FOXBORO -- There has never been a sports franchise more focused and determined than the Patriots.
That single-minded purpose was again on full display this week during the team’s annual June minicamp.
What did I learn from attending all three days?
Barring injury, no one is going to touch the Patriots again in the AFC. No one.
Not the Texans and Matt Schaub. Not the Bengals and A.J. Green and Andy Dalton. Not Peyton Manning and his new Broncos teammates. Not the Steelers and Big Ben Roethlisberger. Certainly not the dysfunctional Jets, who can't even figure out who their best quarterback is.
And not even Joe Flacco and the Ravens, the team that nearly got them in the AFC championship game at Gillette.
No team is as prepared and motivated as the Patriots. And it’s only June.
Every single word that came from them this week was about the single driving purpose of being ready once the season begins.
On Thursday, I asked Belichick about Ivan Fears’ comments from Wednesday that conditioning will be the most important part of the next five weeks, time the players will have on their own to keep themselves in shape.
“I agree. They’re very important,” Belichick said of the upcoming weeks leading to training camp in late July. “I think overall these guys are in pretty good shape, but I don’t think they’re in training camp shape, real football shape. That’ll come again over the next few weeks, getting back to their offseason training, lifting and conditioning and doing things to really get them prepared for the bulk of the football season from the conditioning standpoint.”
In other words, the team will know exactly where all the players stand when they report to Belichick and company. Belichick gave the team Thursday off because -- apparently -- he liked what he saw from the team’s commitment to details. Now, it’s up to the players to take care of themselves on their own.
“We’ve done a lot of technique things, working on their skills and doing a lot of teamwork so that they can either actually execute or visualize the plays that happen relative to having somebody on the other side of the ball. That’s something you can’t simulate in your own personal workouts, you need a team setting to do that. We’ve tried to emphasize that.
“I think there’s no question between now and the start of training camp, physical conditioning, cleaning up any little nagging injuries, making sure that they do a good job with all their aspects of the training: nutrition, hydration, rest, speed, strength, power, explosive movements, those kinds of things. That’s all part of it, no question.”
Speaking of Ivan Fears, he was my favorite person to talk to this week because he pulled no punches about Stevan Ridley and ball security, Kevin Faulk and his early days and laying down the law for a group that might be overlooked -- the running backs.
“They’re going to lose a little because we’re not letting them take the playbooks [home],” Fears said. “So, they’re going to lose a little bit of it. But being exposed to it and having practiced for 13 days, their recall will be a hell of a lot better now than if they hadn’t had it.
“Like last season, when they showed up in the preseason, that was hard. That was hard. But you never know until we see them. You won’t know what they’ve learned until we see when they get back. When they get back here, we’ll know exactly what they’ve learned. That’s where we are.”
The biggest concerns for the Patriots come in the trenches. On offense, Matt Light has retired. Logan Mankins won’t be ready for the start of the season following ACL surgery. Sebastian Vollmer is still trying to get his back right after surgery. And Brian Waters may or may not decide to hang them up. But they still have Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon, Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell and Robert Gallery.
Defensively, the Patriots signed lineman Jonathan Fanene from Cincinnati but said goodbye to Mark Anderson, while Andre Carter’s future remains clearly up in the air, both with the Patriots and the NFL, after his quadriceps injury in Denver on Dec. 18.
Then there’s the secondary. Will Devin McCourty bounce back from a rough second season and adapt to multiple roles in the secondary, likely as a safety? Will Ras-I Dowling make an impact after a hip injury in his rookie season? How will 12-year veteran Will Allen turn out?
Every team has questions, but few have the coaching staff and stabilizing players like Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Rob Ninkovich to provide a calm and professional atmosphere to work in. Again, all business.
I’ve gone nearly 800 words and have not mentioned the most important name: Tom Brady.
Maybe that’s the best sign of all. We all know Brady is the best quarterback of his generation.
He’s won the most -- and by winning I mean getting to the Super Bowl five times. He’s got the most weapons and -- as our Chris Price points out -- with Brandon Lloyd in the fold, he might be ready for his biggest season yet.
He came into minicamp in phenomenal shape at 228 pounds and even pleased Belichick. “I’m right where he wants me to be,” Brady said of Belichick’s reaction to his Wednesday weigh-in.
And these words were pretty much all any Patriots fan needed to hear from the franchise.
“We’re in full preparation mode,” Brady said. “This is the point where things really start getting ramped up. There’s no breaks, we had our vacation, we had a lot of time off and now it’s time to really focus in on what we need to do because we’re going to blink and the first game is going to be here.
“You’ve got about five weeks and everyone should use it really wisely. Get in better shape, get in better football shape and have a better understanding of what we’re doing so that we can go out there and when training camp starts you can really get off to a great start in training camp.”
All business. No more Under Armour commercial shoots. No more extended vacations in spots unknown. It’s all about being ready for late July. That’s how teams with players dedicated to championships feel about the five weeks between minicamp and training camp.
Brady has Wes Welker, the best possession receiver in the game, who might have a new long-term deal by the end of the summer. He has been reunited with Jabar Gaffney and Donte' Stallworth, both of whom come to Foxboro already conversant in Japanese (otherwise known to Jesse Holley as the Patriots offensive playbook).
Brady doesn’t have to answer questions anymore about Chad Ochocinco and, more to the point, doesn’t have to spend time babysitting him in the locker room and helping him learn on the fly.
Brady has a fulfilled Rob Gronkowski, with his six-year, $54 million deal, and Aaron Hernandez hungry for his big payday.
Brady is mean and lean and ready to get to a sixth Super Bowl, which would be more than any quarterback in history. After two losses in the big game in the last five years, he’s more than hungry to get back in the win column and join Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana with four Super Bowl rings.
Then there’s the rookie class led by linebacker Dont’a Hightower and defensive end Chandler Jones. They project to be big-time impact rookies.
The Patriots are in perfect position. All they have to do between now and training camp is take care of their own business -- something they have perfected down in Foxboro.
So, how does Patriot Nation feel after three no-nonsense days of minicamp at Gillette? Let’s go to the Trags Bag to find out.
@lgreenwood15 can't wait to see @RobGronkowski at his best playing football!!! Love his dancing but running & spiking is the best!!!
@Patriots24_7 Hearing all the great things about Brandon Lloyd.
@drjefflo Wide Receiver/Tight End - apalooza has Tom Terrific and the patriots fans psyched for tons of touchdowns! #Patriots #TragsBag
@PakkAttackk That offense has me excited for this season. Brady, Gronk, Hernandez, Welker & Lloyd. TROUBLE!
@amcda004 How has Stephen Belicheck fit it so far with the coaching staff? Is he interacting with the players much or is he behind the scenes?
Going off what dad said this week, it’s pretty much ALL behind the scenes. When asked about it, the elder Belichick joked (we think): “I don’t know. I haven’t seen him in six years.” Stephen is just another cog in the coaching machine, though he’s not responsible for teaching as much as he is observing. Much in same way Chris Simms is observing the offense and taking notes, though Simms, of course, played in the NFL. So, there is that. Stephen and Chris pretty much are both in “seen but not heard” status as far as the coaching staff is concerned.