FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It was the kind of weekend in New England that a football fan could relish. Just a hint of cool in the air, the Patriots about to begin a new season at home, a chance to sate some of the curiosity about how Cam Newton will fill Tom Brady's championship-sized shoes.
It felt that way on Saturday, at least, when the mall adjacent to Gillette Stadium was packed with people eating outside and listening to local bands, strolling in their new Newton jerseys, and their old-school Edelman, Moss and -- yes -- Brady jerseys. If you still wanted one of those TB12 throwbacks, they were flapping in the soft breeze, marked 50 percent off at the local sporting goods store.
All good things, like Brady's two decades in New England, come to an end, of course, but this weekend was a stark reminder that we are not quite at the end of something terrible. Brady's departure for Tampa Bay, which might once have seemed like the most dramatic loss New England could suffer, happened back in March, a lifetime ago, just as the nation was shutting down. So, in New England this weekend, waves of fans made their way from the mall to the gate that separates a plaza from the stadium, peering in at the empty field. It was as close as they can get to the action for now.
Maybe Brady's absence would have felt like a fresher wound Sunday, during the Patriots' 21-11 victory over the Miami Dolphins, if fans could have been in the seats to appreciate that there was no more thundering playing of Jay-Z's "Public Service Announcement" as Brady sprinted down the sideline toward the end zone. Actually, there was no more thundering music at all.
Like most teams in the early part of the season, the Patriots are not allowed to have fans at their games. And with the fans went all the things teams do to keep fans engaged -- the blasting music, the scoreboard exhortations for noise, the New England-specific bleating foghorn.
It made for a surreal scene on Sunday. Route 1, the traffic-clogged artery that feeds into the stadium, was virtually empty. So were the parking lots. The only crowd was the one waiting to get into the nearby Trader Joe's. Julian Edelman was out on the field more than two hours before kickoff, as he always is, but the stadium was otherwise nearly still. The only bustling among stadium workers was from those securing the red tarps that covered rows of premium seats. No cheerleaders, no costumed men with muskets, no swells swarming the sidelines. The cheerleaders and men with muskets were strangely relegated to a bridge that overlooks the field for the game, cheering into the void.
The most jarring thing about being inside the stadium, though, was not the emptiness. It was the silence. The low hum of crowd noise teams were allowed to play may have been enough to stifle signal stealing, but it did not obscure the sounds of the hits. The violence of the collisions is always the most jarring part of watching a football practice up close, as reporters sometimes do, and it was the only thing about the stripped-down game experience that felt bigger on Sunday.
Bill Belichick was asked what he could compare it to.
"Practice," he responded. "It's like scrimmaging the Titans, scrimmaging Detroit. Basically, there are no fans there, it's just the competition. There's some energy from your teammates and your own energy."
Of course, that there were games at all this weekend -- that not one player, coach or game official tested positive before the games -- feels a bit like a miracle, a small bit of promise in the country's otherwise halting and tragic response to a worldwide pandemic. The NFL has certainly benefited from having vast resources to spend on and planning to enact a massive testing program. But, even more so, it has benefited from the extraordinary discipline and resolve of players and coaches who, absent a bubble, have not exposed themselves to situations where they would be vulnerable to infection. Imagine if the rest of the country had both.
While we wait, this is what fans missed seeing in person in New England:
- The Patriots lined up on a goal line while "Lift Every Voice and Sing" played.
- The return of a healthy freight train in Newton, who rushed 15 times for 75 yards and two touchdowns, while completing 15 passes for 155 yards. It was the most rushing yards by a Patriots quarterback (sixth-most in franchise history) since Steve Grogan, who started 135 games for New England over 16 seasons (and about whom Newton said he knew nothing), ran for 81 yards in 1977.
- Newton's first scoring play as the Patriots' QB1 coming on a 4-yard quarterback power run to the right, about as succinct a reminder that Tom Brady doesn't play here anymore. His second scoring play, after an uptempo drive, came on an 11-yard run.
- Newton making the Wakanda Forever X in celebration.
- Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels using all the zone reads, quarterback power and quarterback draws he stored up, while he had to make do all those years with merely the greatest pocket passer of all time.
"It was relatively picking up right where I remember the game to be, so to speak," Newton said. "I think it was just a feeling process, I think more so for me as well as Josh -- Coach Bill as well as Josh -- to understand who they have and what I have. So all in all, and obviously, Josh has been calling plays the same way for a long time, so now knowing with the dialogue that we had on the sidelines, it was unbelievable -- just him being transparent as well as myself being transparent on how we can attack this defense."
If you needed a final confirmation that we are in a brave new world in New England, just listen to Belichick, who coached Brady as hard as he did a third-stringer, gushing over Newton.
"Cam's been great for us," Belichick said. "He's a very, very unselfish player, a great teammate. He's earned everybody's respect, really, daily. He just continues to do everything he can to help our team, that's all you can ask from anyone. He hit a lot of passes, he ran the ball well, he led the team."
Belichick's praise for Newton has been a theme since the quarterback's arrival, and it makes two points: The idea that the gregarious Newton could not fit into the Patriots culture was always ludicrous, and Belichick knows how to coach a variety of personalities to get the best out of players.
Whether fans will be allowed to delight in this new-look Patriots iteration in person this season remains to be seen, although such a high-voltage debut deserved a live audience and a screaming soundtrack. The sight of Newton occasionally grabbing at his left hamstring is something to watch, because a healthy Newton is a weapon for the Patriots that far exceeds the one-year veteran minimum contract he signed late this summer.
Maybe it will be fitting that the Patriots' post-Brady era began without a roar, because it will never drown out Brady's accomplishments, particularly if he has success in Tampa Bay. But in the quiet of an empty stadium, Newton made a statement of his own that will resonate for the fans who, stuck at home, surely switched channels to watch Brady rush for his first Bucs touchdown after the Patriots game ended.
Newton's back, whenever everybody else is.