Friday, March 24, 2006

Patriots put Tom's money
where their mouth is

David Givens signs with the Titans. Willie McGinest signs with the Browns. Tim Dwight signs with the Jets. Adam Vinatieri signs with the Colts, for the love of God. The New England Patriots have never been afraid to let players -- even "core" players -- walk away if the team doesn't think they're worth the money. That's the Patriot Way. And the Patriot Way has put three rings on Bob Kraft's fingers, not to mention one on Vladimir Putin's, so you can't discount their way of doing business.

But if I'm Tom Brady, questions are starting to bubble up inside my pretty head. About this time last year, Brady's own three Super Bowl rings were clinking against a conference table as he negotiated a contract extension with the Patriots. The deal he eventually signed produced a golden shower of praise because Brady -- unlike a certain Kenny Chesney fan with a horseshoe on his helmet -- took less money than he could have commanded in free agency in order to help out the team. As Brady explained it:
"In this game, the more one player gets, the more he takes away from what others can get. Is it going to make me feel any better to make an extra million, which, after taxes, is about $500,000? That million might be more important to the team."
Might be, but we don't know as yet because the team refuses to spend it. Not on the best clutch kicker in NFL history. Not on the all-time postseason sack leader. And certainly not on free agents, as the only player the Pats picked up this spring is Reche Caldwell (cue cartoon honking). According to the calculations at, as of Wednesday, the Patriots were something like $18.5 million under the salary cap for 2006. Just imagine if Brady had held out for that extra million!

Perhaps the Patriots will carry that $18.5 million into the season and use it to extend other key players -- but don't count on it. Deion Branch, Dan Koppen, Richard Seymour and Asante Samuel are all in line to be unrestricted free agents next year. Each stands to collect extra-long green when (if) he hits the open market. The question is: Will the Patriots pay the asking price, or will they let them walk? Keep in mind that each also has two Super Bowl rings, so the take-less-and-have-a-shot-at-a-championship argument is somewhat blunted. David Patten followed the money last year; these guys may, too. And know who's a free agent in 2008? Tedy Bruschi. If sentiment didn't translate into cash for Vinatieri, it won't for Bruschi, either, if he still wants to play. If I'm Brady, maybe I'm not lying awake at night (next to Bridget Moynihan) wondering if that extra million I spotted the team will go toward keeping one or more of my friends in Foxboro. But I may be wondering it in my dreams.

So Tom Brady may have been jobbed. That's my first thought for the day.

Moving on, possibly the most celebrated aspect of the Patriot Way is the team's ability to fill roster spots with unheralded later-round picks and totally undrafted dudes rather than write up fat contracts for shiny free agents. One of the great things about unheralded later-round picks and undrafted dudes is that you don't need $18.5 million worth of cap space to sign them. Sixth-rounder Brady, for example, won Super Bowl XXXVI while playing for peanuts, while $100 million hat rack Drew Bledsoe rotted on the bench. But this strategy only works as long as the kind of guys you need for your team remain unheralded.

The NFL coaching ranks include some of the most brilliant tacticians in all of sports. But by and large, the coaching profession is not one know for its, uh, originality. When a certain strategy -- either brand new or recycled -- proves itself a success, it's only a matter of time before the entire league is on board. ("Cover 2," anyone?) And the same goes for front-office strategies. One franchise develops an edge, and in time everybody else catches up. It never fails, and it's always been thus.

Take the early Cleveland Browns. They were all but unbeatable (52-4-3) in the All-America Football Conference of the 1940s, then lorded over the NFL through the 1950s. The Browns' run was partially a function of great players -- Marion Motley, Otto Graham, Bill Willis, Jim Brown -- but their sheer dominance of pro football was a product of coaching. Paul Brown was an NFL pioneer in his use of film study, classroom instruction and playbooks. He was the first coach with full-time, year-round assistants, the first to station assistants up in the pres box. The Browns' preparation was so thorough, so far beyond anything other NFL teams were doing at the time, that for a decade Cleveland wiped its feet on other teams.

Then, in time, every other team did exactly what Paul Brown was doing. The Browns lost their edge, and Art Modell fired Paul Brown. Modell never could read a room.

The lesson in this for the Patriots? The Patriot Way has produced three NFL championships in the past five years (as opposed to none for, say, the Redskin Way). At some point, the strategy New England has pursued will cease being the Patriot Way and become simply The Way Things Are Done. It isn't all that hard to identify the kinds of players the Patriots are looking for. Hell, there's a book that does a pretty good job of sketching it out. And when a dozen or more teams are looking for those same players, it becomes less likely that they're going to be available in the lower rounds, and it becomes more likely that you're going to have to pay through the nose for them.

To cite a different sport, early in this decade the Oakland A's made the playoffs year after year by playing moneyball, but they could never win a world championship. Then the Red Sox, pursuing a similar strategy, won the 2004 Series. Why? Because they had money coming out their arses and could pay twice as much for the kinds of guys Billy Beane used to get for cheap. For the A's, moneyball -- statistical analysis paired with the judicious application of limited resources -- lost out to MONEYBALL: statistical analysis paired with barges full of cash. As the landscape changed for the A's, so will it probably change for the Patriots.

In Belichick We Trust is still the cry in New England, as it should be. Bill Belichick is still a mastermind, and if anyone can stay a step ahead of a league in which the Patriot Way is just S.O.P., I'd lay good money that it's him. But if I were Tom Brady, and I was watching another half-dozen members of my team's Old Guard walk away while the franchise sits on the extra million I passed up for the good of the team, I'd be wondering what the future holds.

And I'd be putting ground glass in Matt Cassel's food.

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