FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots:
1. Vanderbilt head football coach Derek Mason says his June visit to the Patriots' facility for minicamp with his staff changed the way he looks at football and building a team. I caught up with him last week to learn why.
How would you describe the experience?
Mason: The championship feel that was felt by me and my staff was ridiculous. It wasn't just the one-on-one time spent by Coach [Bill] Belichick and his staff -- and believe me, he gave us a lot of access and time. But you really get a chance to see not only how good the players are -- it’s the NFL, you know there are good players -- but how it's all about the teaching. It's about being in the classroom and seeing how detailed, how relational these coaches are. But also how demanding they are.
The expectation is excellence every day. I'm talking about the finest details: from how you align, to where you put your eyes, to how to communicate, to how the offense adjusts based on how the defense adjusts. There was no detail missed. From a walk-through, to a player meeting, to a run-through, to how team drills are done, everything was about detail, communication, effort. There was no moving to the right or left.
You were just in awe of how forward-moving these practices were. I was trying to take in every moment, whether it was with a scout, the director of player personnel or Coach Belichick. There was so much information about culture, details, about the game itself and how they play it -- winning situational football -- it sort of just overwhelms you.
Any specific examples stand out?
Mason: Spending time with Dante [Scarnecchia]. The best O-line coach in the biz, just for him to make it as simple as it was, but then to put it back on you and ask, 'OK, what are you doing? What can I learn from you?' They asked us a lot of questions about how we do things at Vanderbilt, what it looks like, how we manage tackling. With all the knowledge they have, they were still trying to gain as much from us as we were gaining from them. That was impressive because they are at the pinnacle of their profession and they're still trying to gain knowledge to be better. It's unreal, man.
It's a special place. The culture that is in that building starts with ownership, and then it goes all the way down. It's about winning. It's about a culture of pride and discipline and understanding that you can't move forward looking in the rearview mirror.
Attention to detail sounds like a big theme. Where else did you see it?
Mason: It was a morning special-teams meeting and Coach Belichick and their special-teams coach [Joe Judge] got up and they were going through a drill. Most of the time, you go through the clip and it's "good job" or "bad job -- we need to keep our eyes up." It was about three [film] clips in and it probably took him about 10 minutes, because he went through "step," "movement," "come to balance," "strike," "finish." And then he said, "This is the way we do it." Then he took another clip and showed a not-so-great way to do it. It wasn’t so much criticism as much as it was teaching, and that's what helped you understand "that's where the genius is." It's in doing the mundane things extremely well. They don't beat themselves, because they do the mundane things well: from tackling, to how they leverage the football, to how they run a route, to how they coordinate and communicate on special teams. To me, that's one example, but there were several.
Tom Brady talking to his receivers about the detail of a route, stopping practice and making sure that it was done correctly. The guys teaching the young receivers how to get it right, what the expectation is. It wasn't just Tom. It was [Jimmy] Garoppolo, as well. You just saw a lot of leadership. The veteran leadership showed itself to me: Everybody takes ownership in this deal.
The bottom line is if it looks like you're having to do your job and their job, they're moving on to the next dude. That's pretty cool to me, because a lot of times nowadays, people think professional athletes are coddled and put on a pedestal. Not at this place. The biggest guy in the organization is working as hard as the free agent. That sets the tone for what this game is, and what their culture is, which is championship all the way.
How much do you think this will affect your coaching philosophy going forward?
Mason: It's changed me. I thought we were doing a pretty good job of moving it along, but you know what? You need to be more myopic about what you do. Does it work? Why are you doing it? Taking the feedback from the guys, and knowing and understanding it's about the players. There are a lot of great coaches and schemes, but does it benefit your players? Does it put them in the best position to be successful? And do they see themselves getting better? The proof is in the winning and the maintenance of the culture, and how the culture can actually sustain itself over time.
I truly believe, looking at their personnel and how they turn over personnel and what it looks like, it's very similar to the college game. So for me, being able to understand that every year you need to recalibrate it, it starts over, you put it away, you build it up, you build it around what you have and then you move it forward. Then you keep tinkering and adapting and adjusting it until you really get it dialed in to where that team doesn't beat itself and they do it so well that they can't get it wrong -- that's where it's at.
2. Mason's connection to Belichick has a few layers. It essentially began when Mason, who is in his late 40s, was hired as Vanderbilt coach in 2014 and the two met during Belichick's annual spring scouting trip to the school. Belichick had plans to stick around Nashville to run an annual 5-kilometer race, which gave them some extra time to get to know each other, and things have grown from there. Four years later, Mason said he now considers the 65-year-old Belichick a mentor the same way he views the likes of Jim Harbaugh, David Shaw and Leslie Frazier, among others. "He's really taken time to help me, my growth as a head coach, and our program overall," Mason said, adding that he also has ties to two of Belichick's assistant coaches -- Brendan Daly (defensive line) and Chad O'Shea (receivers) -- from when they were on the same Minnesota Vikings coaching staff (2007, 2008). Belichick, of course, was born in Nashville, and his late father, Steve, coached at Vanderbilt (1949-1952), so his connection to the school runs deep.
3. Mason is far from the lone college coach to visit the Patriots, as UCLA offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, for example, was with Belichick and his staff through the first two days of this year's training camp. Fisch is working to install a quick-rhythm passing game like the Patriots' at UCLA, where quarterbacks have spent a lot of time studying Brady this year.
4. One of the notable stories of Patriots training camp has been the absence of veteran defensive end Rob Ninkovich for what Belichick described as personal reasons. Ninkovich isn't expected to participate in practice Sunday. It would be a surprise if we didn't get more clarity on Ninkovich's situation within the next 24 hours or so, as the 33-year-old has been considering retirement.
5. If Ninkovich does decide to retire, I'd expect the Patriots to give him the same type of first-class send-off as they have for others -- Matt Light, Kevin Faulk, Troy Brown and Doug Flutie are a few who come to mind. Those send-offs are generally reserved for players who suited up for the franchise for an extended period of time, finished their career with the Patriots and represented the organization with class on and off the field. Ninkovich checks off all the boxes. The Patriots have called a 12:15 p.m. ET news conference for Sunday, and perhaps this is the reason why.
6. Compounding Ninkovich's absence on the field has been a different-than-anticipated transition from Carolina to New England for defensive end Kony Ealy. The Patriots acquired Ealy and a third-round pick (No. 72) in exchange for a second-rounder (No. 64) in March, and at the time, it seemed like a low-risk move at a bargain-basement cost for a possible No. 3 end behind Trey Flowers and Ninkovich. But Ealy was held out of the first day of training camp (coach's decision) before returning for the past two days of work. Ealy had also been held out of some spring practices (coach's decision). The fourth-year player could ultimately become a productive addition for the Patriots, but he currently has some ground to make up.
7. In the Patriots' first full-pads practice of training camp Saturday, it stood out that veteran linebacker David Harris had the green dot on his helmet as the primary communicator at one point and was playing alongside what many would consider the team's starting personnel. It's extremely early, but when I saw it, the initial thought was how Patriots coaches seem to have significant plans for the 33-year-old. Since Harris doesn't factor into the special-teams mix, it also makes me wonder if a player like second-year linebacker Elandon Roberts -- who, like Harris, isn't a huge factor on special teams -- might be affected most by Harris' arrival in terms of a roster spot, because a club can carry only so many linebackers who don't have significant roles in the kicking game.
8. A set-the-DVR reminder for Patriots followers: Second-year receiver Malcolm Mitchell will be profiled on ESPN's E:60 on Sunday at 9 a.m. ET. Mitchell came through in the clutch for the Patriots in the second half of Super Bowl LI, but this story is about much more than that.
Also, ESPN's SportsCenter on the Road comes to training camp Sunday, starting at 8 a.m. ET.
9. Patriots running back Mike Gillislee is listed on the roster at 219 pounds, but on Saturday he said he's actually 215. That's a different look for the team's top power-back option compared to 250-pound LeGarrette Blount, the player who occupied that role in recent years. But if Saturday's first goal-line drill is any indication, Gillislee has plenty to offer in the power department.
10. The Patriots Hall of Fame has updated its Super Bowl exhibit to add Super Bowl LI, and when I checked it out last week, I learned more about how Belichick viewed the team's epic comeback. In a video in the exhibit, Belichick explained how the Falcons had just two running backs active for the game, and once their best pass-protector (Tevin Coleman) went out with injury, Patriots coaches wanted to make sure to challenge the only other running back in that area (Devonta Freeman). Hence the call by defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to send Dont'a Hightower off the edge on the play that produced a momentum-swinging strip sack of Matt Ryan, with Freeman missing the block.