|Guard Billy Yates (74) won't be blocking for Tom Brady this season, but he's working on keeping his starting role. (Elsa/Getty Images)|
FOXBOROUGH - The team meeting had just adjourned when the doors to the Patriots' locker room swung open.
Billy Yates, playbook in hand, came marching into the room along with several of his colleagues on the offensive line. After the Patriots had absorbed a humiliating 38-13 setback against the Miami Dolphins in Week 3, there was not much left to say or do except to get back to work, making corrections and adjustments.
And so, even during the bye week, there was no rest for the weary.
But Yates chose to describe the time off another way.
"It's 'Getting Better Week,' " said the soft-spoken, 6-foot-2-inch, 305-pound guard from Texas A&M. "It's the truth, though. We've got to get better these next few days."
Although Gillette Stadium will be dormant tomorrow, and remain so until the Patriots host Denver for a "Monday Night Football" game Oct. 20, the team will not have the opportunity to do anything about the loss to the Dolphins until they face the 49ers in San Francisco Oct. 5.
Check that. The Patriots will not have the opportunity to do anything except practice and perfect their techniques. And that's how Yates, along with the rest of his teammates, expected to spend the bye week.
"I'm just trying to get better and I think that's what everyone else is trying to do, too," said Yates.
That was Yates's objective from the start of preseason camp, when an opportunity to gain more playing time presented itself. Starting right guard Stephen Neal (shoulder) was placed on the physically unable to perform list and reserve lineman Russ Hochstein missed valuable time because of an injury. At no time did Yates think it would propel him to three starts at right guard through the first three weeks of the 2008 season.
"I didn't even think about it like that," he said. "I was just thinking about the opportunity just to try to play football. You just push yourself as much as you can and just to try to get better. Really, that's been my whole focus: just to get better, get better, get better. Do this better, do that better."
Yates's commitment to improve his game has earned the trust and confidence of his coaches and teammates alike.
"Billy is a tough guy. He's a big, strong, physical guy," said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. "He has been in there for quite a bit of time now. We have relied on Billy over the last few years and he has come through.
"We don't feel like we have a hole at any spot on the [offensive line]. That is a tribute to Billy because when Billy goes in there, last year or this year, we don't feel like we have to alter what we do."
Yates has proven he can provide crushing drive blocks and protect the passer.
"We don't feel like we have to change our protections or where we are running the ball because Billy can hold his end of the bargain," McDaniels said. "He has done a good job this year and we will continue to count on him to do that."
Signed by the Dolphins as an undrafted free agent in 2003, Yates played in three games in a reserve capacity in Miami.
"I saw it as a blessing and as another opportunity, I guess, to continue my career in football and to have fun at what you do," said Yates, a native of Fort Worth who was a two-time all-state selection at Corsicana High, where he grew up a fan of Nate Newton and Larry Allen of the Dallas Cowboys.
When the Dolphins waived him Sept. 5, 2004, Yates spent the week between his release from Miami and his Sept. 11 signing with the Patriots' practice squad "catching up on some sleep," he said with a chuckle. "Spent some time with my wife and tried to figure out the next step."
He never feared, though, that he'd be unemployed for long.
"I never really did, because it wasn't too long before the Patriots actually called me," said Yates, who spent time on the practice squad in 2005 and '06. "I didn't even think about that. Honestly, I was like, 'I'm going to still enjoy this, this time, this year,' and I was just trying to enjoy it."
Did Yates ever contemplate starting a coaching career? "That's what I've always said I wanted to do once I finish playing," he said. "I think it would've been something cool to do, but, I mean, it's way off."
No longer eligible to be signed to the practice squad, Yates last season made the roster and played in seven games, making his first career start at right guard against San Diego Sept. 16, helping protect Tom Brady, who passed for 279 yards and three touchdowns.
With three starts under his belt this season, Yates appears set to establish a career high for games played. "Billy's doing a great job," said left guard Logan Mankins. "We've always had confidence in Billy and he's subbed in the last few years when people have gone down and he's stepped right in this year and he's doing a very good job."
Bye week or no, Yates did not intend to rest on his laurels.
"The way I see it, it's a blessing for any of us to be in this locker room right now," Yates said. "And we're just trying to take advantage of it and trying to get better at it."
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.