By: Bob George/BosSports.net
July 29, 2004

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FOXBOROUGH "" The equipment truck.

It leaves Fenway Park sometime in February, and drives some 1,480 miles south to City of Palms Park in Fort Myers, Florida. It becomes a symbol of the end of winter, the onset of spring, and that unmistakable first crack of the bat is one of the most romantic qualities of the sports world that you can think of. Peel off those storm windows, put away those scarfs and mittens, and get the snow tires off your cars. It's a time of the year that just plain feels good all over.

You have to admit it. The Red Sox don't win championships like the Patriots. But boy, they sure are poetic.

I mean, look at this week. Instead of 1,480 miles to training camp, it's more like 1,480 feet. Instead of buds coming out on the trees, it's pollen and hay fever. Instead of cold turning to mild, it's hot turning to hazy and humid. Instead of the first crack of the bat, it's the first guy to get clobbered in full contact drills.

But you're most likely happier that it's today and not five months ago today. We'll let Richard Seymour explain why just the way he did at a recent victory celebration:

The champs are here. The champs are here. I can't hear you, I said the champs are here.

The Patriots are convening in a formal session for the first time since Adam Vinatieri did his annual kick-a-ball-win-a-Super-Bowl routine down in Houston a while back. The Patriots are riding a 12-game win streak (15 if you count the postseason), the trophy case at Gillette Stadium grew by two back in wintertime, and nobody claiming allegiance to the Patriots is sorry that this day is finally upon us. Things were going so well for the hometowners that having an offseason seemed obscene.

But here they are, training in the shadow of the palace sometimes referred to as the Razor Blade. Camp Champ has officially begun, as the defending Super Bowl champs are once again ready to apply their craft for another season. You have to keep inserting that dirty word "defending", because it's finally a new season. Can the Patriots repeat? Depends upon what dogma you adhere to regarding the NPL (National Parity League).

Regardless of who you talk to, everyone calls the Patriots "much improved", "better than last year", "more ready to repeat this time versus 2002", but then some of those folks will still conclude that the Patriots will not repeat because it's simply too hard to. No one has done it since Denver six years ago. Dallas was the last team to win three of four Super Bowls (27, 28, 30). Can the Patriots repeat? Of course they can. Will they? Why not?

The first day had good points and bad points. Perhaps the best point was that every player passed Bill Belichick's grueling conditioning test (providing conclusive proof that Antowain Smith really is gone). Included in that mix is recent free agent pickup James "Big Cat" Williams, a former All-Pro with the Bears. He is 36, weighs 330 pounds, just got here, and he still passed Belichick's test. You can take that as a great omen, unless he becomes the next veteran OL to retire during camp after just joining the team a few weeks prior.

If there were any "bad" points, other than the players put on the active-PUP list (those who can't practice but who will not have to sit out the first six weeks of the season), the Patriots began training camp with three of their draft picks still unsigned. Ben Watson, Guss Scott and Cedric Cobbs are still on the outside looking in, the latter two being represented by Drew Rosenhaus, who is notorious for waiting until the last second to close rookie deals. Looks like Rosenhaus left his calendar at home or something like that.

Is this significant, other than it merely being a sentimental thing? Prior to these guys holding out, the only other similar holdout in the Bob Kraft era was J.R. Redmond (2000). It was a badge of honor which the Patriots wore proudly, that being that they could draft a player and know that they would get him signed in time, by gum.

If sentiment is the key here, then Belichick will discard it like an old wad of chewing gum. Sooner or later these player agents will start playing harder to get with the traditionally frugal Patriots, and their salary cap acumen will some day be put to some severe tests. Not every agent is going to keep accepting these generally economical packages the Patriots keep enticing the clients into signing, and these three draftees may be merely the opening salvo of what may come later on, especially with players like Seymour, Matt Light and (gulp) Tom Brady.

So, what will be the fallout from all this, other than more hardball negotiations to come?

Watson is perhaps the one player that really needs to be here. If the Patriots are going to design multiple tight end packages where he and Daniel Graham are the focal point of attention, his not being at camp will be a major personal setback. The team likely won't suffer badly, as they still have Christian Fauria. When Watson comes into the fold, he will have sacrificed being an integral part of the offense and maybe not breaking out until far into the season for some extra loot (which may or may not come).

Scott is realistically trying to become the next Shawn Mayer. To do that, all he needs to do is to help his defense keep a shutout and to not give up long bombs to a team's number three wideout late in Super Bowls. All facetiousness aside, there are lots of X-factors in the Patriot secondary, but if Ty Law and Tyrone Poole hold on to their starting jobs, this is all Scott will be, special teams notwithstanding. This is a role he can acquaint himself with in a manner where the team won't see much urgency attached, barring injuries.

Cobbs remains an interesting draft choice. There is no way this guy unseats Corey Dillon as the prime setback. What most everyone would like to see out of this guy is not that far off of what they want to see from Dillon: good citizenship and lots of yards rushing. Cobbs won't get lots of yards just yet, but even if he were in camp right now, all he's looking at long term is a ton of bench time anyway. When he gets here, his learning curve begins, and you may see him on occasion when Dillon needs a blow.

Otherwise, Camp Champ is finally under way. Thus far, all cylinders are firing, and no ghastly problems thus far. The champs are back, and the title defense has officially begun.

And while it's not nearly time to put back up your storm windows or to put back on your snow tires and pull out the snorkel jacket, you have to be a lot more up for this week versus when the Red Sox truck leaves Fenway for Florida. Baseball has been around here longer than football has, but unless you're someone's great grandpa, you have no idea what it is like to see the Sox win it all.

On the other hand, the Patriots are a different story. The champs are back, and life is real good right now.


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