It’s the first game of the 2008 season.
The New England Patriots are playing at home against the Kansas City Chiefs. The game is scoreless and the Patriots are driving on their second possession. Its first-and-10 at the Chiefs’ 42 yard line and 7:38 remains in the first quarter. Tom Brady throws and completes a 28-yard pass to Randy Moss at the Kansas City 14. The first quarter isn’t even half way over and Brady is already seven-for-11 with 76 yards. The Patriots are coming off an unbeaten 2007 regular season, marred only by the frustrating and agonizing Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants. The team hasn’t lost a regular season game with Tom Brady as a starter since December 10, 2006, a streak of 19 wins in a row. The streak will stretch to 20 that day and another dream season has begun.
Except the dream turned bad: Moss fumbles the ball and the Chiefs recover. Far worse: Brady is injured and out for the season.
Matt Cassel took over and led the team to a satisfying 11-5 mark. Only five other teams in the entire league finish with more wins. The Patriots win their last four games, but miss the playoffs on a tiebreaker. After the season, Cassel is traded to Kansas City and all eyes turn to the recovering Brady.
Fast Forward to Training Camp 2009
Despite the long layoff, Brady was by far the sharpest of the four New England quarterbacks I saw during a recent visit to Patriots training camp. His passes looked as crisp as ever, laser tight spirals with perfect location. Brady did very well in the Patriots first preseason game against the Eagles last week, completing 10-of-15 passes for 100 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
Brady’s receiving corps, perhaps the best in the league, feature third-year Patriots Randy Moss and Wes Welker (second in the NFL with 111 receptions last year). They have been joined by veteran Joey Galloway, one of the league’s fastest players. Galloway made a great catch in a training camp offense vs. defense goal line challenge. After the catch, Galloway threw the ball skyward and then chest bumped Brady. (Press box pundits joked about Brady’s “elevation.”)
Winning these challenges is high on the player excitement scale, as the losers (coaches included) have to take a lap around the field. The media pay close attention to these “penalty laps,” which are given for blown assignments and lost challenges. They joked how head coach Bill Belichick never has to take a lap, something the players and press would love to see.
Attending training camp is a great way to see the team in action and get close to the players. Practices are divided into about a dozen segments varying from five to 13 minutes. The first segments involve stretching and small group drills. The final segments are full offense vs. defense scrimmages with blocking, but no tackling. Some of the more interesting drills are:
• Receivers and defenders going one-on-one
• All four quarterbacks throwing simultaneously to four receivers running patterns
• Kickoff returns
The Patriots have added several players through trades and free agency. They also have a promising group of rookies.
I interviewed first-year player Julian Edelman, who was a run-oriented quarterback at Kent State in Ohio. Edelman won the starting position at Kent State as a sophomore, after transferring from the College of San Mateo. As a senior, the native Californian completed 153-of-275 passes and led the team in rushing with 1,551 yards. Edelman was all over the place during practice, fielding and defending kickoffs, catching passes and running the end around. At 6-feet, 198 pounds, he is rock solid. In the preseason game, the seventh round draft pick led the team with five receptions, returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown, and had a kickoff return of 24 yards. After the game, Belichick commented, “Julian’s good with the ball in his hands. He’s done that all throughout camp.”
Asked about his background, Edelman told me. “I grew up a (San Francisco Forty) Niner fan, a fan of the Pac 10. I’ve always had to kind of go (through) the back door. I just go where I’m wanted, where I have the opportunity to play. That’s what I’ve done throughout by career.”
Regarding the versatility he has displayed in camp Edelman said, “The more you can do, the more you can help the team. That’s crucial to my game because I don’t have necessarily a set position coming in as a quarterback. The more I can do, the better for me.”
Asked about the rigors of his first pro training camp he said, “It’s pretty tough, but we’ve had camps in college. The physical aspect of the game is a little different because I was a quarterback all my career. So of course, physically it’s a lot tougher, running around a lot and doing that. Jumping up to the next level, you know that it’s going to be very hard. You kind of expect it, but it is a handful.”
Asked about how the veterans treat the rookies Edelman said, “Veterans, that’s why this team is different, because if you can help the team, they’re going to welcome you. If you can help them, they’re going to help you. Do whatever you can to help this team. It’s all about winning. That’s the cool thing about this team. Of course, you have your rookie duties like carrying gear, but the guys (veterans) are pretty cool and they help us a lot.”
Was he concerned about the December weather in New England? Edelman said, “I went to school in Ohio; we had the lake effect snow. I’m not saying I’m used to it, being a California kid, but I have played in it.”
Among the newly acquired veterans are receiver Greg Lewis, tight ends Chris Baker and Alex Smith and running back Fred Taylor. Taylor, who gained 11,271 yards in 11 years with Jacksonville, was asked about his impressions of Tom Brady on the field. He replied, “High sense of urgency, committed, it’s a no brainer to know why he’s been successful. I was wondering why he always kicked our (behinds) in the playoffs. I see up close and personal now.”
A Maine Connection
Another veteran in camp is unrestricted free agent Brandon McGowan, a 2005 graduate of the University of Maine. McGowan is the first Maine player on the Patriots since Clay Pickering caught a 10-yard pass in 1987, the only reception of his career. The 6′ 5″ Pickering was a basketball star, who played football during his last semester. The only other Maine graduate to suit up for the Patriots was defensive back Dave Cloutier who played in 12 games in 1964.
McGowan played four years with the Chicago Bears, starting in 13 of the 25 contests he played in. In 2005, he was the only undrafted Bears rookie to make the active roster, and started the final three games of the season. In 2007, he started nine games and had two interceptions. Last year, McGowan’s play was limited due to a season ending ankle injury in September. He has healed, and as observed by my son and his friend, McGowan (who was graciously signing autographs) is “strong” and has “big muscles.”
McGowan smiled when he heard I was from Maine, and took the time to speak with me before heading off the field.
At Maine, McGowan wore No. 4, which he inherited from San Diego Chargers starter Stephen Cooper ‘03 and then bequeathed to Daren Stone ’06 who played in eight games for the Ravens last year. “I still keep in touch with Stephen Cooper”, he said. “We have the same agent.”
Asked about how it feels to be back in New England, McGowan said, “Feels good, I’m an East Coast guy myself. I’m from Jersey, so you’ve got to love it.”
Given his New Jersey roots, I asked him who the Maine team rooted for on Sundays. He replied, ” It was mostly Pats, but we still had a few Giants fans, Jet fans.”
As he walked off, I told him that everyone from Maine would be rooting for him. He replied, “Thank you and I appreciate it”
As I walked away from training camp that day, I too was appreciative. The Patriots had once again assembled a group of very competitive, first class players who will undoubtedly provide us with great excitement this fall.
The season begins Monday night, Sept. 14, when New England hosts the Buffalo Bills.
Head coach Bill Belichick held court after practice.