by Scott Benson

What have we here? An “exhibition” game?

Pre-season always kicks off fond recollections of crusty sportswriters who looked down their noses at these practice games, and their pat raps against the NFL and their 32 co-conspirators. It’s consumer fraud! You’re paying top dollar and the coach doesn’t even dress Tom Brady! They’re ripping you off! And notice how they try to pass it off as real football by calling it “pre-season”? Call it what it is! It’s an exhibition game! And a ripping ripoff!

Imagine how mad they would have been if they hadn’t been let in (and fed) for free.

Anyway, as a fan I was never on the same page with those guys, naturally. I’m just happy to see football – and the Patriots – back. For fans, these games may be a bit like an at-home version of the spring training trip – eyeing the prospects, waiting for the veteran cameo, never scoreboard watching, just relaxing and reacquainting yourself with the rhythm of the game after a long off-season. There’s also beer.

Yeah, if I was paying for a couple of season tickets this year, I’d probably feel differently. That’s for another time, and for somebody who knows more about that experience than me. Right now, it will have to do that football – and the Patriots – are back.

So How Do They Look?

Mike Reiss has identified the offensive line as the big issue coming out of camp, and it’s hard to argue with him. Stephen Neal is on the PUP after a knee injury, and Matt Light might as well be, at least so far. That leaves RG Billy Yates and RT Wesley Britt (Nick Kaczur has moved to LT) working with the first group, and I suppose we should be thankful for the time they’ve had in the Patriots system. Even with their relative inexperience, that foundation gives the team the best chance to move forward without noticeable disruption.

Fans might focus first on the secondary, but I’m not sure the Pats haven’t made some progress there already. For some reason, people were unusually traumatized by Duane Starks so many of them already half-expect Fernando Bryant to eventually join Starks in ignominy. I don’t buy it. Bryant comes off as a thoroughly competent pro who will hold up his end of the Patriots defense. I sense that Jason Webster would be doing the same thing but unfortunately he lost his directions to the practice field several days ago. It’s a bad habit of his. Terrence Wheatley, though, might be making up for it with a pretty good camp for a rookie, and Ellis Hobbs has fled the PUP to lay a claim on his starting spot. On the backline, Brandon Meriweather may be ready to be a full-time safety and leader alongside Rodney Harrison after his noteable camp effort. I’m not quite sure where Tank Williams fits in, but James Sanders will be on the field somehow. Sure, more undisclosed ailments like Websters could derail the whole thing, but you could say that about every position on the field.

That (sorry, special teams) leaves the offense. I think it’s safe to say they’ll score with anybody, even if they struggle along the front line early. I guess what they’ll do when the pass doesn’t work is the biggest question mark here, but I don’t know if we’ll know the answer to that one for a month or two, or even longer. After all, it took us all the way to the Super Bowl to figure out the answer last year.

In The Spotlight

I don’t know about you, but tonight I’ll be watching:

Jerod Mayo – he’s sure to get plenty of time, giving us the chance to see if he’s up to the task. Will he come out with the first team, alongside Tedy Bruschi? Has the rookie already moved past a slow-to-adjust Victor Hobson into a starting role?

Terrence Wheatley – I’m looking to see a guy comfortable with his assignments and competitive enough to stick his chin out at the Burresses and Owenses of the world. The day I went to camp, I saw some of that. I’m anxious to see if he looks the same in a game.

The Quarterbacks – They all have something to play for, questions to answer; can Matt Cassel finally settle down and play like a guy who’s been in the league for four years? There were times last year where Matt Gutierrez, a first-year free agent, was the more poised player. Will Gutierrez continue the progress he made last year? Will Kevin O’Connell have a typical red-shirt first year, or does he have a surprise in store for Cassel and/or Gutierrez? The media’s been pretty deadpan on these guys so far, which tells me nobody’s answering any questions yet.

David Thomas and Marcus Pollard – I’ve read that the Pats may keep only two tight ends in order to keep more players at other positions, like running back. Between Thomas and Ben Watson, that sounds like a recipe for “Russ Hochstein, Back Up Tight End.” His arms seem to stubby for that. The key here would be Thomas, who’s played about as much as Chad Jackson. Will he hold up? Can he become a factor in the short-to-intermediate passing game, and maybe help Tom Brady avoid a few sacks and/or pummelings? Does Pollard have enough left to play himself on the roster, or should we just put him on speed dial for later?

The Running Backs – How’s old friend Sammy Morris doing? Is he ready to pick up where he left off? How about LaMont Jordan? Can a guy who’s shaped like a toll booth still get out there and catch the ball too? And what of Lawrence Maroney? Will he get a brief cameo, run like wild and then trot off happy and healthy, keeping alive our hopes for a 1,200 yard season? Might be kind of hard with that Ngata character around. Tell me he didn’t make the trip.

Shawn Crable – The Patriots have long favored experienced, savvy linebackers, but by Mike Vrabel’s own admission this week, they tend to be of “old age”. Vrabel also admitted that he finished less when it came to sacking the quarterback last year, and it seemed like he wasn’t alone. Is Crable here to assert himself right away as a pass rushing specialist? Reiss suspects as much, but until we see him visiting the backfield a few times, the concept’s a little hard to grasp.

Do me a favor – leave a comment to let me know what players you’ll be watching tonight.

The Patriots Daily Rookie Class ’08

I’m going to begin by presuming that at least a few of you may have, over the years, developed a degree of affection for PD and may have an interest in what we have planned for 2008.

I’ll catch you up with our returning veterans later on, but right now I’m excited about three new additions to the PD roster for 2008. I honestly believe that along with the vets, we’ll begin this season with our deepest lineup yet. I’m betting you’ll come to agree with me as we progress through another year of following the Patriots.

You’ve already met Chris Warner, who joined us in April, and who will handle our weekly game re-caps this fall. As you’ve seen already, Chris is an avid Pats fan who just happens to be a talented, experienced writer. The Official PD Record of Game Action now rests in his capable hands, and I couldn’t be more optimistic about his contribution this fall.

Tyler Carter is, in a word, gutsy. I have had this concept of a weekly column called ‘The Turning Point’ for more than a year. The idea is that there is a play, or a sequence of plays, in every game that determines the outcome of that game. Could happen in the first quarter, or the fourth. So I thought we’d narrow in on that sequence and pick it apart a bit, piece by piece. Yet this brilliant concept lay fallow until Tyler couragously agreed to take it on. Like Chris, Travis is football-sharp, funny (requisite) and good with the keyboard, and I think you’ll enjoy him as much as I do.

Britt Schramm will be our go-to guy for a new Friday morning feature that will be focused on the coming weekend’s opponent. Britt will look beyond the Globe and Herald scouting reports to see what’s really been happening with the next team on the Pats schedule. Britt’s another experienced, articulate blogger who’s devoted to the Pats, and I feel like we’ve been lucky to attract people like him, Tyler and Chris to the PD masthead this season. I can’t wait to get rolling.     

Celebrate Good Times – Come On!

This is going to be the greatest season of professional football ever.

Remember – Brett Favre isn’t sure he wants to go to practice and study his book and prepare for his opponents. He’s not sure he wants to run the plays the coaches call. Brett’s just not sure.

And now he’s the quarterback of the New York Jets. This is going to be the greatest season of professional football ever.