FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It's the start of a new year for the Patriots, who open their regular season on the road against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday.
For head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady there’s still a long way to go to get back to the position they were in last year and have been in eight out of their 14 years together: one win away from the Super Bowl.
“I don’t think we’re going to find anything out in one day, I don’t think we’re going to find anything out in one game,” Belichick said Wednesday of the Week 1 practices and game.
He went on to say that every year the opener is all about “unknowns.”
For the 2014 Patriots there are quite a few of those. How Brady and new tight end Tim Wright will play together, how the offensive line adjusts to losing six-time Pro Bowler and emotional leader Logan Mankins and how much star tight end Rob Gronkowski is used right away are among them.
One thing that is not unknown is the fact that the Patriots have won 10 consecutive openers, which gives them the longest active streak in the NFL. Despite this, New England has made it clear that it is not sleeping on a Dolphins team that hasn’t had a winning season since 2008.
On Wednesday, Belichick was quick to point out that Miami actually split with the Patriots last year, winning at home and giving New England “a real competitive game” in Foxborough.
Belichick was particularly complimentary of the Dolphins’ defensive line entering 2014.
“It’s, I’d say, one of the best fronts, defensive lines, that we’ll see all year,” Belichick said. “They’re physical, they run well, they’re tough, use their hands well, they’re aware, big blocking schemes. They don’t really get fooled much.”
Three-time Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake leads the way for the Dolphins’ defensive line but it was actually third-year end Olivier Vernon who led Miami in sacks last year with 11.5.
“Even if you want to help on one guy, then you still have to deal with the other guys,” Belichick said. “They do a good job of recognizing who has the best chance and those guys rush very aggressively and the guys that get doubled or have less of an opportunity on that particular play, they kind of are ready to replace the penetrating rusher and that type of thing.”
Brady, on the other hand, spoke highly of the Dolphins’ defense as a whole.
“They have very good, aggressive, dependable safeties that can tackle well,” Brady said of Miami. “They’ve got very experienced linebackers. They have a really good pass rush. There are no real weaknesses on this particular defense, which just means our execution has to be better.”
If Miami’s defense does play well, it will certainly provide a test for the Patriots’ offensive line. Everyone from backup left guard Josh Kline to the versatile Marcus Cannon and tackle Sebastian Vollmer have been brought up as potential replacements for Mankins at left guard.
“All those guys are working hard to find a spot, find a role,” Brady said of the offensive line. “When the coaches make those decisions, then that means the players have to adapt. That’s kind of the way it is and has always been here. However it sorts itself out, all the guys are going to be prepared to play.”
Just as much speculation surrounds the tight end position as the offensive line. After Gronkowski said he was ready to go on Monday, Belichick came out on Tuesday and said no official decision has been made about whether the tight end will play in the season opener.
On Wednesday, Belichick was again asked about Gronkowski and the work he has put in to recover from an ACL tear.
“Rob always works hard,” Belichick said. “I don’t think that’s really ever been an issue since he’s been here. He works hard in the weight room, works hard in the film room, in the meetings and he works hard on the field. I don’t think you could ever question Rob’s work ethic. I never have. I think it’s always one of the best on our team.”
And while the Patriots’ head coach may be hesitant to announce that Gronkowski is completely ready, he does not seem too concerned about the tight end missing all four preseason games.
“We have other guys on our team that will probably fall into that category too — didn’t play a lot in preseason that will play Sunday,” Belichick said. “I’m sure every team has guys in that category.”
If the Patriots are lucky they will get to see the tight end combination of Gronkowski and Wright play together. Wright looked good in his one preseason game with New England, but has yet to play with Brady in a game.
“It’s coming along good,” Wright said of the chemistry between him and Brady. “He’s a great quarterback and we just try do as much as we can on the side, just trying t o get that connection down. And just trying to get that relationship built.”
“We’ll see how his role plays out,” Brady said of Wright. “We’re trying to get to know each other and spend extra time communicating, gain his understanding of the things that he expects versus my expectations. It’s really a learning process.”
More simply put by Brady, “If he’s out there, if they don’t cover him, I’ll probably throw him the ball.”
With Gronkowski nearly back and the addition of Wright and others, there is a lot unknown, but a lot to look forward to in New England.
On Wednesday, the Patriots announced Brady and offensive lineman Dan Connolly as their offensive captains, defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, linebacker Jerod Mayo and safety Devin McCourty as their defensive captains and Matthew Slater as their special teams captain.
This is Connolly’s first year as captain. He has been on the Patriots since 2008.