FOXBORO -- At this time last year, the Patriots were 12 days into training camp, and Mac Jones and Cam Newton were in the throes of a quarterback competition overseen by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. They’d had three padded practices with some tackling to the ground and were coming off a Sunday practice which was described as the "most physical practice of camp."
This year? Jones has the job to himself, there is no specific offensive coordinator, the team is slowly installing a new offense, the contact has been notably toned down and the Patriots chose not to practice at all on Sunday.
I don’t think the relative lack of collisions hints at a kinder, gentler Bill Belichick in 2022. Not given the way he ran his team absolutely ragged with conditioning drills during voluntary OTAs. But it is an interesting departure from what they did last year.
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With the Patriots preseason opener this Thursday against the Giants, the team likely has just Monday’s workout to up the physicality. Tuesday will be a light workout and Wednesday will be just meetings and a walkthrough if the team is adhering to a game-week schedule.
We asked Belichick about the switch during his Monday pre-practice availability.
"We're approaching our practices the best way that we can," Belichick said after yours truly posed the question to him. "The ramp up period was the ramp up period. We've been in pads more days than we had last year at this time. I'll have to go back and double check it, but I think so.
"This year working with our strength and conditioning staff I feel like our team is as healthy as it's ever been this time of year. Part of that has to do with the offseason program and the way the guys have worked. Maybe part of it has to do with the way we've practiced but we've had very little in the way of players missing time -- players on PUP, NFI -- we pretty much cleared that up today. We try to do what we think is best every year. Comparing one year to another, I don't know how relevant that is."
But there does have to be a reason for the altered practice schedule we’re seeing.
Could it be sports science pointing to the team’s late-season swoons the past three years as a by-product of wearing down? Eleven of the team’s 21 losses since 2019 have come after Thanksgiving.
Is it an effort at keeping players out of harm’s way for a longer period? That’s logical and it appears to be working. Linebacker Jahlani Tavai is the only player we’ve seen deal with a significant injury through the first week-and-a-half (knock on wood for the players’ sakes).
Is it related to the offensive overhaul, with Belichick deciding that full-speed, full-contact reps could result in running backs getting mauled or Jones having to run for his life after a pass-block breakdown and running the risk of a freak injury to the franchise quarterback?
Maybe it’s all of the above. The upshot of all this isn’t that the Patriots are taking it easy. They are there well before practices start and into the night every day. The coaches are getting ground down to sawdust. But there is an undeniable shift in how they’re practicing.
For context, here's the Patriots' routine last year after opening camp on July 28.
Tuesday, Aug. 3: First day in pads. Some significant red zone/goal line contact when rookie Rhamondre Stevenson trucked cornerback Myles Bryant.
Wednesday, Aug. 4: Day off.
Thursday, Aug. 5: Pads on in the rain. Live tackling drills and more goal-line/red-zone stuff heavy contact periods.
Friday, Aug. 6: Shells for night practice in the stadium.
Saturday, Aug. 7: Off
Sunday, Aug. 8: Pads on. Longest practice of camp in the 10th workout. "The most physical practice," according to Paul Perillo of Patriots.com.
Monday, Aug. 9: Pads on.
Tuesday, Aug. 10: Walk-through in stadium
Wednesday, Aug. 11: No practice
Thursday, Aug. 12: Preseason opener