This summer marks the first time in many years that a full officiating crew hasn't attended and taken part in a Patriots training camp practice. However, game officials did visit Gillette Stadium earlier in camp to provide players and coaches with a demonstration of new rule changes for the 2018 season.
Thursday night, when the Patriots host the Washington Redskins in the 2018 preseason opener for both teams, referee Brad Allen and his officiating crew will call the game. Allen – one of the NFL's select full-time game officials – and down judge Jim Mello changed their flight itineraries to arrive in Foxborough earlier than planned to accommodate a separate demonstration of those rule changes to members of the media.
The one rule that seems to be receiving the most attention so far this summer is the use of helmet. Beginning this season, it is no longer legal for any player to use the top of his helmet to strike an opponent on any part of his body. While this may seem somewhat confusing and potentially open to interpretation, Allen told reporters he's watched film on hundreds of such plays this offseason and believes he and his colleagues now have a good idea of how the NFL expects them to officiate such hits.
At the same time, Allen admitted that, at least during the preseason, there could be more penalty flags thrown for this infraction before the league as a whole becomes comfortable with what is and what isn't allowed.
"Frankly, we're going to have to have the opportunity to see these plays [in live action]," he explained. "Up until now, we haven't seen these plays. The players haven't experienced this rule. In preseason, we may throw [the flag], then go back and say, 'No, this is really not what we want.' In the preseason, we want to err on the side of putting the flag on the ground and then evaluating whether or not it's correct. We want to be right by the time we get to the [regular] season.
"So, will it be subjective to some degree? I think it will," added Allen. "You have to remember that safety is a priority, but there are a number of fouls that are subjective."
One of those is the new rule regarding what constitutes a catch. Last year, the phrase "survive the ground" came up frequently, particularly when the Patriots were involved in a number of questionable rulings during the regular season and postseason, including Super Bowl LII. That language is no longer applicable when it comes to a pass being ruled a catch.
From now on, officials need to judge a pass on three main criteria: 1) if a player has control of the ball, 2) whether any part of his body makes contact with the ground in bounds, and 3) if he is then able to make "a football move."
Questionable catches will still be subject to replay review, but essentially, we'll know a catch when we see it, and this should make the officiating crews' job much easier when it comes to ruling on such plays.
"Yes and yes," Allen confirmed. "That's very perceptive."
Before Allen took questions from reporters, an 11-minute instructional video was shown to the media – the same video that NFL players and coaches watch during their briefings with the referees.
Notably, in the section regarding the new catch rule, the highlight from 2017 that was shown was Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Jesse James' touchdown catch against New England in Week 15 that was overturned because he briefly lost his grip with his right hand as he hit the ground crossing the goal line. If a play like that occurs in 2018, it will almost certainly be ruled a completed catch.
The catch rule seems fairly straightforward, but that clearly isn't the case just yet with the helmet rule. Allen was asked what sort of reaction he's seen from players who've seen the demonstration. Was there displeasure, confusion, or something else entirely?
"The players were asking questions," he revealed. "They wanted to know what they could do as professionals in order to maintain a high level of performance under the new rule. I did not personally receive either positive or negative reaction. What we got was question and concern about adapting their [tackling] skillset under the new guidelines."
"I'm just going to play, man," safety Patrick Chung remarked about the new helmet rule and how it will be officiated. "I mean, it's football. I don't play dirty anyway, so, I'm just going to continue to play my way. I don't make the calls. I just try to make plays."
Considerable cloud cover and a light breeze helped cool off the Patriots practice field for the first hour or so of Wednesday's practice – a welcome break from the stiflingly hot, humid conditions over the past couple of weeks.
Then, almost without warning, the skies opened up and heavy rains soaked the players for the remainder of the session. While the rain sent reporters scurrying for cover, it didn't seem to faze the players one bit.
"I love practicing in the rain," defensive end Deatrich Wise proclaimed later.
"We always check the weather. Today was a little bit of a shock. We didn't see that in the forecast," safety/co-captain Devin McCourty acknowledged. "But guys here are so used to, not matter what the weather is, we're in it. Once it started raining, no one said anything. We just kept practicing.
"I was talking to my brother [Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty] and he was like, 'Man, I've been on teams where we'd go inside the bubble once this happened.' But here, no one thinks that because we never do it."
With no joint practice sessions this summer, Thursday's visit by the Washington Redskins for the preseason opener at Gillette will be the first time the 2018 Patriots will square off against an opposing team. These past few days, New England players have agreed that they're anxious to play someone new.
And just because the results of the next four games won't count in the standings, that doesn't mean there isn't a lot riding on the outcome, at least for some players who are battling for jobs.
"I just tell them at the end of the day to remember it's football," advised McCourty. "You're rookies, you're young, you're going to make mistakes. Play hard. Go out there and have fun playing football. Don't get caught up in so much coaching that you leave the game and feel like you didn't even play like you're used to playing.
"If you're here, you're usually here for a reason, because you've played good football before. Once you get out in these games, you want to showcase your talent, showcase obviously the coaching you've been getting, but showcase the work you've put in all through your life to get to this point."
Buy: Eric Decker – With just three days of work under his belt, the veteran receiver has made a positive first impression.
Sell: Mother Nature – Extreme heat and humidity finally broke, only to yield to extreme downpours. A return to a more seasonable climate is long overdue.
Play of the Day: Despite suiting up in full pads, the Patriots essentially conducted an up-tempo walkthrough. As such, there wasn't any one particular play that stood out.
Quote of the Day: "We don't have the yellow flag. Sometimes I wish we did, because I'd throw a flag on them." ~ Safety Patrick Chung joking about referees and the new rule changes