ATLANTA – Unlike the spring, summer, regular season, and playoffs, most media are not allowed to attend and report on team practice sessions during Super Bowl Week. The NFL, in cooperation with the Professional Football Writers of America (PFWA), assigns pool reporters to disseminate relevant information to other media outlets about what transpired at the NFC and AFC teams' workouts, which began Wednesday here in Georgia.
Veteran NFL journalist Jenny Vrentas, who currently writes for Sports Illustrated and its MMQB website, received the assignment to cover Patriots practices this week in Atlanta. According to Vrentas, the Patriots wore helmets and shells (smaller, lighter shoulder pads) for a nearly 90-minute session at the Georgia Tech indoor practice facility in downtown Atlanta.
Until today, New England's 53-man roster had been blessed with perfect attendance, health, and participation at practices back in Foxborough in recent weeks. Today in Atlanta, however, defensive tackle Malcom Brown suffered a calf injury that limited him in practice.
"[Brown] did some stuff early in practice today," head coach Bill Belichick told the pool reporter. "Everybody else was good to go… We are way ahead of where we normally are on Wednesday, but we are trying to keep it as a Wednesday-Thursday-Friday and get into our normal routine, which has worked pretty well for us this year."
The pool report stated that quarterback Tom Brady "looked sharp" and "celebrated one successful play by raising his arms to make the touchdown signal." That seemed to support the assertions of many Patriots coaches who remarked late Wednesday afternoon that they were pleased with both the atmosphere and what the players accomplished in their first practice of Super Bowl Week in Atlanta.
"It's good to be on the field… Oh, it was great," declared offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. "I think the highlight of the whole thing was seeing [right guard and Georgia Tech alum Shaq] Mason's picture on the front of the building as you drive in. [His teammates] were all over him about that, but he's an All-American here, man, a great player. It's a special thing for Shaq and we're all happy for him."
"I thought the facilities were great," linebacker coach/defensive play caller Brian Flores agreed. "It was fun. We all got on the bus, we drive up and see a big picture of Shaq Mason. It's good to be around the group at practice. Solid practice today... I think the guys are excited. There was energy at practice."
"Always good to get the first practice in. We're acclimated to the facility now. The facility's great. The hospitality was great over there," raved offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. "There's a different energy once you get down here to the practice. We know what Sunday is and we're getting closer and closer. When you go out there at practice, the urgency, the intensity to get everything right is at an extremely high level. I thought that's what today was."
"The guys are – they're in it. They're feeling it," running backs coach Ivan Fears emphasized with a chuckle. "The big thing now for us is not to do much pushing, because they're already to go. We actually have to [rein them in]. The game's not for four more days. But they were into it. They were mentally sharp. So, it was a good day."
The Patriots will return to the Tech campus on Thursday and Friday for their final practices before Super Bowl LIII kicks off on Sunday evening.
Kraft reflects on 25 years of ownership
Tuesday night, Patriots Chairman/CEO Robert Kraft and team president Jonathan Kraft took a few moments to reflect on the unprecedented success they've enjoyed since taking ownership of the franchise 25 years ago.
Appearing on NBC Sports Boston, the father-son duo addressed a number of topics, including how it felt to see some 35,000 Patriots fans descend on Gillette Stadium this past Sunday to help send the team off to Atlanta for their latest Super Bowl.
"Really they started lining up at 2:30 a.m., and when you think about it, they really saw the players and coaches for 20 minutes," remarked the elder Kraft. "The gates didn't open until 8, and we saw this sense of community and commitment. We just pinch ourselves. It's so special, the kind of support we've gotten from the fans. We're passionate about trying to do our part and setting the organization up with the ability to win, and we're lucky to have the people we have in place."
Despite cultivating a global base of Patriots fans over the past quarter-century, Kraft also acknowledged that many football enthusiasts might have developed "Patriots fatigue" from seeing New England reach the biggest game so often.
"Seventeen years ago [against the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, we were Cinderella – and I understand it, and if I wasn't a fan of the Patriots, I'd feel the same way," he added. "And you know what? To all those people, we hope we're going to make you keep feeling that way for quite a while."
On Wednesday at his annual Super Bowl Week press conference, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell spoke glowingly about the Kraft family and their stewardship of the Patriots since assuming control in 1994.
"We struggled going back to the' 80s in New England with a stadium, with potential relocation of the franchise, and that all changed when Robert, Jonathan, and the Kraft family bought that team. It changed because he brought that leadership, that passion as a fan, the incredible business acumen that he has. He got a world-class stadium built. He's built a world-class organization that has had unparalleled success of the past 20 years, 25 years.
And that's a tribute to the Kraft family. They are extraordinary not only in the local market – where I think they understand their fans, they've created incredible experiences, they're innovative – but I also can't think of many owners that have been as involved, as impactful on league-level matters. Robert and Jonathan both serve on an array of committees, they're engaged in league matters, and that made a huge difference. I can say that personally as commissioner.
Latest on Gordon
This week in Atlanta, NESN.com reported that wide receiver Josh Gordon is seeking treatment for substance abuse at an in-patient facility in Florida. Initially, the report claimed that the Patriots are footing the bill for it, but later issued a correction. Apparently, Gordon's treatment is being covered the NFL Players Association (the union which represents the league's athletes).
Though Gordon technically remains on New England's roster, he is ineligible to take part in Super Bowl LIII while serving an indefinite NFL suspension that began in December. The report also stated that "the suspension was triggered by diluted drug test samples," but that it's still possible Gordon could eventually return to the New England if the NFL reinstates him.
Asked about Gordon's situation on Wednesday afternoon, Goodell told reporters he hasn't spoken to the player since the suspension began, but remarked, "He's working at it. He understands what he has to do. ... And this is well beyond football. This is for his life."
Meanwhile, the Patriots have not made any official public comments specifically related to the NESN.com report, but Jonathan Kraft shared his thoughts Tuesday night on Gordon the person, calling him "a very good kid."
"This wasn't a troublemaker in the locker room," he emphasized. "Especially in our place, you have to be somebody that's smart, that's committed week-in and week-out to understanding what's going to be asked of you mentally, as well as being willing to work physically, and then being selfless. That doesn't describe everybody on every football team, and our team took to Josh very quickly because he had those attributes.
"Unfortunately he had some personal demons... As a person and as a teammate, he was beloved in the locker room. And I'm sure if you ask guys this week, they would tell you they wish he was here with us. He was not a guy that was disruptive or a problem."
Gurley over Gronk
Thankfully, it's just a video game.
Last night, tight end Rob Gronkowski, representing the Patriots, squared off against Rams running back Todd Gurley in a Madden NFL 19 Super Bowl LIII preview.
During the annual "Xbox Sessions: Game Before The Game" event here in downtown Atlanta, Gronk wasn't quite on his game, throwing three INTs and missing an extra point in his 21-6 defeat.