By: Bob George/BosSports.net
September 02, 2003

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They say earthquakes never happen in New England? Foxborough got a 7.2 doozy on Tuesday morning.

It is not real clear what message Bill Belichick sent his team with the release of Pro Bowl strong safety Lawyer Milloy. You have respect reasons, cap reasons, and intimidation reasons. None of them are particularly good ones, especially at this critical time of the year when opening day is five days away and a Patriot captain has been suddenly cast adrift.

Before we delve into any further analysis of this deal from a football side, let's first explore what caused this earthquake to happen. Many marriages end in divorce because of money, and divorces of this kind in sports, especially the NFL, are extremely common.

Straightforward, this is a salary cap issue, nothing more or less. It involves what is known as "ballooning", which happens when a contract is written involving lots of "total money", most of which is backloaded into the final years of the deal. The player gets a huge signing bonus to keep his wallet happy, then signs a deal with little money for the first several years, then it balloons to a higher pay level towards the end of the deal. Players, agents and administrators all know that those "balloons" will never be realized. Everyone will sit down and try to renegotiate a new deal which becomes more "cap friendly", or the team will try and move the player.

According to PatsFans.com's capologist, Miguel Benzan, Milloy's total cap hit would have been $5.856 million. This is Milloy's balloon year, a sharp increase from his 2002 cap figure of just under $2 million. The Patriots had been feverishly trying to negotiate a new deal with Milloy's agent, Carl Poston. No deal could be struck, so the Patriots will instead absorb a $1.389 million cap hit in 2003, and a $4,168 million cap hit in 2004. Trading Milloy was not an option, as the team would be stuck with the entire $5.9 million cap hit (the same as if he had stayed).

The Patriots have been doing this sort of thing on several occasions for the last several years. This maneuvering has made folk heroes out of Andy Wasynczuk and Jack Mula. This time, it didn't work. Milloy and Poston refused to bite, so Belichick dropped the bomb Tuesday morning.

Good business? Financially, yes, in a way. The Patriots sent a clear message that these kinds of contract problems won't be tolerated. The Patriots may never run into severe cap problems that other contending teams often do, especially after a recent championship win. The only problem with this theory is that the Patriots were under the cap even with Milloy's 2002 salary on the docket. A secondary issue might be how players perceive the top of the organization, and whether or not it will affect their willingness to play for this franchise.

But from a pure football point of view, there are severe issues which were likely considered, but obviously not paid heed to. Such issues involve the psyche of the retooled defense, who will wind up playing the safety positions, and where will Milloy wind up in the end.

Whatever the reasons for this deal, the balance of power in the AFC East will undergo a major shift this week. Subtract Milloy from the Patriots, and add him to a division rival, and you get a sound business decision for the Patriots with ominous football ramifications. Buffalo has already made an offer to Milloy, and he could be opposing the Patriots this Sunday instead of lining up with them. Reports are out that Miami and the Jets also want to talk to Milloy, and don't bet against Bill Parcells trying to lasso Milloy and get him to, as Kevin Millar would say, Cowboy up.

These prospects are chilling. Milloy on the other side this Sunday? Milloy playing for Parcells and coming here later on this year for another Tuna Bowl, this time on the other side? Milloy a Jet? A Dolphin? It's a good bet he won't wind up in some harmless locale like Cincinnati, Detroit or Arizona. Certainly Belichick is aware of this prospect, the same way he was when he traded Drew Bledsoe to Buffalo and is 2-0 against the former Patriot quarterback at present.

How must the team feel about this? No quotes at press time are available, except Belichick admitting what everyone sees as obvious: "The timing on this is not good." Milloy wasn't only an All Pro, but he was a captain and one of the vocal leaders of the team. He gave interviews that at times revealed pretty decent future coaching material. He loved the area and the team, and made that clear during the Super Bowl celebration at Boston City Hall. Belichick is right: the timing stinks, especially with opening day this Sunday. This can't possibly sit well with a defense that was poised for a dominating year.

Replacing him? You have Rodney Harrison, and his natural position of strong safety is now his for keeps. But who will play free safety? Anyone out there wish Tebucky Jones was still around? Aric Morris used to start at free safety for Tennessee, but he is not an upgrade. Antwan Harris, who is better known as a special teams ace and a good nickel/dime back, could start at strong safety and Harrison at free safety, but that is not something that will frighten opposing offenses. Victor Green is still out there, waiting for a suitor, so he could come in and play free and Harrison play strong.

Those folks out there with rose colored glasses make some good points. Belichick could be gambling that nobody, not even the Bills or the Cowboys, would want to take on Milloy's salary, and that he will return later this week at a lower price. Others point out that the Patriot run defense was subpar last year with Milloy out there, and that Harrison was brought in with this change in mind. It is also possible that Belichick has a secret plan, with someone else waiting in the wings to move in, the only reason why Belichick would do a thing like this at this particular time.

But this deal is puzzling, and potentially dangerous for the Patriots. Why pick now to jettison an All Pro and a captain? If the team was already under the cap, why not wait until next year to go hardball with Milloy? What must Ty Law be thinking, and how will this development affect his play this year? What if Milloy can't be replaced? Would Belichick dare imperil this season in hopes of further gunning up for 2004 when 2003 hasn't even happened yet?

None of this really matters. Milloy is gone. He might be a Bill within 24 hours. One of the more beloved Patriots in history becomes a lousy salary cap casualty. It seemed that cap casualties were what happened to other teams, not the Patriots.

If you see Milloy this weekend as a Bill, do the right thing. Tip your cap. Tell him thanks. He deserves no less.


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