Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Setting the stage for player arrivals: In recent weeks, the Patriots’ quarterbacks have been split on separate coasts — Cam Newton throwing in Los Angeles, and Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer leading their own throwing sessions in suburban Boston. Following Newton’s arrival to town on Wednesday, they’re now in the same spot, connections have been made, and they’ll officially come together at Gillette Stadium on Monday.
That highlights a decisive turn on the football calendar for the Patriots, with rookies and quarterbacks among those scheduled to arrive at the facility on Monday.
As per the protocol established by the NFL and NFL Players Association, the focus is on testing before players can enter the facility. Here is what the week will look like for players arriving Monday (followed by a second group on Tuesday):
Day 1: COVID-19 testing (Group 1)
Day 2: COVID-19 testing (Group 2)
Day 3: No COVID-19 testing
Day 4: COVID-19 testing (Groups 1 and 2)
Day 5: Daily COVID-19 testing begins; players with two negative results may enter the facility for the first time.
At that point, there will be two days of physicals. Days 7-14 will cover strength and conditioning work and walk-through instruction only, while Days 15-18 will involve practices without pads. The first padded practice can’t happen before Aug. 17, and there can be 14 in total.
Whoever wins the Patriots’ starting quarterback job — and Newton’s résumé makes him the odds-on favorite if healthy — will have to do it without playing in a preseason game.
It all starts Monday.
2. Impact of head athletic trainer: ESPN NFL analyst Louis Riddick tweeted last week about the unsung staffers across the NFL — head athletic trainers who will be playing an instrumental role in teams returning to safe facilities during the coronavirus pandemic. For the Patriots, that’s Jim Whalen, the Bridgewater State (Massachusetts) alum who has been in the position since 2002.
“I have a ton of respect for Jim. That’s a tough position to be in,” said former Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich, a two-time Super Bowl champion who is an NFL analyst for ESPN. “He has to care for 80 players. Every single guy that walks into that building, he has to make sure they’re ready to go and at the top of their game.
“I’m sure he’s working overtime, trying to figure out the logistics, doing what the doctors and guys above him are told to do, making sure everyone is on the same page with the guidelines. I don’t see an easy answer on how to get 80 guys socially distancing the right way inside the facility — taping ankles, doing rehab, all that stuff. I’m sure Jim’s trying to figure [it] out, using every resource available. I can’t think of a better trainer to come up with a plan.”
Former Patriots linebacker Matt Chatham, a three-time Super Bowl champion who is an analyst for the New England Sports Network, said the health of Whalen and his staff can’t be overlooked.
The MVP’s of this upcoming football season, at every level, are the training & medical staffs of each team. The importance of their professional competence CAN NOT be emphasized enough. They have a 24/7 job with unlimited unknowns to contend with for the foreseeable future.
— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) July 21, 2020
“What if Jim catches something? It sounds morbid, and you don’t want to say that, but most of the conversations surround the players, understandably so,” Chatham said. “But [trainers] are the people — they can’t not touch, they can’t not get close. They have to treat you. It’s a very hands-on profession. It’s [a] part of this we haven’t talked very much about.
“What if you have that type of interruption? The entire training staff getting wiped out for a couple weeks? How in the world do you continue to function? We can’t forget about those guys. That has to be terrifying for his family.
“These guys are incredibly underappreciated to begin with. They keep some of the worst hours of anyone in our profession, and now this is such a massive unknown for those people in what is going to be the hardest season as far as unknowns go that they’ll ever have.”
3. Equipped to handle ’21 cap: As part of the agreement reached between players and owners Friday to return to training camp on time, a key consideration is that the 2021 salary cap will have a floor of $175 million in the event of lost revenues. That would be notably less than projections (this year’s cap is $198 million), and force some teams into a tight spot. Consider that 14 teams have 2021 cap commitments over that figure, according to OverTheCap.com. The Patriots, however, aren’t one of them — they have about $125 million in cap commitments for next season, one of the lowest figures in the NFL.
Louis Riddick is confident the skepticism about Cam Newton’s comeback season with the Patriots will fuel a strong performance by the determined quarterback.
“My head popped off when I saw how much he signed for. It’s the all-time greatest deal.”
“From talking to guys that have played in New England, I think the public persona of Bill [Belichick] is one thing, and I’m sure there’s truth to some of that. But I think behind closed doors, he understands what each of his players individually needs — the support, the space at times — to bring out their best. If you look across Belichick’s coaching career, he’s coached a lot of different style players. The one thing he’s going to learn about Cam is that no one wants to win more. And no one is going to come every day and practice harder and train harder and prepare better.”
5. Will Patriots cut to 80 right away? One thing that should be learned in the next few days is how much Belichick values the opportunity to bring an extra 10 players to training camp. Every team can bring a full 90-man roster to the start of camp but will be required to work in a split-squad format until reducing rosters to 80 by Aug. 16. The other option for teams is to reduce to an 80-man roster by July 28, and that means the Patriots wouldn’t have to work in a split-squad format at any point. Essentially, the question comes down to this: Are the 10 final roster spots, which might consist of players with long odds to make the team anyway, worth sacrificing the chance to work in a full-squad setting until Aug. 16?
6. Value of McDaniels’ presence: While the Patriots don’t place a high priority on job titles under Belichick, it seems fair to say offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels would be the most likely assistant to assume any type of interim head coach role if the situation called for it. Belichick has spoken in the past about how fortunate he feels to have McDaniels, and here’s something else that reflects McDaniels’ value to the franchise: He is one of just two offensive coordinators in the NFL who has been in the position with the same team for more than two seasons, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information research. McDaniels has been the Patriots’ OC since 2012, while Pete Carmichael Jr. has held the position for the Saints since 2009.
7. Keeping coaches safe, too: Patriots safety Devin McCourty has been prolific this offseason, with his “Double Coverage” podcast each Sunday night an insightful addition to the media landscape. The next podcast, featuring linebacker Dont’a Hightower, might be the last one for a while as training camp/acclimation to football gets underway.
One thing McCourty said last week was that the safety measures players have been seeking because of the coronavirus pandemic go beyond themselves: “Throw coaches in there, too. We have coaches who are in their mid- to upper 60s trying to get the job done. That is a little nerve-wracking.” McCourty seemed to be referencing Belichick (68) and running backs coach Ivan Fears (65), who fall into a high-risk category for the virus, and he said everyone in the organization needs to treat each other like family.
8. Chiefs’ chatter: The Patriots were the last franchise to win back-to-back Super Bowl championships, in 2003 and 2004, which reinforces how difficult it can be to repeat. Players often said the target on reigning Super Bowl champions is hard to understand unless you’ve lived with it, which came to mind after hearing defensive tackle Chris Jones and receiver Tyreek Hill set the bar high for the Chiefs’ Super Bowl aspirations — five to seven titles. Optimism can be good, and the Chiefs have a lot of good things going for them, but some of their top players could find out quickly that a second championship in 2020 is a lot harder than they envisioned.
9. Belichick leads in longevity: Mike Zimmer’s contract extension as Vikings head coach as he enters his seventh season shines a spotlight on longevity in the NFL coaching ranks. Zimmer is tied with Houston’s Bill O’Brien as the league’s seventh-longest-tenured head coach. Only Belichick (since 2000), New Orleans’ Sean Payton (2006), Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin (2007), Baltimore’s John Harbaugh (2008), Seattle’s Pete Carroll (2010) and Kansas City’s Andy Reid (2013) have been the head coach of their teams longer.
10a. Did You Know, Part I: The Vikings are one of five teams with at least eight wins in each of the past five seasons, joining the Patriots, Chiefs, Steelers and Seahawks.
10b. Did You Know, Part II: Since Zimmer took over as Vikings coach, only New England has allowed fewer points per game than Minnesota.