One way or another the Patriots are going to pay for Vince Wilfork.
They're either going to give in to the Pro Bowl nose tackle's desire for a long-term contract or they're going to pay dearly down the road for his absence in the middle of their 3-4 defense.
Franchising Wilfork is like handing him a one-way ticket out of Foxborough. He made that clear yesterday with his comments on WEEI-AM, equating the franchise tag to a slap in the face. (The Patriots have between Feb. 11 and Feb. 25 to designate Wilfork as their franchise player.)
Barring an unforeseen change in the financial philosophy in Foxborough, Wilfork will be slapped with the tag and then feel disenfranchised by and disenchanted with the team. Then the first chance he gets he'll bolt Fort Foxborough for greener pastures.
If that scenario plays out then the Patriots will pay for Big Vince the same way they paid for Ty Law, Deion Branch, Asante Samuel and Richard Seymour -- on the field.
I recently wrote about the necessity of getting a contract extension done for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, whose contract expires after the 2010 season. I proposed another six-year deal to take Brady to the end of his career. I was astonished by some of the comments that pointed to Brady's age (he'll be 33 in August) and said the team shouldn't sign Brady to a big-money contract extension because the team shouldn't be paying for "past performance" and that Brady is past his prime.
Brady is closer to the end of his best days than the beginning, which is exactly why the Patriots have to do everything they can to win while Brady is still an elite NFL quarterback. That includes keeping the 28-year-old Wilfork, who is their most disruptive defensive player. The team has already let too many players and seasons get away because it held the line on long-term deals.
The Patriots were the Super Bowl champions in 2004 and did it despite only having Law at corner for seven games because he fractured the Lisfranc joint in his foot. Law, who regrettably called Patriots coach Bill Belichick "a liar" during the 2004 offseason, when the team wouldn't re-do his deal, had his request to be released honored by the club in February of 2005, the move made easier by Law's injury.
Law signed with the Jets and tied for the NFL lead in interceptions in 2005. (By the way you'll never guess who tied Law for the league-lead that year --Deltha O'Neal. Yeah, that Deltha O'Neal.)
The Patriots traded for Duane Starks but would have been better off with John Starks at corner. The loss of Law, coupled with a season-ending knee injury to Rodney Harrison, made the pass defense easier to shred than an Enron document. The Patriots ranked 31st in the NFL in pass defense at 231.4 yards per game. They tied for the league-high in pass plays of more than 40 yards allowed.
Fast forward to 2006, Deion Branch holds out wanting a new deal. The team doesn't budge and trades Branch after the 2006 season-opener against Buffalo. Brady struggles all season long with a pedestrian cast of pass catchers. Reche Caldwell, who was steady most of the season, drops the ball in the AFC Championship game against the Colts.
In response they get Randy Moss and Wes Welker, but one more championship opportunity goes down the drain.
Samuel played under a revised franchise tender in 2007 that allowed him to escape being tagged again if the team won 12 games or he played 60 percent of the defensive snaps. Both occurred, and he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Patriots, who allowed the second most TD passes in the NFL in '08, tried to replace him with Fernando Bryant, Lewis Sanders and Jason Webster. His actual replacement ended up being O'Neal, signed the week of the season-opener. Actually, Samuel's replacement still hasn't been found.
Meanwhile, Samuel tied for the NFL lead in interceptions this season and is headed to his third straight Pro Bowl.
Seymour's absence was obvious in the Patriots' playoff loss to Baltimore. The Ravens rushed for 234 yards and Wilfork had to be shifted to Seymour's old spot, right defensive end, in the second half to try to stop the Ravens from running over the Patriots.
The Patriots got a glimpse of life without Wilfork for the final three games of the regular season. It wasn't pretty. In fairness, defensive end Ty Warren was also out in two of those games (Buffalo and Houston), but against the Bills rookie Ron Brace was skating backwards like Zdeno Chara. Buffalo's first drive was 14 plays and 69 yards and took 9:24 off the clock. The Bills ended up rushing for 105 yards and averaging 4.6 yards per carry.
It was even worse against Houston.
Entering that game the Texans ran as well as a Ford Pinto, to borrow a phrase from Kevin Garnett. Houston was 30th in the NFL in rushing at 88.7 yards per game. They ran smoother than a Maybach against the Patriots -- 144 yards on 27 carries. The 5.3 yards per carry average was Houston's season high.
Rookie Arian Foster rushed for 119 yards on 20 carries and two touchdowns. On the game-winning drive, pass-happy Houston was so confident it could run on the Patriots it handed the ball to Foster four straight times covering 28 yards to get the ball in the end zone.
Wilfork honored the onerous six-year contract the team saddled him with. Like the sign in his locker all season said: he did his job. But the Patriots don't owe him anything because of that. The NFL is a business. That's why the Patriots should make a smart business decision and not let Wilfork get away.
All they have to do is ask themselves if in the end they've truly gotten "value" by letting valuable pieces go?
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.