Under normal circumstances, the New England Patriots would spend this week preparing for their preseason opener against the Detroit Lions on Thursday. They would probably hold joint practice sessions while increasing the intensity and competition across the board. 2020 is anything but normal, however, and the Coronavirus forced the entire league to adapt to a new training camp schedule implemented because of the pandemic.
For the Patriots, this means operating as if it was still spring: the team is in the first phase of no-contact work, trying to get its players ready for the padded practices that will take place later this month — and for a regular season that will be kicked off a month from today.
Amidst all the change, the team of head coach Bill Belichick is still sticking to its core principles. This means that the fundamental aspect of learning each position within the framework of the scheme is the most important part at the moment for the offense, the defense and the kicking game units. Belichick and his assistants reiterated this fact during a recent media availability session when they spoke about the challenges of operating under the current schedule.
“Everybody needs to learn certain fundamentals, certain basics and every player, no matter how long he’s played, whether it’s two years or 20 years, there’s still a basic progression to training camp at that player’s position,” said Belichick about his team’s approach to the 2020 training camp structure. “That’s really what we’re going to do, that’s where we’re going to start. That’s where, in my opinion, what needs to be done, regardless of who the player is, what position he plays, again, whether he’s been here for 10 years or this is his first year.
“There’s still a process we have to go through and there’s certain fundamentals and basics in our offensive, defensive and special teams systems that need to be taught. It would be very hard for any player to function well without doing those, so I don’t think you start training camp off with your team putting in a triple reverse and a double-reverse pass and things like that that may highlight a particular player or that type of thing. Those are the kinds of things that come down the road a little bit.”
Focusing on the fundamental aspect of football will come in handy when it comes to evaluating players without the benefit of preseason football. Covid-19 forced the league to cancel its exhibition contests, which in turn forces coaches to make roster decisions based entirely on practice performance and development. For Cam Achord, who is in his first year as New England’s special teams coach, looking at the basic levels of learning remains the key nevertheless.
“Everybody’s in the same situation,” he said. “You have to look at the fundamentals and the techniques we do. We go through every day working the fundamentals. It’s developing like ‘Alright, does he have the fundamentals we are looking for, and can he develop that?’ Teaching the schemes, the players can learn that — they are doing a good job. We’re just looking at the fundamentals and the techniques and just the development of them. It’s all going back to the fundamentals and seeing just the movement of the guys.”
As important as player development and roster construction are on special teams, all eyes will still be on the quarterback position this year and how its players grow from a fundamental perspective. With Tom Brady leaving New England in free agency, the Patriots will have to figure out how to replace the future Hall of Famer: Cam Newton, Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer are all competing for the starting job held by Brady for almost 20 years.
“This situation here, where you got to prepare these quarterbacks, watch them practice, prepare them for the next day, and really be able to talk about your team and talk about their fundamentals, and really talk about how we are going to develop and watch them grow in this system seems like a great opportunity, especially without having a spring,” said quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch. “We’ll see exactly where this all plays out when we start getting on the field and practicing.”
Like Achord, Fisch is in his first year at his position after it was previously held by Josh McDaniels. New England’s offensive coordinator, meanwhile, will continue to keep a close eye on the competition while simultaneously trying to build an offense around either Newton, Stidham or Hoyer.
“We have a lot of new faces that are learning things in our system, and giving them opportunities to go out there and trying to learn the fundamentals that are required to do those things well is really the most important thing,” said McDaniels. “At the end of the day, when you go into a season the way we are going into it with a truncated offseason and a truncated training camp you really want to try to be as good as you can fundamentally and not worry about volume as much as possible. It doesn’t matter how much you can teach, what matters is what we do well.”
McDaniels’ boss has a similar perspective on the current situation.
“In order to be a good football team, you need to be good fundamentally,” said Bill Belichick. “You need to be sound. Everybody needs to be able to execute basic assignments, techniques and make basic adjustments and those transcend to everybody and every unit. I don’t think there’s any way around that. That’s what we’ve done, that’s what we’ll continue to do. I think that’s the way to do it. We’ve had a decent amount of success that way and I just don’t see it happening any differently.”