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Tough Belichick practices in focus

By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / August 18, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH - Running back Kevin Faulk is one of only three players on the Patriots roster who has been part of every training camp since Bill Belichick was named coach in 2000. He knew this one would be different.

The first indication came when Belichick gathered the team at the end of the offseason program.

“He let it be known then, so there have been no surprises,’’ Faulk said yesterday between double-session practices at Gillette Stadium. “He said, ‘When you come back, you better look forward to working hard. It isn’t going to be like it has been.’ ’’

It certainly hasn’t been.

In his 10th year as Patriots coach, Belichick is putting the team through arguably its toughest camp. Not that his past camps haven’t been strenuous, but this one - which officially ends today - has been defined by him stepping on the gas pedal from Day 1 and seldom letting up.

Of 26 practices, a whopping 18 have been in full pads.

The camp opened July 30 with eight straight days of two-a-day practices. Overall, there have been 11 days in which multiple practices have been held.

The most recent two-a-day session came yesterday in hot, humid conditions that were so oppressive many spectators stayed away. The Patriots have had days when more than 10,000 fans attended practices, but yesterday it looked like barely 1,000, with gaps in the sizzling bleachers and hillside behind Gillette Stadium.

Yet the conditions didn’t stop Belichick, who also has carefully managed veterans from a health perspective, from calling for another full-pads session. That came after a full-pads session Sunday in which offensive linemen Logan Mankins and Rich Ohrnberger were carted off the field because of heat-related issues. Mankins returned to practice yesterday and joked that he was “alive and well.’’

Theories abound as to why Belichick has made it such a grind for his players and coaches.

The 2008 season marked the first time since 2002 that the Patriots missed the playoffs, so after years of deep playoff runs that led to more wear and tear on players, maybe the longer offseason and healthier outlook of the team sparked the change.

It also could be that the 2008 preseason was sluggish, with little momentum generated by the time the games truly counted, so it was time for a new preseason approach.

Then there’s the viewpoint that Belichick knows he has something special assembled in New England and because of this, he’s more inclined to crack the whip.

Asked what has made this camp as hard as it has been, Faulk said, “It’s the demand of what [Belichick] wants. He’s striving for perfection, knowing that it’s probably not going to happen, but why not shoot for it?

“Everyone knows we have talent on this team. At the same time, you have to bring all that talent together, to make one big talent. That’s the team we’re striving for. I think we’re responding, but, at the same time, it ain’t over.’’

It almost is, as Belichick is capping off camp today with another set of double sessions.

“It’s just been a day-in, day-out challenge for us with all the double days,’’ said seven-year veteran Tully Banta-Cain, back for his second stint with the team after two years in San Francisco. “We’ve had the pads on a lot and we’re playing at a fast tempo. With the heat and the amount of energy we’re exerting, it can wear on you. But I think we’re at the point now where guys are starting to get acclimated to it, and it’s making us better.’’

“Each camp that you go through has its own separate feel to it. I’ve been through camps that were hard, some that were easy. This one has been tough,’’ added seven-year veteran receiver Greg Lewis, who spent the first six years with the Eagles. “But if you want to get what you want, you have to put in the hard work. Coach Belichick preaches that.’’

Old-school NFLers probably chuckle when they hear current players talk about tough training camps. Camps used to be longer. Double sessions were the rule, not the exception. There were more exhibition games. The high-contact, tightly-packaged Oklahoma drill was a way for coaches to assess toughness, often on the first day of camp.

Things are different now - few teams run the Oklahoma drill, for example - with the proliferation of offseason programs changing the context of what takes place at training camps across the NFL.

So when Patriots players talk about battling through a tough camp, it is modern-day tough. What they’ve experienced the past three weeks, with Belichick going full throttle, qualifies.

“That’s what they’re supposed to be,’’ Faulk said. “It’s geared to [bring] your football team together, so you can go out there and go after it as a team, to hurt together as a team.’’

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

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