By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — OK, look. There appear to be a few things going on with the New England Patriots. Not everybody is particularly happy at this moment in time, which tends to be the case for any team coming off a Super Bowl loss.
Just think recently: the Falcons were a mess for a while after blowing a 28-3 lead (which was still hilarious, by the way), the Panthers fell off a cliff, and the Seahawks fell into a state of disorder after the goal-line interception in Super Bowl XLIX. These losses … tend to linger.
With that being established, and with the Patriots being mostly idle this week at the dawn of free agency, it’s fair to say that the local media might be overreacting a little bit to the developments of the past week or so.
Ben Volin’s column titled “Patriots discount not quite enough” ran on the front page, A1, of Thursday’s Boston Globe. The online headline reads “Players no longer seem interested in Patriots Discount,” which seems like a rather assertive statement based on just a handful of moves, all but one of which was expected to happen.
Karen Guregian’s headline at the Boston Herald asks, “Do players still want to come play for the Patriots?” in a story that features Solomon Wilcots (?) opining on the crumbling state of the Patriots’ dynasty.
WEEI.com features not one but two stories on its front page detailing the dire state of Patriots. One, written by Ryan Hanable, is reasonably titled “Things are feeling a bit different in Foxboro right now.” The other, written by John Tomase, involved a bit more panic: “Can someone please explain what the hell is happening in Foxboro?”
Tomase’s column begins thusly: “That sound you just heard wasn’t an icicle crashing from the eaves. It was another Patriots player leaping off the lighthouse at Gillette Stadium and running for his life.”
It ends (spoiler alert) like this: “As the fog thickens and the lighthouse dims, it’s enough to make you wonder not how long they’ll stay afloat, but if there’ll be any lifeboats left when it’s officially time to abandon ship.”
To continue with the nautical theme, let’s respond with this: man overboard!
Does nobody remember Tom Jackson?!
It’s not just media, of course. A loud segment of fans has responded with hysterics to every move made by other teams, or every player lost to free agency. Mocking the Patriots for being focused on re-signing “ace” special teamers has become a sport unto itself. (Leaking the Nate Ebner signing on Tuesday night, amid the full-on frenzy, was hilarious. You have to admit that.)
Again, things aren’t necessarily sunshine and rainbows right now in New England. Bill Belichick pulled a Grady Little and continued to pull a Grady Little for the better part of four hours on Feb. 4. It was a mistake compounded by more mistakes, and it cost New England a Super Bowl. That’s going to sting for a bit.
Meanwhile, Tom Brady’s victorious season finale to “Tom Vs. Time” got ruined, so instead of a victory lap for the man who defies Father Time, Brady partook in a mildly depressing sitdown interview, which was recorded five days after losing the Super Bowl. Obviously, he was slightly despondent about the football game.
And then there’s Rob Gronkowski, who may well be right-pissed with the head coach. That’s a legitimate issue that’s going to have to be ironed out between the player, the coach, the owner, and probably the quarterback if the team wants to continue to have arguably the most physically imposing offensive player in football on its roster going forward.
So all of those situations, combined with the opening days of free agency, have led to the deep examination on the crumbling walls at 1 Patriot Place. But let’s look at what’s actually taken place in free agency thus far.
Start with the big one, Nate Solder. An anchor on the O-line, the left tackle departed New England for New York, with the Giants throwing the type of money at Solder that only a team dreadfully desperate for O-line help could. Is it a loss for New England? Yes. But Pro Football Focus ranked Solder as the 32nd-best tackle in the NFL last year. That doesn’t mean he’s actually the 32nd-best tackle in the NFL, but he sure as HECK is not the best tackle in the NFL. Paying him as if he is as he enters his 30s is not an exceptional business move. The Patriots were never going to enter that territory.
Where to next? Malcolm Butler? Pretty sure the decision to not sign Butler to a long-term deal was made prior to the 2017 season. Everybody knew he’d be leaving. The Super Bowl benching by Belichick made that about as clear as possible. (Still awaiting a re-signing of Johnson Bademosi, though.) Butler is now a very rich man, but when the Patriots threw all that money at Stephon Gilmore last year, the world knew that Butler was never going to get paid by New England.
Then there’s Dion Lewis. You look at Dion Lewis, and what you should see is the absolute perfect picture of what Belichick tries to accomplish when building a roster. The Patriots paid Lewis less than $3.5 million total over three years. For that small price, they got nearly 300 carries, they got 85 receptions, they got over 2,100 yards from scrimmage, they got 13 offensive touchdowns plus another kick return touchdown, and they got another 350 yards from scrimmage and a pair of touchdowns over the course of six playoff games. This was a player who, prior to signing with New England, had just 192 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns in his career.
The Patriots revived Lewis’ career and got the absolute maximum value out of him. Now he’s off to take $11.5 million from the Titans. Good for him. But were the Patriots going to pay that much? Of course not. They had already gotten more out of him than they reasonably could have ever expected.
The departure of Danny Amendola was, without a doubt, a huge surprise. That was … until you saw the money. The Patriots couldn’t help the fact that the Dolphins were willing to pay him $12 million over two years, with $8.5 million guaranteed. That’s silly money. Amendola loved his time in New England, as evidenced by his willingness to take pay cuts in three consecutive offseasons. He loved working with Brady. He likely loved becoming a bona fide star athlete. But as a slot receiver who averaged under 500 receiving yards per season in his five years in New England, he would have been an absolute fool to say no to that money. Likewise, the Patriots would have been out of their minds to pay Amendola — clutch though as he may be — more than they pay Julian Edelman.
Despite the obvious financial undercurrent, Amendola’s departure is being described as a sign that players are trying to bail on Foxboro as soon as they get the chance.
“It means [the run of competing for Super Bowls is] over,” Wilcots said in the Herald column.
To be honest, in terms of personnel moves, this offseason has kind of been par for the course for the Patriots. While they do make the occasional “splash” in free agency — Stephon Gilmore, Adalius Thomas, Darrelle Revis — they more often than not sit back as seemingly every other team goes on a spending frenzy. When the Patriots have dived headfirst into free agency, they’re hardly batting 1.000. It’s been a 50-50 endeavor at best.
And when it’s clear that other teams are willing to overpay some of the key contributors to successful Patriots teams? They generally sit back and let it happen. Save for maybe a handful of examples, the Patriots end up looking smart when those players fail to live up to their new big-money deals with other teams.
That’s not to say they’re perfect. Adam Vinatieri stands out as a misjudgment. Richard Seymour had a couple of good years left when he was shipped to Oakland. Asante Samuel remained a top corner for several year after leaving the Patriots.
The list of players who don’t really succeed after moving on from the Patriots, either by their own choosing or otherwise, is much longer. Lawyer Milloy never made an All-Pro team or a Pro Bowl roster after Belichick cut him in 2003. Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel were more or less cooked when they left. Ty Law, too. BenJavrus Green-Ellis, not unlike Dion Lewis, was the ultimate Patriot discovery. Though his first year in Cincinnati was a success, he was out of the league two years after leaving New England. Letting Wes Welker join forces with Peyton Manning looked bad for one season, but his NFL career was done two years after the Patriots opted to not pay him.
It’s coincidental, but noteworthy, that Welker signed a two-year, $12 million deal with Denver in 2013 when he was 32 years old. That year, the Patriots chose to pay Amendola instead of Welker. Amendola is now off to Miami on a … two-year, $12 million deal. At age 32.
Seems like the more things change … the more things stay the same.
Plus the Patriots, specifically Belichick, seem to relish the challenge of finding some new unknown players to become stars in Foxboro. That’s been the real mark of “The Patriot Way,” if it does exist, more than anything else.
Really — and again, this is strictly talking about the additions and subtractions to the roster this week — there has not been much that’s out of the ordinary for the Patriots. That other stuff — the Brady dynamic, whatever Gronkowski’s doing, Belichick’s silence on the Butler benching, etc. — is all abnormal. But none of that is new. We’re in month No. 2 of tackling those topics, and to tack on the activity (or relative lack thereof) in free agency as some disturbing trend might be more of a stretch than it appears to be at first glance.
The bottom line is this: The Patriots have some work to do. A Super Bowl-losing team has not returned to The Big Game™ since the 1993 Buffalo Bills. It’s a loss that generally has been difficult to recover from for most every team. Add in the bubbling issues that appear to be simmering among the chief principles in the Patriots organization, and it’s clear that there’s even more work to do than normal.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t get done. Robert Kraft is, by all accounts, a master negotiator. He could make the perfect peacemaker. Whatever’s irking Belichick about Alex Guerrero can likely be addressed. After all, it’s hard to argue with the results of Brady and Gronkowski, isn’t it?
None of that work, though, is going to get tackled right now. Because it’s March. Things aren’t really as bad as many are making it seem.