Bill Belichick may speak of loyalty, but his heart and soul don’t feel it. The concept is one that mostly doesn’t compute, and it shouldn’t. Football is not a game won or managed with feelings.
Repeatedly when going about the managing part of his duties with the New England Patriots, Belichick has shown he places little value on the legacy established by a veteran with firm franchise roots, and a long tenure. He has two annual, simple, and fundamental questions: are you still contributing enough to justify your paycheck? And can we make better use of that money elsewhere?
Those aren’t necessarily unique questions, but the difference between Belichick and others is often an eagerness to identify and shed overpriced veterans who are ready to fade into the twilight during the coming years. Logan Mankins fit that description, so he’s gone.
He’s gone after nine years as a pillar on the Patriots’ offensive line, a stretch that included six Pro Bowl appearances. Mankins was traded yesterday, with versatile tight end Tim Wright and a fourth-round pick coming back the other way from Tampa.
For the Patriots, the main motivation wasn’t performance, at least not in the short-term. At 32 years old Mankins isn’t what he once was, as he allowed nine sacks last year, the second most of any guard according to Pro Football Focus. But he’s still highly efficient against the run, with PFF grading him as the league’s fourth-best run blocker at his position in 2013.
Not unlike so many others before him, Mankins’ Patriots legacy was disregarded because of his age, combined with a ballooning contract that soon won’t reflect his play. Though some dead money is involved, the difference between Wright’s cap hit in 2014 and Mankins’ is over $10 million. Then in 2015 the Pats will save $6.5 million, which goes up to $7 million in 2016.
That’s a lot of long-term Darrelle Revis money, a smarter investment. Along with the mid-round pick Belichick now gets to hoard, he adds to a history of shrewdly shedding a declining asset.
Immediately the Richard Seymour trade comes to mind. Seymour had a similar franchise tenure and legacy, spending eight years with the Patriots, four of which ended in Pro Bowl appearances. In 2008 the pocket collapsing defensive end finished with eight sacks, tying a career high. He was entering the final year of his contract, and preparing for a sizable money dump the following spring.
It wasn’t coming from Belichick. He saw an opportunity to unload an asset that, while valuable, had plateaued. Heading into the season, when he was 30 years old at the time, Seymour would have been on the downward slope of his career at the end of his next contract. His trade value was at its peak too, which netted a first-round pick from Oakland.
Seymour was still a fine pass rusher for the Raiders, but he accumulated sacks, hurries, and general chaos for a losing team. On that end the price to obtain his services was the sort paid only by a team looking for one final championship piece. The Raiders haven’t finished above .500 since 2002.
Meanwhile, the Patriots turned that Seymour pick into Nate Solder, a towering tackle who’s now protected Tom Brady through 44 starts over three seasons. The end result: a former core piece was traded for a newer, younger one.
That’s the goal of any general manager with a player who’s either aging or entering the final year of his contract (or both). But Belichick executes repeatedly, dumping off his used goods again when he shipped Mike Vrabel — another modern-era Patriot legend who has three Super Bowl rings with the team — to Kansas City along with Matt Cassel for a second-round pick. Somehow he was able to turn a 33-year-old linebacker and a backup quarterback into the 34th overall pick.
The list goes on. Randy Moss caught 83 balls for 1,264 yards and 13 touchdowns for the Patriots in 2009. The next year he was gone by Week 4, with more discarded goods dumped, this time on the Vikings for a third-round pick. Throughout the remaining two years of his career Moss recorded only 827 receiving yards. Another veteran, another sudden end, and another fading piece jettisoned at the right time.
Going back further there’s also Ty Law, who was released in 2005 at the age of 29 because of a bloated $12.5 million cap hit. His presence was missed while he intercepted 10 passes for the division rival Jets the following season, and the Patriots had the league’s second worst pass defense. But they still won 10 games and advanced to the divisional round.
You know the history. In the Belichick era the Patriots have a record of 163-61, winning three Super Bowls, five conference championships, and earning double-digit wins every season since 2003. They’ve done all that while riding the likes of Mankins, Moss, Seymour, and Vrabel, but also transitioning away from them seamlessly, and knowing when to say goodbye.