Patriots tackle a 10-day West Coast odyssey

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / October 3, 2008
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FOXBOROUGH - Professional football is a game of routine - meet, watch film, practice, lift weights, play a game. However, there is nothing routine about the road trip the Patriots will embark on today.

Most NFL trips are misnomers. They're really more like pit stops, but with back-to-back West Coast games against the San Francisco 49ers Sunday and the San Diego Chargers Oct. 12, the Patriots have opted for a full-fledged, 10-day football odyssey that has them flying out this afternoon, and not returning home until Oct. 13.

San Jose State University will become Gillette Stadium West for the Patriots, who after playing the 49ers will practice at the school to prepare for a Sunday night game against the Chargers. But the process isn't as simple as packing up shop. It's a logistical challenge that has to be tackled like an on-field opponent, with lots of planning, studying, and preparation to make sure the trip doesn't become a lost voyage.

"Without sufficient planning, a trip like that can turn into a logistical nightmare," said Arizona Cardinals general manager Rod Graves, whose team just completed an East Coast version of the Patriots' trip.

The Cardinals played the Redskins Sept. 21, stayed in the area practicing at Catholic University in Washington to prepare for the New York Jets, then took a train to New Jersey the day before their game last Sunday.

"We duplicated our operations [in Arizona]," said Graves. "We took people from our IT department who were available and video people. It's your typical workweek, just relocated. Everything that we normally experienced in our environment in the office, we just made sure was duplicated at the remote location."

Like the Patriots and their San Jose State setup, the Cardinals began planning their extended trip in the spring, when the NFL released its schedule, thinking that reducing two transcontinental trips to one big trip would save time and energy for players and coaches.

"It's good that we're staying out there because we don't have to make these cross-country trips, which is really, really tough on your body as well as your mind-set," said Patriots safety Rodney Harrison earlier this week. "We get a chance to chill and just practice and relax and work. I like that idea."

"I think it's a very good idea to stay out there," said former NFL linebacker and current analyst Steve DeOssie, who made a similar sojourn with the 1989 Giants, the team spending a week in Scottsdale, Ariz., between games against the Cardinals and the Los Angeles Rams. "I'm surprised teams do it any other way."

It helped the Cardinals that team president Michael Bidwill is a Catholic University alumnus, but the organization had to account for everything, from bringing hand pads to transporting video equipment to making sure players' extra luggage arrived on time via the moving vans the team contracted.

"There are so many moving parts and areas to consider," said Graves. "You've got to find a hotel that can accommodate you for a week - that's not always an easy task - especially one that has meeting rooms and the types of rooms that you need. Transportation is an issue, getting back and forth to the practice facility and moving equipment.

"It takes a great deal of coordination, and I think if there is a team in position to do that, it's the Patriots, given their experience."

While the Patriots haven't done this sort of trip during the regular season under coach Bill Belichick, who was the defensive coordinator of that 1989 Giants team, they have had a similar experience when traveling to play in four Super Bowls since 2001.

What should also help the Patriots is that San Jose State has experience hosting NFL teams. In 2005, the school hosted the New Orleans Saints, displaced by Hurricane Katrina, in the week leading up to their exhibition game against the Oakland Raiders.

That same year, the Dallas Cowboys made themselves at home at San Jose State when they had back-to-back games against the 49ers and Raiders. The Cowboys' coach was Bill Parcells, coach of those '89 Giants.

San Jose State associate athletic director for communications Tom Hastings said the Patriots will use the school's football practice field, weight room, and the visiting locker room at Spartan Stadium. San Jose State's football team practices early in the morning and is usually done on the field by 9:15.

"The schedule works out well," said Hastings.

Hosting the Patriots is not San Jose State's biggest logistical challenge this year. The school was used this summer as the final way station for United States Olympic athletes before they went to Beijing for the Summer Games.

The real X-factor in the pigskin pilgrimage is the players. How will they respond to having their routine interrupted?

The Giants lost the second game of their '89 trip to the Rams, 31-10, but DeOssie said he didn't think that loss could be blamed on the team's off-field excursions. Still, he suggested the Patriots use team outings such as movie trips or a bowling night to give players another option.

Although the trip is pragmatic, there is no proven competitive advantage to it. The '89 Giants split their two games. The 2005 Cowboys won the first game and lost the second. The Cardinals lost both of their games and surrendered six touchdown passes to Jets quarterback Brett Favre.

"Well, obviously, the outcome for us didn't have the effect that we wanted it to, but I'm not sure it was because of the fact that we were out there for a week," said Graves, who noted logistically the Cardinals' trip was a success.

This trip is sort of a dry run for later in the year when the Patriots have another set of back-to-back road games against the Seattle Seahawks Dec. 7 and the Raiders Dec. 14. If it doesn't go well, Belichick could pull the plug on a road show redux.

"Remember, the most important thing is the game," said cornerback Ellis Hobbs earlier this week.

"Regardless of what happens during the week or how the week is presented to you, the game is the most important thing."

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