THE BELIEF There isno hype surrounding this team, no big talk, no attitude of any kind. This is aclose-to-the-vest outfit, so much so that their superstar quarterback, TomBrady, can miss three days of practice without any sort of publicexplanation.
THE REALITY Ah, onemust read between the lines. Never mind what anyone is saying. The truth can befound in Bill Belichick's brutal training-camp practices. When the heat was atits most blistering, the team ran off five sets of two-a-day workouts, most ofthem in full pads. Clubs like the Bills, for instance, already had run theirlast two-a-day.
You sense realanger here. There were soft moments last season. Too soft. In one eight-gamestretch, seven teams gained 400 or more yards each on the New England D, andBuffalo came within six yards of making it eight for eight. At the end of thatrun the defense ranked 29th in the league. And in the divisional-playoff lossto Denver the Patriots moved the ball but fell apart with five turnovers.
Last time thishappened, after the disappointing 2002 season, New England returned to winback-to-back Super Bowls. This time Belichick is attacking the problem in anelemental way--through work. He calls it a "return to fundamentals,"and at one of his sessions with the media he took pains to point out thatfundamentals are not something for the classroom. They're drilled into players'hearts and minds in those terrible dog days of late July and August, in fullpads and two-a-days practices.
Which might ormight not make up for the lopsided unrestricted free-agent drain that markedthe Patriots' off-season. They signed four. They lost eight, includingproductive wideout David Givens, starting tackle Tom Ashworth and AdamVinatieri, the greatest clutch kicker of all time. "I'm used toadversity," Belichick says. "Some of our best seasons were achievedthrough adversity. In 2001 our quarterbacks coach, Dick Rehbein, died of heartfailure. Then we lost our starting quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, and Tom Brady ledus to a Super Bowl victory. In 2003 our offensive line was banged up, andeverybody was asking how we were going to handle the Panthers' defensive linein the Super Bowl with a unit that had a rookie and two free agents. We didO.K. Then the next year our secondary was a shambles, and we got through. Ifyour organization is strong enough, you find a way."
Looking foradversity? Strong safety Rodney Harrison, an emotional leader, is working hisway back from a severe knee injury, after having missed most of last season.Tedy Bruschi, the brilliant linebacker who made a triumphant return from a mildstroke, broke his wrist during the first week of camp. No prognosis supplied.There never is with this team.
Brady remainsoptimistic. It's his nature. For one thing he's never had a speed threat out ofthe backfield like top draft pick Laurence Maroney. "He's a strange kind ofa back," Brady says. "He's not the kind of guy who'll pound it inside,but you see him take off around the edge, and he'll get hemmed in, and it lookslike about a two-yard run. But before you know it, he's nine yards downfieldand no one's tackled him. You never know what's going to happen if you get theball in his hands."
You never knowwhat's going to happen.... Pretty good capsule of the 2006 Patriots.
17 at N.Y. Jets
1 at Cincinnati
22 at Buffalo
30 at Minnesota(M)
12 N.Y. JETS
19 at Green Bay
10 at Miami
31 at Tennessee
NFL rank T25
Opponents' 2005winning percentage .473
Games againstplayoff teams 5
AN OPPOSING TEAM'SSCOUT SIZES UP THE PATRIOTS
> They've leftthemselves short-handed at wideout, and if they don't hurry up and get DeionBranch signed, they'll really be short. Getting free agent Reche Caldwell fromthe Chargers was a good move, but only to be a No. 2 receiver. Branch has gotto be their No. 1.
> It seems asif they picked up guys who were either disappointing players, such as JonathanSullivan, or players on the downside, such as Tebucky Jones and Eric Warfield.I think they feel their magic touch with personnel can last forever.
> The bestplayer on the team is still Tom Brady. He makes everyone around him better.He's the one guy I'd take if I were starting a franchise.
> They'll be inthe playoffs. Their defense will get them there.
They have to figureout how to get No. 1 pick Laurence Maroney into the open field, so he can usehis speed.
He isn't quite surewhat his best 40 time was. "Something like 4.38 at our Pro Day incollege," says the third-year man out of Georgia. "At the combine Ithink it was around 4.5." Which is about as fast as you'll see a 255-poundtight end run. As a part-time starter in '05 he caught 29 passes and averaged15.2 yards, highest of any tight end in the NFL. "Don't be surprised if yousee him lining up outside as a wide receiver," says Tom Brady. "We wantto do anything we can to get him the ball in space."
COACH BILLBELICHICK (99-77 in NFL), seventh season with New England
RECHE CALDWELL --NEW ACQUISITION
STEPHEN GOSTKOWSKI(R) -- NEW ACQUISITION
SACKS 1 1/2
JUNIOR SEAU -- NEWACQUISITION
SACKS 4 1/2
(R) Rookie (college statistics)
NFL RANK (RUSH/PASS/TOTAL)
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DAVID E. KLUTHO (BRADY)
VULNERABLE Brady's gotten help in the ground game, but is it enough to counter the free-agent drain?
HELMET PHOTO BY DAVID N. BERKWITZ