Certain truths become self-evident in March: NCAA basketball brackets getting blown up, baseball teams breaking camp, and the Patriots' approval rating plummeting.
In three of the last five years, fans have given two thumbs up to the Patriots' performance from September to early February. But March is always the cruelest month in Foxboro. That's when other teams start throwing money at free agents (many of whom used to play for the Patriots) while the Patriots themselves do little or nothing.
The strategy has paid dividends, but it's never easy for fans to see the Edgerrin Jameses, Steve Hutchinsons and Julian Petersons of the world flock to other teams while the Patriots sit on nearly $20 million of salary cap space. It's even harder for the Patriots faithful to watch as some of their favorite players defect to new addresses.
Losing wide receiver David Givens to the Titans and linebacker Willie McGinest to the Browns was bad enough, but watching kicker Adam Vinatieri hold up a Colts jersey at his introductory news conference was almost too much to bear for a fan base that is getting mighty restless.
The Patriots obviously felt they couldn't bid too high for Givens, their No. 2 receiver, without compromising their ability to retain Deion Branch, their No. 1 man, when his contract expires after this season. And McGinest is 34 years old. So there were compelling reasons for the Patriots to let both of them go.
Allowing Vinatieri to walk away for a reported five-year, $10 million contract with a $3.5 million signing bonus, is harder to understand. He's 33, but in kicker years that's not old. Yes, he had a bad back in 2003, but he rebounded with the best season of his career the following year and was solid, if somewhat underutilized, in 2005 when he set career lows in points (100) and field goals attempted (25) and made (20). And his kickoffs have never been booming. But did anyone fret about that when he was lining up for those two Super Bowl-winning kicks?
Factoring in the signing bonus, which was $500,000 more than the Vikings paid for ex-Packers kicker Ryan Longwell, Indianapolis' offer set a new standard for kickers' salaries - something the Patriots are loathe to do at any position, including quarterback. But the Patriots designated Vinatieri their franchise player last season and paid him $2.5 million. Therefore, an offer comparable to the Colts' actually would have saved the Pats money compared to Vinatieri's slice of last season's much smaller salary cap.
Of course, that's all water under the bridge now. What remains to be seen is whom the Patriots find to replace their folk hero. The job comes with impossibly high standards and terrible working conditions, at least on game days at home in December and January, when the weather and footing can be treacherous.
Throughout this five-year run, the Patriots have survived the annual talent exodus because they have been able to plug new pieces into the holes. Good schemes and talented teammates eased the transition for the less experienced successors to departed stars such as cornerback Ty Law, guard Joe Andruzzi and nose tackles Ted Washington and Keith Traylor. However, that won't be the case with the new kicker. Sure, he'll benefit from perhaps the league's best long snapper-holder duo (Lonie Paxton and Josh Miller) and a strong special teams coach (Brad Seely). But essentially he will be on his own to either succeed and make the Patriots look smart, or fail and make them look foolish.
Either way, Vinatieri's shadow will loom large.