Is it possible that creating toughness and adding ‘edge’ to camp is another? Our pal Will raised the point to me yesterday, and it seems pretty possible that he’s on to something. Remember, the last time we saw the Patriots on a football field the Ravens left them picking their teeth up off it. And if the coaches worry about the team being susceptible against more physical opponents, camp is the time to fix it.
Last year, when I was still at The Sporting News, one stop on my camp tour was New Orleans, where a pass-happy, defense-light team that had missed the playoffs in 2007 and ’08 was going through such a process.
I came expecting to see Drew Brees and Co. throwing it all over the yard. I left having seen the most physical practice I’d witnessed in five years of covering pro football. It was over 100 degrees out, it was humid, rain started to fall midway through the session, and it was a non-stop brawl. Offensive players being taken to the ground, chippy play on both sides, and a competitiveness that defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was instilling in his players rubbing off everywhere.
“Today we went live for a couple drills,” coach Sean Payton told me after. “And we wanted to make it a little more physical practice. We’ll back off a little bit tomorrow, but I like the toughness we’re seeing right now. The defense has gotten a lot better, the competition is good. I like this team a lot, and I told them that afterwards.”
Weeks later, the Saints were involved in a fracas during a joint practice with the Texans. Shocker, right?
Now, veteran safety Darren Sharper was careful not condone the fight, being politically correct and all. But his words show that he clearly saw an aggression building within the team.
“Being tough is part of it, I don’t think we want to take it to the level of fighting because that’s going to hurt our team,” Sharper told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “But being tough and challenging and being competitive are all things that (Williams) preaches with his defense and being aggressive, also. All those things come along. Something us guys as players take it a little too far and that’s when it boils over into ruckuses.”
And on the other side of that fight, a togetherness was grown too. One dustup started when Saints DT Rod Coleman took some liberties hitting RB Ryan Moats.
“It doesn’t matter who we are or where we are, what field we’re on, who we’re playing – nobody’s going to take a shot at our running back,” Houston FB Vonta Leach said. “Nothing was being said. It was a cheap shot. Our guy came off the blocks, and they started swinging. They tried to push us around, and our team’s not going to be pushed around.”
Meanwhile, star Texan linebacker DeMeco Ryans said of his dust-up with Jeremy Shockey: “It was a fast play, and people started pushing and shoving. I told our defensive guys that nobody’s going to come in our house and push us around.”
Anyway, that whole approach, for better or worse, transformed the Saints from a perceived soft dome team into a fast, aggressive, attacking bunch. And they had a pretty good year. The Texans, meanwhile, posted their first winning record, and ran over the Patriots (144 rushing yards) in the regular season finale.
The Patriots were once considered the league’s toughest team. So maybe these practices are a way of getting some of that nastiness back.