After an offseason filled with virtual workouts and uncertainty, football finally returned to the Gillette Stadium practice fields on Wednesday: the New England Patriots held their first full-team practice of the summer as they entered the second phase of the training camp ramp-up period. While the session itself was more of a glorified walkthrough, it did give players and coaches an opportunity to catch up with each other in a different setting.
Needless to say, the players were quite happy about this development.
“It was great,” said guard Shaq Mason during a media conference call. “Naturally, nobody has played football since we last all together. I think more than anything it was just great to hit it. Everybody was excited to get back out on the football field and grind. We haven’t been able to get out there as a unit and do things as a whole, but today was good to get all the guys out there. It was all smiles, high energy. We were all glad to get that going.”
Mason, who is entering his sixth season with the Patriots as a starter along their offensive line, was not the only member of the team to speak positively about the return to at least some kind of training camp normalcy. Running back Rex Burkhead, himself in his fourth offseason in New England, also had a positive impression about the first team workout in seven months.
“It was great, it really was. Just to get out there, put the helmets on and move around at a faster tempo. We’ve just been doing walkthroughs and, of course, in the spring we couldn’t do anything. I think everyone was really itching to get out there at a little faster pace, and it was nice,” said the 30-year-old.
“Of course, you want to be out there, especially with the new guys coming in from other teams, or rookies trying to get a taste of the NFL. It’s just crazy times going on, and just an unprecedented year of how things have developed. We’re just excited to get out there, get things going, and be back to playing.”
In accordance with the Coronavirus agreement signed by the league and the players union earlier this offseason, the 90-minute session was a relatively light one. It involved stretching, some positional group work and fundamental and conditioning drills. Throughout the session, the team was also trying to maintain the proper distancing and hygiene rules that were implemented as part of the NFL’s pandemic protocols.
This meant that hitting or any other physical activities going beyond those mentioned above were strictly prohibited. This impacted some position groups more than others, of course.
“Definitely more mental than anything. Just taking the mental aspects, getting your footwork down, getting your hands in place,” said Mason about how the offensive line worked through its first practice together. “It’s good to actually be out there with the guys, just seeing things, seeing live bullets instead of just being behind a computer screen and watching things. It’s good to get out there and get moving a little bit.”
The focus on the mental aspect of the game is a continuation from the offseason. With Covid-19 forcing the NFL to shut down club facilities and cancel organized team activities and minicamps, spring workouts had to be moved to a virtual setting in order to ensure the safety of players and coaches alike. This week’s change is therefore naturally a welcome one for the entire team, as Burkhead pointed out during his own conference call.
“We’ve been doing the virtual meetings. We had that all spring and in the first week here. So you’re seeing a lot of guys just through the screens, and it was really cool to see guys actually out on the field — moving around, getting to know them more in person,” he said.
The running back also added that the approach itself has changed a bit this year: with preseason canceled because of the pandemic, players will have to leave their mark on the practice field, leading to an increased sense of urgency.
“No preseason games means every time we step onto the practice field we know every single rep is huge,” Burkhead said. “We know we’re being evaluated every single day, it’s a competition. I think that’s what the younger guys understand as well: not having a spring to put any tape out there for the coaches or to get to be seen, it’s really every single day learning as fast as possible for those guys. And even myself — continuing to learn, and understanding we’re competing every single day even though we may not have games. It just heightens that level of competition at practice even more.”