FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – In an area where American politics were born, the New England Patriots have learned to live by a motto derived from the best of Teddy Roosevelt: "Speak softly and carry a big stick."
Walk around the Patriots locker room and you won't hear much of a peep about the contract squabble between management and cornerback Asante Samuel, a guy the team thought enough of to "franchise" but not enough to pay the going rate for cornerbacks.
Samuel isn't in training camp and has threatened to miss the first 10 weeks of the campaign, only joining the team then to qualify for a season of service. However, many observers expect Samuel, who believes he's grossly underpaid as a result of his fourth-round draft status in 2003, to be in for the season opener against the Jets. He would earn $7.8 million, the average salary of the five highest-paid cornerbacks, if he signs the one-year tender.
It's the latest in a series of contract squabbles that never seem to bother the Patriots. In 2003, the team dumped popular safety Lawyer Milloy the week of the opener and proceeded to win the next two Super Bowls. Last year, the team let wide receiver David Givens go in free agency and traded wide receiver Deion Branch just before the season after a protracted holdout.
While losing Givens and Branch hurt, the team still made it to the AFC championship game and might have been in the Super Bowl if the defense hadn't imploded at Indianapolis.
So now comes the question of how the team will replace the 10 interceptions Samuel had in the regular season and the two more he had in the playoffs, both of which he returned for scores.
"If you start spending a lot of time talking about that, it distracts from what you have to do to get ready for the season and that distracts from what we need to do to accomplish our goal," said cornerback Ellis Hobbs, one of the guys expected to pull the weight while Samuel isn't around.
Instead, the Patriots just go about their business, which through this decade has been to dominate the NFL. They have three Super Bowl titles and are one of the favorites to win another this season … even if they don't have Samuel.
"They're going to apply a lot of pressure with their front seven and they're going to score a lot of points," Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher said Saturday, a day after the Titans beat New England in a rather physical exhibition game. "If you do that, you can cover up your secondary a lot."
Fisher knows that well from his time with Chicago in the 1980s. Fisher cut his teeth as a coach with the 1985 Bears, featuring a blitz-happy defense that set NFL records despite having substandard cornerbacks.
"You're not asking them to cover for that long when you can do the things that New England does," Tennessee defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said.
The Patriots put that style on display against the Titans and young quarterback Vince Young. New England brought blitzes from all angles and in all forms. Linebacker Junior Seau had a traditional up-the-middle effort that put a licking on Young.
The best of the night came from safety Rodney Harrison. He delayed ever so slightly to come around the wide side from Young's right. Rookie running back Chris Henry missed the assignment and Harrison thumped Young with a shoulder-to-chest hit. Young, who outweighs Harrison by at least 40 pounds, crumpled in a move reminiscent of Ali-Frazier.
"I could hear that one from the deep secondary," Hobbs said, admiringly. "I looked up at the replay, and it was like, 'That was sweet.' "
Harrison, 35, exemplifies the whole notion of what the Patriots are trying to accomplish. On Friday, he looked like a man 10 years younger, not only leveling Young but also easily batting away a deep throw and nearly intercepting another toss.
Still, Harrison finds time to reach out to his absent secondary mate.
"I'm text (messaging) him all the time. I say, 'I'm working out, are you? Are you running?' " said Harrison, who as a former fifth-round pick probably has a better understanding of Samuel's situation. "I want to make sure he's in the best shape he can be when he returns.
"We all wish him the best and hope he gets as much as he can, but that's the business side of the game and we have a lot of guys around here who understand that. Me, Tom Brady, (Tedy) Bruschi, (Richard) Seymour, Mike Vrabel, we all understand that's between management and the player. If you talk about that stuff and get involved in that, it takes away from your focus."
Wide receiver Donte' Stallworth, in his first year with the Patriots, echoed the overall sentiment in a simpler form.
"Two words: Bill Belichick," Stallworth said. "Bill Belichick is not going to allow you to let somebody else's issue get into your head. He's going to fill you with thoughts you need to deal with to make sure you know how to handle your job."
For his part, Belichick shrugged his shoulders about the Samuel situation.
"We have to play with the people who are here," Belichick said. "I treat every situation as they come up."
In other words, at least one Patriot chooses not to talk about Samuel at all … for now.
- Bill Belichick