What a great night for football in Foxborough, Mass.! Temperatures in the low 70s, excited fans in attendance, practice taking place under the lights inside Gillette Stadium, complete with referees, stadium announcer and JumboTron. It just felt like there was an extra bounce in everyone's step -- the coaches, the staff, the players -- as if everyone was happy -- no, thrilled -- to be on the field. This is just not how training camp usually feels. Something is different this year and it makes the prospect of the season ahead that much more enticing ...
And yet there's the usual business of preseason football to tend to. Players added, players released and, my personal favorite, players on the mend from injury.
The New England Patriots are not dealing with the return-from-injury drama that has been their custom the past two years. In 2010, it was receiver Wes Welker returning from a torn ACL and MCL, surprising everyone with his rapid progress but keeping us guessing until the last minute as to whether he'd be ready to start the season. In 2009, quarterback and face-of-the-franchise Tom Brady was coming off a combined ACL/MCL surgery and many wondered whether he could return to form. Both players, it's safe to say, have indeed proven that these major injuries are behind them.
But there were a couple of health questions heading into the offseason. Brady had a right foot injury (stress fracture) last season which, although he managed to play through it, required surgery after the season. Tight end Aaron Hernandez had a right hip injury that cost him two games late in 2010. He, too, needed surgery to address the injury. With athletes rehabbing away from team facilities as a result of the lockout, it has really come down to seeing exactly how they are functioning in practice to appreciate their progress.
If there were any doubts about Brady's health, those can be put to rest immediately. Brady was heavily involved in Wednesday night's workout, sporting a lightweight knee brace on his left leg as is customary for him. He moved fluidly to both sides and his passes were on the mark. Brady made the work look effortless, another trademark of his, but it also sent a signal that his body was cooperating. He threw several nice passes to a recent Patriots acquisition, wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, who appeared to be working hard (even diving for a catch in the end zone!) and making himself at home.
One of the most interesting notes on the evening was the amount of work Hernandez did. Considering he started on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list and only began practicing within the past few days, he looked less rusty than expected. Most importantly, he ran both soft and hard routes, decelerating hard and cutting to either side without apparent limitation. At one point, he leaned in an attempt to make a catch (he did not succeed) and went to the ground, face down, only to pop up quickly and get back in line for the next round. That dive was perhaps the most confidence-inspiring move he made all night, showing he could hit the dirt and get right back up afterward. Hernandez was a frequent target, including in red zone drills, and while there's work to be done, his movement was encouraging. His counterpart, Rob Gronkowski, looked especially strong Wednesday night, as well, making impressive catches in the red zone.
A few other observations on the night:
• Veteran left tackle Matt Light spoke to the media before practice about being back in New England and having the lockout behind him. As a player rep he was very in tune with the happenings of the past few months. He noted that Patriots owner Robert Kraft brought "leadership and experience" to the negotiation process, something that benefited everyone involved. Light indicated that he felt many of his teammates had stayed in great shape working out on their own and added that given the shortened practices, increased "mental reps" are much more important this year.
• Rookie running back Shane Vereen looked speedy-fast. Quick bursts. Impressive. And then he left with an apparent injury. No word on the specifics or the severity, although he appeared to stop short during a drill as if he strained a hamstring. Certainly everyone is hoping it's nothing serious.
• BenJarvus Green-Ellis spoke to reporters before practice and quietly said how glad he is to be back with this team. He is not able to practice with the team until tomorrow after the CBA is ratified but he was present on the sidelines, saying he's "itching to get back on the field."
• Ochocinco got the loudest crowd cheers whenever he made a big catch (especially a 40-yard beauty down the sideline early in practice), with Welker coming in second on the applause-o-meter.
• Brady has cut his hair. No more Justin Bieber references for him.
• Ryan Mallett is long and tall and can sling the ball. Both he and Brian Hoyer landed a couple of balls in an empty garbage can from more than 25 yards out, showing they could snag the extra-large toy at the proverbial carnival. It didn't seem to threaten Brady's starter status even though he failed to get the hole-in-one.
• After the group sessions were over, Ochocinco did some extra work on pass routes with Brady and Welker, with a lot of three- way dialogue going on throughout. Practice. Teaching. Learning. This is a good sign if you're looking for fantasy points (or just Patriots points) from these three.
• And finally, as the workouts ended, members of the Patriots circled the stadium and, as it should be on Fan Night, signed autographs and shook hands with those who came to watch them practice. But somehow, on this night, it just felt different, as if everyone was happy -- no, thrilled -- to be back playing football.