Heading into the great unknown that is the Patriots 2020 season, we’ve talked scheme, personnel, quarterbacks, drafting, cap management and who exactly we believe is going to be “WR3.”
We’ve saluted the big brains of Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels and wonder how their mind-meld with Cam Newton will work.
What have we mostly overlooked? Lung capacity. Conditioning. The preparedness to hit and be hit early in the year in a way that just hasn’t been done since last January.
How many anecdotes would you like as evidence health and stamina were the main factors in the Patriots adding three more Lombardis in the past decade?
Wiping out the Ravens 28-14 lead in the second half in the 2014 AFC Divisional Playoffs? Wiping out the Seahawks 24-14 lead in the fourth quarter of that Super Bowl? A little thing we could call 28-3? A completely empty injury report entering SB53 and a fourth quarter game-dealing drive in which the Patriots ran over the flagging Rams?
The fact that Super Bowls they didn’t win from 2011 to 2018 hinged in large part on either Rob Gronkowski being hurt (2011, 2012, 2013) or Julian Edelman being hurt (2015 and 2017).
This year more than ever, strength, conditioning and – yes – pliability are the coin of the realm in the NFL. And the Patriots have attacked that area this summer.
“Since I’ve been in the league, I’ve never ran that much,” recently-released running back Lamar Miller said after completing his Patriots conditioning run a few weeks back. “It was just different for me. They make sure you’re in top, great shape. That’s something that I haven’t experienced. So coming in here, once they put me through the conditioning stuff, that was different for me.”
The Patriots are an NFL anomaly in the way they approach conditioning. In 2014 when the Patriots went to Norfolk, Virginia for joint practices with Washington, the joint portion would end and the Washington players would gather their equipment and trudge off. The Patriots would gather on a sideline and run gassers back and forth across the field. By the end of the week, a handful of Washington players were doing it as well on their own.
The pearl-clutching last month that came from New York media when former Patriots assistant Joe Judge was sending Giants players and coaches on punishment laps for miscues was telling. Media wasn’t accustomed to seeing players taking laps, much less coaches. In New England, the players have always done that under Belichick. Occasionally, the coaches too.
Last year in Miami, former Patriots coach Brian Flores had his Dolphins players running to their “Takes No Talent” wall as punishment for mental slip-ups. As in it “takes no talent” to do the little things correctly.
Jeff Howe from The Athletic did a nice oral history of the 2000 culture change Belichick fostered when he took over in New England. The people he spoke with circled back repeatedly to conditioning.
“Conditioning was always a big deal with Bill and still is,” former offensive line coach and coaching legend Dante Scarnecchia told Howe. “The whole team runs, and now he has them running up this hill, and they accept it because it’s part of the culture. The culture comes from the coaching staff to the players, but the biggest part of it, and Bill subscribes to this, it really has to at some point come from the players, too.
“If it comes from the players amongst themselves and you have that reinforcement, instead of going into the locker room and everybody bitching about having to take laps if you jump offside or you encroach, to have others on the team, strong people on the team say that’s the way it is around here and that’s the way it’s going to be. When that happens, culture is easy to establish and maintain. That’s really, really important.”
You watched Thursday’s season-opener, right? We all know the Chiefs are better than the Texans. But did you see how Kansas City really choked Houston out?
With an 11-play drive when they trailed 7-0 followed by a 16-play drive the next time they got the ball. Kansas City ran the ball 34 times and threw it 32. They ran over Houston. And there will probably be a lot of that Sunday. Defenses tapping out.
Josh McDaniels is very aware of that.
“We’ve talked a lot about this with our team,” said the Patriots offensive coordinator. “We don’t have a player on our roster that’s played a 70-play game. We don’t have a player on our roster that’s played a 40-play preseason game.”
History mostly attributes a famous quote on stamina to General George S. Patton. Some credit Vince Lombardi.
Regardless of which guy said it, you can be sure Bill Belichick has at one point or another uttered it himself. “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”
We may not know how the Patriots offense will look or how the defense will play. But we can predict with confidence that they will not run out of gas.
Newton inheriting Brady's biggest challenge
The distance from Gillette Stadium to Raymond James Stadium is 1,163 miles. But Cam Newton can be assured that Tom Brady feels Cam’s wide receiver pain on Sunday.
The Patriots weren’t exactly starting out with a fleet of badass weaponry at wideout when they got to camp. Now? Even worse. Mohamed Sanu got released after a pedestrian few weeks at camp. Gunner Olszewski – improved but still not quite polished – is on injured reserve with a foot issue and will be gone for three weeks. And N’Keal Harry is questionable for the opener with a shoulder injury.
If Harry can’t go, Newton’s got Julian Edelman, Jakobi Meyers and Damiere Byrd as his wide receiver corps. If he can (and he was available to the media on Friday which is an indication he’ll be playing) his status will be worth watching. Meyers also had a shoulder issue he dealt with during camp.
Meanwhile, Olszewski’s absence is going to visit upon the punt return game as well. Last year, Gunner made the team coming out of camp based mostly on his upside as a returner and the fact the Patriots needed to get Edelman out of harm’s way on that play. When Olszewski landed on IR after eight games, the team had no set replacement. This year? Could be rookie safety Kyle Dugger. Could be Byrd. Could be Edelman, though Belichick recently said that’s not Option A.
Prescient as the Patriots are in so many ways, entering the season with a wideout crew like this after back-to-back bumper wide receivers crops in the draft is bizarre. And to basically check out on punt returns last season once Olszewski got hurt never made sense to me given how much they value special teams.
The typical Patriots mentality in Week 1
Don’t make too big a deal out of there being nothing to scout from this preseason. Josh McDaniels says that, even with fake games and open training camp practices most summers, teams still find a way to shock on opening day.
“Last year, on the very first play of the Pittsburgh game (in Week 1) we saw a brand new alignment, a brand new front and a brand new adjustment,” said McDaniels. “Then we went down to Miami and the very first play of the game, we saw a brand new alignment, a brand new front, a brand new adjustment. So it happened last year even with preseason games because a lot of coaches don’t show their hands in the preseason.”
The rest of the league, though, has even less of a book on the Patriots. They’ve never seen Cam Newton in this offense. He does things differently from Tom Brady. They’ve never seen how the team will use their rookie tight ends. Or what they’ll do with Harry in season two. The Patriots could really confound defenses if they wanted to get crazy.
That is not, however, a priority according to McDaniels.
“Our focus usually has always been on opening day to do the things we have confidence in, that we know how to adjust out of,” he explained. “(Plays where), if we get a different look, our system is not gonna break down with the things we try to do. This year it’s been easier to protect that.
There will definitely be an element of newness. And that’s why opening day is so critical in being able to put your players in position to do something they know how to do. And then you’ve got to be quick to adjust because it certainly may change quickly for us, for them and for our staff.”
In other words, having Newton and Harry carry out synchronized reverse handsprings before a shotgun snap to James White would catch Miami off guard. But what’s the upside? Unexpected is good. Efficient and fail-safe is even better.