Bill Belichick can get away with cutting loose talent. Bill O'Brien and Matt Patricia might not
Moments after the New England Patriots won their 2010 season opener, Randy Moss stood behind a Gillette Stadium podium and discussed his contract situation.
Moss said he’d heard nothing from the team about an extension. He said if the Patriots waited until after the season, “that would be a smack in my face.” He added that “around here in the New England area, I think a lot of people don’t want to see me do good.”
A few weeks later, Bill Belichick dealt Moss, a future Hall of Famer who had caught 47 touchdown passes over the previous three seasons, for a third-round pick.
In January of 2016, in the middle of the playoffs, gifted young pass rusher Chandler Jones showed up one morning at the Foxborough police station, shirtless and having a reaction to synthetic marijuana. Belichick traded him that offseason to Arizona.
During the 2016 season, in the middle of a Super Bowl title run, Belichick shipped versatile defensive lineman Jamie Collins to an 0-8 Cleveland team for a third-round pick. The move that was never fully explained but reasoned at the time to be about Collins freelancing too much.
That’s Belichick. Talent comes and talent goes ... the moment that it crosses whatever line the all-powerful coach of the Patriots has established.
Complaining about contracts ... not following game plans … off-field red flags … you are either all in or quickly out in New England. And that doesn’t even count parting ways with slightly aging stars, from Ty Law to Tom Brady.
No one is safe. Ever.
It’s cutthroat. It’s daring. It has also worked to the tune of nine Super Bowl appearances and six Lombardi Trophies. Belichick doesn’t even explain himself anymore.
For years, other NFL franchises have sought some of that Patriots magic by hiring Belichick disciples. None have really worked yet. The no-nonsense approach sounds good in theory. The challenge is having the ability, charisma and track record to pull it off – maintaining the faith of the locker room and winning with less talent.
Belichick has it. Clearly.
Does anyone else?
This week a few of his former assistants appear to be following the so-called “Patriot Way,” making Belichickian moves that could define their tenure.
On Monday, Houston coach/general manager Bill O’Brien, a former Pats offensive coordinator, traded star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona for an aging running back and a second-round pick. There has been no reason given, but reported friction between the receiver and the coach (perhaps over a possible contract extension or personal relationships) seems real.
On Thursday, Detroit, led by general manager Bob Quinn and coach Matt Patricia, both formerly of New England, shipped star cornerback Darius Slay to Philadelphia for a third- and a fifth-round draft pick. Slay had made no secret of his discontent with the Lions.
The cumulative result for both teams is not just less talent on the roster, but less of the kind of elite talent that is very difficult to find. In its place is a reaffirmed sense that each organization will be run the way the coach wants it and only how the coach wants it.
It may be the only way O’Brien, Quinn and Patricia know how to run a team. And it might work. All of them were hired because they could implement Belichick’s style.
Yet there is a magic to the way Belichick is able to pull it off. His ability to command respect, loyalty and effort without ever, at least publicly, concerning himself with the mood of the roster is the most difficult thing to pull off in coaching.
Getting rid of great talent is rarely advisable. Yet Belichick sent plenty of it out of town and kept winning Super Bowls.
Can O’Brien do that? Can he not just overcome the loss of Hopkins, the prime weapon for quarterback Deshaun Watson, but turn it into a net positive that gets the Texans past AFC bullies in Kansas City and Baltimore?
Can he have the respect of the locker room? Hopkins was a Texan for seven seasons, started in 110 of 112 possible games and, at least from the outside, appeared to be popular among his teammates.
While Hopkins has downplayed it publicly, one of his mentors, Michael Irvin, was on ESPN Wednesday describing a destructive meeting between O’Brien and Hopkins where Hopkins felt O’Brien was comparing him to Aaron Hernandez and expressing concern over his personal life.
Hopkins has taken the heat out of Irvin’s report – “I have the utmost respect for Coach O’Brien and that will not change,” he wrote on Twitter. Yet it seems reasonable to assume that Hopkins did tell Irvin some variation of the story and thus has probably told the same to some of his former teammates.
No matter what is true, that’s something O’Brien may have to address.
Meanwhile in Detroit, Slay has been looking to get out and he finally got his wish. He isn’t as great as Hopkins, but he’s a very good player, a three-time Pro Bowler. The Lions won three games last year. Needless to say, they don’t have an abundance of talent to spare.
Quinn and Patricia clearly think they are better off without their best coverage guy, even if it merited only a meager haul of draft picks.
This is the Patriots Way. This is the Bill Belichick system. This is what these guys were hired to do.
Whether they can pull it off like their mentor is the question.
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