders, a second-year safety and award winner. "For me, the off-season was about getting as explosive and as fast as possible."
Another key benefit of the program is its function as a teambuilding exercise. "It's important to build camaraderie. The program gets the guys around one another in a different kind of environment," Woicik said. "Once we get to the season they're broken up by offense, defense and even further subgroups. The off-season is the work time where guys get to know one another. You may have a quarterback running with a safety or an offensive lineman running with a defensive lineman. The players are able to get to know one another a little bit more than they do during the season when they are separated much of the time."
Davis said the program's team-building opportunities are especially important for the young players. "If you're a younger guy or a new player you get to come in and see what the system is like, what it's all about," he said. "You get to develop your core strength while also being able to watch film and be around the coaches and veteran players."
"Some of your younger players that maybe developmentally haven't reached their max, you'll see more of a progression," added Woicik. "Whereas for some of your older players, who have been training hard for a lot of years, it's about just getting back to where they have been."
Davis can attest. "I'm 33 years old and I run just as fast as I did when I first started working with Mike in New Orleans in 1997," he said. "That doesn't just happen. That's through training in Mike's program."
For some veterans, like punter Josh Miller, who played in the NFL for eight years before joining the Patriots in 2004, the program has been a fountain of youth. "Mike Woicik has probably added five years to my career," said Miller, another award winner. "When I signed here, I had 15 percent body fat and I thought I was in shape. Now I have 9.5 percent body fat and I'm lifting more than ever. I'm 36 and people don't believe it. They think I'm 25. That is all from Mike."
The nine 2006 off-season award winners are Tom Brady, Tedy Bruschi, Don Davis, Kevin Faulk, Logan Mankins, Josh Miller, James Sanders, Benjamin Watson and Mike Wright.