The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

These Patriots look very little like their predecessors, but they promise to be interesting

Bill Belichick takes notes during a Patriots training camp practice this month. (Elise Amendola/AP)
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — There is little that is familiar about the state of the New England Patriots in this training camp. They aren’t the “defending” anything. They are the “reigning” nothing. There is no ongoing string of success to try to extend.

But that doesn’t mean this edition of the Patriots is uninteresting or irrelevant. Far from it. They’re still the Patriots. And Bill Belichick is still their coach.

“Ever since I’ve been playing this game,” said tight end Jonnu Smith, one of the prominent players added during an uncharacteristic free agent spending spree this offseason, “there’s been a certain standard here.”

It’s a standard to which the Patriots now are attempting to return, rather than working to maintain. The NFL’s latest and perhaps greatest dynasty was, at best, interrupted last year, when the Patriots stumbled to a 7-9 record in the first season after quarterback Tom Brady’s free agent departure. That dynasty, at worst, crumbled for good. This season will be telling.

“I want to be a part of this team to help get back to the Super Bowl,” defensive lineman Carl Davis said after practice this week.

Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t know if this is his last season, but he’s ready to give it his all

The Patriots, who open their preseason here Thursday night against the Washington Football Team, no longer are being chased by the rest of the NFL. They are, for a change, doing the chasing. They’re chasing the Buffalo Bills, the reigning AFC East champs. They’re chasing the Kansas City Chiefs, the new standard-bearer in the AFC. They’re chasing Brady, who wasted no time adding to his collection of Super Bowl triumphs in Year 1 of his post-Patriots existence with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

And the Patriots are chasing themselves. They’re chasing the absurdly lofty expectations established by a Belichick-Brady pairing that won six Super Bowls and lost three others. The Patriots had secured 16 of the previous 17 AFC East titles before last season’s Brady-less unraveling.

“A long way to go,” Belichick said before Monday’s practice. “Just taking it day by day, trying to string some days together and improve from the day before, correct our mistakes and move on here.”

The confetti barely had finished falling on Brady and the Buccaneers by the time Belichick retooled New England’s roster with a free agent frenzy that was very un-Patriot-like.

Amid a flurry at the outset of free agency in March, the Patriots signed both of the top two tight ends, Smith and Hunter Henry. They added wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne. They bolstered the defense by signing linebacker Matthew Judon, linemen Henry Anderson and Davon Godchaux and defensive back Jalen Mills. They brought back linebacker Kyle Van Noy and offensive lineman Ted Karras, former Patriots who had been with the Miami Dolphins.

They re-signed quarterback Cam Newton, running back James White, center David Andrews, Davis and fellow defensive linemen Deatrich Wise and Lawrence Guy. They welcomed back linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who opted out of last season, and reacquired offensive tackle Trent Brown in a trade with the Las Vegas Raiders. At the draft, the Patriots stayed put with the No. 15 pick and landed Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, who had been linked to the San Francisco 49ers at the third selection.

Now, as Belichick roams the practice fields alongside Gillette Stadium during camp, his task is to blend all of the new pieces. There is an unavoidable learning curve.

“I’m just trying to get used to the terminology,” Anderson said following Sunday’s practice. “I’m still kind of trying to get to the point where [with] the playbook, I don’t have to think about the play that’s being called and it’s just when the play is called, I just know exactly what to do without having to think about it. So it’s good to get these reps.”

Brady’s Super Bowl victory with the Buccaneers in February showed he could be a championship-winning quarterback without Belichick. Now, Belichick seeks to demonstrate he can be a championship-winning coach without Brady. His mastery should not be forgotten.

“You just learn a lot,” Davis said. “Especially with Coach Belichick, he teaches you the game on a different level.”

Davis has had NFL stints with the Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars. He said that he urged Judon, his former Ravens teammate, to sign with the Patriots. Playing for Belichick, he said, is different from playing for other coaches.

“The details of football, the ins and outs, the finer details that most people don’t cover … it’s the reason why he’s won so much,” Davis said. “He just knows more. But he’s able to articulate it. … We practice really situational football to help you prepare for those moments so that you know in the game, ‘Hey, I’m expecting this if it’s … third and two,’ whatever it may be.”

The Patriots’ aura of invincibility dissipated last season. But the “Patriot Way” endures. The “No days off!” mantra still applies. Linebacker Harvey Langi, who spent his rookie season in 2017 with the Patriots and now is back following a stay with the New York Jets, said: “It’s like deja vu almost. It’s like, ‘Gosh, this is new.’ And then all of a sudden you have flashbacks like: ‘Okay, I remember this. … I remember doing this as a rookie.’ ”

If Belichick is to win without Brady, he will need to resolve the quarterback situation. Newton, the 2015 NFL MVP for the Carolina Panthers, provided 12 rushing touchdowns last season but had issues as a passer, with 10 interceptions and only eight touchdown passes. Belichick has said Newton is the starter, but Jones has had promising moments at training camp. The rookie gives Belichick a potentially viable alternative.

“I don’t get involved in the reps,” Newton said during a recent news conference. “I just do what I’m asked, and I just go from there. As far as trying to maximize as much as I possibly can when I’m in there, that’s the only thing that I control.”

Either quarterback would benefit from a breakout season by third-year wide receiver N’Keal Harry, a 2019 first-round draft choice who totaled only 45 catches in his first two seasons. He has been a standout at training camp after making a trade request that has not been accommodated.

“For me, honestly, I could care less what the doubters think,” Harry said after an impressive practice Sunday. “All I know is there’s a lot of people that are still supporting me and that still believe in me. So I want to prove those people right — my family included, my friends, my agent, everybody. I just want to prove them right and prove myself right.”

For the Patriots, it’s all a work in progress these days.

“Every day, we’re just trying to build the chemistry a little bit more, get better at something,” Harry said. “And that’s what we’ve been doing.”

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