FOXBORO — The NFL opened training camps five weeks ago with an breathless flurry of activity.
Life in the league was on fast-forward from late July, an unprecedented stretch when the entire league was turned upside down by new rules, forced to go through a frantic free agent period that was compressed from a couple of months to a couple of weeks and a barely there window for each team to sign its own draftees if they wanted them in camp fast enough to get up to speed in their own system. It was a wild preseason unlike any other.
But now, with camps complete and the preseason coming to an end, there’s a sense of normalcy starting to return to the game. For the Patriots, that was evident Thursday night in Foxboro, as New England lost to the Giants 18-17 (click here for the complete recap) in a relatively uneventful game that everyone was seemingly hurrying to finish so the regular season could begin as soon as possible.
More so than any other preseason game, the result really didn’t matter. Instead, it served as another reminder that Tom Brady (who went 5-for-9 for 116 yards, zero touchdowns and zero interceptions in 18 snaps) is now a quarterback again instead of a plaintiff. That rookies like Nate Solder are no longer unknown quantities, but actual football players with real game reps under their belts. And new veterans like Chad Ochocinco (who had one catch for nine yards Thursday night) and Albert Haynesworth (who had two tackles in his preseason debut) are beginning to settle in, finding spots on the depth chart and starting to become acclimated to the system.
It was a long and difficult offseason for everyone, but now, one of the more anticipated regular seasons in NFL history can begin. For New England, that comes next Monday night in Miami.
“I think everybody’s looking forward to the start of the season,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said after the book had closed on New England’s preseason. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, and we’ll get started on it tomorrow.”
Here are nine other things we learned Thursday night in Foxboro.
ALBERT HAYNESWORTH WOULD LIKE A TIME MACHINE
The defensive tackle, who saw his first action of the preseason on Thursday, has been in New England since July 28, but his experience to this point has him wondering why he didn’t think about joining the Patriots when he became a free agent two years ago.
“To me, it’s a career-saving place to come. I had no idea it was going to be like this, but it’s unbelievable. I wish I would have took notice two years ago and came here,” said Haynesworth, who ended up signing a massive deal with the Redskins for $100 million, with $41 million guaranteed.
“You don’t have to watch your back or anything like that. Everyone is here for you. I really enjoy that. My head coach is for me. I know my owner is for me. My players are for me. I feel relaxed. I’m having fun again. I’m having fun playing football.
“All said and done, I’d give that money back and I’d come here.”
Haynesworth, who was MIA for much of camp, returned to practice on a regular basis in late August, and has now been present at four consecutive practices. On Thursday night, he was on the field for 16 snaps. On his first play from scrimmage, he picked up New York offensive lineman Chris White and drove him back into Giants’ quarterback David Carr. He was clearly gassed as his night continued, and his football fitness remains an issue as the regular-season looms. But when it comes to opening acts with the Patriots, Haynesworth clearly feels pretty good with where he is.
“I felt good. My chest started burning, it was colder than I thought it would be. I thought it was still summer,” he said. “As far as football condition, I felt pretty good. I want to work on my explosion a little more — knocking people back at the line of scrimmage and getting after the quarterback a little more.”
Here’s more from a remarkable postgame Q&A with Haynesworth.
On his conditioning: “It’s not conditioning. What we do here is pretty good and unbelievable, it will help you retain a lot. We got a lot of depth, you know, had good depth at Tennessee, but here, we got great depth. We got guys who can go to any other team and start. Like coach told us: ‘Go as hard as you can for how many ever plays. If that’s three, four plays, do that, come out, and have somebody come in and send another wave of attack.’ So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to play as hard as I possibly can. When I get gassed, I’m going to come out.”
On playing next to Vince Wilfork, Andre Carter and Shaun Ellis: “I can’t believe it. We have a lot of experience and a lot of great guys. I called Shaun Ellis ‘Big Cat’ because he was in college with me and was like my big brother. Cared about me, took care of me in college. It’s just awesome to play with him again. And Vince, I met him in the Pro Bowl and had a great time. And Andre, of course, we spent two years together in D.C. Also being around the younger guys is awesome. I feel right at home here. I wish I would have been here earlier.”
On if this is a last chance: “God forbid I got cut from this team … yeah, I know I could go out there and play for another team. But I feel like this is going to be my last place I want to play, you know. If it doesn’t work out here, then I’m not going to play anywhere else.”
On rotation depth and not having to go for long stretches: “Here you don’t have to. The first play of the game I was out there we got a fumble recovery and I didn’t come in for two series because we had great guys out there. That’s awesome to me, having a great rotation and having great players out there that can rush the passer and stop the run.”
On Bill Belichick: “I think he’s a brilliant coach. I always thought from the time I got in the NFL and definitely playing against him, I always thought he was an awesome coach. I always wanted to play for him. Ten years later, here I am.”
Differences between here and Washington: “S---, you name it. Pull them out of the sky.”
On his first play when he nearly got to New York quarterback David Carr: “Hell, I wanted to get a sack. David Carr always gives me sacks. I like David.”
AMONG THE GUYS ON THE FRINGES OF THE ROSTER, MATTHEW SLATER DID MORE TO SECURE A SPOT ON THE TEAM THAN ANYONE ELSE
Slater, who has played just about everywhere in his three seasons with the Patriots, turned in another solid preseason performance on Thursday night. In addition to a solid night on special teams, the UCLA product hauled in a 67-yard reception from Tom Brady in the first quarter that set up BenJarvus Green-Ellis’s second touchdown run that helped give the Patriots a 17-3 lead.
“It was a crossing route,” said Slater, who was open because Ochocinco drew the defense in his direction, which left him ridiculously wide open. “It was a route ... kind of one of our base routes we’ve been running since Day One, so I was just trying to do what I could get to get open, and Tom saw me late and put it on me. I just tried to make a play.”
It puts the capper on a preseason where Slater had five catches for 190 yards, an average of 38 yards per reception (easily the highest average on the team). He was the only receiver on the team to finish with a reception of at least 40, 50 and 60 yards. (He had 43- and 53-yard catches from Hoyer earlier in the preseason.) Slater has also been a key special teamer — he made a terrific tackle of Jerrel Jernigan on a punt return — and came away with a pair of special teams tackles on the night.
He’s certainly taken the value of versatility that’s always preached around Gillette Stadium to heart, and hopes that it’s enough for him to survive once the final round of cuts comes this weekend.
“The coach always talks about the more you can do, the longer you’ll be around here,” Slater said. “When I came in, I really didn’t have a position, but I just love football and I was willing to do whatever it took to stick around, and that’s still my approach. I haven’t done anything — it’s preseason — so I think the key is just to stay humble and hungry and just do whatever the coaches tell you to do. If they tell me to line up at right tackle, I’ll take a pass at it if I need to, but that’s just been my mentality and my approach.”
JOSH BARRETT MADE AN ALREADY INTERESTING DEBATE AT SAFETY EVEN MORE INTERESTING
Barrett, who hadn’t played a lick for the Patriots since he arrived last fall — he was rehabbing — announced his presence with authority on Thursday night. The 6-foot-2, 225-pounder started at safety for New England against the Giants, and came away with four tackles. While the Patriots’ starters were working primarily against the New York backups, he certainly appeared comfortable running with the No. 1 defense. He was on the field for 35 defensive snaps in the first half, and did not play in the third and fourth quarter.
“Josh is a big safety that can run, has some experience, played in the kicking game, played defensively, both down and nickel defenses and also back and safety for the Broncos,” Belichick said. “Obviously, he didn’t play last year. He’s had an opportunity to practice the last couple weeks. He had a chance to play tonight, so it was good. It was good to get all those guys out there tonight that haven’t played this year in games.”
“You always want to be out on the field as much as possible and prepared to be out on the field as much as possible,” Barrett said after the game. “So with that mindset, it really is ... anything less would be a letdown. You really want to be out there as much as possible. So I wasn’t necessarily caught off guard by it.”
The safety position has had a number of moving parts over the course of the preseason, as veterans like James Sanders have been cut, new faces like James Ihedigbo have been signed and some established players like Brandon Meriweather have appeared to slide down the depth chart (more on him later). But Barrett’s performance against the Giants will make the Patriots think long and hard about what to do with him when they have to make decisions about who to keep in the secondary.
“You just have to worry about what you can control, and that’s on the field stuff and all that you can do performance-wise. Being as prepared as you can when you get out there on the field and put your best foot forward,” he said when asked about his philosophy. “[But] it was good getting out there after a long hiatus of being injured and all that. So I think there’s obviously stuff that needs to be improve on, but it felt getting out there.”
KYLE ARRINGTON’S INJURY MAY HAVE CLEARED A PATH FOR DARIUS BUTLER
Arrington went down on the kickoff with an injury, and was not seen the rest of the night. In his place, the Patriots leaned heavily on Darius Butler — the cornerback played 30 defensive snaps in the first half with what was a reasonable facsimile of the No. 1 defense for most of the first two quarters. (He was on the field for five snaps in the second half, and played 11 snaps on special teams.)
If Arrington will be on the shelf for any sort of time, it figures that the Patriots would stick with Butler as their third corner. Another player who could figure into that mix at the position is Antwaun Molden, who was claimed off waivers by the Patriots yesterday and showed up early Thursday morning. By Thursday night, he was on the field with the Patriots as a cornerback.
“Yeah, it was non-stop for me, I got in about 1:30 am and was handed a playbook and I had to just get in and go,” said Molden, who was let go by Houston. “The coach just said to be ready for all aspects of the game, defense, special teams and I was told to just be ready.”
“He’s a big corner, [an] athletic guy who can run. [He] played in the kicking game,” Belichick said when asked about him after the game. “He flew in last night, so we’ve only had him for one day. I thought he did a pretty good job just being out there and being competitive at corner, so I really don’t have any idea.
NO ONE IS REALLY SURE ABOUT THE FUTURE OF BRANDON MERIWEATHER ... NOT EVEN MERIWEATHER HIMSELF
Meriweather was not on the field at the start of the game with the No. 1 defense. In fact, no one saw him — other than a few cursory snaps on special teams — for the duration of the first half. He played deep into the second half with the backups, and ended up with a pair of tackles.
“Coach always tells us [to] be ready to play for 60 minutes,” he told reporters after the game. “At any point he can put you in or take you out. Coach is going to do whatever he thinks is best for the team, and everybody else just has to live with it.
“I don’t know my situation,” Meriweather added. “I think our coaches do a great job rotating all us in. And playing a lot of guys. Getting a lot of guys a lot of playing time with other people to see how they play together so you know you never know your situation until it’s time.”
Meriweather has been a lightning rod for controversy seemingly since he showed up in 2007, and it’s reasonable to think that the sudden drop in playing time could mean he’s on the bubble when it comes to possible roster cuts this weekend, a subject he discussed with Tom E. Curran of Comcast Sports Net after the game.
“Why [does] everybody feel like I’m in trouble?” Meriweather said. “Hey, maybe they know something we don’t. Maybe they know something that (Belichick) didn’t tell us. He usually come and tell us if there’s something going on. He’s good with stuff like that so, you know, I’m just going to keep working hard and keep playing. … Ever since I was little, it’s always hard for me to get something good going about myself. Ever since I was 10 years old people been finding fault with me. I’m used to it.”
NATE SOLDER HAS A LOT LESS HAIR THAN HE DID AT THE START OF TRAINING CAMP, BUT A LOT MORE EXPERIENCE
No rookie was spared the traditional “preseason haircut,” and that includes Solder, who was shaved all the way around on he top of his head, making him look like a monk. He had it cleaned up on Thursday night (it was essentially all shaved off), and ended up going wire-to-wire on Thursday night against the Giants, the only player on the roster to be in the game all night.
The first-round pick out of Colorado started with the No. 1 offense, working at right tackle in place of Sebastian Vollmer and then flipping over to left tackle when the starting offensive line came out of the game in the first half. Solder, who has also seen time at right guard over the course of training camp, said the transition can be a tough one, but it’s one that’ll work with more reps.
“You have a lot of things in your brain that you program so long to be on the left, and then you kind of flip it to go to the right. I feel like it’s like doing a left-handed layup — after you do it a few times you get the hang of it and it gets better over time,” he said. “I’ll play wherever they need me. If they need me at right tackle I’ll be there, and if they need be at left tackle I’ll be there. Whatever it takes.”
As has been the case throughout the preseason, there were missteps here and there on Thursday — it certainly appeared he was at least partially to blame for a sack on Brian Hoyer on New England’s first offensive series of the second half when New York’s Tyler Sash came screaming in and crushed Hoyer in the back. But all in all — considering the fact that he’s only been in the system for a month — it can be measured as a successful preseason for the 6-foot-8, 319-pound Solder.
“I’ve got a lot of reps this whole preseason, and I’m sure glad of it because I needed them. I’m a rookie and I have a lot to learn, so I was thankful for all the reps,” he said. “Wherever I’m needed I’m going to be there. It isn’t a matter of where I’m comfortable — it is where the team needs me.”
“I don’t know where he’ll end up,” Belichick said. “He’s gotten a lot of work in preseason. I think he’s going to be a good player. I think he is a good player. I think he’s got a lot to learn, like all rookies do. He’s playing a tough position, but he’s certainly got the physical and mental qualities and the competitiveness and he’s a very hard worker.
“He’s made a lot of improvement in, whatever it’s been — five weeks he’s had here. And he’s still got a long way to go. I think he can be a very good player for us if he keeps working hard and continues to improve, which I hope he will.”
HE ONLY PLAYED 24 SNAPS IN THE PRESEASON, BUT SHAUN ELLIS SOUNDS READY TO GO
The former Jets defensive lineman got 24 first-half snaps in the preseason finale — his first action of the preseason — and said he wasn’t surprised he got the call in a game that is usually the exclusive domain of backups.
“I needed to work on my timing live, but it’s just one of those things, you just need to get out there and get in the flow of the game and just get used to playing in a Patriots uniform — see how they operate and go about things on game day,” he said. “It was fun. I learned a lot to, being on the sidelines and just how they go through coaching changes and all that stuff.”
The 6-foot-5, 290-pound Ellis played only the first two quarters and came away with one tackle, a seven-yard sack on Carr late in the first half that helped push the Giants far enough back that they were able to miss a field-goal attempt wide left with 18 seconds left in the first half.
“I feel good. I feel good,” said Ellis, who started camp on the PUP list. “[The Patriots] did a great job of getting me in shape and doing the things they need to do to get me ready. It’s a tremendous organization and everybody here has treated me with the utmost respect, so I feel good going into Monday night.”
Thursday marked the first time this preseason the Patriots were able to roll out what is expected to be their starting defensive front: Ellis at left defensive end, Albert Haynesworth at left defensive tackle, Vince Wilfork at right defensive tackle and Andre Carter at right defensive end. They didn’t get much time together as a group on the field this preseason, but Ellis certainly sounds optimistic about how things are shaking out.
“I thought it was good. I couldn’t really tell — I was trying to concentrate on what I was doing, but we’ll end up getting tape and critiquing ourselves and see how we can get better,” Ellis said. “I can see it starting to come together, but you know, it’s one of those things where we have to have a great week of practice this week, get ready for Miami and what they try and throw at us.”
BRANDON TATE’S TIME IN NEW ENGLAND MIGHT BE COMING TO AN END
The wide receiver/kick returner, who was so explosive over the initial stages of the 2010 season, saw a disappointing preseason come to a close on Thursday night. He was targeted four times, but did not have a catch against the Giants. (He finished the night with 12 snaps on special teams and 37 offensive snaps total — five in the first half when the starters were on the field and 32 in the second half with the backups.)
Only healthy enough to play in the last two preseason games, he had three catches for 41 yards in the preseason. To put that in perspective, Tiquan Underwood — who arrived less than a week ago — had more catches last night than Tate had all preseason. To make matters more difficult, Tate displayed none of the burst or the speed he showed over the course of last year. That was never more evident than Thursday night, when the Giants pulled a fake punt out of their bag of tricks. On the play, New York speedster Da’Rel Scott took the ball and raced 65 yards to give the Giants their first score of the night, blowing past Tate on the way to the end zone.
“Since this is the last preseason game, I try to prepare myself mentally and get my reps in while I am out there. I try to take every advantage I can while I am out there and work on what I need to do to be ready for the season,” Tate said. “Competition is always going to be high, especially with the guys the team brought in. All I can do is keep playing hard and keep doing what the team needs me to do.”
Whether it was an unknown injury (he struggled to see the field over the course of training camp), the rest of the league figuring something out about his game or the change in the kickoff rules, Tate simply was not the same guy who returned a pair of kicks for touchdowns last season. This preseason, he had five kick returns for 85 yards, an average of 17 yards, which might not be enough to survive the weekend.
“Brandon’s a great guy. He’s a good friend of mine and a great teammate,” said Matthew Slater, who has a locker next to Tate. “I have a lot of respect for him and I feel like he has a lot of respect for me and all those guys in that room. I mean, we’re all competing for the same jobs, but at the same time, we all have mutual respect for one another. We’re friends. Outside of football, life going on, we have quality friendships that will endure.”
THE NEXT TIME THE PATRIOTS TAKE THE FIELD, IT’LL BE FOR REAL
There are 11 days between the preseason finale and the start of the regular season, set for Sept. 12 against the Dolphins in Miami, and the next time the Patriots take the field, they’ll look an awful lot different than the team that was out there Thursday night against the Giants. Like the rest of the league, New England has to go from 80 to 53 players between now and Sept. 3. While several players will be let go, there will be some picked between now and then as well (linebacker Tracy White and safety Jarrad Page were two guys who were acquired between the preseason finale and the start of the regular season last year).
But while you can plan for various contingencies between now and the opener and expect certain things based on previous events, you can never really tell what the future holds as the regular season gets under way. And even then, you still have to wait a few weeks before you really know what’s going on.
“We’ll do the best we can to make up the team and put together the best squad we can. There’s always a lot of player movement this time of the season. Last year we traded for Tracy White and we weren’t even talking about him after the game last year, so things like that happen. Who knows? I don’t know,” Belichick said. “I don’t think you can ever tell. It takes about three or four regular season games before you really know what you’ve got. Without any game planning in preseason, it’s hard to tell.”