FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Last season, the New England Patriots averaged 31.6 points per game to lead the NFL. Bill O’Brien, promoted from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator in February, is hoping for more of the same, though he’s not guaranteeing it.
“Every season is different, and I would say the difference from last season to this season has been the offseason — the players weren’t here — but other than that the training camp has been going at a normal pace,” O’Brien said Saturday. “ It’s going well. We’re trying to be very fundamentally strong in what we do.”
With the Patriots preparing for the preseason opener against Jacksonville on Thursday night, O’Brien broke down some of the parts in the 2011 offense:
— Tight ends. The emergence of rookies Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez last year made veteran Alge Crumpler expendable, although O’Brien admitted that Crumpler’s leadership — he was a captain — and locker room presence would be missed.
“That’s a guy who brought a lot to us and hopefully they learned from him,” O’Brien said. “Aaron and Rob are both football-smart guys.”
Youth will be served no matter what happens, since second-year man Carson Butler and rookies Will Yeatman and Lee Smith are also in the mix.
— Running backs. Youngsters Eric Kettani and Shane Vereen have been slowed by injury, allowing third-round pick Stevan Ridley of LSU to get more reps. Since the rookies didn’t have the benefit of a rookie camp and have a reduced number of practices to impress, they are feeling the heat.
“Any time you’re not on the field, it’s a tough adjustment,” O’Brien said about the injured players. “They’re working hard to get back on the field.” Benjarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead are presently backed by veterans Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk, although Faulk has yet to see the field.
— Quarterback. NFL MVP Tom Brady turned 34 this week, and is still adjusting to throwing against live defenders after the lost offseason.
“There’s a bunch of trust and good communication between us,” O’Brien said of his relationship with his star.
Brady has been doing a lot of throwing in training camp, but O’Brien and Coach Bill Belichick are monitoring it
“We communicate on that (throwing) a lot,” O’Brien said. “At this point he feels good.”
And while Brady is proven, backup Brian Hoyer and rookie Ryan Mallett are both strong throwers who are still working on being consistently accurate and making good decisions.
— Wide receivers. Free-agent signee Chad Ochocinco is working hard to get on the same page as Brady.
“He’s been very professional,” O’Brien said. “He works really hard in the meeting room and on the field.”
Wes Welker and Deion Branch head the returnees, along with Julian Edelman, Taylor Price, third-year player Brandon Tate, and special teams ace Matthew Slater. With Edelman and Tate keys to the return game and Slater also having value elsewhere, the pressure is on Price to produce quickly or perhaps be the odd man out.
Last year, the Patriots rediscovered the tight end position big-time, thanks to Hernanzez and Gronkowski. O’Brien said he will again let his talent dictate his offense.
“We’re a game-plan offense,” he said. “We’re going to do what our players do best. We’ll put them in different situations during training camp to find out.”
NOTES: The Patriots scheduled no practice Sunday to conform to the rules in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. … Albert Haynesworth was among those missing Saturday’s practice after also missing Friday’s session. … Ochocinco electrified the crowd at practice with a leaping catch between two defenders, while the former No. 85 — Hernandez, who gave up the number to Ochocinco — al so made several nice grabs during the goal-line drill. … Coaches and players alike have been raving about Gronkowski. “He was a huge part of our offense last year (and) he’s going to be a huge p art of our offense this year,” Brady said Friday. Gronkowski, who worked out with about 15 Patriots in the Foxborough area during the lockout, said: “You can never be in good enough shape. … I’ ve been able to hit the ground running.”