FOXBORO – During a wide receiver drill this week, Julian Edelman came to the head of the line to take his rep. Across from the MVP of the most recent Super Bowl stood Deion Branch, MVP of Super Bowl 39. With big red pads on his hands, Branch stood ready to whack at Edelman as he made his release.
Fifteen yards away, rookie first-round pick N’Keal Harry was at the front of his line and Troy Brown, Patriots Hall of Famer and the motor for the Patriots offense in 2001, was ready to give Harry the same treatment Branch was giving Edelman.
Past. Present. Future. All in one glance. And that’s without even turning your head to spot Tom Brady or Bill Belichick, Ben Watson, Donta Hightower or Jerod Mayo.
It’s mind-boggling when you start to process the amount of NFL history that the men on those practice fields are responsible for.
And it’s unprecedented when you consider players who were drafted in 1993 and 2002 respectively as Brown and Branch were can come back to the team they played for and find the head coach and quarterback they made history with still in place.
It’s like a living museum.
“It’s hard for us to really fully appreciate it while we’re in it,” Patriots special teams ace Matthew Slater said. “Our focus is normally just to live in the moment, always try to get better, never be complacent. But I think whenever that time is for me to move on and other guys to move on it will be time to realize that this is… this doesn’t happen. It really doesn’t happen. We’re really fortunate and blessed to be a part of this.”
Slater is right. The focus in Foxboro has always been on improvement and – generally – one doesn’t get better by looking back at the things already accomplished.
But at this time of year and for this team that’s got such a mass of first- and second-year players, there’s value. Interacting and working with former players who helped build this dynasty makes the tradition tangible.
I asked Bill Belichick on Wednesday about players like Brown, Branch and Kevin Faulk, who also was in town for OTAs to work with young players. What do they add?
“Those guys have been through the whole full experience – beginning, middle, end – for multiple years, multiple seasons,” said Belichick. “They all have something that they can add. Each of them are different, have a different story and different message but they’re all good.”
After Wednesday’s practice, the entire team gathered around to listen to University of Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz address the team. What added value is there in a college coach speaking to NFL players?
Probably not a lot about scheme or choosing the right agent. But Ferentz worked with Belichick in Cleveland from 1993 to 1995. One of his sons, Brian, was a former Patriots assistant who is now the offensive coordinator at Iowa. Another son, James, is a Patriots offensive lineman. Ferentz is the longest-tenured head coach in college football.
If you want someone to send a message about what it takes to succeed not just in football but in the kind of demanding program Belichick runs, Ferentz makes perfect sense. And not just succeed but sustain.
In that group of players listening was Michael Bennett, who was part of the talented Seahawks team that won a Super Bowl in the 2013 season, lost to the Patriots in 2014 and splintered into dozens of overwrought pieces.
Watson was also in the huddle around Ferentz.
Watson was twice a member of the New Orleans Saints, a team that’s been to one Super Bowl since Sean Payton took over in 2006.
Those two franchises – and you can throw in the Ravens, Colts, Broncos and Steelers – have been the best of the rest over the past two decades, yet their peaks have been fewer, their valleys more frequent and extreme.
The Patriots have never run aground. Even though they’ve been the hunted. Even though they’ve been at times singled out by the league for different treatment. Even through scandals tragic, absurd or of their own making.
How? How does a 20-something kid figure out how to maintain the singular focus on his work and not the poopstorm swirling? They figure it out by listening.
“(The retired players) started this thing,” said Slater. “They built if from the ground up. Troy Brown, Deion Branch, Kevin Faulk – they talk about the way that they grinded and the way they came to work every day.
“They talk about the family atmosphere that they had in that locker room and those are things we still try to pride ourselves on and incorporate into this 2019 team,” added Slater. “It’s really the people that make this thing go. You look at the common thread through time and it’s high-character people that have sustained this thing.
“You’re gonna have to deal with a lot,” Slater concluded. “It’s not easy to play here. But if you can battle through, it’s worth it.”
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