Later this afternoon, the Patriots will open up training camp to the public for the first time this summer.
Training camp brings hope and optimism to all NFL teams and especially to New England, where the Patriots will look to bounce back from a difficult-to-endure finish to their 2011 season.
For the next six-plus weeks, the team will work to set the stage for the season, implementing its schemes and concepts, while spending more time on the practice field than it will at any other point of the season (even though the new CBA has curtailed practice time during training camp).
The team will also play four exhibition contests, which will be met with anticipation and excitement. In truth, however, the end result of those games is not always an accurate indicator of how the team will perform when the games truly count in the win-loss column. It was just last preseason that the Patriots were trounced in their third preseason game (the game which most closely emulates regular-season action) against the upstart Detroit Lions.
Rather than looking toward preseason records to measure a training camp’s success, NFL teams will likely engage in some self-evaluation in a number of areas to assess whether they reached their goals.
Drawing on my experience of spending six training camps with NFL teams, here are some of those goals that the Patriots may themselves be setting for 2012:
1. It’s time to work. When it comes down to it, training camp is about getting to work, both on the field and in the classroom. Players must master the fundamentals of the playbook and practice the fundamentals of football on the field. Concepts and schemes must be grasped during pre-practice meetings with coaches, and subsequently executed and reviewed on the field.
Drills such as one-on-one’s between offensive and defensive linemen, open-field tackling and blitz pick-ups will come under focus, as the team will spend more time in pads than during the regular season.
Days will be long and free time will be scant. It’s imperative that players maximize their productivity during this time of work.
2. Assess the roster: who makes the cut and developing the depth chart. This may seem obvious, but training camp is an extended audition for 90 players. Bill Belichick and his staff will closely monitor the audition to whittle down the roster to 53 active players, as well as an up-to-eight-man practice squad. Beyond that, they’ll work to develop the depth chart. Position coaches will contribute their input to the matter, and it will become clearer which players project to play starting roles, and which will earn their keep as backups.
3. Be consistent, but improve each day. Each night, Belichick will meet with his coaching staff and review the day of work. They’ll discuss practice, and there will be days where the staff collectively feels it was a very productive effort from the team. That’s what coaches strive for, but not sporadically. They want it every day, and they want to be better the next day.
Players on the bubble who can show a consistent arc of improvement give themselves a much better chance of sticking around. Those who flash ability, but not necessarily every day, put themselves at risk of being out of work.
4. Situational football. Among the many aspects to the Patriots’ success under Bill Belichick has been the team’s ability to execute in situational football. During training camp, teams will review situations that may not even present themselves during the course of a season, but are nonetheless critical plays to understand. Such an example would be taking an intentional safety, something New England did against the Broncos in 2003 en route to a late comeback win on "Monday Night Football." During the season, there may not be enough time to practice a variety of situations, so ensuring that they are covered during training camp is crucial.
5. Get healthy and stay healthy. The Patriots have already placed six players on the Active/Physically Unable To Perform list, and they’ll continue to nurse their ailments as training camp begins. Step 1 for them is returning to the field.
As for those who are already on the field, staying healthy is of primary importance. Injuries are virtually inevitable during an NFL season, and staying healthy involves a great deal of luck.
But players must also do their part to stay hydrated, put the proper nutrition into their systems, and do whatever it takes to fully recuperate between practices. It’s not uncommon for teams to employ massage therapists during training camp, as well as have their chiropractor on hand every day (he or she often is around only during certain days of the regular season). Players must take advantage of available resources.
6. Develop camaraderie, identity. Not much about training camp is fun for players. Spending hours in exhausting heat followed by more hours perusing film in a dark room makes for monotonous days, but they’re critical. Critical toward the development of a team, and with each team comes a sense of camaraderie (or a debilitating lack thereof), and an identity.
The Patriots had an active offseason, adding a number of veterans in free agency and drafting seven players. Integrating the new faces with the old, along with establishing camaraderie, will help to set the tone for the season.
Patriots fans remember the tight-knit nature to the championship teams in 2001, 2003 and 2004. Establishing a similar bond for 2012 could pay off for a team that looks steeped in talent.