Patriots should keep practicing patience until season starts

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 03: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots looks on before Super Bowl LIII against he Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 03, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 03: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots looks on before Super Bowl LIII against he Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 03, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

As the rest of the NFL whirls around in a free agent feeding frenzy, the New England Patriots are wise to stay the course that always works for them.

There’s an old saying that goes “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Such is the case with death, taxes, and the New England Patriots in the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era. Even in an 11-5 season most rational football fans would consider a “down year,” even with a 41-year-old quarterback who may or may not be in decline, even in a pass-happy league that values video-game-offense above basic fundamental principles of the sport, the Patriots still found a way to be the Patriots of this millennium.

In other words, they found a way to win, and win big, claiming a sixth Super Bowl title along the way.

That was last year. This is this year, and it officially began March 13.

True to form, the month of March in the professional football world revolves around free agency. Just as February is all about the Scouting Combine and April is all about the NFL Draft, the third month of the year is devoted to endless speculation, legal and illegal tampering, making promises, breaking promises, signing contracts, and above all else: unbridled enthusiasm.

One need look no further than the Cleveland Browns and the Odell Beckham Jr trade to see firsthand the rash explosion of overreactions. While technically not a free agent signing, it’s exactly the kind of splashy personnel transaction that has everyone from TV talking heads to respected sportswriters to overzealous fans swearing up and down that the Browns are suddenly a Super Bowl contender and the new favorite in the AFC.

Now I’m not foolish enough to write something here that could one day end up in a “freezing cold takes” segment on Twitter, so I won’t go so far as to rain on the Cleveland championship parade party train. The Browns have assembled an exciting young core of players who should be good for years to come, and the sudden injection of a generational talent like OBJ at receiver certainly is enough to take that offense to incredible new heights.

But the new favorite in the AFC? A Super Bowl contender?

Lest we forget, this is still a team that ranked 30th in the NFL in total defense last season and 13th in total offense. Even if Cleveland breaks the top-five in offense in 2019 – which would be a tall order – they’ll still need a near-miraculous turnaround on defense in order to have any hope of going far in the postseason.

It’s certainly possible. The New Orleans Saints have always been strong offensively under Sean Payton, but up until very recently, were often held back by porous defensive play. In years that the Saints shored up that side of the ball, they’ve been able to progress further into the playoffs (like last year and the year they won the Super Bowl).

But I digress. The purpose of this post isn’t to rag on Cleveland enthusiasm or analyze the up-and-down trajectory of the Saints’ defense; it’s to make some modicum of sense out of what the Patriots are doing in free agency so far.

Or perhaps more aptly – what they’re not doing.

They couldn’t find a way to keep Trent Brown. They couldn’t afford to keep Trey Flowers. They even let Cordarrelle Patterson fly the coop for a new contract that pays him just $1.5 million more per year than they gave him in 2018.

Reportedly, they’ve come to a new two-year agreement with versatile linebacker John Simon. They worked things out for Jason McCourty to return for another couple years. Late Wednesday night, they retained Phillip Dorsett on a one-year “prove-it” deal. And not that anyone really believed he was going anywhere, but Matthew Slater’s second-year team option on his contract was renewed as well.

On paper, the Patriots are not a better team today than they were on February 3 in Atlanta. Bringing back Slater, McCourty, Dorsett, and Simon is nice, but you’re a fool if you think this team is better off without Patterson, Flowers, and Brown.

Flowers and Brown, in particular, represent significant losses simply because of the positions they play.

Left tackles like Brown that can adequately protect a quarterback’s blindside are so prioritized above their fellow linemen that it really isn’t even fair the way the NFL still determines its franchise tag values (it’s just one umbrella amount for a lineman, regardless of position along the line).

Defensive ends who can set the edge and rush the passer like Flowers are practically worshipped as gods in the NFL, perhaps falling second only behind quarterbacks in the positional power ranking hierarchy that exists today.

Yet the Patriots let both men walk. Why?

Well, for one, they knew they couldn’t afford to keep either. Unless they made some massive sacrifices and reworked a slew of contracts internally and/or jettisoned a bunch of key players, the team’s salary cap situation this year just was never going to be as friendly and flexible as it has been in offseasons past.

More importantly though, New England knows that it can do what it always does in these situations: find a replacement on the cheap, plug and play, and keep the machine humming.

The Patriots have already shown they can survive the loss of a left tackle – they did it just this past year after watching Nate Solder depart for the New York Giants. They didn’t panic; they simply reached out to the San Francisco 49ers and orchestrated a draft-day trade that brought Trent Brown to the team for next to nothing.

Fast-forward a year later, and now it’s Brown’s turn to break the bank.

Even Flowers isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime talent. He’s certainly a smart, capable player worthy of finding himself in a shiny new contract elsewhere, but the Detroit Lions absolutely overpaid for him. Anyone who doesn’t believe Bill Belichick can find the next “Trey Flowers” either on his existing roster, for cheap in free agency, or in next month’s draft, just hasn’t been paying much attention to Patriots football these past two decades.

That’s why it’s never been more important for anxious Pats fans – those still biting their nails, scratching their heads, and wondering what the team is doing right now watching all these marquee names sign elsewhere – to just take a breath, sit back, and relax. We’ve been here before, and we’ll probably be here again. It’s not the end of the world – it’s just the Patriot Way.

There’s another old saying in New England: “In Bill we trust.” Anyone following the team’s action and inaction this month would do well to remember that saying in times of need.

It’s worked out pretty well for the Patriots so far, after all.