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Patriots taking a healthy approach

The Patriots exercised caution with Randy Moss's injury last season and it paid off, so this year they've been careful with Benjamin Watson (84). (Barry Chin / Globe File Photo) The Patriots exercised caution with Randy Moss's injury last season and it paid off, so this year they've been careful with Benjamin Watson (84).
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / July 28, 2008

FOXBOROUGH - The Patriots have had seven practices since training camp opened last Thursday, and defensive end Richard Seymour has missed four of them. Tight end Benjamin Watson has been absent for two.

The club opened camp with 12 players on the physically unable to perform list, easily the highest total among NFL teams who reported prior to yesterday. The Ravens, who had seven players on the PUP list on the first day of their camp, were next in line.

A cause for concern?

Not really, although it does highlight one of the early themes out of camp: The managing of certain players, and the idea that pushing them too hard now might hinder them over the course of an arduous 16-game regular season.

Seymour is a prime example.

The five-time Pro Bowler has been hampered by lingering left knee pain the last two seasons. He now feels fully healthy, yet he's still been held out of practices. Seymour explained that the decision, made by Bill Belichick and the team's training staff, is based on easing him back into action with a smart, conservative approach.

The same can be said for Watson, who underwent ankle surgery in the offseason. Even 36-year-old Marcus Pollard, a tight end in his 14th season, has been given practices off. Ditto for Matt Light, now in his eighth season.

When it comes to determining who's in and who's out at practice, Belichick is tapping into the management side of his job. Making such decisions, which are different from the football Xs and Os with which he is often associated with, can be challenging.

"It's hard, but I think it's very important," Belichick said yesterday after the first of two practices, in which both Seymour and Watson did not participate. "You really have to stay on top of it, because it can get away from you in a hurry. If you're just too locked in on one thing, that's one of those things that can sort of slip through the cracks."

Belichick has said the primary purpose of training camp is two-fold - to prepare for the regular-season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs Sept. 7, and for the rest of the regular season.

So the decisions he makes, which usually come after receiving input from assistant coaches and the training staff, have those factors in mind. And of course, some of the decisions already are made for him because certain injured players simply aren't yet ready to return.

In a sense, it's almost like a game of dominoes. If he knocks over one piece - such as sitting Watson out of a practice - he must consider how that will affect the other tight ends.

"You just want to do what's most beneficial for everybody, and in doing that, somebody is going to get shortchanged a bit, one way or the other," he said.

The handling of receiver Randy Moss in last year's training camp is yet another example of managing certain players. Moss had tweaked his hamstring in an Aug. 1 practice, and while he probably could have returned earlier, the decision was made to rest him throughout training camp.

Moss ended up going wire to wire in 2007, setting a season NFL record with 23 touchdown catches.

Perhaps the coaching staff is currently taking a similar approach with receiver Wes Welker, who has an undisclosed ailment and remains on the PUP list.

Another factor to consider is that Belichick also must balance his decision against what the team hopes to accomplish in that practice. For example, when the Patriots made defending the running game an emphasis Saturday morning, Belichick likely felt that it was a good time for Seymour to return after sitting out the prior two practices.

Yet another wrinkle, in the big picture, is that the Patriots have played deep into the postseason in each of the last five seasons. Those extra games, and even those extra weeks of practice, can wear players down, which is why the less-is-more approach is adopted with certain recovering players in training camp.

It's part of the puzzle that the head coach - acting in the role of manager - tries to put together each morning.

"You have guys that are 21 years old that can go all day and need a lot of reps, and you have others who are good players but 35 years old and you might wear them down, and there are guys all in between," Belichick said, before asking the question he ponders each day:

"How do you balance that?"

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

Richard Seymour at camp. (AP) Richard Seymour at camp.
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