FOXBORO -- There is much football to be practiced, played and overanalyzed between now and Jan. 18.
But still, the AFC title game will be here before you can say Jimmy Garoppolo.
And isn't that where, after all the comings and goings and injuries, the Patriots seem to always end up anyway?
The Patriots have reached the past three AFC title games, losing the last two. Their consistency is spectacular. But their Lombardi Trophies are getting dusty. The Patriots have gone nine seasons without winning a new one of those, twice during that time coming oh-so close.
But there is no fast-forward button to icy playoff nights -- even getting the opportunity to have your heart broken in an AFC title game or Super Bowl requires much work -- so the Patriots held their first practice of 2014 training camp on Thursday morning before a large crowd in Foxboro.
"There haven't been many good years that I've been a part of that didn't go back to good training camps, (a) good base," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said before heading out to the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium to get the old 12-4 ball rolling again. Grueling, Thursday's practice wasn't. Players wore shorts.
"But it's a level field," said Belichick. "We're not practicing any less than anybody else is."
Belichick, in his 40th season as an NFL coach, spent much of his morning press conference waxing nostalgic about strategic trends and grueling training camps past. There were references to Maxie Baughan, Joe Gibbs and Chuck Noll. The coach appeared delighted by this line of questioning, which kept him away from his least-favorite subject for public discussion -- the 2014 New England Patriots.
Belichick was then asked how closely he would watch Rob Gronkowski, the perpetually injured stud tight end who tore up his right knee last Dec. 6 against the Cleveland Browns.
"I don't know," said Belichick, waxing poetic no more. "We evaluate every player every day. Rob has been out there."
The media crush around quarterback Tom Brady after practice nearly equaled the clamor for Tim Tebow at this time last year. Whatever happened to that Tebow guy?
Patriots fans, of course, are incapable of simply watching Brady and enjoying the football time he has left. They must also worry obsessively about when the Patriots will no longer have Brady, who turns 37 on Aug. 3 and is entering his 15th season.
"There are very few people who have the opportunity that I have, and I'm very appreciative of it," said Brady. "You never know when the last (training camp) is going to be, so you just appreciate the moments that you have."
The quarterback not named Brady now fascinating the heir-obsessed masses is Jimmy Garoppolo, the Patriots' 2014 second-round draft pick out of Eastern Illinois. Yet barring disturbing unforeseen circumstances (i.e. Bernard Pollard -- though he is now with the Tennessee Titans, who are not on New England's 2014 schedule), the Garoppolo Era still seems a far-off fantasy. Garoppolo walked off the practice field Thursday carrying two sets of shoulder pads, his and a veteran player's. Right now he is third-string behind Brady and Ryan Mallett.
This past offseason, statistical analysis fueled a lot of talk about whether Brady was still an "elite" quarterback. His 2013 stats (25 TDs, 11 INTs, 4,343 yards, 60.5 completion pct., 87.3 QB rating) weren't "elite" measured against those of Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees. But neither did those guys have to through sheer will push along their supporting casts the way Brady did with his young receivers.
"It's about making improvements," said Brady, the oldest player on the Patriots' roster. "And I think that it goes from the guys who are the newest on the team to the guys who are the oldest on the team. I don't think you ever have it all figured out."
The biggest offseason splash designed to get the Patriots beyond the AFC title game was on the defensive side. New England signed Darrell Revis, one of the game's great shutdown cornerbacks, who was easy to spot during practice on Thursday. Revis wore bright yellow cleats while trapping on his island the likes of Josh Boyce and fellow newcomer Brandon LaFell.
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