By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — You’d think that by Year 18 of The Bill Belichick Experience, we’d have it all figured out by now. Or at least, we’d have some of it figured out.
And yet, here we are.
March 8, the day after the start of the “legal tampering” period (an oxymoron if there ever was one) and one day prior to the beginning of free agency, and all of New England is up in arms trying to figure out what Belichick could possibly be thinking.
Meanwhile, somewhere on a treadmill in Tennessee, Belichick would be laughing if he were to be made aware of the minor levels of hysteria regarding the team’s cavalier approach to free agency thus far.
Of course, the reaction thus far among fans and media alike has not been completely unwarranted. Surely, Belichick didn’t trade away Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones just so he could not pay Dont’a Hightower. Right? Surely, Belichick is aware of how badly the Patriots’ defense struggled for years when it lacked a No. 1 cornerback, so there’s no way he’d play hardball with Malcolm Butler to the point that another team swoops in and signs him. Right?
Well, probably. But with Belichick, you never know. And this c’est la vie approach from him thus far in the offseason has been the perfect reminder of that status.
It’s interesting because just about every possible angle has been discussed and dissected in recent weeks. “Bill will never break the bank for any one player,” some say. Others respond with a list of Devin McCourty, Vince Wilfork, Logan Mankins, Rob Gronkowski and Stephen Gostkowski.
Some say Malcolm Butler would be well within his rights to hold out this summer instead of playing for $3.9 million. Others would say that the man dutifully showed up to work all year last year when he made just $600,000.
It just always seems like the Patriots have the leverage. And you never can quite know how they’ll use it.
That hasn’t stopped people from trying. Chris Gasper dedicated his Tuesday Boston Globe column to urging the Patriots to “back up the Brink’s truck” to keep Hightower on the roster for years to come. It is full of salient, compelling points. Karen Guregian wrote in the Herald that the Patriots are going to have to actually spend some of their money if they want to remain the team to beat in the NFL. Mike Lombardi said the same thing. Three out of four members on Sports Illustrated’s panel argued that it makes the most sense for Hightower to stay in New England. The Miami media has an eye on him. Tennessee, too.
Adam Jones cracked a joke to open his Tuesday show: “The only thing more rare than the Patriots actually keeping one of their good, young free agents on this team is a five-hour show!” Felger & Massarotti have already spent hours preemptively second-guessing the decisions which Belichick has not even yet made.
Hightower himself hasn’t exactly done anything to quell the madness.
And then there’s Butler. He had a somewhat underwhelming Super Bowl performance but was undeniably immense to the success of the Patriots’ No. 1-ranked scoring defense. He drew tough assignments every week and, as much as a corner can do in today’s NFL, he succeeded. He remains the quintessential Patriot: from undrafted and unknown, to stepping up in the biggest moment of his life, to continuing to set an example for hard work and dedication to his teammates, to keeping his head on straight and never letting any potential frustrations with his (comparatively) pathetic level of pay.
And yet, despite being everything the Patriots want in a player, the team can’t even get in his ballpark and thus had to slap him with a first-round tender prior to free agency beginning? What could they possibly be waiting for? With Logan Ryan likely set to jet via free agency, does Bill really think he can rebuild a defense on the fly? Now?
This is a team, you’ll remember, with a strict championship window (I believe that window was shut sometime around 2013, if I’m not mistaken?), and so there’s no way that the team can afford to start from scratch at both cornerback positions and possibly at middle linebacker while still competing for championships.
And all of this is without even getting into the trade possibilities. How long can he really trust Tom Brady to play quarterback at a championship level? Is he really going to part ways with Jimmy Garoppolo, who looked like the Pats’ QB of the future in his limited playing time? After getting a first-round pick yanked from him last year, is he going to hastily send one away for a player like Brandin Cooks?
Honestly, we cannot know. And while this is not an appeal for everyone to throw up their arms, say “IN BILL WE TRUST!” and then go about their day, it is merely an appreciation of the fascinating approach which Belichick takes to the entire process.
There is bucking conventional wisdom, there is stepping outside the norms, and then there is Bill Belichick behaving in the way that only Bill Belichick can.
It is, at the very least, worth stepping back and — instead of firing off a rapid, fiery opinion — trying to discern exactly how that man is going about his business and why he might be doing it.
In this day and age, we’re all conditioned to react. We’re all conditioned to assign instant grades, to make statements in a moment that will stand the test of time, to draw our lines in the sand about what’s absolutely right and what’s unquestionably wrong. A decision is good, or it is bad. I’ve got my take, you’ve got yours, let’s yell about it.
And there’s merit to that, of course. It keeps us all busy. It’s typically a worthwhile exercise. Yet as these next few days play out, and as the free agent chips fall where they may, it will be riveting in its own unique way to witness how Belichick chooses navigate the waters of the near future with his Super Bowl-champion roster.