FOXBORO — Last week, the final full week of Patriots training camp practices, the team ran a drill designed for running backs and linebackers. Tackling dummies set up a wall on an imaginary line of scrimmage, forcing linebackers to peek around the bags to find backs running through a hole.
Then came a "thud." Not a tackle, but a quick bear hug, as if to say, "Gotcha!"
Running back after running back cycled through the drill, and then a massive man in a red No. 1 jersey trotted over to take one rep. Cam Newton had a down moment right before the team's hurry-up 11-on-11 period, and he wanted some action. Starting from about where he'd receive a shotgun snap, he hesitated for a beat behind the line of scrimmage, then out-raced the angle of outside linebacker Derek Rivers.
No thud. No contact.
That was about as close as Newton got to a football hit for a few weeks, based on what reporters saw during training camp. There was a moment when Newton was stripped at the end of the run during an earlier camp practice. But even that wasn't exactly the type of play Newton would see on Sundays, with no one trying to drag him down.
How, then, can Josh McDaniels gauge what this Patriots offense should look like?
If one of the keys to their style moving forward will be how effectively Newton can run the football, how can the offensive coordinator properly assess Newton's ability to do exactly that when no one has even deigned to "thud" the 6-foot-5, 250-pounder, let alone tackle him?
How will McDaniels know what Newton can do when there are no preseason games and the defining element of his game — his ability to run through and dish out contact — hasn't had an opportunity to shine in a practice setting?
"You don’t ever know until you know," McDaniels said, "but you see enough in the drills, in the things we’ve tried to simulate, to make a pretty good assumption that it’s there and that it’s where you want it to be. We go through that same process with backs, receivers, tight ends, linemen each training camp because there are very few opportunities or in practice where you finish a block with a guy on the ground, you break a tackle and continue to run and do all the things that are actually going to happen in a real game.
"Not having the preseason games so that you can evaluate those snaps and those live action reps, it’s definitely something where when you don’t have them you miss that opportunity to add to your evaluation. But I think everyone is in the same boat. You want to know if your guys on defense are going to be able to tackle the way you want them to tackle, the runners are going to be able to protect the ball and stay on their feet and break tackles and keep the ball high and tight.
The Patriots are, of course, always evaluating their roster to see what players can and can't do. But in the absence of four exhibition games — and at least a game or two where Newton and other regulars could see extended work against a different team — the Patriots may, as McDaniels indicated, have to use September to do some serious evaluating to confirm that which they saw in practice was real.
They'll have elements of their offense in place. They'll have a plan, there's no doubt. But they'll be relying on a quarterback who has been historically productive as a runner. And he hasn't run against a defense running (and hitting) at full speed since his arrival two months ago.
Challenging as that may make the first four weeks of the season — against Miami, at Seattle, against the Raiders and at the Chiefs — the goal will be to fire on all cylinders in November when, as Patriots players have said many times over the years, "real football" starts.
But there's a difference between a team firing and just finding its footing. How long it will take a new-look Patriots offense to achieve the latter will be one of the most fascinating storylines across the NFL early in the 2020 season.