FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The weather is good. The Red Sox are bad. Add a dash of leftover excitement from last season’s Super Bowl run, sprinkle in a visit from another of the NFL’s top teams, and the result is record crowds at Patriots training camp ahead of Thursday night’s preseason opener against New Orleans at Gillette Stadium.
According to the Patriots, Tuesday’s joint practice with the Saints attracted 14,830 fans, plus rock star and friend of coach Bill Belichick Jon Bon Jovi.
Pats tight end Rob Gronkowski says the crowds have gotten his attention.
“We can’t thank ‘em enough,” he said. “They give you the extra energy boost going in. I mean, when you’re kind of just lousy for a moment, they get loud, they get excited, and it gets you going, too. So, it’s always great to have them out there.”
The Pats and Saints also held joint preseason practices in 2010. This time, New Orleans is playing under record penalties for the team’s bounty program for injuring opponents.
The list of punishments is long, but to put it into perspective consider this: Saints head coach Sean Payton is suspended for the entire season. The interim coach, Joe Vitt, is in camp, but will also be suspended for the first six games of the season. Vitt bristled at questions about the impact on the team, but did not hold back in his praise of the Patriots.
“This franchise that we’re going against is the Microsoft of our industry, what they’ve done,” Vitt said. “In my era as a coach, Bill Belichick is the coach of my era. He’s the Don Shula, the Bill Walsh of my era.”
If Vitt’s analogy is correct, then Belichick would be Bill Gates, and coincidentally Belichick took a “PC” angle on the topic of the Saints’ scandal, only discussing suspended coach Payton.
“I miss Sean not being here,” he said. “I think the world of Sean. He’s a great friend and I look forward to seeing him out here soon.”
The Saints’ situation has drawn comparisons to the Patriots’ Spygate videotaping scandal that first surfaced in 2007. Amid the controversy, the Patriots went undefeated during the regular season, before falling to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl. Saints safety Roman Harper says his teammates are taking lessons from the ’07 Patriots.
“It will only be a distraction if you let it be a distraction,” he said. “That was the motto that they took in that locker room and we kind of took the same thing. As long as we stick together in our locker room, which is a great one — we don’t let outsiders get in and continue to be a distraction, it won’t distract us. And we can continue to win games and continue to stockpile wins and see where we’re at the end of the year.”
Saints quarterback Drew Brees agreed.
“It’s certainly something that we can look at and say, ‘Hey, this is maybe the closest to what we’re going through.’ And you just try to turn a negative into a positive somehow,” he said.
Last season, Brees set a record for the most passing yards in a single season. Tom Brady was close behind and also broke Dan Marino’s old mark. Belichick says seeing the New Orleans offense will help the Patriots’ defense improve.
“Top-scoring offense in the league. [They] move the ball. It’s a big challenge playing against that group. And they’re different. They do different things than what we do and they’re very good at it. It’s good for our defense to see the best and compete against the best.”
But Thursday night, don’t expect to see the best for long. Brady, Brees and other stars will most likely see limited playing time. In the preseason, the Patriots, Saints and the rest of the NFL focus on two things: getting better and staying healthy.
Doug Tribou covers sports for Only A Game, which airs Saturdays at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on WBUR-FM.