FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- After a training camp filled with scraps that at first highlighted competitiveness but then grew into more of a concern, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick reached his breaking point on Thursday and kicked punt returner Julian Edelman and special-teamer Niko Koutouvides out of practice.
It was unusual, to say the least. Longtime observers couldn't recall a time when Belichick did something similar.
The play that sparked it all seemed innocent enough -- a punt that Edelman was returning -- but things got testy when the two collided. There was some pushing, and the potential was there for another full-team scrap until Belichick stepped in with authority, essentially telling both players to knock it off and leave the field.
Initially, it seemed like Edelman, 26, and Koutouvides, 31, thought that meant a trip to the sideline. But Belichick, playing the role of home-plate umpire, informed them that their day was finished. He sent them straight to the locker room -- Edelman walking off first, then Koutouvides about 20-25 yards behind.
It was a surreal scene in the sense that two players who looked like they were about to come to blows were both headed to the same place, while seemingly everyone else on the team was elsewhere.
If Belichick was attempting to send a message, it was received by veteran defensive end Rob Ninkovich, among others.
"Just don't fight," the 28-year-old Ninkovich said of what he took from Belichick's no-nonsense approach. "This is training camp, things happen. But, you know Bill sometimes; that's Bill trying to make sure everybody is on the same page and those guys, they're fine. They'll be back (Friday)."
Added receiver Deion Branch: "It's just football. It's just football. Trust me, we got a lot of love for each other. We love competing. And that's what we are doing. Guys out here are competing, working hard. We tired, but most importantly, we are still coming out here and getting the job done."
Past events during this training camp probably explain why Belichick took such a hard-line approach.
On Aug. 1, offensive lineman Nate Solder and linebacker Brandon Spikes were at the heart of a scuffle that involved seemingly every player on the team. While many players were peacemakers that night at Gillette Stadium, where the practice was held in front of more than 20,000 season-ticket holders, there was still some uncomfortable jawing between teammates.
"Football is competitive, and we're in a competitive camp, so I think some of those things are just part of football," Belichick said the next day. "Football is football. We deal with a lot of things in football. I don't think it's a big deal."
Two days later, the Patriots were at it again, with two more scuffles. Instead of singling out the instigators, a furious Belichick sent everyone on three full-field laps -- goalpost to goalpost. Players were reminded that competitiveness is good, but they also must take care of each other.
Asked about it a few days later, Belichick said, "That's a couple days old now, so we're moving on."
While many may have done so, Thursday's dust-up between Edelman and Koutouvides brought back some old issues. It led the bottom-line Belichick to the unusual step of removing the tandem from the field, and he was persistent in doing so. At one point, Koutouvides looked like he was negotiating to stay, but Belichick rode him hard, right off the field.
The message obviously wasn't getting across before.
So Belichick, having hit his breaking point, let it rip.
Information from ESPNBoston.com contibutor Field Yates was used in this report.