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Camp fires burning

The vacation is over as Patriots prepare to defend their title

FOXBOROUGH -- Training camp is a lot like (for some of us) household chores, eating vegetables, drinking lots of water, taking vitamins, grocery shopping, school, and work -- most of the time it's not that enjoyable, but necessary.

Sure, it would be great to skip right through the (sometimes twice) daily practices and start the regular season now rather than in six weeks, so that the Patriots can begin their title defense and resume their pursuit of the league record for consecutive victories (they need four more). And it might also be great to go from junior high to college, just not very smart.

And so the Patriots kicked off the necessary evil that is training camp yesterday with an afternoon practice at Gillette Stadium in front of more than 5,000 fans. It had a back-to-school feel to it.

"The first day everyone's excited to be out there," Tom Brady said. "The whole month of July you're just kind of waiting. Now it's here, and we're ready to get back to work."

"Camp is your rite of passage," said Ted Johnson, who has been through it nine times. "It gets you battle-hardened, it really does. Your body needs to feel that, the bruises, the pain, the aches that come with camp, so when it's for real, you can push through it. I think camp is also about the camaraderie, the downtime, the jokes, and the tricks you play on each other. That piece, those team-building activities, are essential."

"There's no way to cut the corner," coach Bill Belichick said afterward. "There's no way for a player to get in condition except to go out there and run and train and get in condition. There's no way for a player to learn how to execute his plays and for a team to learn how to execute them together, and all the variations that can occur when something happens on the other side of the ball, without going out there and doing it, going through the process, seeing things and collectively three or four guys seeing things together and reacting together. There's no way you can cut the corner on that."

At some point this year the Patriots are going to make a play that helps decide a game, like a deep snap out of the end zone for an intentional safety, and afterward more than one of them will say, "We've worked on that." They won't mean that they went over something completely new that week. They'll be talking about what they're learning and practicing now.

"You just can't go out there and say, `That's going to happen and we're all going to do this.' It just doesn't work that way," Belichick said.

The team worked hard during the offseason program, and Belichick rewarded the players with a light workout yesterday. "He threw us a bone," Richard Seymour said. The workout warriors watched, wearing just jerseys and shorts, while others worked in helmets, shells, and shorts. It's back to normal today, though.

"[Today] will be much more conventional in terms of everybody being out there," Belichick said. "The guys that will perform will perform and the [injured or rehabbing] guys who aren't quite ready to go will work until they're ready."

Belichick has been through 29 of these, and the aim is still the same. It's to prepare the team for two things: the opener and everything else.

"It's the same two goals every year," Belichick said. "You want to have your team ready for opening day and the opening part of the season and what you're going to have to deal with for the first week and the first couple of weeks of the season. You also want to have your team ready to deal with the 16-game regular-season schedule. You don't want to be getting into a situation in the middle of the season and have things significant come up that are brand new to your team. You want to be able to refer back and say, `Oh yeah, we did that in training camp. This is what we're going to do in this situation, we practiced it in camp, we're familiar with it, we're confident in it because we've done it before.' You want to try to balance those two things out and create a good fundamental level for your players, because as the season goes along, the fundamental time gets cut down because you face so many scheme problems and you're coordinating things on a team level."

A team's level of accomplishment during the regular season isn't determined by what happens in July and August. New England won three of four exhibition games in 2001 and all four exhibition games last year -- and went on to win the Super Bowl both seasons. But the Patriots also won three of four two years ago, when they missed the playoffs. A good camp doesn't always mean it's a good team, but it's usually a good sign.

"Put it this way: I don't think I've been a part of a real good season that had a bad camp," Belichick said. "I think I've been involved with what I thought were pretty good camps but the season didn't necessarily end up good. I think it's hard to have a real good season if you don't have a decent, or good to above average training camp. That doesn't guarantee or secure anything, because the regular season is so long and so many things can happen. But it puts you in position to be competitive if you can play to a good level after having that kind of foundation come out of your work in camp."

The Patriots have shown in both their recent Super Bowl runs that the way a team starts has nothing to do with how it finishes. Neither of those teams looked like a champion in the first month of the season.

Belichick said a team usually forges its identity in the fall or winter, not the summer.

"Sometimes it can start in training camp," he said. "Sometimes that can be deceiving. A lot of times you come out of training camp or the preseason games feeling a certain way about a certain aspect of your team, but you haven't really been challenged because teams aren't game-planning you. They're not scheming for your strengths and weaknesses. And then you get into the regular season and go, `Oh God, we've really got some problems we didn't realize we had.' One of the things as a coach you try to do is figure out your weaknesses and figure out how to strengthen them or work around them."

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