These Patriots know they have things to prove
FOXBOROUGH — The last time Ty Warren visited Gillette Stadium was to clean out his stall and try to erase the memories of a 33-14 bludgeoning his Patriots took from Baltimore in the playoffs.
Hard to wipe clean those images, especially considering it was the kind of mano-a-mano physical beatdown that New England hadn’t endured on the playoff stage in any of Bill Belichick’s nine years.
That’s why it was significant that Warren, whose ears might not yet have unpopped from the flight back, offered this assessment of where the team stands with spring workouts nearly completed and the season three months away.
“This is my first day out here, and just kind of watching from afar, and seeing the new energy that we have going out here is real good,’’ Warren said. “I got to witness that first-hand today, and it was real good. I think we’re heading in the right direction.’’
Good thing, because the better part of last year was spent spiraling the other way.
Have the Patriots cured the ills of 2009? It’s not simply hard to tell, it’s impossible.
The makeup of this year’s team against last year’s can’t be measured in June. It has to be tested, poked, prodded. So check back after the club gets its lip bloodied for the first time.
But for now, as Warren said, the signs are better.
It’s also different than it has been, and that, to be sure, is a good thing.
The championship teams of the past in Foxborough were older and wilier and had an understanding of what it took to prepare. They knew the push and pull of the offseason, and steered through it accordingly.
Outside of a precious few who were here for all that, these Patriots haven’t earned the right to operate like that yet, because they haven’t been to the mountaintop.
Despite that, after Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison and Richard Seymour took more championship credibility away with them last year, there was a sense of entitlement in that locker room and it was based on what someone else — again, outside of those few — accomplished. That entitlement allowed problems to go unaddressed until it was too late, and that now is what has to be reined back in.
“Right now, what we see is competitiveness, and that’s all we want to do as a team,’’ said Kevin Faulk, one of the guys remaining with three rings. “That’s all we want to do, is be competitive.’’
You can boil this down pretty easily. The best way to end the feeling of entitlement is to put jobs on the line. And the Patriots have done that.
The left corner spot is up for grabs. So are starting jobs at safety, outside linebacker, inside linebacker, and defensive end. While some players (Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork, Brandon Meriweather, Leigh Bodden, Ty Warren, Tully Banta-Cain) are assured of playing significant roles, playing time is on the line everywhere on defense.
On offense, there’s a battle for paychecks in a crowded receiver group, carries will be fought for among the running backs, tight end remains unsettled, and there are too many young draft-pick linemen to keep on the roster.
Is the talent great? That remains to be seen.
But it’s clear that if there’s one thing the coaching staff isn’t leaving room for among the players, it is comfort in their employment.
“There’s a lot of competition out here,’’ said safety James Sanders, a sixth-year Patriot who’s still looking for his first championship. “We have a lot of guys who can play, a lot of guys competing for spots on this team. It’s a really competitive group out here. Every day, it’s been real competitive.’’
And the pushing isn’t limited to the fight for jobs, either.
Yesterday, during an early-practice teaching session, quarterbacks coach and de facto offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien saw his rookie tight ends, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, lined up incorrectly.
O’Brien pulled them off the field and lit into them, and it didn’t stop with a correction, either. The message was reinforced — more than once.
Later in the session, spirited scrimmaging sparked some pushing and shoving on the far field, with veteran Gerard Warren in the middle of the scrum.
Beyond that, the jawing between offense and defense has been constant, and the best way to describe the action is that it’s high-strung.
That doesn’t guarantee anything, of course. If the Jets and Dolphins deliver on their considerable potential, this year’s AFC East race could be the most heated in more than a decade, and there are plenty of question marks among the 24 players drafted over the last two years that will be so vital to this team’s fortunes.
But for now, the Patriots seem focused on laying a new foundation, separate from what was accomplished in 2001 or 2003 or 2004 or even 2007, and building off that.
“I think it’s just everybody on board, it seems like everybody’s in tune to listen and learn,’’ Ty Warren said. “It’s just a different energy. I can’t really explain it.’’
Encouraging, for now, is all it is.
There’s plenty — everything, really — left to prove for this team in transition.
The fact that the players seem to recognize that is a pretty good first step.