|Bill Belichick often whistles while he works to drive home his message. (File/David Kamerman/Globe Staff)|
It's a rite of summer around the NFL.
Players have to endure the drudgery and monotony of two-a-day practices and positional drills. Players do not relish training camp, but for coaches, the lessons taught in the searing heat of July and August will ideally pay dividends when summer fades to fall and the games count.
Perhaps no head coach gets more out of training camp and prepares his team for the rigors of an NFL season better than Bill Belichick, according to former Patriots players. Belichick, who will open his ninth training camp as Patriots coach this morning at 8:45 at Gillette Stadium, conducts each practice session with a purpose and maps out a game plan designed to have his team ready to play come Opening Day - and ready for almost anything that comes its way.
What separates Patriots training camp is the attention to detail and emphasis on situational football. Two-minute drills, four-minute drills, and coming-out-of-your-own-end-zone scenarios are situations in which the Patriots preach what they practice.
"The most important thing that I saw that he did in his training camps, the thing that he does that in my opinion makes that team better is that he has specific practices set aside for situational football," said former Patriots tight end Christian Fauria.
Fauria, who played in New England from 2002-05 and also has played for the Seattle Seahawks, Washington Redskins, and Carolina Panthers, said in his first camp with the Patriots, Belichick created a situation: It was late in the fourth quarter and the Patriots had the ball at their 17 with 1:21 left and no timeouts, needing a field goal.
Sound familiar? Belichick recreated the situation that led to Adam Vinatieri's field goal in Super Bowl XXXVI.
"They redid that situation. I remember that sticking out in my mind," said Fauria. "Ultimately, those situations can make the difference between winning and losing, being able to make those small, quick decisions that the other guy might not know."
"He just does his homework, and puts players in those uncomfortable situations in July and August, so in October, November, December, when the games mean the most, it's not the first time they've been in them and it's second nature."
The game in 2003 in which the Patriots beat Denver after intentionally taking a safety when Lonie Paxton snapped the ball off the crossbar? Fauria said the Patriots practiced that play in training camp.
"If he sees something that another team does or that is stupid, we'd watch film on it," said Fauria. "No other team I've been with did that.
"I remember talking to [former Patriots backup quarterback] Damon Huard after he left for Kansas City, and he said, 'These guys don't do any situational stuff.' "
After two straight campaigns in which his team's season came down to the defense being unable to stop game-winning marches, it wouldn't be surprising to see Belichick duplicate the situation from Super Bowl XLII that led to Plaxico Burress's winning touchdown for the New York Giants.
Belichick also emphasizes team-building and continued improvement. It's not unusual for him to create a pressure situation in which the team is spared post-practice running if a scenario is executed properly, or for him to cancel a practice if the team executes at a high level during a particular session.
Execution and improvement is a theme that starts in training camp and carries on throughout the season.
"With me being in this league as long as I have, the most important lesson I've learned from a team aspect is that it doesn't matter if you're the most talented or the best team in the league. What matters is everybody is together and continuing to get themselves better," said former Patriots wide receiver Donte' Stallworth.
Stallworth, who played last season with the 16-0 Patriots, chose Cleveland in part because of similarities between the practice habits of Belichick and Browns coach Romeo Crennel, the Patriots' former defensive coordinator.
That might surprise some. Fauria said he'd heard Belichick was a taskmaster and was expecting a very physical training camp with lots of full-pads sessions when he signed on.
"My first year, we banged, but it wasn't that bad, not the worst I ever did," said Fauria. "My next two years, we weren't really in pads at all. We'd still go after it in shells, but everybody knew what he was doing."
Belichick doesn't just work his players hard. He works them smart. In past camps, he has given veterans days off to keep them fresh and given younger players or fringe players trying to make the roster more repetitions.
With the folding of NFL Europa and the player exemptions that came with it, and the subsequent move to an 80-man training camp roster limit, it will be more of a challenge for coaches to keep their teams fresh and focused during camp.
However, few coaches are as well-positioned to do it as Belichick, who has always understood the value of training camp as both team-molding time and a teaching tool.
"What struck me last year is how efficient they've gotten," said former San Francisco 49ers center Randy Cross, who broadcasts Patriots preseason games. "They got their program down pretty good. Last year, they looked like they were practicing in December in early August."
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.