Chung returns to practice; Hernandez, D. Gronkowski out

Chung returns to practice; Hernandez, D. Gronkowski out

By Phil Perry
CSNNE.com

FOXBORO -- The Patriots were without five players at Friday's practice.Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth missed his second straight day and was not spotted in the locker room. Offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who had been battling a back injury, was not out at practice. Tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Dan Gronkowski were not present, and defensive end Mike Wright was also out.One surprise at practice was safety Patrick Chung, who recently had surgery on his right thumb. He had a black cast covering his right thumb and wrist but was out there running around with his teammates during warmups.

McDaniels 'loves' Patriots, but wants to be a head coach again

McDaniels 'loves' Patriots, but wants to be a head coach again

FOXBORO -- It seems just about every year, Josh McDaniels is considered one of the leading candidates to land a head coachING job. But here the Patriots are, ready to start camp, and McDaniels remains where he’s been since January of 2012, as Bill Belichick’s offensive coordinator. 

It’s not as if McDaniels hasn’t had opportunities. A couple of seasons ago, he interviewed for both the San Francisco and Atlanta gigs. But this past year, the 40-year-old declined to speak with any team, despite strong interest from Miami, the New York Giants and Tennessee. At the time, McDaniels made it clear he was focused on the Pats and their upcoming playoff game against Kansas City. There’s also been the strong sense that McDaniels and his young family enjoy the area and, of course, coaching Tom Brady and coaching with Belichick.

Today, however, McDaniels made clear he’d like another shot, eventually.

“Yeah, I mean I love… this is an incredible place to work. I love being here,” he smiled. “I’m happy to do this job as much as I can, as long as they’ll have me . . . (But) I do, I want to be a head coach (again) at some point in my life. I’ve learned so much over the last so many years. Hopefully, gained a lot of wisdom, and if and when that time comes, I’d look forward to the challenge  of doing it again.”

Of course, McDaniels had that opportunity once, named the youngest head coach -- at age 33 -- in NFL history back in 2009, when the Denver Broncos tabbed him to replace legendary boss Mike Shanahan. McDaniels guided the Broncos to a 6-0 start in his first year, including an overtime win over the Patriots that was punctuated with McDaniels exuberantly pumping his fist to the crowd. Then the wheels fell off . . .  or, more accurately, disintegrated. Denver won just 5 of it’s next 22 games and McDaniels was dismissed in early December, before the 2010 season had concluded. 

Belichick: Garoppolo to get starter reps in 'comprehensive process' to prepare for season

Belichick: Garoppolo to get starter reps in 'comprehensive process' to prepare for season

FOXBORO -- In his precamp media address Wednesday afternoon, Bill Belichick indicated that with Tom Brady down for the month of September, backup Jimmy Garoppolo will get the majority of reps to get him ready for the start of the season.

Belichick also noted that when Brady returns he will be the team’s starter, which will preemptively shuts down the “Will Brady get Brady-ed” storyline if Garoppolo happens to light it up for the first four weeks.

“We finally have some definition with Tom’s situation, so our priority now is to get Jimmy ready for the start of the season for the Arizona game (on September 11),” Belichick said. “That will obviously be a comprehensive process. Tom will return as the starting quarterback when he comes back. But in the meantime we have to prioritize the first part of our schedule and that will be to get Jimmy ready to go.”

Asked his reaction to the conclusion of the ordeal, Belichick said, “No commentary on it. We just know that’s what we have to work with and that’s what we’re doing.”

Belichick said he wasn’t daunted by the specter of getting three quarterbacks -- Brady, Garoppolo and rookie Jacoby Brissett -- in working order over the next month-and-a-half, saying, “I think we have a good situation. We have three players we want to work with. Around the league, look at some other teams. Maybe they don’t have anyone, maybe they have one. We’ll see how it plays out.”

Good relative to other teams? Certainly, over the long haul. Good in the short term? That’s a bit of spin.

Belichick got a bit weary after some decent initial questions from TV’s own Dan Hausle descended into obtuse badgering. That was the only real show of exasperation and it was neither unexpected nor inexcusable.

As for Garoppolo’s improvement, Belichick said, “We could sit here and talk about it for a day. Everything.”

Toward the end of the press conference, I asked if the Deflategate swirl was ever onerous to him or the team.

“Really, I never dealt with it,” Belichick said. “Until a decision had been made, it . . . was in some version of litigation, appeal, appeal depending on how the litigation goes. I mean, it’s been in the same place for a year-and-a-half . . .  

"So there’s definition to it now. We’ll move forward now based on that definition.”

After practice, Patriots head to The Hills

After practice, Patriots head to The Hills

FOXBORO -- If you're one of the thousands of fans who will make their way here for training camp at some point this summer, there's a good chance you'll see the Patriots finish up a session by disappearing briefly over a ridge in the back corner of the Gillette Stadium practice fields. 

By the time they reappear for interviews or autographs, they'll be drenched with sweat and out of breath.

"Mount Belichick," Bill Belichick said after one particularly grueling workout last year. "That's what they called it back in Cleveland."

Patriots players haven't taken the time to name the New England version, probably because no one really likes to think about it all that much in their free time. But unofficially, the space is known as The Hills. Oftentimes there's an expletive mixed in. 

This out-of-sight slice of the team's work space can be a year-round tool, but it has seen regular usage every summer since it was installed about four years ago. For an organization that harps on the importance of being able to outlast opponents, running The Hills is believed to be a difference-maker. 

"That hill's great," director of player personnel Nick Caserio told Sirius XM Radio recently. "That hill gets them in shape pretty quickly. Those guys don't like it, but they'll probably in the fourth quarter realize it's worthwhile."

"It definitely teaches you how to become comfortable with being uncomfortable," receiver Danny Amendola said. "It's a beast, for sure."

There are actually two hills on the south end of the practice fields that slope down to a concrete landing with a storage bin that can hold field-goal posts, tackling dummies and other implements of the game. 

Both hills have different gradations. One is 20 yards long and steep. The other is 60 yards long and features more of a gradual incline. 

Neither provides any escape from the heat, but these are not the dry and rocky hills with treacherous footing that you might find on in an old-school training camp video montage. No, these hills are as well-manicured as the rest of the Patriots practice fields, with white lines painted on every five yards so that players know just how much farther they have to go when their legs are pleading with them to stop. 

The mere mention of The Hills to players during last summer's training camp was usually met with shaking heads and nervous laughter. 

"It's a little bit of a drain, but it's kind of like taking medicine," said left tackle Nate Solder. "You know you need it."

"The Hills are a beast, man," said former Patriots receiver Brian Tyms. "It's like that one bully you have in school. You're like, 'I hope he doesn't mess with me today.' That's what that's like. It's just the incline of it. It's real. It makes a man out of you.

"Jerry Rice. They said he ran a 4.7 but he could run a 4.7 every play. A lot of people who run a 4.3, but in the fourth quarter they can't run a 4.3. Conditioning is like the biggest thing in football. Everybody's an athlete, but how many times can you get out and exert that same amount of effort? Every play? Same intensity? That hill helps that. After practice, in the offseason, we go at each other hard like we have pads on. We go at that hill, we have nothing left. If you can give even a bit of anything on the hill, then we get in the game, shoot, fourth quarter and teams been beating on each other, you still got another gear to go."

"It's tough. It's a challenge," said corner Logan Ryan. "I think the hill just makes you a little bit tougher. Your legs get a little heavy and then you gotta run these sprints up a hill. Your legs, you gotta keep your mind sharp. You gotta just attack it. That's how we go about it. We feel like we get an edge in conditioning over some other guys because of how hard we go at it."

The Hills won't only be reserved for these types of conditioning runs, where as many as a dozen or so players will sprint up together at the sound of a whistle that will likely be worn by first-year head strength and conditioning coach Moses Cabrera. They can be used for players rehabbing injuries or trying to build up speed after a long layoff. 

They provide a space for team-building purposes, too. When the Ice Bucket Challenge to benefit ALS research went viral in 2014, the team filmed its team-wide water dump at the top of The Hills. 

It's also one of the few places where players and coaches can compete side by side. Belichick hasn't run The Hills in some time, but his son, safeties coach Steve Belichick, has been seen hauling uphill. Same goes for receivers coach Chad O'Shea, corners coach Josh Boyer, defensive line coach Brendan Daly and others. 

And it does get competitive. Regardless of how difficult the players just had it during that day's practice, they're sure not to get beaten by one of their more fresh-legged coaches.

"I don't care how much I ran," Ryan said. "I've never seen a coach get past me."

At their core, though, The Hills are about conditioning. Tom Brady has been seen doing resistance-band training with team staffers on The Hills, and sometimes players will make their way over there on their own simply because they know they need the extra work. Newly-acquired Patriots defensive tackle Terrance Knighton -- who is listed at 6-foot-3, 355 pounds and has target weights written into his one-year contract -- hung back on The Hills for a few minutes of extra work with Cabrera after an OTA practice last month. 

Matthew Slater is touted by many on the team as the fastest player when it comes to their punishing post-practice sprints. He credits his work on the hill behind his childhood home in Orange, California for preparing him for success in that regard.

Similarly, despised as it may be, the time spent on the Hills behind Gillette Stadium gets a chunk of the credit for the long seasons the Patriots have had of late. 

"I think you put down the foundation in the offseason," Slater said, "in training camp, early in the season, in regards to your conditioning. That's going to have to carry you all the way through February, hopefully. That's paid dividends for us, and hopefully it'll continue to pay dividends for us."