It was a week like no other in New England. Having already broken the single-session training camp record at the first practice of the season (12,163), fans shattered it again on Tuesday as 14,830 came out to see their New England Patriots hold joint-practices with the New Orleans Saints ahead of their clash on Thursday night, the Patriots first preseason game and the Saints second.
Although the fans came out in droves, it wasn’t a first for the two franchises. Two years ago, New England made the trip down to New Orleans and held practices before they were to meet for a preseason game.
New Orleans offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael spoke on how the experience two years ago helped formulate this round of joint-practices.
“I would say the relationship between Sean (Payton) and Bill (Belichick) back to a couple of years ago was great when they set this thing up,” Carmichael said, adding, “We had a meeting with the coaches last night from the Patriots staff and just kind of talked about what we want to get out of this week. We’re not looking to come out here and fight and do all that. We’re out here to compete.”
Saints’ interim head coach Joe Vitt also spoke on setting up the joint-practice and stressed the importance of trust. “I think there’s a lot of trust involved. We know what we want to get out of each day. I think the biggest thing is the players trust one another,” Vitt explained. “They know that we work tempo, angels to the ball without just beating each other up. Whenever you have that trust between two teams, I think it makes it a lot more compatible.”
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick added later on in the day that it was “great to work with the Saints” and that the Saints were “great, they’re a great organization.” Belichick would go to say, “I have a lot of respect for the ownership, Mr. (Tom) Benson and of course Sean (Payton) and Joe (Vitt) and his staff and players.”
With such mutual respect for one another combined with the energy from the crowd, it was a breath of fresh air — which couldn’t come at a better time as fights broke out between Patriots players at the end of last week’s practices, prompting Belichick to have the team run laps.
“It was good to see somebody else out there for once and go against some different competition and see somebody else besides your own teammates. It was good to see,” said Patriots All-Pro wide receiver Wes Welker.
It was a sentiment echoed by Saints quarterback Drew Brees, “For us it’s great to break up the monotony of training camp. There’s not a team that’s won more games than the New England Patriots over the last decade. To have a chance to be around them, watch how they work, compete against new personnel and a new scheme is good for both sides.”
With two of the premier organizations practicing together, impressive performances were expected, especially with future-Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks Tom Brady and Drew Brees on the field. But, surprisingly or not, it was the tight ends who stole the show.
Three of the premier tight ends in the league were on display with the Patriots Shake-and-Quake combo of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, and the Saints Jimmy Graham.
Combined, the three tight ends posted 268 catches for 3,547 yards and 35 touchdowns last season alone. Needless to say, all three made the Pro Bowl.
When asked who was better Gronkowski or him, Graham said, “I don’t know. People will compare us for the next ten years of our lives and our careers, where there will be a better assessment. I think we’ll be in competition for the next ten years, because of the type of players we are.”
And has Gronk learned anything from Graham?
“His speed, his separation definitely, he’s good at the long ball, how he goes up and grabs it in the air. He used to be a basketball player, so it’s kind of cool to see him go up. He grabs the ball at the highest point and that’s something you always want to do when the ball is coming to you.”
Defensive coordinator for the Saints, Steve Spagnuolo was questioned on the Patriots tandem tight ends and how to control them, to which he responded, “It’s funny what you’re saying because it’s not one there in New England. It’s two and they’re both really good. We had trouble covering (Aaron) Hernandez out there today. We only have 11 and they have 11. You can only double so many guys.”
The trio provided the fans with plenty of action too. On Tuesday’s practice Gronk and Hernandez made big noise with plays of their own.
With Saints’ physical, second-year cornerback Johnny Patrick covering Hernandez, the tight end was able to get around him and make a one-handed catch over Patrick.
Then it was Gronkowski’s turn. During a 7-on-7 drill, Gronkowski found his way to the back line of the endzone where he made a leaping catch and quickly got his feet down in bounds for the score.
Wednesday’s light practice was all Graham as he made a stellar airborne catch — twisting in mid-air with rookie linebacker Dont’a Hightower all over him in coverage, Graham brought the ball in and scored. After the touchdown, Graham pulled out one of Gronkowski’s signature moves and spiked the ball, drawing a penalty from the refs.
Simply said, it was a stellar display from all the tight ends this week in camp and it could only get better tonight as the two teams go head-to-head at 7:30pm.
By Nathan Rickard