Patriots ignore expectations, focus on getting better
The New England Patriots don't worry about what people say about them, about how they're the favorite to win the Super Bowl. They just worry about what they do, writes Len Pasquarelli.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Depending who was standing at the interview podium in the Gillette Stadium media work room after a morning minicamp session, the New England Patriots either were acutely aware of what observers are saying about them and have embraced the heightened expectations for 2007 or they couldn't care less.
Guess into which of those camps coach Bill Belichick falls.
"It doesn't matter what people think. It doesn't matter what we think. It matters what we do," said Belichick, after his team, the chic early-line choice of a lot of NFL pundits as Super Bowl XLII favorite, finished a nearly two-hour practice.
And what the Patriots typically do at this juncture of the offseason, with nearly a month and a half before training camp commences, was evident on Tuesday. As Belichick and his staff deftly mixed new pieces with a roster that was talented enough to reach the AFC Championship Game, several things were obvious.
First, the Patriots are an enormously talented and exceedingly diverse collection, a group of players clearly capable of delivering a fourth Super Bowl title. Yeah, they are that good, or at least look that good -- and that deep -- running around in shorts and T-shirts. Second, few staffs (if any) are as good as Belichick's at providing well-rounded education to almost every player on the field.
And, finally, no matter where the New England players stand in terms of cognizance of their preseason status, the Patriots are already squarely in the spotlight. By unofficial count, there were 74 media people, a veritable convention by minicamp standards in most NFL precincts, waiting for the team to exit the field after Tuesday's session. The parking lot at the practice field overflowed.
"It's like everything we do is pretty much chronicled anyway," said fourth-year tight end Benjamin Watson. "But maybe more so this year, with all the talk that's surrounding us. But there's still a lot to do and, hey, this is just us getting ready, that's all. It lays the foundation. It's kind of like preparing for training camp, which is the next level of preparation."
So no one should read too much into the fact that Adalius Thomas, the highest-profile unrestricted free-agent acquisition on the defensive side, aligned more at inside linebacker Tuesday than out on the edge. Or that wide receiver Randy Moss apparently has worked hard to fit in, as evidenced by his attendance at the funeral for Patriots defensive end Marquise Hill last week and at the team's Monday golf tournament.
"Randy has to find his own place," quarterback Tom Brady acknowledged, essentially echoing a basic Belichick tenet.
And the Patriots work hard, on and off the field, to find the right places for all their players. So free safety Eugene Wilson takes some snaps at cornerback, his old college position. And Watson aligns in the slot, at wide receiver and at H-back, all in the same skeleton passing drill sequence. And Thomas moves all over the field, the equivalent of a football Veg-O-Matic.
There are, to be sure, a lot of square pegs on the roster. And Belichick and his staff like to use this offseason time to carve out square holes.
The consummate hybrid linebacker, now working for the ultimate Inspector Gadget coach who all but created the position, Thomas was projected by most experts as an outside 'backer. And maybe he eventually will be. For now, though, he is doing things the Patriots' way -- soaking up as much information as possible, assimilating a dizzying volume of new schemes and lining up all over the place.
"Just from what I've seen so far of this team, that old deal about 'the more you can do' holds true," said Thomas, who signed with the Patriots after spending the first seven seasons of his career with the Baltimore Ravens. "They really value players here with some diversity. But what they value more than anything, it looks like, is doing stuff the right way because that's how you win in this league. Winning just doesn't happen. You've got to work at it."
Toward that end, golden boy quarterback Brady on Tuesday afternoon recalled an incident that occurred in the days before the 2003 AFC title game against Indianapolis. Noting that his team had not punted in its first two postseason victories that year, Colts' tight end Marcus Pollard cavalierly remarked before the game against the Pats that maybe the league should simply "hand" Indianapolis the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
A bit out of character, Belichick emotionally referenced Pollard's remarks at a team meeting, then reached into his pocket and took out the Super Bowl ring the Pats claimed in 2001. "He said, 'Nobody handed me this ring. I earned it every step of the way,'" Brady recalled the coach as saying.
And so, on Tuesday, with the expectations here about as lofty as they have ever been, even after some Super Bowl title years, the Patriots began earning their way again. Like Tony Dungy of the Colts, Belichick believes in turning the page. He doesn't discuss players who aren't present -- so he tap-danced around the status of franchise cornerback Asante Samuel, who remains unsigned and has suggested he will sit out the first 10 games of the year . And Belichick definitely doesn't dwell on history.
At least not of the football variety.
There is some residual hangover, a few veterans privately conceded Tuesday, from the disappointment of having squandered a big halftime lead in last year's conference title game loss to the Colts. "The aftertaste isn't completely spit out yet," Wilson said. Even if it were, last week's drowning of Hill, a young defender whose popularity and philanthropy dwarfed his accomplishments on the field, represented an emotional setback.
But there is enough leadership here to help everyone move beyond, and to help newcomers grow into the New England mind-set.
The player from whom most Patriots take their lead, Brady spoke of being excited about the start of the season and wishing that training camp wasn't still six weeks away. And he cited the expectations "internally and externally" that people have for the Patriots in 2007. For taciturn and single-minded Belichick, though, the Tuesday start to minicamp was more about what is than what might be.
It took the New England coach and future Hall of Famer only 14 words to capture the essence of what the three-day minicamp is about. For a man who dabbles in so many combinations of players during practice, tinkering with personnel groupings and using formations and schemes liberally, he has a gift for pithiness.
Said Belichick: "Keep teaching. Keep learning. And keep being a little more prepared for training camp."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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