FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Now in his 37th season, Bill Belichick owns the distinction of having the most NFL experience among current head coaches. That gives him a unique perspective on the evolution of the NFL.
“It’s changed through the years, a lot of things are different from when I started coaching, on a lot of levels -- players, technology, the equipment we use," he said. "That’s the way it is for all of us. Bob Dylan talked about that 50 years ago."
For Belichick and his fellow coaches, Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” is a perfect theme song for the 2011 season.
Coaches must adjust to new rules as part of the new collective bargaining agreement, which means there are no more two-a-day practices, fewer full-pad practices and expanded training-camp rosters. And when it comes to Belichick’s New England Patriots club, which he leads for a 12th season, another year has brought unexpected change.
Few saw the acquisitions of controversial defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth and high-profile wide receiver Chad Ochocinco coming. Their arrivals made the start of 2011 training camp different from the norm in New England.
Usually the focus would be squarely on quarterback Tom Brady as camp opened, but in this unusual year, the NFL’s 2010 Most Valuable Player was on the back burner as he returned from January surgery on his right foot.
Indeed, things have changed.
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. How does Haynesworth fit in? All eyes were on Haynesworth when he took the field for the first time July 31, and he didn’t disappoint.
The crowd cheered his arrival, which he acknowledged with a wave (almost like a baseball pitcher tipping his cap). Then he dominated a running drill. On the first play, he exploded through the line to blow up the play, which led to an eruption from the crowd. Haynesworth had a few other disruptive plays.
“It's going to be awesome. It's a refresher, and it kind of revived me, playing football again,” said Haynesworth, who was acquired for a fifth-round draft choice after two tumultuous seasons with the Redskins.
Haynesworth’s arrival could change the way the Patriots, who used a 3-4 alignment about 40 percent of the time last season, play defense. There have been more traditional four-man lines used in training camp, with linemen attacking more rather than controlling two gaps. Haynesworth would line up at tackle next to Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork in that type of plan.
The Patriots have managed Haynesworth’s health closely in camp, keeping him out of practice since Aug. 3. Although the reason Haynesworth is not practicing is not clear -- speculation is it’s simply maintenance of his troublesome knee -- Belichick doesn’t sound concerned.
"I think Albert has been great since he's been here,” he told WEEI sports radio Aug. 15. “He's worked hard. He's done more than really what we've asked him to do. He's put in a lot of extra time and a lot of extra effort to get back on the field, to study, to catch up on things from a playbook standpoint that's he a little behind on."
As for Haynesworth’s off-field issues, owner Robert Kraft explained how the organization developed a comfort level in acquiring him.
“I met with him, and I like the guy,” Kraft said. “He didn't come here for the money. He came here to be part of a team and win [and] I think in some ways to improve his reputation. So it's like a lot of meetings I have with these guys, I found him to be genuine and sincere. Now I hope he gets out on the field and does his thing.”
Haynesworth agreed to restructure his contract to consummate the trade. His new deal calls for him to earn a base salary of $1.5 million this season (he can earn more in incentives) before the salary spikes to $6.7 million in 2012. There was no signing bonus as part of the pact, making it a low-risk acquisition for the Patriots.
2. Will Ochocinco conform to the Patriot Way? On his first day on the practice field, Ochocinco tweeted, “It’s 1 thing to jump and be able to land on 2 feet but I had no idea I was landing in Heaven.”
He has quickly integrated himself into the mix, lining up in two-receiver packages with Wes Welker. Veteran Deion Branch joined the mix in three-wide looks.
Although there has been a higher-than-expected total of dropped passes, things have otherwise been smooth as Ochocinco has made the transition from Cincinnati to New England. The biggest challenges have been adjusting to offensive terminology that isn’t numbers-based (like the Bengals) and on-field communication with Brady through various signals.
“Once we’re on the field, there is no talking. I just look in his eyes and that’s it and that’s how we communicate,” said Ochocinco, who restructured his contract and received a $4.5 million signing bonus and base salaries of $1 million in 2011, $3 million in 2012 and $3 million in 2013. “That’s what I like about it here. [It’s] really, really cool.”
Patriots coaches and players have cited Ochocinco’s work ethic and passion for football on a daily basis, with some players laughing at the fun he has had off the field, which included attending a Red Sox/Yankees game and sitting in the front row along the third-base line, requesting a group hug from reporters and announcing that he would be living with a fan who had an Internet connection and Xbox for the first few weeks of the season.
In a classy move, second-year tight end Aaron Hernandez gave up his No. 85 for Ochocinco when the trade was consummated, the Patriots giving up fifth- and sixth-round draft choices in the move. Hernandez didn’t receive anything in return for the jersey swap, which set a positive tone.
3. Can Patriots get over playoff hump? Few would argue the Patriots aren’t top contenders for the Super Bowl. But those who don’t put them atop the list can make a strong case by pointing to their last three playoff games.
Feb. 3, 2008: Giants 17, Patriots 14. With the chance to close out their perfect season, the Patriots fall just short.
Jan. 10, 2010: Ravens 33, Patriots 14. A stunning home blowout in the wild-card round of the playoffs in which the Ravens stomped all over the Pats.
Jan. 16, 2011: Jets 28, Patriots 21. Having earned the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, the Patriots had a chance to bury the Jets early, but two first-quarter miscues halted the momentum. The Jets built confidence and stunned the Pats in the divisional round.
Simply put, the Patriots won’t be able to answer one of their biggest questions for at least five months.
Saying goodbye to veteran tight end Alge Crumpler. The Patriots were so pleased with the addition of Crumpler last season, and the role he played in mentoring 2010 draft picks Rob Gronkowski and Hernandez, they named him a captain a few weeks into the season.
Crumpler’s steadying presence in the locker room was considered key in righting one of the team’s trouble areas from 2009 -- a fractured locker room.
So it was surprising when the team released him a few days into training camp, turning the position over to Gronkowski (10 TDs in 2010), Hernandez and either rookie Lee Smith (fifth-round pick out of Marshall) or Will Yeatman (rookie free agent out of Maryland).
Crumpler played 53 percent of the offensive snaps last season, contributing mostly in the running game. Only three other offensive skill-position players were on the field more.
Brace is a 2009 second-round draft choice out of Boston College who is close to hitting a fork in the road of his NFL career.
For the second year in a row, he has opened camp on a reserve list, not ready to practice. With the team releasing longtime starter Ty Warren, the opportunity was there for Brace (6-foot-3, 330 pounds) to rise up the depth chart, but he hasn’t been able to seize the opportunity.
Meanwhile, the coaching staff seems to be sending a message to Meriweather, a two-time Pro Bowl safety. Meriweather played the entire first half of the preseason opener, even though the club’s other Pro Bowl players -- cornerback Devin McCourty, linebacker Jerod Mayo and Wilfork -- did not suit up for the game.
The team also offered free-agent safety Dashon Goldson a contract before Goldson re-signed with the 49ers, while Meriweather’s practice reps of late have been split with second-year player Sergio Brown.
Great competition at backup quarterback between third-year man Brian Hoyer and rookie Ryan Mallett (third round, 74th overall). Hoyer has been the No. 2 the last two seasons after making the club as a rookie free agent out of Michigan State, and he has solid command of the complex offense. Meanwhile, Mallett’s arm strength and work ethic are notable. He often stays late after practice, working with offensive assistant George Godsey on the finer points of the position (e.g., footwork).
It has been a common occurrence to see Mallett carrying the shoulder pads of Tom Brady and Hoyer off the field after practice. Some humble pie for the highly touted signal-caller from Arkansas.
Belichick gets involved in a drill in which the goal is for quarterbacks to maintain their concentration and perfect their footwork while under duress, and Belichick creates that duress by firing a blocking pad at them. Belichick has cranked Hoyer and Mallett in the head. No 15-yard penalties for that in practice.
A lot of defensive linemen in camp. Counting hybrids, the Patriots have 20 in camp entering their second preseason game, and Belichick acknowledged to Sirius XM NFL radio that the team will probably keep more defensive linemen than linebackers this year.
Second-round draft choices Ras-I Dowling (cornerback, 33rd overall) and Shane Vereen (running back, 56th overall) pulled up with hamstrings issues after just one practice, and they haven’t practiced since. Both signed contracts late -- this could be filed under the “lockout effect.” When Vereen was on the field, his speed stood out.
Second-year receiver Taylor Price, whose chance to break through for a top spot at receiver was made more challenging by the acquisition of Ochocinco, is stating his case. He has had a solid camp and was the star of the preseason opener (5 catches, 105 yards and a TD). He said his next step is developing the trust of Brady that he’ll always be in the right spot. Right now, he looks like a solid No. 4 option.
The Patriots struggled to generate a pass rush off the edge in 2010. Veteran defensive ends Mark Anderson and Andre Carter have been solid in that area to this point, providing what looks to be an upgrade over Tully Banta-Cain, who was released.
First-round draft choice Nate Solder, the team’s left tackle of the future, has responded well to his crash course since joining the team a week into camp. He’s big (6-foot-8, 319 pounds) and sometimes struggles with an inside move, but the potential is easy to see.
Veteran cornerback Leigh Bodden has turned in a solid camp as he returns after missing the entire 2010 season with a torn rotator cuff. A starter at right cornerback opposite McCourty, Bodden has worked in the slot in sub packages, a role he last played in 2007 with the Browns. Bodden’s size (6-foot-1, 193) is a good fit there from a run-support and jamming-receivers perspective.
Don’t expect All-Pro left guard Logan Mankins to get too comfortable now that he has signed a six-year, $51 million contract extension. He looks like his typical nasty self on the field, and his early-camp battles with Haynesworth were a highlight.
The Patriots had a minor scare when Gronkowski was helped off the field Aug. 8. But he returned a few days later and looks primed to build off his impressive rookie campaign.
Sixth-year kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed the last half of the 2010 season with a torn right quadriceps muscle, but his recovery is on track. The right-footed kicker is not yet taking kickoffs -- UMass product Chris Koepplin is in camp to handle those duties -- but he looks strong on field goals. Gostkowski has hit from a long of 53 yards in practice and was good from 43 and 46 yards in the preseason opener.