by Christopher Price
The preseason is a necessary evil — players need the on-field reps to get game-ready ready for the regular season. But, at the same time, it can be a dangerous animal — do you go all out, pushing it to the limit? Or do you go half-speed, hoping to preserve the body in hopes of not sustaining an injury … in what really amounts to a glorified exhibition?
Finding that balance can mean everything to a football player. Just ask Ronnie Lippett, Andre Tippett and Garin Veris, three dependable, durable Patriots … who suffered season-ending injuries in a 1989 preseason contest. As a football player, it’s in your DNA to want to go all out, all the time. But the desire to save leave something in the tank in a meaningless game — and stay healthy for when the real bullets start to fly — is also human nature.
Laurence Maroney is about to walk that line. The second-year running back, who underwent offseason shoulder surgery, has worn a red non-contact jersey all summer in hopes of protecting his shoulder. He traded his non-contact jersey for a regular practice one for the first time Monday morning at Gillette Stadium, and will likely get his first on-field test Friday in Carolina against the Panthers.
Finding that balance between wanting to stay healthy and trying to avoid injury — especially with a running back — can be tricky in the preseason, according to Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick. You don’t want to overexpose a player to injury in games that really don’t count. But at the same time, the player needs that level contact to truly prepare for the regular season.
“I think an individual player’s situation varies from player to player, but I think in general, players need to practice and play to get ready to play,” Belichick said of finding that balance needed to help get a running back ready for the grind of a 16-game season.
“I think if we just want to save everybody, we would just be sitting around here for six weeks and not do anything,” he added. “I don’t think we’d have a very good football team, but I think everybody would be safe. I don’t think that’s the answer.”
When it comes to running backs, veteran Sammy Morris says coaches have to remember that many starting backs will take more hits than Google during the regular season, so there’s no need to add to than number unnecessarily in the preseason.
“Obviously, it’s a physical game and there are a lot of collisions out there, so it’s kind of hard to come away completely unscathed as a running back,” said Morris, in his first preseason with the Patriots. “But you need to find a balance. ‘How many reps does this guy need? How many reps does that guy need? How much rest does this guy need?’ Coaches and players need to do that without second-guessing themselves in the end.”
Second-guessing can lead to trouble at any position. So can “sugar-footin’ or half-steppin’” — Ellis Hobbs’ favorite description of going half-speed in the preseason in hopes of not getting hurt. The third-year cornerback has seen plenty of guys take a play or two off in the preseason.
“Yeah, I’ve seen guys on film do that. I’m not calling anybody out on this team, but I’ve seen it on other teams around the league,” Hobbs said. “I think it’s human nature: in your mind, it’s the preseason, we can take our time, especially if you’re a high draft pick who knows he’ll be here.
“I think it’s harder for some players and it comes easier for others. The main thing I try to do individually – and I can only speak for myself on this – is to go out there and play as if it is a real game. Play as if it counts.”
In the end, it has to be a combination of player and coach working together in hopes of finding commonality.
“There has to be some middle ground between working and getting the team to be able to execute to a certain level — and at the same time you don’t want them worn down by the time you get to the season,” Belichick said. “But you have to be able to go out there and play competitively against pretty good competition in this league. We’re just trying to find that balance.”
5 THINGS TO LOOK FOR THIS WEEK
1. Matt Cassel. The two remaining preseason games are key ones for the third-year quarterback. Backup quarterbacks under Bill Belichick are traditionally given three years to succeed. If it’s not happening for them at the end of the third preseason, it’s not gonna happen — just ask Rohan Davey. If Cassel does not continue to progress over these next two preseason games, the Patriots could end up going out next April and using a second-day pick on a quarterback, or going and acquiring a veteran backup like Damon Huard.
2. The reaction to the first real hit Carolina lays on running back Laurence Maroney. Assuming he plays — and there’s every reason to expect he will for the reasons we detailed above — Maroney will start against a physical Carolina defense that should get him used to game action very quickly.
3. Danny Baugher. The rookie punter hasn’t clinched the job quite yet, but can do so Friday against the Panthers with another solid performance.
4. The Patriots’ offensive line. The Panthers were a lot better than the Titans at sustaining a pass rush last season (Carolina had a 41-26 edge in sacks), and could cause major problems for the New England offensive line and Tom Brady if the Patriots’ offensive line submits the same sort of performance they did against Tennessee.
5. Rodney Harrison. The veteran safety was vicious against the Titans, taking another step back to his 2004 levels with a savage sack of Vince Young. He’ll look to take another step against the Panthers and Jake Delhomme — someone he shared plenty of trash talk with in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
STAT OF THE WEEK
One of the points of emphasis during the week for the New England defense was to not allow Vince Young to beat them with his legs. (The Titans were sixth in the league last year in total percentage of running plays called.) Mission accomplished: the Titans had 36 passing attempts, compared to 31 rushing attempts.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“You see your quarterback on the ground, you look up and you say ‘Guys, it’s time to put their guy on the ground.’”
–Rodney Harrison, explaining the not-so-coincidental timing of his second quarter sack of Vince Young — which came shortly after the Titans’ dumped Tom Brady on his backside.
Christopher Price covers the Patriots for Boston Metro. His book “The Blueprint: How the New England Patriots Beat the System to Create the Last Great NFL Superpower” will be released in October by Thomas Dunne Books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org