Curran: Pats' decline has little to do with past 'aggressiveness' originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
Why are the Patriots out of the playoffs? Too much fun, man. Everyone had too much fun the past half-decade. The party had to end.
Monday morning, for the second time in two months, Bill Belichick fingered the success of the past decade as being a reason the Patriots are mired in a rebuild.
During his 2020 post-mortem video conference, Belichick was asked if the team would be aggressive or conservative in attacking the offseason.
“Honestly, I don’t know how we could be any more aggressive than we were for the last five years -- I’m talking about the '14 to '18 period, well I’ll throw last year in there, too -- and last year,” Belichick explained. “So for the last six years, really. And so there’s a residual to that.”
The “residual” he refers to is financial. Same as it was a couple of months ago. In a moment that qualified as soul-baring for the legendary head coach, Belichick said the team “sold out” the past five seasons. The return on the sellout -- three Super Bowls, four trips to the final game and five more division titles -- was all worth it.
But it was time to pay the piper, Belichick indicated.
Honestly, I don’t know why signing guys like Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Stephon Gilmore and Chris Long precluded the team from drafting useful tight ends and wideouts over the past half-decade. And I definitely don’t think wrangling Brandin Cooks and Kyle Van Noy via trade obligated the Patriots to annually jack around semi-annually with their second-round picks.
Inferring that drunken-sailor spending for the past five years is to blame for this slow, aging, not-real-imposing roster is some wild sleight of hand. The Patriots haven’t been profligate spenders.
Especially when the guy most responsible for the success -- Tom Brady -- was doing his deals so that, from 2011 to 2018, he never had a cap hit higher than $14.8M and never took up more than 11.8 percent of the cap in that span.
The Patriots weren’t maxing out their credit cards to live the high life. They had a rent-controlled apartment under center. And that -- as much as anything -- allowed or even forced them to become aggressive.
It’s only this year, after Brady finally had enough of being nickeled, dimed, marginalized and nudged toward the door that he walked. The Patriots got stuck with an onerous cap hit while getting nothing in return. That hit meant they had to sign a likeable and washed-up Cam Newton to play quarterback because, well, they never thought Brady would stop eating the financial poop sandwiches they were feeding him.
Am I denying the Patriots were aggressive? Absolutely not.
The list of experienced, top-tier talent the Patriots brought in as free agents beginning in 2014 is real long. Revis, Browner, Brandon LaFell (not all these guys are top-tier, but they were important), Long, Gilmore, Shea McClellin, Chris Hogan, Jabaal Sheard and Rex Burkhead are some of the names.
And the Patriots were by far the most aggressive team in the league when it came to trades for guys who played roles big and small like Cooks, Van Noy, LeGarrette Blount, Jason McCourty, Martellus Bennett, Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas.
They busted ass to get reclamation guys like Dion Lewis, Jamie Collins, Danny Shelton and Patrick Chung. They found so many valuable undrafted or lower-drafted players to contribute -- David Andrews, Malcolm Butler, Jonathan Jones, Adam Butler, J.C. Jackson, Shaq Mason, Trey Flowers -- the rest of the league had to be embarrassed.
Meanwhile, they selectively reupped guys they’d developed -- Devin McCourty, Dont'a Hightower, James White, Julian Edelman, Rob Ninkovich, Rob Gronkowski for instance -- while saying goodbye or trading guys they felt would be too expensive -- Nate Solder, Trent Brown, Flowers, Chandler Jones and Logan Mankins fit there.
What a great, great run. Masterful. All of it.
But it’s not Jabaal Sheard’s fault that N’Keal Harry can’t play. And Stephon Gilmore’s not to blame for the swings-and-misses on Cyrus Jones, Jordan Richards, Dominique Easley and Duke Dawson.
There’s no straight-line correlation between the selling out and aggressiveness of the last half-decade and the fact the Patriots trotted out the slowest offense in the NFL every week this year.
Where are the moves worth lamenting as “aggressive” and leaving residual impact?
Giving up a second-rounder at the 2019 deadline for Mohamed Sanu? Signing Antonio Brown and having him gobble up $9M in cap space last year and during a critical portion of 2020? Signing Michael Bennett, getting next to nothing from him, releasing him when he was predictably difficult and absorbing $5M in dead money from him?
Or is it Brady’s $13.5M in dead money on the cap this year that Belichick is kicking rocks over? That and the idea that the Patriots spent three straight first-round picks on key spots around Brady -- N’Keal Harry, Isaiah Wynn and Sony Michel -- because Belichick felt it was about “selling out,” being aggressive and continuing to do everything for Brady while he was here?
In April, Belichick said, “Over the last two decades, everything we did, every single decision we made in terms of major planning was made with the idea of how to make things best for Tom Brady.”
In September, he said it again relative to game-planning: “Everything we’ve done for the last 20 years, and rightfully so, was for Tom Brady. Everything was dedicated to him other than the games he didn’t play in. Like when (Matt) Cassel played or Jimmy (Garoppolo) and then Jacoby (Brissett) when Brady was suspended. There were times when we had to plan differently, but when your starting quarterback has things that he’s good at or things that you can take advantage of then I think you try to take advantage of them.”
To ownership, Brady was the sun around which the entire organization revolved. He gave light. Life. And, holy hell, was he good for the overall business.
To Belichick? Brady at 43 with the attendant idiosyncrasies and demands? He was a black hole sucking up cap space and dictating by his mere presence which way the team would go. Can’t plan nothing with a guy like that stuck in your roster windpipe like a glob of cheese.
The residual is what was left by Brady on the cap. The selling out and the aggressiveness? Because of Brady.
Now he’s gone and happily throwing 40 touchdowns for the playoff-bound Bucs. Meanwhile, Belichick is back in New England, emptying out cups, bagging up empties and sweeping up the detritus from the greatest 20-year run in NFL history.
Hope everyone had a great time. Look what they left me with.