That’s all the New England Patriots want to think about now.
Coming off a tumultuous offseason they’d rather forget — with former tight end Aaron Hernandez arrested and charged with murder; with leading receiver Wes Welker leaving via free agency for Peyton Manning and the Broncos; with tight end Rob Gronkowski undergoing multiple surgeries that will delay his return — the Patriots just want get back to football.
It’s not going to be easy. But if there is any team that has shown over the years an ability to overcome distractions and off-field issues, it’s this one. And they’re certainly ready to put the offseason behind them.
“I think we’re just excited to be here and, really, it’s a fresh start for all of us,” said quarterback and poster boy Tom Brady, speaking to the media Thursday at Gillette Stadium. “I know the last six weeks have been distracting for a lot of people but I’d say for this team, we’re trying to focus on our job and what we have to do to come out and win football games.”
But can they?
When training camp opens at Gillette with a 9 a.m. practice today, can they put the last six weeks behind them when a former teammate, Hernandez, is sitting in a jail cell just miles away from the stadium?
Vince Wilfork, the man-mountain defensive lineman, knows that may be the biggest task this team faces in the upcoming days.
“One thing we’re going to have to do is try to keep everything separate,” said Wilfork. “When you step on the field and control what you can control, and that’s playing football, getting better each day. That’s my main focus, to try to do that. It’s started and it’s here.”
This is a team with many question marks, starting with: Who’s going to catch Brady’s passes?
Last year’s top seven receivers — Welker (to Denver), Brandon Lloyd (released, unsigned), Gronkowski (recovering from back surgery), Hernandez, Danny Woodhead (left for San Diego), Julian Edelman (recovering from foot injury) and Deion Branch (released, unsigned) — won’t be on the field today.
“That’s quite a bit of turnover, like we all know and we’ve seen,” said Brady. “I’m used to that. There’s not many things that I haven’t had to deal with over the course of my time — at tight end or running back or receiver or offensive line. We’ll try to find a way to make it work.”
Gronkowski and Edelman, both currently on the Physically Unable to Perform list, will return at some point. In the meantime? Brady better develop a pretty good rapport with veterans Danny Amendola and Michael Jenkins and rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce. The tight end position looks thin, but has some depth with Jake Ballard (the former New York Giant who hasn’t played a game since Super Bowl XLVI while recovering from a knee injury), Daniel Fells, Michael Hoomanawaneui and rookie free agent Zach Sudfeld.
In the end, said Brady, someone will step forward.
“That competition plays out on the field,” he said. “You think about all these different ways that it could play out but it’s going to come down to who comes out and plays the best.”
This could be a different looking Patriots team, one that relies more on the running game led by Stevan Ridley (who rushed for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns) and Shane Vereen, who may take on a bigger role in the passing game. Veteran Leon Washington, signed in the offseason, adds depth and a great return player.
Defensively, the Patriots need to continue their improvement. Re-signing cornerback Aqib Talib was a big step. With him at one corner, the Patriots can move Devin McCourty to safety, where he looks much more comfortable. Of course, that leaves the other corner open to competition, especially with second-year player Alfonzo Dennard’s legal issues. He has to return to Nebraska on Aug. 12 for a DUI charge, and then has another appearance scheduled for Aug. 27 regarding an alleged probation violation.
Given all the losses on offense, the defense is going to have to play better this year.
“As a team,” said Wilfork, “if we approach it together and if we come on this field and practice and get better each day as a team, then we’ll be OK.”
But even he realizes this offseason will continue to challenge the team as it tries to get ready for the season.
“I think it’s going to test this team’s chemistry,” he said. “It’s going to test everyone that’s in this locker room, individually and as a team. It’s going to test to see how important football is to us.”