Humidity has enveloped Foxborough, its oppressive presence dampening the resolve of an otherwise pleasant summer day. The clamminess invited itself into the morning slowly, sneaking into the misleading, sunrise breeze, its threatening arrival heeding a warning that this environment, once tranquil and serene, would soon succumb to a stifling influence all-too-familiar in these parts.
Then Bill Belichick waltzed to the press conference podium at Gillette Stadium and made everything all right.
“Welcome to football season,” he said. "We're here."
Well, sort of, kind of. The New England Patriots opened training camp Wednesday, one of the hottest days of the year thus far, with little more than a handful of press conferences, physicals, meetings, and conditioning exercises in advance of hitting the practice field for the first time on Thursday morning. But more or less, it is officially here.
Welcome back, football.
Boy, did the head coach bring the sunshine with him Wednesday morning to help brighten a vanilla summer highlighted by Stephen Drew, a farewell to Jarome Iginla, and a Celtics draft that might as well have been accomplished by having Danny Ainge slip on the auto-select tool for “Best Available.” But in about 10 words, delivered with a trademark, underwhelming triumph, Belichick essentially announced that there will mercifully be no Gronkwatch 2.0 in the summer of 2014, and that just sort of puts an end to the percolating question everybody had in regards to the health of Tom Brady’s most dangerous weapon.
"He's been here," Belichick said about Patriots superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski. "He would be ineligible to (appear on PUP list) because he's been cleared to play.”
Of course, Gronkowski underwent major reconstructive knee surgery after blowing both his ACL and MCL in a game last December against the Cleveland Browns. Gronkowski only played in seven games during the 2013 season, chipping in 592 yards receiving and four touchdowns after returning on Oct. 20 against the Jets. It was just last year when he underwent multiple surgeries on his broken arm, and his absence was the second-biggest story in training camp last summer, only to wondering what the hell Tim Tebow was doing here.
Magic pills or not, it’s only one step to recovery for Gronkowski, only but six-and-a-half months after surgery in January, but it’s certainly a major one, and an pronouncement that came on the heels of a quiet offseason for the tight end, who probably should have purchased stock in Deadspin and TMZ last year. Whether that was a message from the button-down Patriots, or his own realization that his focus needed to be elsewhere, the fact that this year has started on a reversal of positivity is something to note.
"Rob has always worked hard," Belichick said. "He worked hard as a rookie, so he has always worked hard when he's here. I can't speak for the rest of the time, but from what we've seen he has been consistent."
Guard Logan Mankins, one of three Patriots – also including defensive end Rob Ninkovich and safety Devin McCourty - to speak on Wednesday, was just as excited to have Gronkowski’s blocking ability back on the field as he was the tight end’s constant threat to find the end zone.
“Well, it’s a positive,” he said. “We were all hoping Gronk would have a good recovery and so far he has. We’ll just see where he is, how good he is right now. It’s great to have him out there. He’s a dynamic blocker. He does a great job in the blocking and he’s a big target for Tom to get the ball to and he gets open. Anytime you can have Gronk on the field, it’s great.”
Only a few hours into this training camp and the Patriots are already giving the lollipop and gumdrop spring training that the Red Sox enjoyed in Fort Myers, Fla., a run for its money. Gronk is healthy. Darrelle Revis is going to sprint out to the practice field on Thursday. Distractions are few. There’s a new CVS in the Patriot Place parking lot.
It’s all a far cry from how Belichick was forced to begin training camp last summer, with a special press conference dedicated to discussing allegations of murder levied against former New England tight end Aaron Hernandez.
Speaking of the Patriots’ pet project gone awry, Belichick was, not surprisingly, tight-lipped when asked about the much-ballyhooed 34 text messages he and Hernandez exchanged last offseason.
“I think that was addressed by a lawyer last week and I don’t have any further comment on it,” he said.
Is it common to have that sort of interaction with a player?
“I don’t have any further comment on it.”
Does it now, in hindsight, make him feel any differently about how to handle or approach a certain player.
“No further comment.”
Noted. But unfortunately the Hernandez mess may not be as easy to escape in a few months as it was on this blistering, summer day in late July. Jury selection for Hernandez’s trial is set for Jan. 9, which translates to during the week when the Patriots should be preparing to face whatever wild card team advances in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. If anyone is a master at avoiding a distraction, it’s Belichick, but this could be the mother of all off-field issues affecting a team in its goal of reaching the Super Bowl.
But today? It’s all sun and smiles at Gillette, where the Patriots welcome their adoring fans to camp on Thursday to kick off practice sessions in earnest. Welcome to football season, when even a dour Bill Belichick can bring a blaze of brightness to an otherwise drab midpoint of the year.
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