Benefit of the doubt for Haynesworth

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth did not practice Saturday, one day after the Patriots officially acquired him, prompting speculation that he didn't pass the team's conditioning test.

Haynesworth has a history there. On the surface, it doesn't look good.

His absence gained momentum in the Twitterverse and local sports radio, fueled in part by Bill Belichick's non-answer to a question. Asked if Haynesworth had passed his conditioning test, Belichick said, "There are things we still need to do with Albert for him to be able to get on the practice field, and when those things are done, he'll be out there."

One could easily read into those remarks. After all, how difficult would it be for Belichick to say, "This has nothing to do with a conditioning test."

But he didn't and so the speculation swirls. Fair enough.

At the same time, there are a few common-sense reasons why putting Haynesworth on the practice field Saturday would have been an irresponsible risk to take.

First, it was a full-pad session, featuring the first contact of camp. From a coaching standpoint, there is no need to rush the 6-foot-5, 330-pound Haynesworth into that type of setting. Every other player had the benefit of being eased back into the mix as part of the "transition rules" of a new labor agreement, so why should it be different for Haynesworth?

Furthermore, the first contact is most extreme for a lineman, as evidenced by some of the drills the Patriots were running Saturday. One of the first was a half-line running drill that had two defensive linemen and two linebackers against three offensive linemen, a tight end and a running back. The pads were crunching, bodies were being moved, players were on the ground. It was physical.

A major part of a coach's responsibility in this post-lockout environment is managing the health of players, and it would be borderline reckless of Belichick to put Haynesworth in that position. He'd be risking the health of an asset he obviously feels is going to be a big part of the team.

That appears to be the same way Belichick has approached the team's conditioning test. One player described this year's test as a bit different from the norm, somewhat modified and scaled back, which is likely a result of Belichick not wanting to push too hard too early.

So at this point, Haynesworth deserves some slack from a football perspective. Maybe instead we should be asking "Where's Ron Brace and Brandon Deaderick?" of two young, promising linemen from 2010 who have opened camp on the active/physically unable to perform list since reporting Wednesday. Or maybe we should question the condition of some other friendly-to-the-media returning players who haven't been on the field.

But with Haynesworth, given his less-than-sterling reputation, the easy thing to do is pile on now.

While there is no defending some of his other transgressions, and one can all but predict the words of his first large-scale Patriots interview ("the past is the past, I'm looking forward to the future"), this is one area where the fair thing to do is to think common-sense over conspiracy. After all, if Haynesworth was woefully out of shape, the Patriots could have simply flunked him on his physical and voided the trade.

Instead, Haynesworth has been going to Gillette Stadium since Thursday, getting to know his new teammates. That included joking with quarterback Tom Brady about a crunching hit he delivered on him in the 2009 preseason that hurt his ribs.

Meanwhile, when Belichick was asked Saturday if he's sensed that football is important to Haynesworth, he replied, "Of course."

Haynesworth appeared briefly on the team's All-Access television show Friday and talked about treating himself like a rookie, adding that "being on a team with a winning attitude and totally it's all about football and nothing else, I like that."

Soon enough, perhaps as early as Sunday, we'll be hearing more from Haynesworth. Until then, when it comes to his lack of presence on the field, he gets the benefit of the doubt from here.

Mike Reiss covers the New England Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.