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2 New England Patriots
Paul Zimmerman
September 04, 2006
Jangled nerves in Foxborough? Hardly obvious on first look--but closer inspection reveals some trouble in football paradise
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September 04, 2006

2 New England Patriots

Jangled nerves in Foxborough? Hardly obvious on first look--but closer inspection reveals some trouble in football paradise

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THE BELIEF There is no hype surrounding this team, no big talk, no attitude of any kind. This is a close-to-the-vest outfit, so much so that their superstar quarterback, Tom Brady, can miss three days of practice without any sort of public explanation.

THE REALITY Ah, one must read between the lines. Never mind what anyone is saying. The truth can be found in Bill Belichick's brutal training-camp practices. When the heat was at its most blistering, the team ran off five sets of two-a-day workouts, most of them in full pads. Clubs like the Bills, for instance, already had run their last two-a-day.

You sense real anger here. There were soft moments last season. Too soft. In one eight-game stretch, seven teams gained 400 or more yards each on the New England D, and Buffalo came within six yards of making it eight for eight. At the end of that run the defense ranked 29th in the league. And in the divisional-playoff loss to Denver the Patriots moved the ball but fell apart with five turnovers.

Last time this happened, after the disappointing 2002 season, New England returned to win back-to-back Super Bowls. This time Belichick is attacking the problem in an elemental way--through work. He calls it a "return to fundamentals," and at one of his sessions with the media he took pains to point out that fundamentals are not something for the classroom. They're drilled into players' hearts and minds in those terrible dog days of late July and August, in full pads and two-a-days practices.

Which might or might not make up for the lopsided unrestricted free-agent drain that marked the Patriots' off-season. They signed four. They lost eight, including productive wideout David Givens, starting tackle Tom Ashworth and Adam Vinatieri, the greatest clutch kicker of all time. "I'm used to adversity," Belichick says. "Some of our best seasons were achieved through adversity. In 2001 our quarterbacks coach, Dick Rehbein, died of heart failure. Then we lost our starting quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, and Tom Brady led us to a Super Bowl victory. In 2003 our offensive line was banged up, and everybody was asking how we were going to handle the Panthers' defensive line in the Super Bowl with a unit that had a rookie and two free agents. We did O.K. Then the next year our secondary was a shambles, and we got through. If your organization is strong enough, you find a way."

Looking for adversity? Strong safety Rodney Harrison, an emotional leader, is working his way back from a severe knee injury, after having missed most of last season. Tedy Bruschi, the brilliant linebacker who made a triumphant return from a mild stroke, broke his wrist during the first week of camp. No prognosis supplied. There never is with this team.

Brady remains optimistic. It's his nature. For one thing he's never had a speed threat out of the backfield like top draft pick Laurence Maroney. "He's a strange kind of a back," Brady says. "He's not the kind of guy who'll pound it inside, but you see him take off around the edge, and he'll get hemmed in, and it looks like about a two-yard run. But before you know it, he's nine yards downfield and no one's tackled him. You never know what's going to happen if you get the ball in his hands."

You never know what's going to happen.... Pretty good capsule of the 2006 Patriots.



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