Bill Belichick sends clear message: Time for Patriots to do it differently

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Tom E. Curran
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Curran: Belichick sends clear message with free-agent binge originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

About that press conference? About the need for Bill Belichick to step to the mic?

I’m good. We’re good.

As someone down in Foxboro suggested to me Tuesday morning via text, "Action > Words."

Oh, there’s been action. The Patriots' wild spending spree continued Tuesday morning with perhaps the most consequential signing so far: tight end Hunter Henry. Henry and Jonnu Smith’s contracts combined have a value of $87.5 million with $56M guaranteed.

Patriots Talk Podcast - What factors led to the Patriots spending spree? | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

If there were a press conference, we could ask if the team just took a flamethrower to the futures of last year’s third-round picks, Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene. Or we could ask why -- aside from Rob Gronkowski -- they foot-dragged at the position for practically a decade. In a perfect world, we’d get a variation of this great Jim Calhoun press conference from 2004.

But it ain’t a perfect world. So instead we will happily settle for Belichick’s perfect response to going 7-9 in 2020 with a roster that any other coach would have probably guided to 4-12.

As for those inquiring where they go to complain that this is not what Bill Belichick and the Patriots are all about? That this is not the (cringing…) Patriot Way? That they are collecting talent and not building a team?

The line for you head-in-the-sand whiners forms over there by the pay phones and the typewriters. I mean, try to keep up, will ya? The team was pretty much a train wreck in the draft the past five seasons and in free agency since 2017. The roster wilted and Tom Brady helped keep it propped up and they stole a bonus Super Bowl in 2018.

Belichick, soon to be 69 (nice), might have hid behind cap issues publicly last year, but he had to know in his heart of hearts that the decomposition went beyond that.

So what’s he done? He’s taken a different tack. Which, when you think about it, is truly (double cringe…) The Patriot Way. When something’s not working, you change.

The worker who only has a hammer sees every problem as a nail.  Belichick finally reached for the wrench.

Tom E. Curran on Belichick's offseason approach

It’s Morning in Foxboro. If there’s going to be a 3.0 version of the Patriots dynasty it will be store-bought, not homegrown. All the business being done by Belichick is a pleasant relief in Foxboro.

Even with all the cap space, there was still some trepidation as this week approached that Belichick might pull back and serve up one of those Bruce Ellington-Maurice Harris-Dontrelle Inman combo platters. He did not. He spent like a maniac.

The Patriots reportedly have agreed to terms with eight players since Monday.

Does that mean Belichick is committing the cardinal sin of short-selling "value?" Kind of. You can’t look at a $26M deal for Nelson Agholor over two years and compare it to the $11M and $15M two-year extensions Julian Edelman signed in 2017 and 2019 -- after Super Bowl wins -- and believe otherwise. But ceaselessly worshipping at the altar of value for too long eventually gets you in a spot where your offensive personnel is a punchline.

The worker who only has a hammer sees every problem as a nail.  Belichick finally reached for the wrench.

Monday night I spoke with Bill Polian, the Hall of Fame executive who built the 1990s Buffalo Bills, the expansion Carolina Panthers and the Peyton Manning-Era Indianapolis Colts.

"This (start to free agency) strikes me as pure Bill Belichick," said Polian. "You've got problems all over the place. Which clearly he identified. He didn’t say much about it publicly, but clearly he identified. Just go move and fix them. And be aggressive.

"He’s not gonna tolerate the kind of season that he had last year," said Polian. "And more power to him. I think it’s great."

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I asked Polian whether Belichick, at his age and with his legacy, also might be less inclined to slow-play his way back to respectability while taking the slings and arrows of snot-nosed second-guessers.  

“There’s no question about that. The winning for people on the outside gets old,” said Polian. “But for people on the inside, like Bill, who’s been driven by winning, last year had to be the Excedrin headache of all time. Never in his career in New England had anything like that happened. You’re sick to your stomach (and thinking), ‘I’m not letting this happen again.’ ”

There is no mistaking Belichick is sending a STFU message during this legal tampering period. How so? Consider this. One of the rules of the legal tampering period is that you can’t be out there announcing agreements.

Clubs are further advised that prior to the beginning of the new League Year it is impermissible for a club to enter into an agreement of any kind, express or implied, oral or written, or promises, undertakings, representations, commitments, inducements, assurances of intent or understandings of any kind concerning the terms or conditions of employment offered to, or to be offered to, any prospective Unrestricted Free Agent for inclusion in a Player Contract after the start of the new League Year. Any announcement of an agreement or an agreement in principle by a club or another party, including, but not limited to, a certified agent, player, or media organization may subject the club to a tampering investigation.

Does every team in the league do it anyway? Almost. The Patriots -- unless my memory is betraying me -- generally do not. And they certainly don’t let slip that they’ve got half the league under agreement.

Why not? Very simple. Belichick’s had the league up his backside with a flashlight so many times he stays the hell away from the line on everything.

From the Mona Lisa Vito press conference in January, 2015:

“At no time was there any intent whatsoever to try to compromise the integrity of the game or to gain an advantage. Quite the opposite, we feel like we followed the rules of the game to the letter in our preparations, in our procedures, alright, and in the way that we handled every game that we competitively played in as it relates to this matter. We try to do everything right. We err on the side of caution. It’s been that way now for many years. Anything that’s close, we stay as far away from the line as we can.” 

Yet on Monday, agent Drew Rosenhaus is saying his long-time relationship with Belichick “was beneficial to get these deals done”?

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If Belichick told Rosenhaus to poop in the corner, Rosenhaus would ask, “What color?” Rosenhaus isn’t talking to the media about done deals hours after the tampering period opened unless Belichick gave him the green light to do so.

After spending 2019 and 2020 on the receiving end of unprecedented criticism, Belichick wasn’t waiting until Wednesday at 4 p.m. to start offering rebuttal.

One interesting observation Polian had about all the moves?

"It struck me as them saying, ‘Cam’s gonna be the quarterback,’ " he said.

“Here’s the template -- and I’m certain Bill saw this because he watches oodles of film,” Polian offered. “When Cam was in his heyday in Carolina they had the two gigantic receivers outside. So he could throw the ball up at 60 yards and get a rebound. Agholor isn’t a great catcher either. But he can win the 50-50 balls and get down the field.

"(Kendrick) Bourne strikes me as the same kind of player. But the key in Carolina was, whenever he got in trouble, whenever he got the wrong read or didn’t get a guy open, the tight end (Greg) Olsen was there. Now, (Jonnu) Smith is not the same body type as Olsen. But the bottom line is he’s really a good receiver and a good blocker and he’ll go across the middle and do the dirty work in the red zone which Cam absolutely needs.”

And that was Polian speaking before Henry came aboard.  

We have months and months to figure out what this will all look like when it’s unveiled. There’s more free agency to go through then the draft. The Patriots are a far, far more talented team today than they were Monday morning.

That message from Belichick comes across loud and clear.