David D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Belichick's focus will get a real test
THE MOST important statements from the Patriots this week were made by Robert Kraft and Tom Brady — one with fury, the other through Facebook — and all the while Bill Belichick did what Bill Belichick does.
He said over and over that he was focused on the day at hand. That he was just trying to get his football team ready. That he was looking forward to 2015, not back to 2014. That every player is getting his work in. And that he'll defer to his owner's response on matters of ball pressure and league investigations. Unless it had to do with the procedures of training camp, the coach essentially had no comment.
But after the development just before the courts closed in Manhattan on Friday, it looks like Belichick will be forced to get involved in this mess real soon. Because Deflategate is about to start impacting the football side of the Patriots operation.
To this point the scandal has played out either behind the scenes or on paper, through meetings, reports and rulings. But unless the NFL and NFL Players Association hammer out a settlement in the next 10 days, or Brady drops his appeal of the four-game suspension he's facing, the mandates of New York Judge Richard Berman mean Belichick and his coaches will soon need to make some decisions that show up on the field.
In response to the NFLPA's request that the lawsuit be ruled on by Sept. 4, designed to give the Pats enough time to prepare for their season opener, Berman asked both sides to file memos stating their case by this coming Friday (Aug. 7). That was basically the timeline the union requested.
But the next step outlined by Berman is where things begin to get tricky for New England's decision makers. After building in some time for each side to review the other's memo, the judge scheduled a conference for Aug. 12, and asked that both Brady and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell be in attendance.
The problem there from a Patriots' perspective is that this conference would fall one day before the Patriots are scheduled to play their first preseason game, at Gillette Stadium against the Packers. Under normal circumstances Brady wouldn't likely play a significant number of snaps in that exhibition, so perhaps his absence on the final preparation would be inconsequential.
However, if a resolution isn't reached in the court case in that first conference, Berman has scheduled another for Aug. 19. That's the day the Patriots will begin joint practices with the Saints at a facility in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.
The second preseason game isn't until three days later, in New Orleans, but Belichick and the Patriots consider both joint practices and unconventional travel to be important parts of team-building. Reps against another team allows the Pats to break up the monotony while also giving them the chance to work on some things against someone in a different jersey.
Brady is said to covet every chance he gets, so he would surely want to be out there working out with the Saints. But the more interesting aspect may be how Belichick handles things with Jimmy Garoppolo. He would lead the offense if Brady isn't there, but how does the coach handle things the next day? And how does that impact the playing time of each quarterback in the second preseason game?
Brady turns 38 years old tomorrow, is starting his 16th pro season, and his playing time has always varied widely. He doesn't necessarily need the work to get ready. But if the court proceedings get all the way to Aug. 19, and reaches the point where Berman needs time to make a decision, more than half of the preseason will have expired.
Even those teams whose quarterback situations are unsettled will have more than likely declared their starter before the reigning champs know the status of the Super Bowl MVP. And at that point there will exist the real possibility that Brady will lose his appeal and be forced to serve some or possibly all of his suspension.
And that's why the decisions for Belichick are coming quickly. Over the opening two days of camp, it was Brady who led the offense against the Patriots' first-team defense when the two sides scrimmaged. As games approach, though, New England may begin to give Garoppolo more work with the starting unit.
So the coach can continue to stonewall in his press conferences, keep resisting the urge to rip the league's decision, or even steer clear of defending the franchise icon with which he's won four championships. But soon enough, Belichick will have to make a statement on what he feels about the current state of Deflategate not through words, but rather by who he sends behind center.
Another tricky aspect in terms of determining Brady's workload relates to the Pats' uncertainty along the offensive line. Dan Connolly retired and Ryan Wendell underwent offseason shoulder surgery. During the first day of practice, New England showed a unit where fourth-round rookies Tre Jackson and Shaq Mason manned the two guard spots in between second-year center Bryan Stork.
That could well be the group that begins the season for the Pats, and would be responsible for keeping the quarterback from taking two much pressure up the middle. Whether it's Brady or Garoppolo, the passer needs to trust those interior linemen enough to be able to comfortably step up in the pocket, and as last year's struggles showed, that faith needs to be developed.
Preseason games and joint practices project as excellent opportunities to do that.
After reportedly failing his conditioning test at the start of camp, LeGarrette Blount made his debut at practice on Saturday. Appropriately, given the style of the brutish running back, it was also the first session in which the Pats practiced wearing pads.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.