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No need to get out of joint over practices

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  August 10, 2010 08:01 AM

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FOXBOROUGH -- Playing well with others is not exactly a hallmark of the Patriots. They're more of the loner type around the league. They like to do things on their own and their own way.

So, hence the intrigue and excitement surrounding the joint practice sessions the Patriots and coach Bill Belichick are holding with the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints today and tomorrow at Gillette Stadium. Opening the gates of furtive Fort Foxborough to another team is like Apple inviting Google to come to Cupertino, Calif., to check out the specs for the iPad.

It's been a long time since the Patriots had a preseason playdate, nine years to be exact. The last time they had training camp company, there was no such thing as "In Bill We Trust," and Gillette Stadium was a place for hard hats, not helmets. The team still held its training camp in Smithfield, R.I., at a school called Bryant College (it's now Bryant University), Tom Brady was a third-string quarterback with a buzz cut, John Henry owned a baseball team -- the Florida Marlins -- and Sept. 11 was just a date on the calendar.

Like this year, the Patriots bivouacked with the reigning NFC Champions, the New York Giants, back then. We all know how that '01 season ended, cue the U2. But no one who watched the Patriots' cooperative practice with the Giants ever would have guessed that it was New England that was the Super Bowl team on the field.

All business, Belichick was not in a nostalgic mood yesterday, so he brushed off a question about the 2001 joint practice and what he learned from it that year. None of the four remaining players to take part in that practice -- Tom Brady, Matt Light, Kevin Faulk and Stephen Neal -- felt like providing detailed recollections either. The whole theme of this Patriots' camp is leaving behind the past, so why revisit it?

No such problem here.

This will come as a shock to many of you out there in Patriotland: Yours truly was once an employee of the New England Patriots. Yep, that's right. In the summer of 2001, I worked Patriots training camp, and witnessed those joint practices. My title that summer was "circulation intern" for the team's in-house publication, Patriots Football Weekly.

"Circulation intern" is a euphemism, kind of like the NFL calling an expanded regular season an "enhanced season." I was a Patriots paperboy, hawking the team publication at training camp practices and out in the Foxboro Stadium parking lot before preseason games.

What I remember from those searing summer sessions with Jim Fassel's Big Blue is discovering the unbridled joy of a Del's frozen lemonade and being dejected at how rough and unpolished the Patriots looked next to the Giants of Michael Strahan, Tiki Barber and Amani Toomer. The best quarterback on the field for the practices wasn't Drew Bledsoe or Brady. It was Kerry Collins.

Part of the Globe account from that day summed up the feeling: "The pads were off, and there were plenty of water breaks. But it still wasn't hard to detect which of the two teams went to the Super Bowl last season. The Patriots have a long way to go."

If you had told me that those Patriots, who were coming off a 5-11 season, were a Super Bowl-team I would have assumed you meant the Eastern Mass. high school Super Bowls.

That's why this visit from Drew Brees and the boys from the Big Easy will be a good chance to break free from the monotony of training camp and simulate some game situations, but it's not going to tell us what type of team the Patriots are going to be. We shouldn't get too excited if they fare well or too dejected if the Saints outclass them as they did last November at the Superdome.

At the end of the day, novelty or not, we're still taking about practice, practice, as Allen Iverson would say.

"Yeah, you take everything in stride," said Patriots linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, who went through joint practices as a member of the San Francisco 49ers. "You try not to over-analyze or over-think the situation, but you know it is an intense atmosphere. It's training camp. Guys are trying to make the roster, so you don't want to take it lightly, but at the same time we're not playing for a Super Bowl here this week. It's just a matter of guys trying to get better at what they do, and there is still time for us to improve as a team."

Putting stock in the outcome of these practices is like doing the same with preseason games. We've all been burned there. Michael Bishop was a preseason legend. Matt Cassel looked like Sam Cassell playing QB in the 2008 preseason. We all know who the better Patriots QB turned out to be.

The Patriots aren't going to go another nine years without a joint practice. They won't even go a full week, as after today and tomorrow's sessions with the Saints they'll have a shared practice with the Atlanta Falcons next week.

These joint practices aren't going away. The opposite, they'll become the routine de rigueur in the NFL, especially once the owners have their way and expand the regular season to 18 games, swapping out two of the four exhibition games for two regular-season contests.

It's inevitable, and NFL owners are meeting to discuss it on Aug. 25 during a special meeting in Atlanta, which just happens to be where the Patriots will be practicing with the Falcons next Tuesday and Wednesday, prior to the teams' exhibition game next Thursday.

If anything can be learned from 2001 it's that joint practices are more interesting to watch than intrasquad ones, but they don't decide what kind of squad you have.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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