Lament all you want, Patriot Nation, but it’s does you simply no good.
There is no way Curtis Martin could have ever stayed a Patriot. If you knew the circumstances of his departure after the 1997 season, that should be as clear as a bell.
Still, you have to really hurt deep inside when you see Martin come into Foxborough Stadium in an ugly green and white uniform (and they are ugly, unlike the green and white team that plays in the FleetCenter, so we don’t object to the color scheme). It really hurts when Martin always sticks it to the Patriots much like Carlton Fisk would always stick it to the Red Sox when he’d come back to Fenway Park in a White Sox uniform. When great players slip away in the prime of their careers, they always haunt the Boston team they left behind.
In the case of Martin, the hurt is multi-faceted, and all of it is just plain painful.
You can’t ignore the impact Martin had on the Patriots when he was with the team, just like you can’t ignore the impact his leaving has had on the team. During his 1995-1997 Patriot tenure, his numbers speak for themselves. And even more so, the lack of a Patriot running game since his departure speaks even more highly of how much Martin meant to the Patriots when he was here.
As a rookie in 1995, Martin gained 1,487 yards, the team record for most yards gained in a season. In the Super Bowl year of 1996, Martin gained 1,152 yards. In 1997, he gained 1,167 yards despite missing the last several games with a groin pull.
Perhaps the most lasting memory Patriot Nation has of Martin are the three touchdowns he scored during the playoff game against Pittsburgh in Fog Bowl II at Foxborough in 1996. His second touchdown was a scintillating 78-yard run, which is indellible in the minds of Patriot fans who watched that game. He also scored on a nifty 19-yard touchdown run in Super Bowl XXXI, which brought the Pats within 27-21 of Green Bay.
As the 1997 season drew towards the end, Martin was lame with the aforementioned groin injury. This injury may have spelled Martin’s way out of Foxborough, though other factors obviously played a part.
1997 was Pete Carroll’s first year with the Patriots, and it was the year that the Patriots needed to lock up Martin to a long term deal or risk losing him as a restricted free agent. No one knew of the chicanery that was to follow, but one could conclude in hindsight that Bill Parcells might have suggested to Martin to “be prepared to come down here (to the Meadowlands) with me next year” on his way out of town. No one knows this for sure, of course.
The injury Martin suffered took him out of the 1997 postseason, along with Ben Coates and Terry Glenn. Drew Bledsoe had literally no offensive weapons by the time Pittsburgh had knocked the Pats out of the playoffs, 7-6. Martin stood there on the sidelines at Three Rivers Stadium, in the same city he hailed from and went to college, out of uniform. No one knew that that was it for Martin as a Patriot.
Unbelieveably, there was a faction of Patriot fans who thought Martin was not as hurt as he was letting on. Many fans thought Martin tanked the end of the season to enhance his bargaining position as a restricted free agent, especially since the Patriots had not made any serious attempts to sign him. The thinking was that Martin’s agent, Gus Sunseri, had advised Martin to avoid playing the end of the 1997 season, and to not get hurt any worse. Any further injury might cheat his client out of the big payday he saw on the horizon, something that Martin was long overdue to receive.
Everyone was surprised in the spring of 1998 when Martin fired Sunseri. Patriot fans saw that as a major positive, as Sunseri was perceived as the biggest stumbling block between the Patriots and signing Martin to a long term deal. Martin had toiled for the Patriots for three years for next to dirt for money, and Martin hungered for his big payday. With Sunseri gone, many fans figured that Martin would soon sign on long term with New England, and for big money.
But Martin might have gotten his feelings hurt from the Patriots, never mind what Parcells had up his sleeve. The perception that Martin was tanking the rest of the season must have been insulting to him. If that wasn’t, the contract dealings, or lack thereof, certainly were. For reasons known only to the top brass, the Patriots seemed unwilling to pay Martin what he was worth, keeping the man who rightfully should be called the best running back in the history of the organization, here in Foxborough for the long haul.
Parcells and the Jets then made their pitch, and all of New England reeled in shock. Martin had signed an offer sheet to join the Jets, and the Patriots had a week to match the offer. The deal was for six years, $36 million. No big deal, Patriot fans figured. They’d match the offer, no sweat.
But hidden beneath the offer were a few things that today are illegal in offer sheets to restricted free agents. These “poison pills”, as they are called, are why the Patriots could not, rather than did not, sign Martin. The Patriots have been vilified for misjudging Martin’s running ability, as well as their inability to draft good players with picks they received from the Jets as compensation. But the truth is that there is no way possible they could have matched this offer.
One of the poison pills was something in the form of a signing bonus that would have clobbered the Patriot salary cap. But the real problem of matching the offer sheet was the laying out of the six-year deal. The deal included Martin being able to become a free agent after one year. If Martin went back to the Patriots, he would bolt after 1998 and sign with the Jets as an unrestricted free agent. But if the Patriots declined to match, Martin would merely agree to stay put in Joisey after 1998.
Again, this is illegal today, but that provides little consolation for the Patriots. Bob Kraft did challenge the legality of the offer sheet, but the Jets won. Martin became a Jet, and the Patriots chose Robert Edwards and Chris Floyd with the draft picks the Jets had to hand over. Edwards is still probably done for his career with a blown-out knee, and Floyd’s impact on the team has been minimal at best.
Meanwhile, Martin has been putting up huge numbers for the Jets, especially against the Patriots. Martin’s absence has been one that has not been filled by his old team.
In retrospect, the Patriots lost this deal in a slamdunk, but they had no choice. Fans and experts can scold the Patriots all they want for wrongly letting Martin go, and thinking that good running backs are a dime-a-dozen. But they simply could not hold on to Martin, thanks to the lefthanded scheming by the Jets.
If the Patriots can be scolded, it is that things never should have come down to this dipsy-doodle the Jets pulled off. The Patriots ought to be held to explain why they did not move much earlier to lock Martin up. This man broke Jim Nance’s Patriot rushing record as a rookie. If that didn’t tip Kraft and his negotiators off that Martin was something special, then he deserved what he got in the end.
On the other hand, perhaps the Patriots’ hand was forced from the start. Maybe Parcells told Martin “whatever you do, don’t sign with New England, because I want you in New York and we’re going to get you down here in 1998!”. Maybe Sunseri was too difficult an agent to deal with, but in the end he would up being fired by Martin. The deck was perhaps stacked from the start, and letting Parcells go looms an even bigger blunder every day for Kraft.
Today, Martin’s Patriot legacy remains only a memory. His Jet legacy was crystal clear for everyone to see on Sunday. The man still has a lot of yards left in him, but he still wears Jet green instead of Patriot blue.
But saying the Patriots misjudged his talent is not correct. At least not in the spring of 1998. They had to let him go. The Jets outsmarted the Patriots then, just like they did this Sunday.
How long the outsmarting will continue is anyone’s guess. Probably as long as Martin keeps running for them, and not us.
Posted Under: 2000 Patriots Season