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Camp lessons: Bill Belichick still brilliant in handling distraction

When Bill Belichick strode to his lectern on July 24, handed his visor to an assistant and began one of the most somber -- and candid -- news conferences of his career, he provided an inadvertent display of one of the most important lessons from the first two weeks of training camp.

This has become the summer of compartmentalizing in the NFL, and what we've learned since camps opened -- underscored by the way the Philadelphia Eagles struggled last week with the messy fallout from receiver Riley Cooper's racial slur -- is what we've always suspected: Nobody does it as effectively as the New England Patriots.

There are, of course, more routine findings to report from across the league -- the breakout players, the trends in the game. But Belichick's unusually forthright briefing on former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez that day, conducted, surreally, while Hernandez was facing a judge just a few miles away, served as a clinic on how to contain and largely dismiss a distraction that might otherwise engulf a team.

He spoke two days before the Patriots even began practicing and one day before his team captains faced reporters. Reading first from notes and then responding to questions, Belichick admitted sadness, shock, disappointment and hurt at the horror of a player he had drafted being charged with murder. Belichick didn't go as far as many would have liked -- there was no delving into the details of how much the Patriots knew about Hernandez before they drafted him, for instance -- but he went far enough to accomplish his goal.

Belichick spoke that day with an express purpose: to address the questions and criticisms of the team that sprang from Hernandez's arrest once, and only once, and to insulate the team from the swirl of ensuing events. It was a far more serious and sobering exercise than the one Belichick undertook when he signed Tim Tebow -- his performance in *that* news conference was a classic "We'll use him the best way we can for the team" Belichick effort. But in both cases, the Patriots' plan has quieted the din, allowing the team to return to the blissful predictability of practice.

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Tebow is not the sideshow he was with the New York Jets, his failed passes and occasional catches in practice amounting to little more than fodder for one-liners right now. And Hernandez, more remarkably, has been decisively separated from the Patriots, at least when it comes to the players who are preparing for the season. The primary topic of conversation around Foxborough now is about how the depth chart is shaping up at receiver.

It's hard to overstate the importance of being able to contain a distraction, but look no further than the Patriots' 2007 run to a Super Bowl appearance in the wake of Spygate to see the results. The Patriots and Eagles are practicing together this week before playing a preseason game Friday night. The Hernandez situation might have already encouraged teams to dig deeper into players' backgrounds before drafting them, and Patriots management might still face more questions about what it knew of Hernandez when he was with the team. But for now, as the Eagles try to move on from their own firestorm -- albeit about a far less devastating situation than Hernandez's -- the Patriots have provided a roadmap.

On to more things we've learned from the first couple weeks of camp:

Everybody hurts: The early wave of season-crushing injuries -- like those suffered by Eagles receiver Jeremy Maclin (knee), Baltimore Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta (hip) and Green Bay Packers left tackle Bryan Bulaga (knee) -- seized headlines before some teams even put on pads for the first time. But it is too early to draw any conclusions about whether there is a common thread, said John Mara, the New York Giants' president and a member of the Competition Committee, which scrutinizes injury numbers and trends.

"I am not sure there have been any more injuries than in previous years, but we have had some high-profile players get hurt," Mara wrote in an email. "I think it is mostly bad luck -- there certainly is less contact now than ever before."

Because of that, and because some of the recent injuries occurred without any contact at all, speculation has centered on the condition of players coming out of the offseason. Denver Broncos coach John Fox, who lost starting center Dan Koppen for the season with a torn ACL, doesn't see much of a trend, though.

"It hasn't changed in 20-something years," he said. "I don't think it's changed really in the other 31 cities. It's football."

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No telling what Jets will do: For better or worse, the New York Jets have a legitimate quarterback competition on their hands. The boos that Mark Sanchez heard after he badly overthrew a receiver and was intercepted by Antonio Cromartie in a controlled scrimmage Saturday got plenty of attention -- although he then saved a forgettable day with a dazzling 57-yard touchdown pass.

The bigger takeaway, though, is that rookie Geno Smith has improved enough since the spring to make this a dead heat, and if the two remain neck and neck, coach Rex Ryan and general manager John Idzik face a fascinating decision. There will be plenty of tea leaf-reading in the next few weeks. First indicator to wildly obsess over: Sanchez will start the Jets' preseason opener against the Detroit Lions.

Who will fit the Bills? The other quarterback competition in the AFC East is just as close. Kevin Kolb -- maybe the unluckiest person in football after he slipped on a mat at camp and twisted his left knee -- performed poorly enough in the first week with the Buffalo Bills that he opened the door for rookie EJ Manuel, who looked like the better quarterback. Kolb was held out of Sunday's practice, which certainly doesn't help his reputation for being injury-prone. Given that opening, what did Manuel, who possesses a strong arm and running ability, do? He threw three interceptions.

It's still far too early to make the call, but remember how, after Buffalo first drafted Manuel, everybody thought he would be a long-term project? He might still be. Of course, he could be the starter, too, because the Bills might simply not have a better option.

Dolphins rising? Not so fast: The projections for the Miami Dolphins to perhaps challenge the New England Patriots in the AFC East will likely need some adjusting after Sunday night's Hall of Fame Game. The Dolphins' first-team offense -- operating without receivers Mike Wallace or Brian Hartline, who were both held out while nursing injuries -- fumbled on its first snap of the game. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill was just 2-of-5 for 11 yards.

Putting the 'D' in Dallas: Monte Kiffin's 4-3 defense is off to a promising start as the Dallas Cowboys continue the transition from Rob Ryan's 3-4. Since he replaced Ryan as defensive coordinator, Kiffin has talked about the importance of forcing turnovers -- a hallmark of his Tampa Bay Buccaneers teams -- for a Cowboys squad that recorded just 16 last season. The Cowboys recovered a fumble on the Dolphins' first offensive snap in the Hall of Fame Game. Later, an interception was returned for a touchdown. Not bad, considering defensive stalwarts DeMarcus Ware and Sean Lee didn't play.

Big Blue youth movement: Two rookies to watch on the New York Giants as the games begin: pass rusher Damontre Moore, who has impressed with the ample opportunity he's been given in practice in the absence of Jason Pierre-Paul (back), and 320-pound defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, who could be a critical cog in improving the Giants' run defense.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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