I think the absolute worst thing you can do after visiting a training camp is overreact. You don’t want to be subject to hyperbole because you saw a receiver make an acrobatic catch or a defensive back break up a pass. But when you have a strong notion about a team, and it is confirmed on every level, and you take a deep breath and the feeling is even stronger, you have to offer a solid opinion.
The New England Patriots, 14-2 a year ago, are much better in 2011 and more prepared and balanced for a Super Bowl run.
The NFL should be on notice. The Evil Empire is back. It’s about time the Patriots end their Super Bowl drought and keep up with the rest of the Boston sports teams.
I’m kidding … sort of.
After spending the day at Patriots camp this past Tuesday, we offer nine reasons for supreme optimism, Schein 9 style.
1. The trade for Albert Haynesworth
Eradicate Hayneworth’s two years in Washington from your mind. Now, jog the mental rolodex for a minute and remember when this player was the elite defensive tackle in football and one of the best and most dominant defensive players in the game. Bill Belichick has an incredible knack of getting talented malcontents and misfits to play up to their potential. Assistant coach Pepper Johnson will help keep Haynesworth in line. The New England defense was pushed around way too much in big spots last year. I think Haynesworth will be very motivated to get back to the level he played at during his days at Tennessee. I’m not concerned about his little injuries during camp. It’s all about Haynesworth being ready for Week 1.
In speaking to Belichick at length on Tuesday afternoon before practice on SiriusXM NFL Radio, the Patriots coach told us, "It all came together pretty quickly when I had a couple conversations with coach Shanahan. But I think the bottom line is that we put him out there in our defense and see how it all turns out. Obviously, he is a talented player, a player who I think is motivated to play well, and hopefully he will do that."
And Belichick knows exactly what buttons to push to keep Big Al focused on winning. It’s a little risk, tremendous reward move for the Patriots. I think it pays off in a major way.
2. Belichick steals Shaun Ellis from the Jets
I think the Jets have had a great offseason, but this is the one who got away. Sure, Ellis is a veteran and not the dominant player he was, but he’s a leader and still a very productive and well-rounded end who can play in both the 4-3 and 3-4, both inside and outside. And the Patriots saw first-hand how dominant Ellis can be when he dominated the New England offensive line, recording two sacks in the Jets’ stunning upset of the Patriots in Foxboro.
Belichick told us, "Well, of course, we have played against Shaun (Ellis) for the last 11 years, so we know him probably as well as any player in the National Football League. Of course, he (Ellis) has had an outstanding career, and as you said a good leader, a smart player, a guy who really has been very professional on and off the field. Certainly, we would like to add that to our team. Similar situation with Andre Carter, from the Redskins and San Francisco over the weekend, so both of those kind of happened at the same time. But I think Shaun has been working hard to get on the field. We will see how quickly that happens, but I know he will do everything he can to get ready as quickly as possible, so we will just take it day by day and see when that occurs."
Imagine Ellis, Haynesworth and Vince Wilfork on the field at the same time.
Which leads us to …
3. The pass rush and pass defense is going to be much improved
Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty laughed in unison when I asked them about playing more of the 4-3 vs. the 3-4, explaining that they play it all. Or as Chung said, "That’s something for you guys in the media."
Fair enough. But I think Belichick gave us a glimpse when he told us, "We are going to have to figure out a way to manage our roster probably a little bit differently on the defensive side of the ball than in the past. It is always a challenge every year, and there are always a few decisions in whether you want to carry an extra receiver or DB, or however it works out. But in this case I think the linebacker, defensive line numbers will probably shift a little bit from what they have been in previous years."
I think there has been a common theme in the last two playoff losses for New England when you look at the Pats defense. They have been inexplicably pushed around by the Ravens and Jets the last two seasons. Belichick obviously sees that and is making the necessary adjustments.
Leigh Bodden is healthy after spending last year on IR. For years, I’ve argued that Bodden is very underrated, with a great knack for creating turnovers. Him teaming with the great Devin McCourty can turn a negative into a positive.
McCourty is something special. His football intelligence, ability to line up anywhere and make plays, doing it as a neophyte last year, is simply remarkable. I voted for him first team All-Pro last season, even as a rookie. And now he actually knows the system. Chung told us, "I can honestly say when he came in is when I noticed how special he is. He (McCourty) came in very mature, ready to work, quiet, doing his job, knows what to do, works hard and you can see what happened."
I don’t think the Patriots will go into the season having a better defense than the Jets, Steelers, Ravens or Chargers. But I think the Patriots’ defense is leaps and bounds ahead of last season, with the potential to be great, and in the same sentence as these aforementioned defenses. It will be coached up by Belichick, after all.
4. The offensive line is better and happier
One year ago, Logan Mankins was holding out and seemingly very content in doing so. Last year at this time, his situation seemed beyond repair, a holdout turned personal and nasty. This season, Mankins got rewarded with a freshly minted megabucks contract for six years. The value of this cannot be understated. Mankins, one of the elite guards in the league, will play for an entire season and be in the right frame of mind.
The Jets and Ravens both abused the New England offensive line in the playoffs the last two years. Tom Brady was under heavy pressure and not his usual extraordinary self. The Pats smartly re-signed Matt Light and protected themselves with first-round pick Nate Solder, who’s a major addition with his ability. Sebastian Vollmer has another year under his belt, and line coach Dante Scarnecchia is superb.
5. Tom Brady is still the best in the business
My man crush on Aaron Rodgers has been well documented for years. Peyton Manning is a living legend, but injured. Mike Vick is electrifying. Ben Roethlisberger has two rings. Drew Brees is Drew Brees. They’re all on the short list behind the elite quarterback in the game.
6. Chad Ochocinco is in town sans the carnival music
I’m on record calling Chad Ochocinco a clown. I stand by the comment. He rides a bull, takes to Twitter, changes his name, sends Peptol Bismol to opponents and seemingly was more interested in reality shows and dancing.
Bill Belichick sees a talented player yearning to win a championship.
Belichick explained, "Well, we talked to all of our players in the same way. We tell everybody the same thing. There is nothing different for one player than there is anybody else. We just try to approach our job on a short-term basis, try to get better day to day, try to work on our weaknesses and make sure that everybody is doing their job properly so that the other guys on the field can do theirs. Coaches coach, players play, we all have to perform to a high level to be successful, and we try to minimize our distractions so that we can focus on our jobs. So that is no different for any player or a coach from one to another."
Ochocinco’s skill set fit in nicely with the great Wes Welker, Deion Branch and the other Patriots receivers.
7. The tight ends are dynamic and diverse
In Tuesday’s practice, Aaron Hernandez was a one-man highlight show, for whatever that’s worth in a practice. For whatever this is worth, I think he’s the second-best tight end on the team, behind Rob Gronkowski.
8. The run game will be better than last year
I thought the Patriots made a mistake by not drafting Alabama running back Mark Ingram, who could’ve served as a "clock killer" for this team in the fourth quarter. But Belichick drafted two backs in the draft, including Stevan Ridley, who can eventually serve that purpose.
Ben Jarvus Green-Ellis was the "featured" back last year and had a solid, breakthrough season. He told us, "I am willing to do whatever they ask me to do, whether it be controlling the clock, running routes, picking up blitzes. Whatever it is they ask me to do, I will go out there and do it."
And then there’s my guy Danny Woodhead. When the Pats picked him up last year on waivers in early September, I thought it was gamesmanship, with the Patriots playing the Jets in Week 2. He turned out to be a matchup nightmare for the opposition, going from practice squad player to major weapon for Brady.
Woodhead (on getting better): "I don’t think we are looking at last year, but maybe what we can do is to get better every single day in practice right now with the knowledge of our offense. So, really I think just everyone collectively trying, just trying to get better every single day so we are ready for the next challenge, which right now is the next practice or meeting."
9. The Patriots are the Yankees
Sorry Boston fans, but it is the truth. You either love them or loathe them, and there is no gray area. But the Patriots truly don’t give a damn. They keep the blinders on, keep repeating the Belichick clichés and go to work.
The Jets are an excellent, double-digit win team in their own division. But as Rex Ryan pointed out, he needs someone else other than the Jets to beat the Pats. New England got better in every area of weakness. Heck, they got better in every area of strength.
With all due respect to the Jets, Steelers and anyone else, the Patriots are the team to beat in the AFC.