Bill Belichick opened training camp this year by noting that "our players really, overall, had a real good spring." He lauded the players' "big, strong jumps" in the offseason, and then volunteered it was "a little bit more than normal or maybe we anticipated."
This is the closest Belichick gets to trash talking. When a player loves his team a little too much, he boasts about going undefeated or "owning" the division. When Belichick likes his team, he parcels out an unusual amount of praise for his young players. The man once nicknamed "Doom" is positively sunny this training camp.
In fairness, this is always one of Belichick's favorite times of the calendar. These are the weeks he talks about to his legendary biographer or to NFL Films. These are the weeks closest to football distilled, where installation turns to competition, where the team takes its shape.
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Belichick starts every offseason with a speech about starting over from scratch. Asked about the previous season, Belichick comes up with various ways to say that last year's team no longer exists. It holds lessons, but not any meaningful connection to this year's team. The Patriots seemingly go out of their way to disrupt continuity, with the departures of Nate Solder, Malcolm Butler, Brandin Cooks and Dion Lewis feeling as on-brand as a sleeveless hoodie. Other teams talk about moving on, but Belichick lives it. Cliches become cliche because they are true, and starting over represents Belichick's truth.
Perhaps Belichick looks lighter because the accumulated weight of last season is gone. The Jimmy G question no longer looms, however questionably it was answered. The explosive ESPN article by Seth Wickersham about the Patriots is further in the rearview mirror, along with perhaps Tom Brady's best postseason. Brady's trainer Alex Guerrero is at the facility on a daily basis, Rob Gronkowski is healthy and camp is mostly quiet once more. Most importantly, Belichick has the opportunity to build a competitive defense again.
The Patriots finished second-to-last in defensive efficiency last season, according to Football Outsiders. While the team did a remarkable job preventing points late in the regular season, the team's offensive dominance, Belichick's coaching and the fifth-easiest schedule in football were huge reasons why. It was not a talented or deep Patriots defense. It was among the worst defenses of the Belichick era. When the team finally faced a dangerous offense in the playoffs, the Patriots gave up 41 points and wasted a record-setting day by Brady.
The trade acquisition of Browns nose tackle Danny Shelton and the free-agent signing of Adrian Clayborn were made in response. Shelton was installed to open camp as a starter at defensive tackle and will be part of a rotation on the interior that includes third-year pro Vincent Valentine, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, as well as last year's starters, Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy.
Clayborn provides a significant upgrade on the edge for a team that was starting players picked up from the Bills practice squad (Eric Lee) or from the waiver wire (James Harrison). Even if you remove Clayborn's career-making game against Dallas, no Falcons defender had more pressures in 2017. That's potentially three new starters on the defensive line, while defensive captain Dont'a Hightower returns at linebacker, perhaps the unit's best player.
Belichick's baffling decision to bench Butler in the Super Bowl helped to overshadow the team's awful run defense and total lack of depth. The Patriots were forced to play nine starters over 60 snaps (out of 73) in the Super Bowl, a problem that shouldn't be the case again, provided they enjoy even a modicum of good health. Derek Rivers, a third-round pick in 2017 who tore his ACL last August, provides another edge pass-rushing option, and Belichick is also high on second-year pro Deatrich Wise, who played 545 snaps as a rookie.
"Those two kids are here all the time," Belichick said last week. "They're the first ones in, the last ones out. They're extremely diligent hard workers in the weight room and in the classroom and on the field. I think they'll both make a good jump this year."
Belichick is so happy with this group that he's suggesting candidates for our Making the Leap series. And the praise has spread throughout the roster. Belichick said second-year tight end Jacob Hollister, who has been seen working extra with Tom Brady, has a "great future." Belichick said it has been great to work with new left tackle Trent Brown, comparing him to the team's entrenched right tackle, Marcus Cannon. All of this individual appreciation is unique in camp for Belichick, but he only throws bouquets out to players he thinks can handle it.
The Patriots are deep at nearly every position except cornerback and perhaps wide receiver. If the season were to begin this week, Reiss suggests that Phillip Dorsett would probably be starting opposite Chris Hogan at wideout. That could leave Hollister with a big role as a second receiving tight end and plenty of receptions for running backs James White, Rex Burkhead and first-round pick Sony Michel. The offense will look rather different than last year's attack, which featured a lot of vertical passing, but Belichick seems to prefer different every season.
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Belichick's tinkering with the coaching staff achieves some of the same effects. The departure of Matt Patricia -- whose run as defensive coordinator could best be described as bend but don't break -- will allow linebackers coach Brian Flores to call plays. (Like Patricia, he'll have to wait at least a season before getting a coordinator title.) Belichick has also brought in former Arkansas coach Bret Bielema as a consultant and martial arts expert Joe Kim to help with the team's pass rushers.
After coaching a trio of Belichick favorites in college (White, Wise and Trey Flowers), Bielema was brought aboard for some fresh eyes. Kim has worked with a number of NFL teams, starting with Belichick on the 1992 Browns.
If the position battles and coaching staff don't make this season feel different enough in New England, the NFL's rule changes should help. Dramatically changing kickoffs is practically a direct challenge from the league to Belichick to take advantage. Belichick's background in special teams has helped keep the team on the cutting edge, with the Patriots finishing among the top eight in special teams efficiency for eight straight years, according to Football Outsiders. The Patriots prioritize special teams with dollars and draft picks, continuing the trend when they traded for perhaps the league's best special-teamer, Cordarrelle Patterson.
After the league moved the kickoff to the 35-yard line in 2011, the Patriots exploited it by having Stephen Gostkowski hit pop flies that didn't go into the end zone, inviting the return. Their excellent field-position numbers reflect the wisdom of that move. The changes this season are far more pervasive and complex, and no one is better positioned to stack small advantages from them than Belichick.
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While so much changes within these Patriots, Belichick and Brady remain. And after a markedly different approach to offseason practices and open questions about his conviction to play, Brady sounds ready to roll. In an interview with the new "Religion of Sports" website that he started with Michael Strahan and Gotham Chopra, Brady credits his travel and extra time with his family for helping him "recharge and get emotionally ready for another football season." Brady says that he "found my conviction. It's football season -- LET'S GO!!!!"
Who am I to doubt a man who goes quadruple-exclamation-point?
"Over the last few seasons I've become a lot more aware of time, in general," Brady said, echoing many who are hitting 40. "It's not just training camp or football -- it's everything."
Time can feel warped when it comes to these Patriots. The first Is the Dynasty over? articles came in January of 2010, after a blowout playoff loss to the Ravens and some rare doubt the team would even make the playoffs the following season. One of the team's most innovative, surprising offenses emerged the following season, setting the table for seven straight AFC Championship appearances this decade, where the only constants were dramatic roster reconstructions.
All of the Patriots' hardware didn't make last February's loss to the Eagles any easier. It made the aftermath even worse, because Belichick and Brady know better than anyone how difficult it is to make it back. They are aware, deep down, how improbable and historic their entire trajectory has been. But they can't admit it yet, or the whole operation falls apart.
The Patriots prove there is no such thing as a happy ending in sports. There are no endings at all, unless you count retirement, which is a sort of death to someone like Belichick or Brady. There is only struggle, the slow climb to the top and the rebirth of training camp. Nothing makes Bill Belichick happier than starting over.