Over the course of the regular season, former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss will break down each upcoming New England game, as they did in 2009. With the Patriots starting training camp Thursday, their latest conversation shines the spotlight on various aspects of the team as players prepare for another season.
Mike: Great to be back, Tedy. You've been through this drill 13 times in terms of preparing for a season. So what would you be thinking right now as you were days away from reporting to training camp?
Tedy: The last couple of weeks before training camp were always a conflict for me. I wanted to be on vacation with my family, enjoying the time with the kids. We would spend time on the Cape, I'd have my toes in the sand, eating fried clams at Sir Cricket's. But my mind was conflicted to the point where I also felt like I had to be doing something to get ready -- running, lifting weights. I searched out any local schools that had a football field and found Cape Cod Regional Tech, and [my wife] Heidi, my sons and me would go there with a long measuring tape and set up the conditioning test. We'd measure 50 yards and time me with a stopwatch. My sons would run the conditioning test with me. I knew training camp was coming and I'd be feeling that anxiety. You're on the Cape, enjoying the beach, but there was always that thought in the mind: "I need to be doing something." You knew you were about to be in lockdown in 10, nine, eight, seven days -- you'd be counting them down.
Mike: We hear a lot about the conditioning test. What was the conditioning test for you while playing for the Patriots?
Tedy: The first thing you do when training camp starts is walk into the facility and search for Mike Woicik, the strength and conditioning coach. He's usually there standing by the scale. You stand on that scale and weigh in, and that is the first sign to the coaches and your fellow teammates how much work you put in. If you're right on the number, and look to be in shape, that's a sign that you put in your offseason work and are ready to go. If you are three or four pounds overweight, I always felt like that sends a message that you didn't put in the extra work and came unprepared. As a teammate, you'd be asking those players "What were you doing? You didn't know training camp was right around the corner?" That was especially true for the guys who were 10 pounds overweight. You'd look at those guys as lazy. You'd walk by the sauna and see an exercise bike in there, and those players with sweat suits on, riding to try to drop that weight before running the conditioning test. A lot of those guys would go out and cramp up or pull a muscle in the conditioning run and usually wouldn't pass the test.
Mike: I'm sure Bill Belichick wasn't thrilled in those instances and let his thoughts be known.
Tedy: Coach Belichick always told us a story before we'd go on that last break after the mandatory minicamp in June. It was about Bernie Kosar. The conditioning test is a series of sprints, and depending on what position you play, it could be 40, 50 or 60 yards. The quarterbacks had to do 50-yard sprints and he'd talk about how Bernie Kosar was one of the slowest quarterbacks in the history of the NFL, but every year he passed the test. He'd tell us if Bernie Kosar could pass that test, anyone in the room could pass it. You could train specifically to pass the conditioning test by running the test two to three times a week in the last few weeks before training camp.
Mike: Could you detail what the conditioning test was for you?
Tedy: My test was three sets of ten 50-yard sprints. You had to complete each sprint in seven seconds, and you had 30 seconds in between each sprint. In between the three sets of ten 50-yard sprints, you got a break of three minutes.
Mike: So how did you prepare for that?
Tedy: I would shorten the break in between sets to one-and-a-half minutes or two minutes. So then when it came time to the real test, and you had the three minutes of rest between sets, you were totally recovered. You get to know the pace. You have to control yourself not to go out too fast. It's possible to run a 50-yard sprint in six seconds, but there is no reason to. The time was seven seconds for me and I made sure I made every single one in seven seconds on the nose. The coaches only want to see you PASS the test. The time for proving your worth will come during training camp practices. The first two sets of sprints can be passed by almost any professional athlete. That third set shows how much work you put in.
Mike: Did you ever fail the conditioning test?
Tedy: Never. You do see some exceptions, players who seem to be in good condition but still struggle with it. Antowain Smith is one who comes to mind. He was 230-235 pounds and played running back. So his conditioning run was a bit different: He had the 60-yard sprints, to be completed in eight seconds each. Having a big man like that, running with defensive backs and running backs that were 30 pounds lighter than him -- that's tough to pass the test, no matter how much work you put in. You're going to struggle on that seventh, eighth and ninth repetition in the third set. One year I remember Lawyer Milloy and Ty Law holding both of his arms while running with him, trying to help him pass. Eugene Wilson was another guy who had some difficulty with it. I remember his last rep, he barely made the eight-second cutoff and dove for the finish line. We were all yelling "Give it to him! Give it to him!"
Mike: Great stories, Tedy. Let's look toward this 2010 Patriots team and talk about some of the key issues you see as this team prepares for training camp.
Tedy: There is the obvious elephant in the room, with Logan Mankins, and you have Wes Welker and his recovery. Welker has shown an accelerated recovery in the offseason, which we saw with his participation, which was limited, in minicamps. Obviously, he is ahead of schedule. But I think it would be a huge mistake for him to be practicing with the team at the start of training camp. There is no need for Welker to practice right now. The more weeks they give him to recover and get stronger, the better it will be for the entire team. Offensively, he is what makes this passing offense go. You want to focus on having him ready by Week 1, but I think the toughest obstacle is containing Welker's mentality. If you ask him, I'm sure he'd want to practice and play right now. I think you have to pull the reins back on him and ease him in.
Mike: Still, just to be talking about that possibility with Welker, it is remarkable. I think this obviously strengthens the possibility that he could be ready for the season opener, Sept. 12 against the Bengals. What are your thoughts on the Mankins situation?
Tedy: I don't see any improvement with his "holdout." I don't remember anyone more serious about holding out than Logan is. His comments in the offseason were very strong and Logan doesn't speak very often, so when he speaks he means the words he says. So when he says he is going to hold out until he gets something that he feels is fair, I believe him. The longer Logan Mankins holds out, the less effective this offense will be. I have my reservations about Nick Kaczur at left guard. He has been a tackle his entire career, and moving down inside it's an entirely different world. You have to deal with linebackers in space, zero-technique nose guards, different blocking combinations, different angles. That can take some time for a tackle to get used to. Not only that, but Nick Kaczur has the body of an offensive tackle. He is tall, his arms are very long, and when you get into those 1-on-1 confrontations in the center-guard area, that offensive-tackle body can sometimes be a detriment. As an inside linebacker, the taller and longer an offensive guard was I felt like I could get leverage on him, get my helmet under his chin, get a better pop on him. With Kaczur, the more he plays guard, the more you're also affecting his development at tackle. So I think the Mankins "holdout" has a ripple effect across the entire offensive line.
Mike: Tom Brady has also been a hot topic of late, but it looks like some clarity was provided when ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Sunday night that a contract extension was "within reach."
Tedy: You look at him last year and he had a solid year statistically. You'd expect the same this year, if not more. Is he disappointed about not having a contract extension? It's possible, but I'd expect him to keep that internal. He won't hold out. He will be out there practicing, doing his job, helping the team win games. If there are any contractual disagreements with the organization, I don't think they'll be mentioned by him.
Mike: The receiving group looks deep as well. It starts with Randy Moss and Wes Welker, and then there should be a noteworthy competition as the depth chart unfolds.
Tedy: This could be a best-case scenario with the wide receivers when it comes to Randy Moss. He said this very well could be his last year with the New England Patriots, and he's talked about how he wants to play longer. He knows if he wants to get another contract, he has to play well. That's good for Randy Moss and it's good for the New England Patriots. I'd look for Julian Edelman to make progress on what he did last year, in that Welker role when Welker isn't there. The more reps he gets at it, the stronger the depth will be. I view Brandon Tate as a wild card. He's a guy everyone is excited to see, to see what he can do on the field with an entire offseason under his belt. Can he be someone Brady can count on? That's something to look for.
Mike: Before moving on to the defense, any other thoughts on the offense?
Tedy: The running back spot is one issue that I haven't seen talked about much. You see the names and the depth -- Laurence Maroney, Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris, Fred Taylor. You figure they are happy with the running-back-by-committee approach, but based on last year, you have to ask: "How effective is Laurence Maroney going to be? How long are Sammy Morris and Fred Taylor going to last?" I'd only want to see Kevin Faulk on third down and passing downs, because he's one of the best in the league at it. But if he's taking snaps in a more traditional-type role, that means the other three aren't performing or are hurt. This is a make-or-break year for Laurence Maroney. I know fans have been fed up with him at times. I have too. But you have to think this is a contract year for him. He is looking to prove a lot of people wrong. You hope you're going to get a stellar performance from him over the 16-game schedule. Sammy and Freddy can still get the job done; it's just a matter of whether they can stay healthy. I'm also excited to see the tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. They haven't had a physical specimen like Gronkowski in a long time. The deal with him is whether he can pick up the intricate Patriots offense, with all the multiple formations, shifts, motions and adjustments. Hernandez is basically a wide receiver in a tight end body. He runs routes better than some Patriots receivers. I might draft him in my fantasy league.
Mike: I didn't realize you played fantasy football. Have you played regularly?
Tedy: This is actually my first year.
Mike: A rookie general manager. Nervous for the draft?
Tedy: A little bit, actually [laughing]. I'm picking eighth. I'm going to try two leagues and feel it out this year.
Mike: Well, one thing they don't worry about as much in fantasy football is defense, but let's focus on that now when it comes to the 2010 Patriots.
Tedy: I think this defense has a lot to prove based on the way they were manhandled by the Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs last year. One of the big questions is whether Gerard Warren can be that five-technique defensive end that the run defense can count on. We saw the Ravens run away from Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork, coming down over and over again on Jarvis Green and Mike Wright. The Patriots saw that, moved Wilfork to end, and then the Ravens responded by running up the middle. That was an example of a team exploiting a weakness in the 3-4 defense, and I think that five-technique defensive end opposite Ty Warren was the weakest link along the defensive line. If you don't have a D-lineman that can anchor and take on blocks in this defense the way the Patriots play it, the linebackers will be helpless against linemen who have unabated angles on the second level, and the outside linebackers will have too much space to defend. In the 3-4 defense, the most valuable players are those guys up front. If Gerard Warren, Ron Brace, Damione Lewis, Mike Wright, etc., can't be that one guy to solidify that three-man front, it's going to be a long year.
Mike: That will certainly be something to watch for in training camp, as that was a hole along the defensive line that was created by the Richard Seymour trade. There is also a chance for a pretty significant changeup at linebacker.
Tedy: I think the combination of Jerod Mayo, Gary Guyton, Brandon Spikes and Tyrone McKenzie is a good group at inside linebacker. Look for all four players to get experience at both spots -- the "Mike" and the "Will." It's vital that the inside linebackers have experience at both inside spots. The reads and responsibilities can be very different and it's very easy for an offense to flip a formation to make the linebackers change their assignments to the other position. Think about a tight end that shifts from one side of the formation to another. If the linebackers don't move, the "Mike" now becomes the "Will" and vice versa. This is a tactic used by offenses to exploit young linebacking corps. At outside linebacker, the Patriots coaches are hoping that Jermaine Cunningham will be the answer on one side. Tully Banta-Cain can get it done on the other. Derrick Burgess, Pierre Woods, Rob Ninkovich and Shawn Crable all have their individual question marks about whether they can consistently contribute over a 16-game season. So the development of Cunningham will be one to watch closely throughout training camp.
Mike: The defensive backfield also will have a different look. It's a younger look.
Tedy: I think the safety position may be the strongest on the defense with Brandon Meriweather, Brandon McGowan, Patrick Chung and James Sanders. Out of those four, you have four solid players possibly starting for you over the course of the year. Let's see if Meriweather can build upon his Pro Bowl season. Patrick Chung is a player that I think picked it up very quickly last year. He has the desire to be a good player and is starting to realize what it takes to be a true professional. I think he has tremendous upside. At cornerback, I feel confident with Leigh Bodden on one side. Out of Darius Butler and Devin McCourty, they should be able to find someone they feel comfortable starting opposite Bodden. You need three good corners to play good defense in this league. With Bodden, you have one. If Butler makes positive strides, you possibly have two. You're also hoping a rookie can contribute. That's a lot to hope for, but you still have a chance to have three good corners.
Mike: Let's wrap this up, Tedy. A lot of ground has been covered. One of the final thoughts that comes to mind is that Bill Belichick has seven double sessions scheduled for the first seven days of training camp. That's a tough stretch for the players in which they will be getting themselves acclimated to contact. I remember Belichick saying he'd still be thinking of the Ravens' loss all through the offseason, and the only time he'd truly begin to start turning the page is in training camp, because that's the first time there would be contact again, which is when the team can really get better.
Tedy: The most exciting part of training camp for me this year will be when the New Orleans Saints come to town. The teams will practice together two days before their preseason game. I think that's exactly what this young team needs. If there is anything that Coach Belichick wants this year, it's to see which players are going to be competitive. Those two days versus the world champion Saints will be the perfect time to see what he has in some of these young players. It's the first time the Patriots have scrimmaged another team in a very long time. When another team comes on your practice field, that's when your pride should kick in. The thought should be, "There is no way we're letting these guys have their way with us today; not on our practice field." During those two days, there is going to be a lot to learn about the competitive edge of some of these players.
Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th anniversary team. Mike Reiss is the Patriots blogger for ESPNBoston.com. You can reach Mike by leaving a message in his mailbag.