Perhaps it was fitting that a steady rain fell during both practice sessions as the Patriots opened their mandatory mini-camp on Thursday. If any players or coaches had any lingering effects from the post-Super Bowl afterglow, the rain served as a splash of reality for everyone that a new season was underway, and not one of the amazing accomplishments of 2001 will have any impact on 2002.
That's the message Head Coach Bill Belichick has been trying to drill into his players minds for the better part of four months since Adam Vinatieri knocked his game-winning field goal through the uprights to make the Patriots champions. The players have one remaining reminder of last year's success – Sunday night's ceremony in Boston where they'll receive their coveted Super Bowl rings.
After that, it will be busy as usual around the new CMGI Field. Judging from the thoughts of many veterans, the words have been received loud and clear.
"[The ring] is going to be the final shebang," center Damien Woody said. "I think guys have done a pretty good job of moving on and starting to focus on the season. That's what we need to do. If we start dwelling on last season we'll be back where we came from."
Linebacker Tedy Bruschi agreed: "We had a simple formula last year: day-to-day, week-to-week and game-to-game. We're going to implement that same formula this year. It's mini-camp now and then finishing the offseason program. That's how we're approaching this. One thing at a time and things will take care of themselves."
Belichick, conducting his first press conference in the new media room at CMGI Field, had a simple response to a question asking if the players had put the Super Bowl behind them.
"I hope so," Belichick said. "It's all about our aggression and passion for achieving success this year. Why would our approach be any different?"
Although the approach may remain the same, things will surely be different. The Patriots will no longer be the surprise of the NFL. The underdog role they wore so well during the playoffs won't fit as nicely with the expensive jewelry around the player's fingers and the fancy banner flying above CMGI Field. The Patriots will go from the hunter to the hunted, and with that comes new challenges.
"We're not camouflaged anymore," safety Lawyer Milloy correctly stated. "Everybody knows who we are. That's going to make our jobs that much tougher, but we're going to be ready."
But despite the team's newfound celebrity status, there remains an air of skepticism around the league and it hasn't gone unnoticed in the Patriots luxurious new locker room. Several members of the St. Louis Rams were quoted recently as saying they basically blew the Super Bowl and had the teams met 10 times, they would have come out on top in nine of them.
"We heard all of that," Woody said. "But there can't be too much magic to beating pretty much the three best teams throughout the whole season in three consecutive weeks. I don't consider that a fluke. I just consider that as us playing better football at the time. We'll take the ring and move on about our business."
Judging from the team's strong turnout for offseason workouts (between 90-95 percent attendance) it appears the first part of Belichick test has been passed. Only wideout Donald Hayes (excused for personal reasons and expected to return on Friday) and oft-injured linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer ("I haven't spoken to him in three months," Belichick said) were missing from the double-session practices.
The remaining 79 players were put to work in business-like fashion and appeared to be a focused group. Tom Brady bounced from drill-to-drill with a confidence commensurate with a Super Bowl MVP. Despite the short turnaround from the postseason to mini-camp, the players are ready to go.
"I was one of those firm believers that we needed to get the big name players in here to match the big name players we had and that's what it was all about to me," Milloy said. "But that's not it. The way we did it and the circumstances, 9/11 and us being the Patriots – there was a lot of irony involved.
"We touched a lot of people, including myself. I couldn't have painted a better picture. I have a whole new attitude about the way I approach the game of football. It's not all about myself as an individual. It's all about team like all the coaches you have growing up always say. The guys in here all know that and we're ready to prove it again."
Something tells us they're not lying.