More than ever, it’s his team
FOXBOROUGH — First, the news.
Wes Welker was out there. Logan Mankins was not.
Welker was unpadded, but frisky. Mankins was, well, elsewhere.
Coach Bill addressed the matter of his very unhappy two-time Pro Bowl guard with his usual succinctness. “All the players who are here are under contract,’’ he said. “And Logan is not under contract.’’
For the start of his 36th NFL training camp, Bill Belichick chose an interesting look. In addition to the expected summer shorts and standard-issue Patriots short-sleeve sweat shirt, Coach Bill had a pencil affixed between a visor and his right ear, creating the image of an upcountry general store proprietor. Here we find a certain symbolism, in as much as Coach Bill clearly is the sole custodian of the entire football inventory down here. There are no middle-management types known elsewhere as coordinators. There is only Coach Bill and everyone else.
Should that make us nervous? Yes, he’s Bill Belichick, and, yes, he’s got the three rings and, yes, he’s got the guaranteed spot in Canton. But shouldn’t we heed the words of Lord Acton, who long ago warned us that, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’’?
Not that we matter. Bob Kraft does, but he seems willing to go along with whatever Coach Bill wants. After all, Coach Bill did produce the aforementioned three rings, and along with Tom Brady and Adam Vinatieri, is the individual most singularly responsible for the existence of both Gillette Stadium and Patriot Place. In Bill he trusts.
Now when the winner of Super Bowl XLV is revealed Feb. 6, and it is not the New England Patriots — c’mon, you don’t really think, you know? — that will make it six years since the third of the three championships was won. Included in that time frame was the extraordinary 2007 season, the one in which the Patriots won Games 1 through 18 before being denied No. 19 by various acts of nature, including a) Asante Samuel not catching a ball he should easily have caught; b) Eli Manning making an escape he had never made before and has not made since; and c) David Tyree making the catch of his life before receding into the athletic nothingness from which he sprang for that one moment of glory. That’s what it took for the hated Giants to win that game and keep Coach Bill from getting his fourth ring.
But if you look at the record book it does declare the hated Giants to be the winners of Super Bowl XLII. And if you examine the Patriots’ drafts of 2006, 2007, and 2008, you will see a lot of names who never made it, which is one reason why the Patriots whom Coach Bill are commanding, sans coordinators, are no longer an elite team, but rather a second-tier one that, depending on the breaks, could win as few as eight and as many as 11 games this season.
Coach Bill ably discussed the changing nature of training camp during his 36 years, from the days of more than two months preparation featuring six exhibitions and three 120-play game-condition scrimmages to the modern era of OTAs, 12-month conditioning programs, and just four exhibitions (soon to be two, which will drive him mad). He was eerily casual in discussing the ebb and flow of injuries over the course of a season. It’s just amazing how football coaches have numbed themselves to the reality that the game they love is so inherently debilitating. One of these days someone will listen to me when I say each team needs a Sunday roster of 100 men. But, anyway . . .
Not discussed on this first day were the many issues facing the New England Patriots. Pass rush? Quality linebacking depth? Is Mankins readily replaceable? Running back by committee? Rookie tight ends? Third receiver? The annual mixing and matching at DB? Some other day, perhaps. Yesterday was not a day to dwell on specifics.
This aggregation would find life challenging under ordinary circumstances, but 2010 will not be an ordinary circumstance. In addition to the expected stiff competition sure to be provided by division foes New York and Miami, the Patriots will journey to San Diego and Pittsburgh (with Ben Roethlisberger). And what a home schedule! This is the year Patriots season ticket-holders have hit the jackpot. There will be fewer giveaway opportunities for relatives and tradesmen, not with a home schedule that has, in addition to the requisite games with AFC East rivals, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Minnesota, Green Bay and, of course, Indianapolis. It hardly matters that the Colts and Patriots have not been in the same division since 2001. This will mark the eighth straight year the Colts have been on the schedule.
Now when you and I look at the schedule, we think of it in terms of W’s and L’s. We see this as a brutal schedule. Coach Bill only sees schemes and personnel challenges, not degree of difficulty.
“You guys are a lot smarter than I am,’’ he joked. “Three years ago Miami went 1-15. The next year they won the division. Each year you see teams who’ve won, one, two, or three games win double digits the next year.’’
In other words, when Coach Bill and his staff first saw the 2010 schedule, they didn’t go right along with the rest of us and say, “Oh, bleep.’’? OK, Bill. If you say so.
Coach Bill enters Year 11 with the Patriots. He’s never had more power. He’s never had more to prove.