BOSTON (CBS) — It has been an interesting two-week stretch for the New England Patriots, one that featured a handful of scheduling changes when COVID-19 reared its ugly head in the locker room. Sunday games became Monday games, practices became virtual meetings, and eventually a game week turned into the team’s bye week.
But the Patriots were back on the field Thursday as they prepare for Sunday’s matchup with the Denver Broncos. It’s a matchup they started preparing for last Tuesday, at least virtually, as Stephon Gilmore’s positive COVID test forced the team to close down Gillette Stadium. The Pats put in their work remotely instead of practicing, only to see the game get pushed back a week when Byron Cowart tested positive over the weekend.
Yeah, it’s been quite the roller coaster for the Patriots the last 13 days. But the Patriots have been expecting to experience some kind of loops and sudden turns since the start of the season.
“We knew something like this might happen before the season, and it’s just adapting to it. We have a great group of vets to lead the younger players along,” said veteran defensive end John Simon. “We put together a pretty good practice today and that’s a good first step to building toward Sunday at 1 p.m.”
Thursday was New England’s first real practice since the days leading up to their Week 4 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. They were back at Gillette for workouts on Wednesday, but players admitted that it felt good to finally be practicing some football on Thursday.
“It’s great to get out there and get some of the dust — or rust — off, as they say,” said edge rusher Chase Winovich, who was also quick to point out that Thursday was Simon’s birthday.
“I think we, us as a team, it felt like we were itching to get back on the field,” said receiver Gunner Olszewski. “They keep us in those WebEx meetings and we just did a meeting then we get to go play football. I think everybody’s chomping at the bit to get out there and throw the pigskin around. You said it’s been a roller coaster, but that ain’t no different than everybody else’s everyday life. 2020’s been a roller coaster for everybody. Sure y’alls job has changed just like ours has and you just adapt and keep going.”
The toughest part of adapting to the great unknown during this season is staying sharp both mentally and physically.
“You have to do both equally,” said Simon. “We had a lot of virtual meetings, making sure we’re staying up on the game plan. Staying physically sharp has been a little more difficult with not using the facilities, but we came in today and it seems like we’re in pretty good physical condition. It’s a challenge for us, and a challenge for us on Sunday, but one we have to step up to.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s tough because of the lack of reps; it’s tough because of the lack of consistency and not knowing what to expect,” said Winovich. “When you switch things up and do erratic things – not that we were doing erratic things – the body tends to respond differently. The coaches are doing their best to make the best of a situation that really isn’t anyone’s fault. COVID is COVID and they’re making the most of a tough situation.”
Winovich said the Patriots have a big advantage on that front thanks to the leadership of Bill Belichick.
“Coach Belichick is a great general — of the team and the organization. He is a leader of men and people turn to him in time of conflict for resolutions. It’s an honor to play with him and he always has a vision, solutions as to what to do,” said Winovich.
While the last two weeks have been filled with unexpected turns, Winovich said the down time also let him reflect on the start of the season. It was one refreshing aspect of the sudden break in action.
“COVID has allowed me to spend a lot more time at home. I’ve gotten to unwind and unpack the first part of the season. Anytime you deal with a job as stressful – and people are going to laugh at me saying this – there are stresses that being a football player presents. Having a second, it’s really a good time to untie those mental knots and really get focused for the last push,” he said. “I’m feeling great, feeling motivated and I’m looking forward to the last 12 games of the season.”
And that all starts Sunday against the Broncos. After having a surprise week off from game action, Winovich can’t wait to get back on the field on Sunday.
“I have a quarterback to hit,” he said.