It's become a summertime tradition for the Patriots to conduct an in-stadium practice session for season ticket members and Foxborough residents on the Monday night following the first weekend of training camp. When schedules align, it often coincides with the induction of that year's Patriots Hall of Fame class, making the evening a truly prime-time spectacle to help kick off a new season of football in New England.
In a number of ways, though, this latest event was a night of firsts.
Prior to the fifth training session of 2019 training camp getting underway, Rodney Harrison and Leon Gray became the newest members of the Patriots Hall of Fame, but a brief thunder-and-lightning storm accompanied a downpour that soaked the stadium – the first time such inclement weather showed up as an uninvited guest to the annual induction ceremony.
And for the first time in quite a while, the Patriots practiced on a grass field inside Gillette Stadium, the result of an international preseason soccer match here between European powers A.C. Milan and Benfica a day earlier. The heavy rains looked initially like they might not help matters when it came time for the Patriots to practice on the temporary sod surface installed just a few days ago. Yet, the sun soon returned to brighten the spirits of everyone in attendance and the field conditions, while not ideal from two straight days of soccer games (the New England Revolution played on Saturday night), weren't much of an issue.
"It's different," defensive lineman Lawrence Guy remarked about the somewhat soggy grass playing field, "but it doesn't matter what you play on anymore – you know, different stadiums have turf, some have grass. Coming out here and seeing the grass is pretty cool, but we know we're going to get the [artificial] turf back soon."
In pre-practice comments to reporters, head coach Bill Belichick revealed that Monday's workout would emphasize "situational football" – a concentration on down-and-distance plays and other specific circumstances that might arise in a game – in what was essentially a glorified walkthrough. Players wore helmets and jerseys, but no other padding. As a result, there was no contact in drills and team periods and plays were run at half- to three-quarter speed most of the night, which lasted about an hour and 10 minutes.
"When we come out here," Guy added, "it's not a laid-back practice, but we're coming out here to improve ourselves from what we saw on our film yesterday – communication, technique, footwork, hands. It's never a relaxed practice. We're always trying to gain an advantage on the next day to continue to move forward."
Attendance among the members of the 91-man roster (New England has an exemption for international player Jakob Johnson this summer) was similar to what it's been the past couple of days. WR Julian Edelman and rookie o-lineman Yodny Cajuste remain on the non-football injury list (NFI) and are not ready to suit up, although Edelman did appear on the field Monday as an observer, just as he has for the past four days. Safety Nate Ebner, wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, o-lineman Cole Croston, and rookie defensive back Ken Webster are still on the physically unable to perform list (PUP), but for the first time this camp, Croston made an appearance as a spectator on the sideline.
Meanwhile, wide receiver Dontrelle Inman and rookie defensive lineman Byron Cowart didn't take part. The latter is apparently dealing with an injury sustained on Day 2 of camp. It's unclear what the reason is for Inman's absence. He wasn't on the field Sunday, either.
A few hours before practice began, ESPN reported that offensive lineman J.J. Dielman had decided to retire just a handful of days after signing with the Patriots. This makes him the third o-lineman to retire from New England this season (Jared Veldheer and Brian Schwenke did so previously).
Progress for Patrick
Less than a week after breaking his right arm during Super Bowl LIII, safety Patrick Chung underwent surgery to repair the injury. A few weeks thereafter, he had another procedure to fix a lingering shoulder issue that plagued him throughout the 2018 season.
Since training camp opened last Thursday, Chung has been participating fully, albeit in a red (non-contact) jersey. He went back to his normal blue practice jersey Monday night. For the veteran who'll turn 32 next month, this represents a step in the right direction, as Chung sat out the spring practices while he continued to recuperate.
"At least I'm out here," he noted earlier in camp. "It's just good to be back, man. Just working with the guys and shaking some of the rust off. It's go-time now… a new season. Whether you win or you lose [the Super Bowl], you've got to come back because you can win it and then not even make the playoffs the next season. It's just all brand new, a whole new team, whole new everything, so, we've just got to kind of start over and just get back to it."
After five days of training camp, rookie Damien Harris has thus far made a positive impression. The 2019 third-round draft choice from the University of Alabama has displayed surprisingly smooth receiving skills for a running back and was involved quite a bit in the rushing drills, including the always intense goal-line situations, during this past weekend's two full-padded practices.
"Every day, I just come out here with the objective to get better," he told reporters after one recent session. "There are always areas to improve. I just want to be the best player I can be, learn as much as I can, be a sponge from the older guys, the coaches. Any pieces of information or knowledge that I can get, that's what I'm looking to do so I can help this team be successful."
Harris' college head coach, Nick Saban, is frequently compared by football observers to New England's Bill Belichick, both because of their temperaments, coaching styles, and success on the gridiron. The two men also share a personal, as well as a professional bond.
Asked by a reporter to compare the two coaches, Harris offered a response both humorous and quintessentially Sabanite/Belichickian.
"Similar, but different. There's some similarities, some differences," he observed. "Coach Saban is Coach Saban; Coach Belichick is Coach Belichick."