You might expect to see Bill Belichick in his signature hoodie at any given practice.
On Thursday, as the New England Patriots conducted their second practice of the week since arriving in Arizona for Super Bowl XLIX, it was team owner Robert Kraft sporting a hoodie on the sideline.
Kraft donned a sweatshirt during the latter half of the 1-hour, 56-minute session as sprinkles fell.
The entire practice, held on an outdoor field at the Arizona Cardinals training facility amid temperatures in the mid-60s, came against the backdrop of gray clouds that threatened rain.
Belichick wasn’t worried about the weather. Although he could have moved drills inside a practice bubble adjacent to the fields if needed, the coach laughed when asked whether they would have finished practice outdoors in a downpour.
“We’re like the U.S. Mail,” Belichick contended.
After practicing in full pads during their most intense session of the week on Wednesday, the Patriots were outfitted in shorts and shells as Belichick scaled back the contact.
“Less contact, but still a lot of mental alertness and timing,” Belichick said. “They’re working hard. Good tempo. We’re getting there.”
As was the case on Wednesday, every player on the active roster practiced, although a handful of players nursing injuries -- Bryan Stork, Chris Jones, Sealver Siliga, Dont’a Hightower and Akeem Ayers -- were officially classified as having limited participation. Ayers was the only new addition to the injury report on Thursday, because of a knee injury.
Tom Brady remains on the report (ankle) as a full participant, having taken all of his projected snap.
Belichick built in blocks of practice time to work on all four phases of the special teams return game -- kickoff coverage game, kickoff returns, punt coverage and punt returns. It constituted more special teams work than Wednesday. Practice concluded with field goal work.
The Patriots also worked on their two-minute offense and two-minute defense against scout teams, and spent more time working on red zone offense plays. There were more situational packages, including a sequence that began with Brady and the offense backed up on their 2-yard line.
That situation also prompted the Patriots to blast loud music. The first selection of the day: Ima Boss, a rap song by Meek Mill, featuring Rick Ross.
The Patriots welcomed a special visitor, Arizona State football coach Todd Graham. Belichick chatted with Graham after practice.
“They have a great program,” Belichick said. “He’s done a good job.”
Another coach, Seattle’s Pete Carroll, said during his morning press conference on Thursday that he was informed that officials in the Super Bowl will use pronounced hand signals to identify eligible and ineligible players at the line of scrimmage.
“I haven’t heard anything about that, so we’ll see what happens,” Belichick said. “I’ll check it out.”
The weather, in the 70s Wednesday for their first Super Bowl practice in Arizona, didn’t hurt their initial impression either, but a handful of Patriots said the fields were some of the best they've played on.
“The grass is like perfect,” Patriots running back James White said. “Almost looks like turf from a distance.”
By comparison, the Patriots’ practice fields are about “a couple hundred yards” away, cornerback Logan Ryan said, which made him appreciate having everything in one central area even more. The Patriots recently renovated their facilities and Ryan said the Cardinals’ stack up.
“Here is just as good, but I feel like other than the meeting rooms, the weight room’s right next to the cafeteria, it’s all so close,” he said. “So for what we’re here for, to get in and get out, it’s pretty effective.”
Tackle Nate Solder felt the locker room was "spacious." White said he liked the brick inside the building.
Running back Jonas Gray said the design of the Cardinals’ facilities fit in with its geographical location in the country.
“I thought they were cool,” he said. “They’re different. I think a lot of the West Coast facilities are similar to that. They got that kinda outdoor feel to it. All the structures are low. Kinda reminds me a little bit of how San Diego was. We didn’t see their facilities but how their visitor’s locker room was built and I like how everything’s close to each other. It’s all convenient in terms of walking and getting to a place.”
But it was the fields that really caught the Patriots’ attention.
They haven’t played on soft grass in months because their fields in Foxboro have been frozen.
“Fields were awesome,” Gray said. “And grass … beautiful grass, man. We were flying around on it, too. Hopefully we didn’t scuff it up too much.”
Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui seconded Gray’s opinion that the fields were “awesome.”
For most of the Patriots, their preference is to play on grass, even if the game is slowed down a bit, Ryan said. It’s also easier on the legs and joints, as Hoomanawanui has experienced.
“In the beginning of my career I couldn’t really tell,” he said. “In my fifth year, you can definitely tell the days you’ve been on the grass fields compared to the turf.”
Like the Cardinals’ practice fields, the University of Phoenix Stadium turf, site of Super Bowl XLVI, is also grass. The Patriots will experiment with which cleats work best for Sunday during the three practices leading up to the Super Bowl.
“There’s not as much pounding when you’re changing direction,” Ryan said. “And when you practice at the tempo we practice at you’re always running around.”
PHOENIX -- Rob Gronkowski crushed the numbers during his breakout second season in 2011 with the New England Patriots, setting NFL records for receiving yards by a tight end (1,327) and total touchdowns by a tight end (18).
At the age of 22, he was like a playful St. Bernard puppy, all paws and ears and smiles, a jovial kid whose freewheeling personality belied the strength and tenacity with which he played the game.
His joie de vivre was appealing to a fan base accustomed to the all-business approach of a veteran Patriots team that displayed little patience for gaiety or frivolity. Gronk's enthusiasm proved to be contagious, even among his more staid counterparts. He was a shooting star, the Next Great Thing in New England's football landscape.
In the days leading up to the 2012 season opener, I was able to steal a rare moment alone with quarterback Tom Brady. We chuckled about the Gronkification of the Patriots, and Brady looked at me with a bemused smile and said, "Everyone keeps asking me what Gronk can do for an encore. How about winning something?"
The quarterback implicitly understood what his young tight end hadn't yet grasped: Trips to the Super Bowl are precious commodities that must be seized upon, because they are elusive, fleeting.
In Brady's mind, one had slipped from the Patriots' grasp on February 5, 2012, when New England lost Super Bowl XLVI to the New York Giants, in part because Gronkowski was severely limited by an ankle injury that would later require surgery. He caught just two passes for 26 yards and was a nonfactor in the game, but promised his teammates, "I'm looking forward to getting back here.''
Gronk recovered completely from his ankle operation, but that was only the beginning of an abysmal run of injuries that were unfathomable both in nature and in quantity.
The litany of setbacks included a broken left forearm that led to four surgeries (with a recurring infection a major culprit), a herniated disk that led to another operation in June 2013, and then, in Week 14 of the 2013 season, a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee that led to his sixth operation since the winter of 2012.
The massive, seemingly indestructible tight end had turned into Samuel L. Jackson's character in "Unbreakable."
"With every injury, it just takes that much more out of you mentally,'' said his mother, Diane. "It becomes so tough ... when he went down with the knee injury, I said, 'You've got to be kidding me.' I'm pretty good at holding it together but that was just too much.''
Diane was in the stadium when Rob was carted off, so she left her seat and joined him in the locker room.
"When I walked in, he looked at me and said, 'What are you doing here, mom?''' Diane recalled. "At that point I realized, 'This is bad.' No one realized that in addition to his knee, he also had a concussion.
"I had spent six hours with him the day before. I said, 'Well, Rob, you don't remember right now but we were together yesterday.' I didn't want to say too much because all of sudden I could see it in his face. He was like, 'Wow, I don't remember.'''
It was yet another setback, and, according to his mother, it was taking its toll on her son.
It wasn't outrageous to wonder if Rob Gronkowski would ever be the same, if his best days of football were already behind him before he had turned 26 years old.
The Gronkowski family, which included a confluence of football boys who played in the NFL with reckless abandon, knew all too well how quickly the football rug could be pulled out from under them.
Brother Dan's NFL career ended with a torn pectoral muscle, while brother Chris was felled by a torn hamstring.
Neither had as much at stake as Rob, the Pro Bowler in the family with the $54 million contract who worked tirelessly to rehab one injury, only to be sidelined again by another.
"They were some really dark days in there,'' Gronk conceded.
He wasn't very adept at being a recluse, so he toiled through 2-3 hours of painful rehab in the morning, then tried to amble out and enjoy friends and family later in the day. Naturally, that led to snapshots of Gronk in a bar, at a restaurant, with a pretty blonde (or two). The insinuations on social media started him on a slow burn. He knew how hard he was working to get back, yet detractors continued to suggest he wasn't working hard enough to regain his football prowess.
"Where do we even start with that?" Diane said with a sigh. "I don't look up articles on him, because they're all either overexaggerated or underexaggerated. They're always wrong. It's surprising how many people believe everything they read. I've even sat behind people while they're talking about my boys, and they've got no clue. They don't know who I am, and there they are talking about my kids and they've got the whole thing wrong.
"Luckily Rob doesn't listen to any of that. If he did, he would have been even worse off mentally.''
Gronkowski approached this season by quietly marking off "Play all 16 games" on his bucket list. Underneath, he wrote, "Be patient.'' He was in on just 44 percent of the team's snaps in Week 1, but the numbers increased on a slow, steady trajectory, a premeditated plan that he and the Patriots formulated together.
By Week 8, he was slamming into defenders just because he could. Each time his body remained whole, his mental health improved another tick. He could feel his confidence blossoming.
For weeks now, Gronk has been playing at his peak, his previous maladies an unpleasant, fading memory.
"When anyone goes through adversity it all depends on how they react to it,'' he said. "I feel like everything I've been through has made me a stronger person.''
Gronkowski has re-established himself as the best tight end in the game. But, he knows, if he truly wants to make history, then he needs to find his place in the circle of champions.
Super Bowl winners are a dime a dozen around Foxboro because so many former players have remained in the area to capitalize on their success. And yet, each receives a hero's welcome each time they come out, having carved out a special place in the fabric of the New England sports community.
Former wide receiver Deion Branch won't wind up with a bust in Canton, but he will be forever immortalized in Patriots lore for his electric performance in Super Bowl XXXIX, when he took home MVP honors after catching 11 passes for 133 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles
PHOENIX -- Super Bowls are sometimes random meetings.
Take the New York Giants' two Super Bowl victories over the New England Patriots. The Giants peaked late in the season, got into the playoffs as wild cards and beat the Patriots in close games. No one expected that. Super Bowl surprise teams such as the 2008 Arizona Cardinals and 2003 Carolina Panthers didn't figure into the preseason prognostications.
Super Bowl XLIX is different. From the beginning of the offseason, it was easy to predict the Seattle Seahawks could be back. According to Elias, they were the fifth-youngest team (averaging 26.9 years old) to win a Super Bowl. The Denver Broncos and New England were the preseason favorites from the AFC.
The Patriots are the most recent NFL dynasty. A victory over Seattle would give them their fourth championship and extend one of history's greatest stretches of Super Bowl excellence. For the Seahawks, who remain young, a win sets them up to be the next dynasty.
Here are five key trends for Super Bowl XLIX.
1. Let the head coach do the shopping: After the 1996 season, Bill Parcells pushed the idea of giving head coaches say over personnel decisions. "If they want you to cook the meal, they ought to let you buy the groceries," Parcells said. Super Bowl XLIX features head coaches who are shoppers. Could their success open the door for future coaches to get more say in personnel? Chip Kelly got more say in Philadelphia after two 10-6 seasons. Lovie Smith has the shopping card in Tampa Bay.
PHOENIX -- The 108 official Super Bowl XLIX footballs will receive additional security this weekend amid an ongoing NFL investigation into the inflation of game balls in the AFC Championship Game, vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said Thursday.
"There will be some added security just because of the environment we're in for this game," Blandino said during a football operations news conference at the Phoenix Convention Center.
ESPN.com reported last week that, per longstanding NFL policy, an independent set of equipment managers and ball attendants will handle pregame preparation of game balls. This year, Chicago Bears equipment manager Tony Medlin was chosen to supervise the group.
The New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks will prepare 54 balls apiece to be used in Sunday's game; Blandino said the high number is due to charity commitments for game-used balls. Each team will hand over its footballs to Medlin and the NFL on Friday afternoon, where they will remain -- with the additional security -- until about three hours prior to the game. At that point, referee Bill Vinovich will test each ball to ensure it is within the NFL's allowable range of 12.5-13.5 PSI.
The NFL has hired attorney Ted Wells to investigate how 11 of the Patriots' 12 footballs were found to be underinflated at halftime of the AFC Championship Game. In the meantime, the league has already said it plans a full review of its policy regarding pregame football preparations this offseason. One possibility could be to discuss the legal range with Wilson, the league's official manufacturer. The 12.5-13.5 range has been in the NFL's rulebook for at least 75 years, Blandino said.
Blandino did say Thursday that the inspection of the footballs by referee Walt Anderson before the AFC Championship Game was handled properly.
"My major concern is did we follow proper protocol?" Blandino said. "Everything was properly tested and marked before the game. Walt gauged the footballs himself; it is something he has done throughout his career.
"Officiating is not part of the investigation."
Some other highlights of Blandino's news conference:
• Blandino clarified the protocol for referees if and when the Patriots' offense attempts to declare ineligible a player with an eligible number. Vinovich will point at the player, wave his arms in a manner similar to the signal for an incomplete pass, and then point at the player again when announcing he is ineligible. Blandino said the referee will not tell the defense not to cover the ineligible player, as Vinovich did when the scheme first surfaced during the AFC divisional playoff round.
• The NFL's competition committee has already received proposals from teams to expand instant replay, and Blandino said there is a growing movement in the league to capitalize in whatever way possible on emerging technology to correct more mistakes. The "process rule" that disallowed a key postseason catch by the Dallas Cowboys
As written in Sunday's "quick-hit thoughts" entry, these were things that piqued curiosity:
- Who is there when the footballs are tested?
- Is air pressure in each ball documented?
- How are they tested?
With the NFL holding a news conference with vice president of officiating Dean Blandino, Super Bowl XLIX referee Bill Vinovich and NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations Troy Vincent on Thursday, we learned some answers to those questions.
Blandino said he couldn't get into many details with the investigation ongoing. Afterwards, in a side session with a handful of reporters, he said referee Walt Anderson "gauged" the footballs himself, which he has done throughout his career.
Blandino added that the specific air pressure in each football, which is required to be between 12.5 and 13.5, is not documented. The balls are simply either approved or disapproved pre-game.
In the news conference, Blandino said, "We did review what happened pre-game. From everything that we reviewed and all their information we had, was the balls were properly tested and marked prior to the game. Then [there] was an issue that was brought up during the first half. A football came into question and then a decision was made to test the football."
Said Vinovich, "We test them. It's 12.5 to 13.5. We put 13 in every ball. ... Dean tested a couple in the office and had one underinflated and one to specs, and you really couldn't tell the difference unless you actually sat there and tried to squeeze the thing or did some extraordinary thing. If somoene just tossed you the ball, especially in 20 degree weather, you're going to pretty much play with the ball. They are going to be hard. You're not going to notice the difference."
As it relates to the Patriots' investigation, here is one follow-up thought based on this information: The fact there is no official documentation in the process is significant.
Essentially, it sets up a situation where the NFL has to take the official at his word that all footballs were tested properly and there were no breakdowns in the process, either with the official himself or a member of the league's security team.
CHANDLER, Ariz. -- Junior Seau is one of the 15 modern-era finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2015. On Thursday, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick remembered him fondly.
"I have no doubt he'll be elected,'' Brady said at the resort hotel the Patriots have used as their team headquarters this week. "If he can't make it, nobody can. He's truly one of a kind. It was a privilege playing with him.''
Seau, a 12-time Pro Bowl selection who committed suicide May 2, 2012, spent his last four seasons with the Patriots. Seau also played 13 seasons with the San Diego Chargers and three years with the Miami Dolphins.
Seau, who is in his first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame, is one of the 15 modern-era finalists who will be considered by the Hall's Board of Selectors on Saturday. Of the 15 a maximum of five can be enshrined in the Class of '15.
"It's obviously got to happen,'' Belichick said. "I can't imagine having a Professional Football Hall of Fame without Junior Seau in it.''