Thursday, April 6, 2017

Patriots Way Alive And Well Despite Crazy Offseason

The New England Patriots give the appearance of going "All In" to bring another trophy or two to Foxborough before Tom Brady and Bill Belichick decide to hang up their respective cleats and whistles - but is it at the expense of what has come to be known as the Patriots' Way?

The Patriots' Way is, in a manner of speaking, the template for success in the National Football League during the salary-capped era - an efficient business plan that combines fiscal responsibility with an unmatched feel for the open market, complete with a vibrant moral compass that factors heavily into personnel decisions.

But this offseason, the Patriots seem to have strayed from their team building methods, eliciting euphoria from the aesthetic crowd and genuine concern from the hard liners.

Euphoria for the folks who crave the big name elitists, but also concern in that the Patriots are willingly departing from a tried and true system that has brought unprecedented success to the franchise since Robert Kraft purchased the team back in the mid-90's and particularly since he hired Bill Belichick to run things for him at the turn of the century - because as the old axiom goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

To be fair, Belichick has pulled off his standard fleecing of other organizations in obtaining wide receiver Brandin Cooks, tight end Dwayne Allen and defensive end Kony Ealy, using their top draft capital to what in essence was "drafting" young players with NFL game experience on their resumes, perhaps acknowledging that players coming out of college in positions of need for New England are too far off from contributing on a team already loaded to the gills.

Which is as "Belichickian" as you can get, as is the Dark Master's obsession with defensive backs, so to hear that he had re-signed centerfielder Duron Harmon to neat little four-year deal in order to keep his favored Big Nickel package in play at all times was not in the least bit shocking or unwarranted, nor was the news that he had inquired as to the availability of Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman before free agency opened for business.

Belichick has historically been criticized for his seemingly odd behavior when it comes to signing defensive backs - Adrian Wilson, Brandon Browner and Darrelle Revis come to mind in free agency and selecting names like Tavon Wilson, Ras-I Dowling and Jordan Richards early in the draft - so it wasn't out of character for him to show interest in Sherman...

...but more recently the team has been in the news for their highly controversial  cup of coffee and physical with disgraced running back Adrian Peterson - and now for their rumored renewed interest in the abrasive and loquacious (not to mention expensive) cornerback Sherman.

Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald went a step beyond reason when reporting on both, suggesting that he wouldn't have a problem if the Patriots' front office were to toss aside their track record of avoiding players with domestic violence incidents, either past or present, and sign Peterson despite his well-publicized legal difficulties involving violence towards his then four-year-old son.

Howe's remarks sparked a heated debate with some other prominent Boston sportscasters and even fueled a dissenting and brutal response from the New York Times, who claimed that the Patriots were two-faced for even considering a deal with Peterson.

Needless to say, Howe is riding a very thin line with just about everyone who counts with the Patriots and their beat media, managing to look goofier than even Ben Volin in the process, and his response to the criticism making him appear even crustier than Ron Borges - something that is going to be tough for him to live down anytime soon.

Howe aside, Belichick did open up a can of worms when he opened up the vault in free agency to lure cornerback Stephon Gilmore away from Buffalo.

Gilmore is a luxury that came to pass after the Patriots reportedly approached and was subsequently rebuffed by the Seattle Seahawks in regard to their interest in obtaining the abrasive and loquacious Sherman - which in and of itself would have cost New England enough in future draft capital to effectively mortgage the franchise's future - so Belichick signed Gilmore to a five-year, $65 million contract that guarantees $40 million, $18 million of that in a signing bonus.

When is the last time the Patriots shelled out that kind of long-term scratch?

A better question may be, why give Gilmore that kind of money when you have one of the game's top corners already on your team who is up for a raise?  Losing Logan Ryan in free agency justifies bringing in another player, but to lay out starter's money to a guy not versed in the system over one that is - and who was rated higher to boot - goes against conventional wisdom.

But what people feel is wrong with Belichick in these situations is actually what is so right about him.  He has never been one to care what Howe or Volin or Borges has to say, and usually he laughs off criticism like most people brush snow off of their windshields - but being accused of broaching the Patriots Way for one thing brought up by the media has to have him fuming.

Belichick knew he was going to lose Ryan in free agency, and he figured he may lose Butler as well, which is most likely the reason why he tagged Butler with a first-round tender as a restricted free agent, protecting himself from everything except another team's desperation, and so to inquire about Sherman and signing Gilmore when he knew that Butler had interest from the Saints is called covering your butt.

Many felt that he could have avoided the whole fiasco with Butler by signing him to a long-term contract, but Belichick isn't about to let a player dictate his market, particularly one who was trying to broach protocol after just three seasons in the league, while everyone else in football has to wait until they've accrued four.

History tells us that the Patriots willingly wrap up their extraordinary players to contract extensions that are true extensions - meaning that they leave the remainder of the current contract be, the extension activated upon the expiration of the current deal.  One has only to look at tight end Rob Gronkowski's deal in 2012, Nate Solder's in 2015 and Marcus Cannon's last season to figure that out...

...and while we don't know the circumstances surrounding any offer made to Butler, nor why he has yet to sign his tender, all anyone can do is speculate - which is what gets people like beat writers into hot water.

As far as Sherman goes, most of the information coming out on him has been generated by the Seahawks themselves, who have been busy patting themseleves on the back by claiming to be transparent in their dealings with players and in the media in an attempt to deflect responsibility for the Sherman rumors, which have ramped up again with a report from the Miami Herald that it is going to take "a player and a high draft pick" to pique the Seahawks' interest in moving on from the three-time All Pro corner.

The Seahawks claim that "several teams" have initiated not just fact-finding discussions, but actual trade talks, which makes their claim about transparency look more like a tactic to drum up interest in Sherman throughout the league.

While the Patriots were interested in Sherman initially, there are reasons to believe that they have closed the book on their dealings with the Seahawks.

The Gilmore contract which, when added to what the team would have to absorb to acquire Sherman and the salaries of the rest of the starting defensive backfield, would take up a full one-quarter of the Patriots' salary cap this season, and almost a third of it next season - and that is without Butler in the mix, who would likely be the one headed to Seattle as part of the compensation for a Sherman deal.

That would make them the most expensive secondary in the league by a large margin, but also the most talented, in theory - but it just doesn't make sense when the Patriots could use that cap space on expiring contracts for next season, with names like Solder, White, Lewis, Burkhead, Edelman and Garoppolo up for extensions, as well as having to pick up a fifth-year option on Cooks.

The Patriots Way would not allow for the Sherman thing to happen.  It rubs against everything that the Patriots have stood for, against their philosophies on both sides of the ball and, again, against conventional wisdom.  Let the teams always chasing the Patriots have at him - after all, it's what makes those teams the one's perpetually chasing them in the first place.

The bottom line is, the Patriots' Way is alive and well, despite appearances to the contrary.

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