By: Bob George/BosSports.net
August 10, 2004

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In the end, it may come down to Ben Watson giving in because he just wants to play.

Watson has become the longest rookie holdout in the history of Bob Kraft's Patriot ownership. J.R. Redmond held out for ten days in 2000, but Watson will hit two weeks on Thursday. Watson, selected at the end of the first round in the 2004 draft, was another one of those coveted "value"ť picks, meaning that he was chosen because of his talent and potential at 32 even though the Patriots really didn't need another tight end.

But it is now twelve days in the books at training camp, and Watson remains the only Patriot draftee to not yet come to terms. His agent, Tom Condon, who is known as a tough negotiator (he recently hammered out new deals for both Eli and Peyton Manning), has held just as firm in his position as have the Patriots. Condon, the second agent for Watson after his first agent was decertified by the players' union, is trying to get the Patriots to offer Watson a contract which is less than six years in length. The Patriots are insisting on a six-year deal for Watson, and nothing else.

For the Patriots, it allows them to maintain their solid suit of armor at the negotiating table. They have built a championship team largely on their ability to retain the talent they need on their terms. If they can succeed at staring down the tough Condon and getting Watson to back down and agree to what they want, it will be still another victory for the Patriot way of personnel management.

For Watson, who at 24 years old is older than most of the rest of his rookie class, he is trying to avoid a choking contract which may negate his ability to make a decent market value contract later on. Most NFL players look at the second contract they sign as their big payoff (unless they are players who blossom late in their careers, like Ted Washington). If Watson signs the contract the Patriots want him to, he will not be eligible for free agency until age 30, at which time his ability to secure a lucrative second contract will be severely, if not completely, hampered.

Condon is going to the mattress with the Patriots on this one, and given all the parameters surrounding this case, it is not hard to understand why. Condon is insisting that first round draftees taken in the "bottom quartile"ť (bottom 25% of the first round) should not be offered, nor should their clients accept, deals of such length. Deals of this length are usually given to higher draftees, mostly in the top quartile, where huge gobs of money can be given away in signing bonuses and the deal works financially for both sides. For Watson to have to wait until he is 30 to negotiate what should be his big payday is what is at the crux of this impasse.

Thus far the Patriot response has been pretty much in line with how they treat everyone else. Here's our offer, take it or leave it. Take it, get here fast and get to work. Leave it, we'll just get along without you. The Patriots are fortunate that they are one of the few teams in the league, if not the only team, that can get away with this sort of thing.

The Patriots have put a mindset into place that the only thing that truly matters in these parts is winning. It may sound cliché, but to state this dogma and then go out and practice it makes it a lot more than just cliché. It is a combination of Bill Belichick being allowed to fully install and implement his program, and a front office which is, along with the head coach, completely on the same page regarding literally everything. Given the genius Belichick is as a coach, and given how consistently the Patriots have been in their handling of personnel over the last four years, the Patriots are in a position to literally ignore Condon and Watson until one of them, probably Watson, finally capitulates.

This hard line stance the Patriots are taking would not work in most any other organization. Belichick has solidified himself as the best coach in the league, and his players believe in him so much that taking pay cuts and restructures just to remain in the organization is the rule, not the exception. Kraft gave the players and fans the glitzy palace to play in, a place players want to call home. Scott Pioli continues to work with Belichick in bringing some of the best team-oriented, low-maintenance players in the league to the organization, with winning always a higher priority over getting filthy rich. When you add up superior coaching, atmosphere and people, it makes for an organization which can dictate any policy it wants, and the two championships embolden the Patriot attitude even more.

But when do you begin to reconcile the possibility that the Patriots might actually be treating Watson a bit unfairly? Is it asking too much for the Patriots to go five years, or at least six years with one voidable year? The Patriots simply don't do voidable years, and doing even one would lead to more agents demanding the same for their clients. That said, the Patriots might need to sit down and consider lowering their demand for length of contract to five years, and treat it as a "case-by-case"ť basis if other agents come at them with similar demands.

The Patriots probably won't give in, and will instead stare down Condon rather than to show any willingness to concede on any point lest it be used against them in any way somewhere in the future. As long as the Patriots are in the strong bargaining position they continue to enjoy, they have no reason to do anything different. There is a reason park rangers post signs that say "Don't feed the bears"ť, and giving in to Condon's demands may be the football equivalent of such.

The one issue the Patriots will likely ignore, but perhaps should not, is the fact that Watson could turn into a wasted first round draft pick. The team had acute needs at running back, offensive line and secondary going into the draft. Signing Corey Dillon took care of the running back, but drafting defensive line (Vince Wilfork) and tight end were both value picks and not need picks. Still, Watson does represent a draft pick who should be playing and not sitting. If the Patriots do decide to blink first, this would be the main, if not the only, reason why.

The Patriots have veteran insurance if Watson does not sign. Daniel Graham, himself a first round pick in 2002, looks to be the David Givens of 2004 thanks to the rigorous offseason training regimen he put himself through. Christian Fauria has been hurt, but is expected to return and contribute as before. Former Redskin Zeron Flemister was signed recently as a free agent. The Patriots can proceed without Watson, and he knows this full well.

This will come down to a test of wills. It will be a game of chicken between Condon and the Patriot front office. Condon wants desperately to protect his client's earning power over his entire career. The Patriots don't have to wait, nor do they feel they need to knuckle under to some rookie whose current status with the team is 0.0. In the end, the person who becomes the "chicken"ť will be neither Condon, Pioli, Andy Wasynczuk, Jack Mula nor Belichick. It will probably be Watson, saying that he just wants to play and to get this over with.

And if the Patriots go on to win another couple Super Bowls, they will look back on events like this and laugh at any agent who dares to take them to task on anything at all.


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