The Patriot Way
As I listened to Bill Simmons and Bill Barnwell commiserate abou– analyze the Patriots’ decision to trade in their Wes Welker for a pre-owned Danny Amendola, something struck me. Barnwell suggested that Belichick had to give up on Welker at age 32 in the name of “the Patriot Way.” What if, I thought, giving up on Welker at 32 is the only thing that gives life to the Patriot Way in the first place?
“The Patriot Way” is an ill-defined label that conjures up Belichick persuading the Randy Mosses of the world to behave and the Tom Brady’s of the world to take less-than-market value, all in the name of team success.
In one sense, Barnwell’s take makes sense: team does come first on the Pats, no matter what. In this case, the suggestion is that trading in an older slot receiver for a younger model is good for the team.
But Belichick’s no fool. He knows he’s taking a risk by committing two-and-a-half times Welker’s salary to an unknown commodity. So there’s more to the story.
The classic example of the Patriot Way is kicking Randy Moss out the door mid-season, just a few years removed from his run at the record books. Refusing to suffer bad apples puts teammates on notice not to go rotten, too. The “stick,” of the “carrot-and-stick approach.”
But, even if players understood the Randy Moss departure as a signal not to misbehave, that doesn’t make it an effective way to encourage players that haven’t come into their own that they can perform when the job falls to them.
Particularly in the salary cap era, it’s not always easy to ensure that the grumbling superstar has an equally polished back-up to fill his shoes when he leaves. Belichick needs a carrot to put in front of those players. Belichick needs to signal to Rob Ninkovich that he can pressure the quarterback given the opportunity; to express confidence that Stevan Ridley can handle the backfield duties; to tell Danny Amendola that he can be a 100-catch receiver. Belichick lets those players know that their moment has arrived by kicking Mike Vrabel and BennJarvus Green-Ellis and Wes Welker out the door in their prime.
“You can produce just as well as those guys because you’re a Patriot, and that’s the Patriot Way.”
As the team witnesses this carousel of veterans leaving and new players taking the stage, the players internalize the belief that if they only step into their role on the team, success will follow.
Cutting Welker loose was a stubborn move. But, I imagine, in Belichick’s world, it puts the rest of the roster on notice that anyone is expendable, and there’s always someone out there that can fill those shoes.
The Rich Get Richer
One more point about the Welker deal. I heard a great piece of analysis on ESPN’s “Football Today” podcast (yes, I just typed that). Matt Williamson pointed out that the market for Welker’s services really boiled down to a handful of teams, so the Patriots could almost count on him going to a competitor.
A 32-year-old, decorated player going to a bottom-feeder like the Jags or the Raiders? Laughable. Taking a flyer on a middle-of-the-road team (e.g., the Chargers) that would need a lot of breaks just to make the playoffs? Where’s the upside for Welker in that? Certain contenders – Dallas, Washington – are too cash-strapped to afford even the deal Denver dolled out.
The market for Welker was probably limited to four to six teams, all of whom were likely to face the Patriots in the regular season (Denver, Houston), the AFC playoffs (same), or the Super Bowl (Green Bay, San Francisco, Seattle).
There were a lot of reasons for the Pats to retain Welker, but this one can’t be overlooked.