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A plane, but not simple

More involved in this Patriots trip

Patriots assistant equipment manager John Hillebrand loads players’ bags for the trip to London to play the Buccaneers. Patriots assistant equipment manager John Hillebrand loads players’ bags for the trip to London to play the Buccaneers. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff
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By Monique Walker
Globe Staff / October 23, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH - The checklist seemed to grow longer by the minute. With less than an hour before a team meeting yesterday afternoon, Patriots players loaded their duffel bags with all the necessities for game day. Except this time, the game will be in London.

As the deadline approached for bags to be packed, the locker room became a hectic scene. Players were asking each other what items were going and which were staying. The scene was like a two-minute drill, as players yelled out how much time they had before bags had to be thrown onto the luggage cart.

Yesterday, the Patriots took off for London, boarding a 6 p.m. flight out of Logan that was scheduled to arrive at Heathrow Airport at 5:35 this morning. The Patriots will have two days to adjust to local time and prepare for Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay at Wembley Stadium.

Getting more than 50 players, plus coaches and staff, to London is no easy task. The process began in June when members of the organization took a scouting trip to London. This is the third year the NFL is sending teams to play in London, and the experiences of previous teams helped the Patriots plan.

Among the things to consider: where to stay, practice facilities, and whether to go to London for the full week or a couple of days at the end of the week. Matt Caracciolo, the Patriots’ director of football operations, was among those who took the scouting trip to answer those questions. He also spoke with representatives from other NFL teams who have made the trip.

Coach Bill Belichick said he didn’t get very involved with the details, and when suggestions were made, he usually went with the staff’s recommendations.

“We talk about certain things that we want to try to keep constant on the trips and we do that as much as we can,’’ said Belichick.

“It’s not always possible to make them all the same based on where the facilities are and where we’re going, and sometimes the timing changes a little bit. Those things are taken into consideration, but really all the work has been done by other people in the organization.’’

One major issue was whether the Patriots should spend the full week in London. Both the Patriots and Buccaneers opted to arrive late in the week.

One benefit of spending a week in London would be giving the players plenty of time to adjust to the time difference (London is five hours ahead of Foxborough). But that would mean moving the entire operation overseas. The team would have to find a facility that could host meetings, video, and other preparation materials.

“We felt like this was what was best for us, to get our preparation done here and then make the move on Thursday,’’ Belichick said.

The Giants and Dolphins traveled to London to play in 2007. Jim Phelan, the Giants’ director of administration, faced a new challenge that year as the teams were the first to make the trip. That year, getting passports proved to be among the more time-consuming tasks, Phelan said.

Since passports are now required to enter Canada and Mexico, more people have obtained them, and that development helped the Patriots.

“To tell you the truth, I didn’t know what to expect when we first started going around and asking everyone,’’ Caracciolo said. “A lot of them had them, which has probably changed pretty significantly in the last two years.’’

Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich was with the Dolphins in 2007. He said the time change was the biggest challenge for players. He tried to stay awake the first day in London so he could get on local time.

“You can feel a difference,’’ Ninkovich said.

Phelan said the Giants advised players to sleep on the plane, but the confined space was not the most comfortable for football players.

“This is a little bit longer trip in terms of flight time and a little bit longer stay than a normal away game,’’ said Belichick, “but we’ll try to do the best we can to make it as convenient for the players so they can get their preparation, get their rest, and be ready to perform on Sunday.’’

While this kind of trip can strain a staff, “you learn from every different trip, and moving forward you will be much better prepared,’’ said Phelan.

Although there have been obstacles, Caracciolo said it would have been worse without the help of the league and those connected with the game in London.

“Every trip presents its own challenges,’’ he said. “They’re all unique for different reasons . . . I really thought the process has gone well.’’

Monique Walker can be reached at mwalker@globe.com.

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