Holding their ground
Patriots' improvement starts with run defensePosted: Saturday July 26, 2003 6:59 PM
This is the third in a series of postcards SI.com's Don Banks will e-mail from his annual NFL training camp tour.
Saturday, July 26
Team: New England Patriots
By all accounts, the players, coaches and fans don't miss hauling themselves to Bryant College in Smithfield, R.I., for camp, where New England had been every year since 1976. The Patriots are one of just three teams, joining Houston and Jacksonville, to hold camp at their stadiums.
As high on getting his team away to an isolated location as Giants head coach Jim Fassel is, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is equally enamored with the convenience of staying home for camp. As he reminded me after Saturday morning's workout, he has coached with two other teams that camped at their team complexes: the Browns and Jets. So this is nothing new to him.
2. In an unofficial survey I conducted of fans wearing Patriots jerseys, quarterback Tom Brady (No. 12) was the hands-down favorite. But a surprising number of kids and adults were wearing the No. 4 of New England's ever-clutch kicker Adam Vinateri. Win a Super Bowl for these loyal and hearty folks and you're forever golden. There were also a smattering of Lawyer Milloys (No. 36), Troy Browns (No. 80) and Richard Seymours (No. 93) seen in the jersey competition.
The big crowd oohed, ahhed, groaned and applauded in all the appropriate places on Saturday. The Red Sox happen to be playing a huge weekend series with the hated Yankees just up the road at Fenway Park, but it's mid-summer and these people seemed genuinely excited that football is in the air.
3. There's a big soccer double-header being played here at Gillette on Sunday (no jokes please), and it's expected to draw a crowd of at least 40,000. All I know is that one of the teams is FC Barcelona, which is one of the world's five most well-known clubs. So as I sit here typing this, I'm watching the grounds crew turn the field back from a soccer pitch -- because two of the teams just finished practicing -- to a football configuration in time for New England's evening stadium workout. Then they'll have to take down the goalposts and do the whole chalk-lining thing over again in time for tomorrow's football, er, soccer games.
4. Don't be shocked if fullback Larry Centers, late of Buffalo, becomes the newest Patriot in the coming days. Centers, 35, visited the team on Friday and then went home to Texas to make a decision on his future. At least one other team is reportedly pursuing him.
The NFL's all-time leading receiver at running back, Centers has caught 808 passes in his 14 pro seasons. Belichick admitted the Pats are interested, but called the talks "preliminary." It is thought that Centers took a physical for New England, which wants to make sure he has some gas left in the tank.
The Patriots added fullback Fred McCrary in free agency this offseason, replacing the departed Marc Edwards. But both McCrary and Edwards are big blocking backs, and if Centers can still play, he would give New England's receiving game an added dimension.
5. The best show all year in Patriots-land might be the practice duels between veteran receiver Troy Brown and newly acquired veteran safety Rodney Harrison. Twice in the first three days of camp, the former Chargers standout announced his hard-hitting presence in New England by delivering a blow to Brown in practice.
On Wednesday, the two went at it briefly, with Brown later saying he wasn't hurt by the helmet-to-helmet hit as much as he was by getting poked in the eye. On Friday, Harrison, who is known for his bone-jarring collisions, again popped Brown on an over-the-middle route. Better get used to it, Troy. That's rockin' Rodney's game.
6. Nothing thrills like speed, and rookie receiver Bethel Johnson can flat-out fly. The Patriots' second of two second-round picks this season, the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Texas A&M product has the kind of quicks that are instantly noticeable on the practice field. Let's see if it translates to game situations.
7. Linebacker Rosevelt Colvin got off a Yogi-like quip when I asked him if he felt like a Patriot yet, after four years of playing for Chicago: "Once you put the helmet on, you're inside the helmet and you can't really see who you're playing for."
8. Not to go all Peter King on you, but there was still a buzz here over Friday night's classic Red Sox-Yankees game. Did I say "classic"? I meant quintessential, as in a quintessentially agonizing one-run Red Sox loss to New York. I'm not telling you anything you don't know, but Boston absolutely has to win the games that Pedro Martinez starts against the Yankees if there's to be any shot at taking the AL East. Sorry, but a quality start and no-decision for Pedro is not good enough. The Red Sox needed the W and nothing less.
The Patriots signed veteran cornerback Tyrone Poole for the nickel slot, so Wilson, New England's first second-round selection this year, figures to start the season in the dime-back role. Come midseason, however, there's no telling how far he might climb up the depth chart. After all, Smith will turn 38 this season, and Law, a nine-year veteran, has a salary cap figure of more than $9 million in 2004. Wilson looks like the future.
New England gave up a staggering 2,198 yards rushing last season, 137.4 per game, while rushing for only 94.2 yards per game. The problems on rushing defense wound up putting too much pressure on the offense to win in a shootout, which it just couldn't do week in and week out.
The Patriots want to believe they've fixed their run defense. They drafted Texas A&M defensive lineman Ty Warren in the first round, signed one of the league's better run-stopping safeties in Harrison and are shifting to a run-stuffing 3-4 formation this season. If New England's defense is going to be markedly better this year, it'll start by improving against the run.
Also, Mark Bavaro, the former Giants tight end, is in camp as an invited but volunteer adviser/tutor/assistant coach for New England. Bavaro is giving special attention to tight end Daniel Graham, the team's No. 1 pick last year.
Klecko? Bavaro? I thought I left the Jets and Giants behind in New York.
Not Rosevelt Colvin. I'm not going to bore you with another round of contract figures, but know this: The Patriots' free-agent linebacker left money on the table when he left Chicago to sign with New England this spring. A lot of it. But Colvin said more than anything else he was interested in where his family would live, how the team planned to use him and the manner in which the organization pursued him.
And none of it was the usual lip service that athletes give on that front. The Patriots sold Colvin on their area, their program and what he would mean to it, and money seemed like the fourth most important part of the equation.
"I've got a lot of respect for a guy like that," Belichick said Saturday. "With most guys, it's all about not leaving the last dime on the table."
Ditto. Colvin's ability to chase the passer should make him a perfect fit in the Patriots' new 3-4 defense, but it's the fact that he didn't chase the almighty top dollar that makes him truly rare.
"Free agency was my first opportunity to really pick and choose," Colvin said Saturday in one of a string of media interviews. "When I got out of high school, I signed with Purdue right away, and nobody really even recruited me but them. Then when I came out in the draft, I went in the fourth round, so I really didn't have a whole lot of choices.
"This was my first opportunity to decide where I was going to be. I wanted my family to be comfortable, and I wanted to be in the right situation where I had the opportunity to make plays. I wanted to feel comfortable with the team. I wanted the organization to want me, the team to be headed in the right direction, and I wanted to play for a good coach. They've got it all here."
Colvin has mixed memories of Chicago, where he played the past four years, racking up a team-leading 10.5 sacks in each of the previous two seasons. While the Bears prioritized keeping Pro Bowl middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and Warrick Holdman in place, they never seriously competed to retain Colvin, figuring that three highly paid linebackers would bust their cap.
"Coach Belichick made a strong effort to get me here," Colvin said. "They showed me that they were committed and wanted me here, and that's what I wanted. I didn't feel that in Chicago, like they wanted me there. Yeah, I was a good player. I was a guy who came and did my job and did what they wanted me to do, but was I wanted? Was I really the person they wanted to come back, or was it lip service? Were they just telling me that? It wasn't lip service here. That's why I'm here today."
The Patriots showed Colvin something. But it wasn't the money. Come to think of it, Colvin showed us all something, too.
Check back soon for more of Don Banks' Postcards from Camp.