The cap-poor Patriots have very little room for negotiating contracts with both new and current free agents. Or do they? One man with a very large contract holds a key to the solution for this problem.
Restructuring. Backloading. Sounds like construction talk. Or warehouse talk. But football talk?
This is football as we know it today. Football, like all pro sports, answers to the almighty dollar. Like basketball, football has a salary cap to deal with, thus the creation of the words “capology” and “capologist”.
George Carlin once said that “baseball is pastoral, football is technological”. Carlin was referring to pure football terms, of course. If Carlin wanted to update his opinion of football versus baseball, it’s a fair bet that these terms would be brought up sooner or later.
And if you wanted to get into the area of dealing with the salary cap, you might also bring up Carlin’s “seven things you can’t say on television”. It’s a sure thing that some of these vile words come out of the mouths of the Patriot officials who have to worry about trying to keep and/or sign new free agents.
Restructuring contracts is much more than a maneuver, it has become an art. It is the ultimate in creativity. You find who will agree to it, then you come up with a deal that both reduces that players’ cap hit and makes him think he just hit the lottery.
Of course, there is a catch, and it’s the burden of the capologist to get the deal done without the player realizing it. By backloading a contract, the player gets half of Fort Knox up front with a reduced yearly salary, thus the cap savings. The bulk of the money is then pushed back to the last few years of the contract. Trouble is, some teams do this with the intent of releasing the player before those expensive last years kick in.
Which brings us to the incredibly wealthy Drew Bledsoe.
Bledsoe remains the best chance the Patriots have at resigning Tedi Bruschi and Steve Israel. Yes, we did say “and”. Bledsoe’s cap hit for 2000 is around $8 million. Chop that down to about $1-2 million and you perhaps retain those two very important defensive gents.
If not Israel, retaining Bruschi may be the one more significant free agent signing the Patriots can attain. Israel, who reportedly has been offered a contract from Cincinnati, would become a low priority if this deal that Terrell Buckley and Ty Law have brokered is for real and if the Patriots are interested in Buckley at all. That leaves Buckley, and a nice capitulation from Bledsoe might keep ol’ Desert Swarm swarming around in Foxborough.
Bill Belichick is rumoured to be favoring a switch to a 3-4 defense next year. A linebacker corps of Bruschi and Chris Slade on the outside, and Ted Johnson and Andy Katzenmoyer in the middle is a nice thought. With the free agent defection of Marty Moore to Cleveland, signing Bruschi becomes even more desirable.
So, you go to Bledsoe and pitch him the deal. Does he take it?
Reports indicate that Bledsoe’s agent, Leigh Steinberg, wants to completely renegotiate Bledsoe’s deal. Bledsoe’s aim here is to break the bank, not broker a deal that might help some key teammates stay around with him. Instead of focusing on who the Patriots can retain, Bledsoe instead wants to focus on his long-term financial stability.
This would lead to suggest that Bledsoe knows all too well about the “backloading” technique. And if that be the case, you probably can’t blame him for feeling the way he does. Why would you agree to such a deal if you were certain that by year four of a five-year deal, when your salary is scheduled to balloon, you are let go?
Then you need to balance this with thoughts like “How badly do I want to get back to the Super Bowl?” Or, perhaps “How badly do I want to go through 2000 without getting clobbered like I did in 1999?” You’re in for a big payday anyway, it just comes down to getting rich while winning or getting rich while getting killed.
Assuming Bledsoe would prefer the former, he might want to think carefully before pressing on with this renegotiation ploy. Admittedly, Bruschi won’t solve the problems the Patriots had in picking up blitzes, and neither will Israel. But if the Patriots do free up some room to bring in help with the offensive line (the return of Bruce Armstrong is not that far-fetched) or maybe a decent fullback (what was that I heard from Buffalo about one Sam Gash becoming a cap casualty?), Bledsoe could help himself greatly with a restructure here.
All this aside, the Patriots may not even care about this year. Reports also exist that the Patriots are gunning for a big free agent killing in 2001. Both Bledsoe and the Patriots can make a much more cap-friendly deal next year versus this year, and Belichick is thinking about rocking the joint next year.
That’s great, but there’s still this year.
Belichick will have literally no honeymoon with most Patriot fans, especially those who either still remember his failures in Cleveland or those who wish we had that first round pick back. 2000 will be another horrid year for Patriot Nation if Belichick is laying for 2001. Even if the Patriots prime themselves for a Super Bowl run in 2001, can they pull that off if Bledsoe is mauled in 2000 worse than 1999?
What will happen? Bledsoe just doesn’t figure to restructure. If he were going to, it would have already been done a while back. Bledsoe doesn’t want to backload his paydays in favor of a big whopping lump sum right now. And it also is apparent that he buys the theory that next year will be the year the team hits it big in free agency.
Cool. But don’t assume this big strike will happen.
Do big time free agents want to come to Foxborough? The new stadium will be a drawing card. Defensive players will want to play for Belichick. The problem here may be drawing the offensive studs, unless Belichick has really improved his people skills a year from now and does a great sell job on a franchise that has had its share of reputation problems over the years.
The Patriots have made much of their hay through the draft. The year the Patriots went to the Super Bowl, the majority of the starters were Patriot draft picks. Shawn Jefferson, Ferric Collons, Mark Wheeler and Willie Clay were among the exceptions. Otherwise, it was pretty much a team assembled in the War Room.
Can the Patriots sign a huge free agent next year, if they get the cap room to do so? Lots of factors go into players’ decisions over who they sign with, and money isn’t always the prime consideration (though we often think it is). But if it came down to either a location close to home, a warm weather city, a great party town, or Foxborough, if all monetary offers be about equal, what does the player decide?
If that player never chooses Foxborough, then this year’s strategy fails. If Bruschi and Israel can be had now, they ought to be nailed down.
Foxborough and New England is a place where players who don’t know the area have to give it a chance. If the departed players are to be believed, nobody left because they “hated the area”. They left because someone else showed them the money where the Patriots couldn’t. The incumbents know the area, and seem to like it. What do outsiders think?
Maybe the Patriots ought to make Law the new GM. If he can haul in players like Buckley and come up with the cap maneuver in one stroke, then Bobby Grier is even more a waste of payroll. You have to admit, if Law means what he says, it is really something.
Still, in the final analysis, it would look nice if Bledsoe did offer to help out with 2000, rather than waiting with everyone to make a big run in 2001. Knowing your team is tanking a year and waiting to gun up later isn’t very appealing. In today’s NFL, if St. Louis and Tennessee can get good so quickly, why should the Patriots wait so long to retool?
Don’t wait, Drew. Just re-do.