Patient Patriots Frustrate Fans

Free agency starts with a bang around the league but with a whimper in New England.

When the New England Patriots brought aboard Bill Belichick as head coach in 2000, they knew that they were getting a head coach who is sober and serious to the point of appearing downright laconic. When they also gave Belichick the general manager duties, they should have known that Belichick's muted style would infuse the pace of personnel decisions as well.

True to form, Belichick has proven to be as methodical about player acquisitions as he is about defensive game plans. While the rest of the league is ablaze with player movements, blockbuster signings and trades, and marquee players stepping up to a podium with broad smiles, new jerseys and a few extra million dollars in their pockets, the New England Patriots typically sit back and watch.

It is hard to fault this approach. After all, the Patriots under Bill Belichick have won two championships in three years. But that hardly makes it easy for the Patriots fans to sit on the sidelines while other teams make headlines.

Setting the breakneck tempo are the Washington Redskins, who continue to defy salary cap logic. They acquired one of the league's best young running backs, Clinton Portis, from the Denver Broncos, and gave him a reported 8-year deal for over $50 million that included $17 million in bonuses. They also traded for veteran quarterback Mark Brunell. But Portis and Brunell were just appetizers; the Redskins have since gobbled-up now-former Colts linebacker Marcus Washington, former Bears defensive end Phillip Daniels, former Giants defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin, and star cornerback Shawn Springs. And the free agency period has only been open for three days.

Other teams too have lit the footlights to bring stars on board. The Broncos made out extremely well in the Portis deal, in exchange acquiring former Redskin Champ Bailey, one of the best cornerbacks in the league. The Eagles landed former Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse, a physically gifted if oft-injured pass rusher. The Ravens traded a second round pick to San Francisco to pry away talented but talkative receiver Terrell Owens. The Houston Texans landed a top offensive lineman in Todd Wade and a top defensive lineman in Robaire Smith.

It is easy to be dazzled by the all this wattage igniting the daily transaction wires. The Patriots meanwhile approach the off-season madness the same way they approach games: with a gritty, grind-it-out style that often goes down to the wire.

Last summer for instance, the Patriots sweated through training camp with what looked to be a porous run defense. Only in the last days of August, before the start of the regular season, did they sign their savior in 365-pound nose tackle Ted Washington.

But this leads to another factor of a New England off-season that is hard to watch: valuable Patriots players moving on to greener pastures elsewhere. Of course "greener" refers to money, something with which the Patriots are reluctant to part.

More accurately, the Patriots set a value for a player and will not break the bank for any one man. If he can get more elsewhere, so be it.

In Washington's case, the 36-year old who suffered two broken legs over the past two years saw one last chance to score a big signing bonus, often the only guaranteed money a player will ever see (contracts are often back-loaded to make them appear more generous than they really are, but the player will often be cut or asked to reduce that salary by the time those out-years arrive).

The Patriots reportedly offered Washington a generous 3-year, $8 million deal with bonuses that would have given Washington about $4 million in the first year. But when Oakland offered a 4-year deal for $14 million including bonuses that would give him $5.5 million in the first year, Washington quickly donned the Raider Silver and Black.

Patriots fans not only have to watch other teams collect star players, in the case of Washington they have to watch their own stars depart.

But as Belichick consistently says, "We're about building a team not a collection of stars." It is obviously a strategy that works but Patriots fans would do well to repeat it to themselves over and over during the off-season.

Ultimately, Belichick repays the fans for their patience, and often the wait is not long (it just seems that way with other teams rocketing out to fast free agency starts). Entering his fourth off-season with the Patriots, Belichick has signed only one player in the first week of the free agency period, linebacker and special teams ace Larry Izzo. But in the weeks that follow, Belichick can surprise.

Last year was the best example, when he signed the league's top free agent in linebacker Rosevelt Colvin and then one of the league's best safeties in Rodney Harrison, both within a day of each other. The Patriots broke the bank for neither but broke the mold of a penny-pinching reputation they had developed by giving Colvin and Harrison excellent contracts (Colvin is getting more than $4 million per year and Harrison about $2.5 million).

Still, that was the exception, not the norm. When Belichick first came to New England four years ago, his free agent acquisitions in March included tight end Eric Bjornson, wide receiver Aaron Bailey and offensive lineman Grant Williams. Williams was a serviceable backup who actually filled in capably for Matt Light in the team's first Super Bowl win, but this group otherwise drew a collective yawn. The most excitement came from the return of cornerback Otis Smith but that transaction didn't happen until August.

Linebacker Bryan Cox, receiver David Patten and running back Antowain Smith headlined the next year's crop. Belichick also landed linebacker Mike Vrabel in 2001 but only later, when he was a runner-up for Most Valuable Player in the Super Bowl this year, was it clear that Belichick had scored big with that signing.

Small wonder the Patriots failed to repeat, or even make the playoffs, in 2002 – their star free agent acquisitions included the forgettable Donald Hayes and Steve Martin. Only tight end Christian Fauria remains from that free agent class (pending the expected retirement or release of defensive lineman Rick Lyle).

As already noted, 2003 was a veritable bonanza by comparison. Colvin, Harrison, and Washington joined cornerback Tyrone Poole and special teamer Chris Akins as impact players, despite Colvin's season-ending hip injury. New England's free agent season was only marred by the continued bizarre series of training camp retirements by offensive linemen: Brendan Stai last summer, Rich Tylski in 2002 (although he has since come back to the league, signing with Carolina this week), and Joe Panos in 2001.

The only thing stranger than these annual retirements is New England's approach to restricted free agency. A restricted free agent is one that can negotiate with other teams, but whose current team has a right to match any offer and thereby keep that player. If the current team chooses not to match, then the signing team typically must give up a draft pick to consummate the signing.

The Patriots have tried and failed for three straight years to land a restricted free agent. In 2001, it was Baltimore offensive tackle Spencer Folau and Pittsburgh running back Chris Fuamatu Ma'afala. In 2002, it was Kansas City linebacker Mike Maslowski. Last year, it was Seattle defensive tackle Cedric Woodard.

In each case, the Patriots offered a deal that was easy for the other team to match, and match they did. For instance, in Woodard's case, New England offered a one-year, $650,000 contract, barely above the league minimum. Seattle matched it and retained a quality backup player at a bargain price, and Woodard provided the Seahawks with a solid 57 tackles in 2003.

The Patriots' strategy is baffling – while they are admirably resolute about not overpaying for a player, they could at least be creative with their contracts to make it difficult for the other team to match it, if the Patriots really want to pry away one of these restricted free agents.

But they apparently haven't learned and are in fact about to do it again. The Patriots reportedly signed Pittsburgh defensive end Rodney Bailey to an offer sheet on Thursday. But the deal is for $1.3 million with a $650,000 signing bonus for a player who had 9-1/2 sacks last year as a backup. The Patriots probably hope to use 26-year old Bailey to replace aging veteran Bobby Hamilton. But the Steelers have a week to match the offer and at that price they will hardly struggle to do so; in fact, Pittsburgh has already indicated that it will match the offer.

So again the Patriots will strike out in the restricted market. Why they even bother is a mystery.

However, the key to the off-season and indeed any off-season in the free agency era will be the NFL Draft. On April 24 and 25 this year the winners in the league will be decided for the next couple of years, although which teams comes out as winners will not be immediately clear. Last year, New England tabbed an amazing 7 contributors out of its 10 draft picks, including starters found in rounds 2 (Eugene Wilson) and 5 (Dan Koppen).

The next few articles will take a look at possible Patriots rookies. In the meantime, have patience.

Notes

For those who can't sit still, there are at least a few nuggets of information and even some positive news for the Patriots. New England re-signed running back Kevin Faulk on Thursday to an undisclosed deal, keeping one of their most versatile offensive weapons in the fold. Faulk had a career-high 638 rushing yards this past year on top of 440 receiving yards. He has quietly become one of the best third-down backs in the league, converting 48 first downs this season (by comparison, Oakland's Charlie Garner, now a free agent, had 42.) Faulk is also a capable kick and punt returner.

However, the Patriots also lost top offensive lineman Damien Woody to Detroit. The Lions paid a hefty price to secure his services: between signing bonus money and his first-year salary, Woody will make $11.5 million in 2004. Woody is young, has already been to two Pro Bowls, and has been a versatile starter at both center and guard, but he is limited by his inability to perform the shotgun snap. The Lions did New England a favor with that massive contract, however, by keeping Woody away from the Patriots' AFC East division rival Miami Dolphins, who were eager to sign him.

Faulk and Woody were both part of the Patriots' 1999 draft class, but Faulk is now the only member of that class still with the Patriots. Other well-known members of that draft class included linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer, who retired after suffering a major neck injury; quarterback Michael Bishop, who is now out of the NFL; and fan-favorite Sean Morey who was picked up by the Philadelphia Eagles and continues to be a special teams kamikaze for them.


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