By Tony Massarotti, 98.5 The Sports Hub
BOSTON (CBS) — Bill Belichick is the very best at making hard decisions, and so maybe it came down to this: Malcolm Butler or Jimmy Garoppolo. One year from now, the Patriots can only franchise one of those two players, and maybe Belichick decided that the potential successor to Tom Brady is more valuable than anything else on his roster. And if that is what he chose, he chose wisely.
At least for some of us.
But we all know that is only part of the story, if it is a part of the story at all, and so what has transpired at Foxboro in the last week would be shocking were it not for one bottom-line fact: with Belichick, you can never rule out anything. Ten days ago, if anyone had asked whether the Patriots should replace the relentless Butler with the now-wealthy Stephon Gilmore, the answer in New England would have been a resounding no. But once Belichick seemingly made that decision, the truly mindless among Patriots followers fell neatly into line because, well, Bill must know something. Excuse me, bartender? I’ll have what he’s having.
And so fine. In Bill you trust. As well you should. The Patriots won with Butler and they will almost certainly win without him because Belichick is that good, and because so is Tom Brady. They remain one of the greatest power couples in history. But before you lump Butler into a pile with so many of the other controversial decisions during Belichick’s extraordinary tenure, ask yourself another question: was this move necessary? And if so, why?
Think about it: most always, when Belichick has reached the point with a player that he has reached now with Butler, there was a clearer reason. From Ty Law to Richard Seymour to Wes Welker to Logan Mankins, the player was aging. He wasn’t worth the money anymore. Jamie Collins seemingly became disruptive, or defiant, or disenchanted. In that case, Belichick took cents on the dollar because he clearly believed in addition by subtraction, and as usual, he was right. Again.
So maybe Bill is still kicking himself for not recognizing a potential problem with Collins sooner. Maybe he is intent on preventing himself from being in the same spot again with Butler. But there are other variables that make one wonder how those two players could be compared at all, one of which is Butler’s indisputable consistency with regard to his effort and competitiveness. Butler plays, all the time. Collins didn’t.
The other variable? The cost of a replacement.
Think about it: Gilmore may be a nice player, but the cost for him is greater than any Belichick has ever paid for a defensive player. Ever. Since when does Belichick put himself in that spot? One of the great mantras (and myths) in Foxboro is that the Patriots win because of their system, which is, quite simply an insult to Brady. The Patriots win for lots of reasons, from a great coach and a great quarterback to a willingness to make hard decisions that few others will make. They all factor in. Not just the system.
In retrospect, what is astonishing about the swap of Butler for Gilmore – and we are assuming that Butler will ultimately end up in New Orleans, as seems inevitable – is the cost. On average, Gilmore is being paid $13 million a year while receiving $40 million in guaranteed money. Far more than it would have cost to sign Butler. If this was truly a business decision, a defense the Patriots love to fall back on, well it was bad business, the kind of move the Patriots never make. In this case, they paid more.
Remember: part of what makes Belichick the greatest ever is his ability to get more from less. He can cut bait with Jamie Collins and win with Kyle Van Noy. He can help resurrect Chris Long. He can lop off Mankins and replace him with Jordan Devey, a former tuba player whom he all but pulled out of the band. In the case of Butler vs. Gilmore, Butler should have been the player Belichick preferred, the harder-working, cost-efficient alternative to a first-round talent with pedigree.
And so, again, if Belichick wanted Gilmore over Butler, fine. No problem.
Belichick being Belichick, of course, we aren’t likely to get the answer to that question. Part of the beauty of being Bill, particularly at this stage of his life, is that you never really have to answer for anything, at least not publicly. Whenever Belichick next speaks with reporters in a true Q&A session, he will undoubtedly fall back on his old standby, that he is merely trying to do what is best for the team. Anyone expecting more of a clarification than that will be left wanting, and most of those people will stop caring once the Patriots start racking up wins again, which they will.
But in this case perhaps more than another since he long ago took over the Patriots, it sure would be nice to know a little more about what Bill Belichick is thinking.