Normally this time of year is when a new team starts to come together. The rookies are in the building, the new acquisitions and new coaches are getting accustomed to their new roles, and everyone is starting to build the connections that will carry them through the coming season.
With the coronavirus pandemic upending all aspects of life, things are playing out differently than normal this spring. But while nobody is together physically in the team facilities, the offseason preparation and team-building is continuing nonetheless.
"It's a little different but as with everything you learn to adapt," said New England Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones during a conference call with reporters Tuesday. "It's been fun to just get back with the guys and have the jokes going back and forth across the meetings, as well as getting back to talking ball at an elite level with the coaches and everyone."
As with most everyone else these days, the Patriots have shifted to virtual meetings as they prepare for the upcoming season. While not ideal, the virtual setup has enabled everyone to get on the same page, learn the playbook and terminology and get to know each other.
In other words, it's allowed teams to maintain a sense of normalcy — or at least some version of it.
"Just having everyone in the meetings, day-in and day-out, and getting to finally be around each other kind of brings out that side of football," Jones said. "You know, we’re not there in the facilities, obviously, to interact with each other, but the virtual meetings have been just that."
While the mental preparations have continued unabated, the physical side of football has been a bigger adjustment. NFL teams are just now approaching the part of the offseason when team workouts and practices would be picking up, and it's likely those interactions will be curtailed for the foreseeable future.
In the meantime, players are doing their best to maintain the same regiment that they would normally, but without access to the team facilities — and in many cases even a local gym — players have had to find creative ways to stay in shape.
"I had to assemble my own gym!" Jones said. "That was fun. We had to get it together and get everything in. Coaches kind of have a workout they send us and have all your equipment that you’re going to need, so got all that in and just being able to get the workouts, get them in, and like I said, stay on them, stay in shape and stay the course."
With the future uncertain and practice time likely to be limited, the Patriots should have an advantage defensively given that most of its secondary has been together for years. Jones forms a core that includes reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, JC Jackson and Joejuan Williams at cornerback along with veteran safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung at safety. Top draft choice Kyle Dugger and free agent Adrian Phillips are also expected to play big roles in the secondary, but Jones said having a strong foundation in place will be crucial if they can take advantage.
"Having those guys who have seen the same thing over and over, there’s subtle communication between each other that we’ve grown an understanding," Jones said. "So, just getting back to that once we get on the field, I think we’ll be a step ahead."
The coming months will bring new challenges and new adjustments as teams continue to prepare for the season. No one is sure what training camp will look like, and when the regular season begins, the games will most likely be played in front of empty stadiums. Jones said whatever happens, the players will have to learn to adapt and deal with whatever curveballs they're thrown.
But no matter how weird things may get, some things never change. Among them, the Patriots approach to the season as a whole, and the way the team responds to speculation about things like how it will deal with a potentially difficult schedule.
"I'm conditioned by Bill, I've been here for five years," Jones joked before diving into the standard Patriots response to that sort of question. "Every year is a new year, every year is a new team, everybody has changes and their winning percentage from last year doesn't matter."
Mac Cerullo can be reached at mcerullo@gloucestertimescom. Follow Mac on Twitter at @MacCerullo.