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Big Vince at a familiar fork in the road

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  June 4, 2009 08:46 AM

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If you are Vince Wilfork, and if you are serious about making a point, you really have no choice. You have to sit out minicamp. You have to sit out training camp. And most importantly, you have to sit out games.

And even then, you probably are not going to get what you want.

At least in New England.

Here’s a tip, Patriots followers: Prepare now for life without Wilfork. The talented nose tackle of the Patriots yesterday confirmed what has been speculated for the last week or so, namely that he is dissatisfied with his contractual situation and that he deliberately skipped the recent organized team activities (known as OTAs). Technically speaking, OTAs are voluntary. At the moment, Wilfork is no different than Manny Ramirez during the initial days of spring training, minus the guise of an ailing grandparent.

He is not obligated to be there. And at the moment, he has no intention of giving the Patriots anything above and beyond the contractually required.

"My main thing is that Vince Wilfork is looking out for Vince Wilfork, point-blank," Wilfork said during a charity event yesterday. "Whatever it may be."

And so, once again, we are reminded that there are pluses and minuses to everything. For every Randy Moss who comes to New England in search of that elusive Super Bowl title, there is a man like Wilfork who has the titles and wants his money. Corey Dillon came, Asante Samuel went. With a few exceptions -- Adalius Thomas seems to stand out -- the Patriots have resisted breaking the bank in order to preserve their roster. Even Tom Brady took a little less.

Always and without exception, the Patriots put the team first. No part is greater than the whole. After last season, coach and czar Bill Belichick can even hold up Brady and prove that the Patriots can win without him. The Pats missed the playoffs despite an 11-5 record, but, at the end, their defense was a much, much bigger problem than their offense and Matt Cassel had been elevated to elite status.

The Pats made the player -- not the other way around.

Now, Wilfork is the latest in a line of dissatisfied Pats that includes Adam Vinatieri, Deion Branch, and Samuel. All of them ended up elsewhere. Some time in the next few months, like those other three, Wilfork must decide whether he wants to take less and stay in New England or get more and go elsewhere. Maybe he has made up his mind already. All things considered, sitting out the OTAs was a relatively worthless exercise for Wilfork, save for the fact that it made his feelings public.

Minicamp won’t mean all that much, either. For that matter, neither will much of training camp. The only way Wilfork begins to hurt the Patriots is to sit out games, a decision that also requires a certain amount of self-sacrifice. So it goes in an NFL where the team has most of the rights and the players have virtually none.

Wilfork knows this as surely as his agent does. Even if Wilfork plays this season for the team-friendly salary of $2.2 million, he is not guaranteed a multi-year deal upon qualifying for free agency at the end of the season. As they did with Cassel, the Pats could place the franchise tag on him and secure him to a one-year deal. In that instance, Wilfork ends up with nothing even close to the $100 million contract the Washington Redskins recently bestowed upon defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth, whose deal also includes about $48 million in guaranteed money.

That is why, for the Patriots and Wilfork both, the Haynesworth deal changed everything.

Let’s be clear here. Nobody is criticizing the Patriots for their way of doing business -- it works. As an evaluator, administrator, and coach, Belichick has proven he is the most important part of the operation. The Pats haven’t had a losing season in this millennium. The Patriots drafted former BC defensive tackle Ron Brace with one of their first selections in the April draft. As has most often been the case -- Samuel looks like the one exception -- the Pats appear to be one step ahead in the game that is played off the field.

Wilfork? He is a talented, likable man with a colorful personality. Between the lines and in the community, he has been a valuable asset to New England. But Wilfork has his Super Bowl ring and he has his own family, and no one can begrudge him for making selfish decisions at an important point of his career. In New England, especially, there comes a point where the paths of the player and the organization diverge, and Wilfork certainly appears to be at that point.

He’s probably gone, folks.

Prepare for that reality now.

After all, that’s something Bill Belichick began doing long ago.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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