By Nicki Jhabvala
Pro Football Writers of America
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The New England Patriots were in the middle of a lengthy special-teams period when a small crowd gathered along the sideline at the 50-yard mark at the Vikings’ Winter Park facility.
Veteran linebacker James Harrison, clad in his usual baggy sweatpants, joined veteran defensive backs Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung to chat up Vince Wilfork, a 13-year nose tackle who signed a one-day contract last year to retire as a Patriot. They traded barbs and laughs before the current players were called back to the field to close out the team’s workout.
Shortly after, Patriots coach Bill Belichick called for the end of practice and ordered his players circle round at midfield while Wilfork held court. He relayed some lessons learned from his four Super Bowls with the Patriots. And he encouraged the players to stay focused.
His message: There will be plenty of distractions in the next three days. But remember why you’re here.
“He’s a great leader for us, team captain 11 years,” Belichick said. “A lot of friends here on the team, some new faces. But a guy that was very well-respected and had tremendous leadership on the team. It was good to see him.”
Wilfork was the guest of honor Thursday afternoon during the Patriots’ second day of practice ahead of Super Bowl LII. But his return wasn’t the only positive the team received.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski and defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr. both practiced in full for the first time since suffering concussions and both will be cleared from the protocol, Belichick said. Gronkowski is scheduled to address media at the team’s availability Thursday afternoon.
Defensive backs Malcolm Butler (illness) and Brandon King (knee) were also full participants after practicing on a limited basis Wednesday.
And quarterback Tom Brady again practiced with only black KT Tape — no glove — on his right hand.
Balancing game prep with players’ health to ensure they stay fresh for the Super Bowl is an act Belichick has played seven other times as a head coach, and by now, he has a routine from which he rarely strays.
“It’s a long year but we’re in a routine, we do what we do,” he said. “So part of getting ready for the game is training for the game that week. We kind of have stayed pretty much in our own routine.”
As planned, the team practiced in shells and helmets Thursday and had a lighter period than the up-tempo, fully padded session Wednesday. The near two-hour workout included time dedicated to special teams, but was also used to sharpen some things from the previous day.
“A little better than yesterday,” Belichick said. “We got a few things cleaned up. So I think we’re getting a little closer each day. Hopefully, we’ll be at our best on Sunday.”
Friday will be even lighter and Saturday will be primarily a gathering of friends and family for a team photo. Friday will also include a kicking session for the specialists at U.S. Bank Stadium (they had one Wednesday as well).
But no matter the location, Belichick said the team’s focus will remain the same as Super Bowl LII approaches.
“There’s a lot to deal with,” he said. “We have distractions all year long, so we’ve dealt with a lot. We just try to maintain focus on our job and whatever the outside stuff is, minimize it. We have to deal with it sometimes, depending on what it is, but we try to minimize it and try to stay focused on our job.”