Thursday, March 12, 2015

The "Patriot Way" and NFL Free Agency, So Far

By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

There is little doubt that the Patriots, led by Bill Belichick, have been the smartest team in football the last decade-and-a-half, both on the field, and in personnel decisions.

This commitment to smart play, and an unwavering support of Belichick's "process" in both the NFL Draft and free agency have come to be known as the "Patriot Way," not to be confused with the fictional "Patriot Way" that New England fans pretend exists, wherein New England does everything "the right way," doesn't cheat, and only employs choir boys (the recent suspicious case of LeGarrette Blount, SpyGate and Aaron Hernandez seem to prove all of those sentiments false).

Still, the "Patriot Way" is the league's most successful and revered process. In fact, Belichick's ability to field winning teams year-in and year-out make him not only the best coach in the NFL, but arguably the best General Manager in major American sports.

Now, having one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time in Tom Brady to re-build around every year makes his job easier, but Belichick always finds a way to make the Patriots better than simply a team with a great QB.

You could compare his process with Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane, whose roster development and commitment to a Sabermetric-centered process was chronicled in the best-selling book "Moneyball," then later in a hit movie of the same name.

While in a completely different situation than Belichick (baseball has no salary cap, and the A's are at a constant disadvantage due to their status as a small market franchise), Beane and Belichick are alike in that they seem to be "process oriented" instead of "results oriented." Meaning, they worry about doing all the steps in their process correctly, and if the results don't follow, then hey, it just wasn't their year. For Belichick, the "Patriot Way" has led to him hoarding draft picks, cutting/trading players in a seemingly cold and calculated fashion, signing undervalued veterans with "character concerns" and, as exhibited recently, drawing a line in the sand while negotiating with big time free agents.

Most of you can remember the Patriots trading down in the NFL Draft a number of times, you can click here to see some of the most loved players he has cut or traded, and we all remember the signings of some talented, but damaged veterans. Some worked out well for New England (Corey Dillon, Rodney Harrison), while some did not (Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco).

Regardless of whether every one of those moves worked out (they didn't all work, after all), they were a part of a larger process that has proved to be successful in the long run.

That same process is why Darrelle Revis is now a New York Jet again.

After turning in a brilliant single season with the Patriots, and helping them win a championship, Revis signed with his old team in New York shortly after free agency began for a healthy $70 million over the next five years.

Details have yet to emerge on New England's best and final offer to Revis, but it appears the Pats weren't even in the ball park. In fact, many are speculating that New England pulled out of negotiations a full day prior to Revis signing with the Jets, essentially putting New York in a one-team bidding war for the star corner's services.

Was it the right move by New England?

I would argue no, since the window for winning with Tom Brady closes a bit more every year, and Revis made the entire defense better by effectively shutting down one opposing receiver, which allowed Brandon Browner and Devin McCourty to double-team the top pass catcher on the other side of the field. Revis was a legitimate Top-2 or 3 defensive player in the NFL last year, and perhaps a Top-5 to 7 player overall, regardless of position. You also have to concede that, whomever the Patriots promote or sign to start at cornerback, that player isn't likely to be anywhere near as effective as Revis.

If you're looking to again repeat as Super Bowl champs (something that hasn't been done since the Patriots completed the feat in 2003-2004), it would seem that you could make an exception and sign Revis.

But that's not the Patriot Way.

Belichick has been right in the face of criticism before, and perhaps he will make all the second-guessers look like fools again here. It certainly wouldn't shock me, but I really thought this would be the time that the Hoodie would go all-in and disrupt his process with an expensive move that could deliver a championship.

In case you forgot, Beane and the Athletics did just that last season, when they traded for pitchers Jason Hammel, Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija, sending away a number of young and promising players for a trio that totaled nearly $27 million in salary.

So much for Moneyball.

Did it work out? Not so much. Oakland sat in first place before the trades, leading the Angels by two games. After the trade, the A's went an uninspired 21-37, finishing the year 10 games out of first place behind the Angels, and barely sneaking into the AL's second Wild Card spot. Oakland then lost a marathon of a Wild Card game to Kansas City, ensuring that "Moneyball 2: The Spending" won't be hitting theaters this summer.

Hey, maybe that Belichick guy is onto something about not abandoning "the process." Or, maybe he'd recognize that, though Beane's results weren't what he'd hoped for, perhaps the right decision was to take a calculated risk in pursuit of a championship. Either way, these guys are smart enough to justify their decisions, even when they don't work out.

Suh in Miami

The Miami Dolphins also made waves, signing dominant defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh away from the Lions for a record six-year, $114 million deal ($60 million guaranteed) that will make Suh the highest paid defensive player in league history.

While it could be argued that it is nearly impossible for a defensive player to live up to a contract that large, Houston's J.J. Watt has done seemingly that after signing his own mega-deal last offseason. While they may have overpaid a bit to get him, it's clear that Suh fulfills Miami's largest obtainable need as a force against the run and interior pass rusher (they're largest unobtainable need is franchise quarterback, so they'll just have to hope Ryan Tannehill turns into one, or that they eventually luck into one in the draft).

The Phins ranked 24th in the league against the run last year, while Suh's Lions were the NFL's best rush defense unit, largely thanks to his ability to not only draw double-teams, but beat them.

With pieces around him in the form of aging, but still effective pass rusher Cam Wake, and budding star corner Brent Grimes, Suh has the potential to turn Miami's defense into a Top-5 unit. Then, the pressure will shift to Tannehill and the offense, who have put up solid stats at times, but failed to raise the team above the 8-8 water mark and into the playoffs recently.

Seahawks Add Major Weapon in Trade

While trading away one of the best young centers in football and a first round pick (though one that will come at No. 31) is a steep price, the Seahawks still got exactly what they wanted from the Saints in the form of All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham. The trade actually works out well for both teams, as the Seahawks have the cap space to absorb Graham's sizable cap hit, and Saints get a great player and solid draft pick as they begin a mini-rebuilt after, effectively, mismanaging the salary cap the last few years.

Does Graham put Seattle over the top? Well, they were a nonsensical play call from repeating as champions last year, and San Francisco seems to be far weaker heading into 2015 without coach Jim Harbaugh and All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis, among others, so I'd say the Seahawks are in pretty good shape.

The Eagles Have Been, Uh, Interesting…

The Eagles have been very active the last few weeks, sending away star running back LeSean McCoy to Buffalo for promising linebacker Kiko Alonso, and trading quarterback Nick Foles, along with a 4th-round pick, to St. Louis for Sam Bradford.

The second one is an odd trade because Foles has been undeniably effective, when healthy, in Eagles coach Chip Kelly's system, while Sam Bradford has failed to live up to any expectations since the Rams selected him No. 1 overall in the 2010 NFL Draft. If you want to use Foles' durability against him that's fine, but understand that Bradford hasn't been able to stay on the field the last few years either. To essentially swap one guy you know can succeed in your system for one that has never been a productive NFL starter, and throw in a 4th round pick, is a bit mystifying to me.

The McCoy for Alonso trade makes a bit more sense, and seems to be a win-win. The Bills have the cap space to pay McCoy and need offensive weapons, while their defense was dominant, even without Alonso, who missed 2014 with an injury. Kelly, meanwhile, likes bigger, stronger, more decisive runners in his scheme (hence why they tried to sign Frank Gore), and needs a do-it-all middle linebacker like Alonso. Not to mention he coached Alonso at Oregon and is getting him on the cheap.

Philly's inability to re-sign receiver Jeremy Maclin, an undersized speed guy that doesn't fit Kelly's scheme either, or Trent Cole, shouldn't come as a surprise. The Eagles want to get bigger and improve their blocking at receiver, while they simply have so many issues on defense, that paying big money for a 32-year old pass rusher that hasn't posted double-digit sacks the last three years made no sense.

"The U" Reunion

And finally, we close with a Miami Hurricanes reunion in.. Indianapolis?

That's right, former Canes stars Andre Johnson and Frank Gore have each signed with the Colts, filling two major needs. Johnson will serve as a complement to the small and speedy T.Y. Hilton (an FIU alum, so we'll say The U-lite), while Gore is the latest in a line of veteran backs that hope to give Indy a serviceable running game. As a powerful, decisive runner, Gore has as good a shot as anybody, and working with young quarterback Andrew Luck should prove to be beneficial for both aging stars as they chase an elusive championship.

But Indy's love of The U may not stop there, as the Colts are hoping to upgrade their 18th ranked rush defense by signing former Patriots defensive lineman, and fellow Miami alum, Vince Wilfork. The massive nose tackle is apparently in talks with the Colts and Texans, along with his former team and another unnamed club.

Wilfork is obviously passed his prime, but the big fella could provide a huge one-year lift to the Colts' defense, perhaps making them a legitimate challenger to the Patriots in the AFC.


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