Just like that, as if he were making impulse purchases in the grocery store checkout line, Bill Belichick is in the crosshairs again. The Patriots are wheeling and dealing in the muddle that has become both their offseason and their training camp, their needs, wants, and values converging like the most violent open-field collision.
In the middle of it stands the incomparable and inimitable coach of the Patriots, a man who continues to operate with a fascinating combination of shrewdness, disdain, intelligence, defiance, and, perhaps, arrogance.
But before we toss Albert Haynesworth and Chad Ochocinco into the same shopping bag, maybe we should do the simplest, most prudent thing and keep the dairy products away from the pesticides. Compared to Haynesworth, after all, Ochocinco is whole milk. The Haynesworth acquisition takes Belichick’s gumption to entirely new levels – a sincere tip of the cap to him for that – as the Patriots entertain a player who combines real world delinquency with an absence of football character like no other in the Belichick era.
Randy Moss often shut it down, of course, but he was not nearly the off-field menace that Haynesworth has been. Corey Dillon, at the peak of his career, was a punishing runner and competitor. Haynesworth, on the other hand, is a blend of the worst qualities in each, making him the ultimate test of Belichick’s considerable, rehabilitative skills.
Yes, there is every chance Haynesworth will excel here. But please, no more talk about how the Patriots believe in bringing in good people with good character. What Belichick and the Patriots want, first and foremost, is a good deal, and Haynesworth is the consummate low-risk, high-reward acquisition. He has freakish talent. He requires virtually nothing from the Patriots in the way of acquisition cost or guaranteed money. If Haynesworth slips up even the slightest bit, Belichick can cut bait so quickly that no one may remember Haynesworth having been here in the first place.
Now the tradeoff: In obtaining Haynesworth, the Patriots have sacrificed much of what the Kraft family is purported to believe in. The Haynesworth deal is entirely about football and leverage, nothing more. Gone is any pretense of the Patriot Way. Haynesworth flies in the face of most everything the Patriots are alleged to represent, short of one thing.
Indeed, for Belichick, in many ways, Ochocinco is a far, far bigger gamble – and on multiple levels. At least the Patriots have to pay him. If he fails, there will be a price. Belichick and Ochocinco also seem to have a strong personal relationship, something that similarly is being put at risk. What if Ochocinco doesn’t get the ball as much as he would like? What if Belichick doesn’t like the incessant tweeting and Ochocinco insists on it? What if things sour or get strained?
Nonetheless, from a football perspective, both moves are worth it, if for no other reason than each addresses a specific want or need. Ochocinco gives the Pats much-needed depth at wide receiver, a legitimate threat to complement Deion Branch, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, and Aaron Hernandez. Brandon Tate, Julian Edelman, and Taylor Price are again where they belong: as role players and backups. Add in Danny Woodhead and, perhaps, Shane Vereen or Stevan Ridley (or both), and Tom Brady could be distributing the football as if he were handing out Halloween candy.
Meanwhile, if and when he is paired with Vince Wilfork, Haynesworth will give the Pats a pair of mountainous beasts on the defensive line, the kind of combination that might be particularly effective against a team like, say, the New York Jets, who like to run first and pass second. For all of the talk about the Patriots’ ineptitude against the pass in recent years, they have become wildly overrated against the run, especially since the departure of Richard Seymour. With Wilfork and a productive Haynesworth – key word there: productive – the Pats can jam up the middle and drop more men into coverage, which could have an enormous impact on the defense.
If this all works as it is supposed to, with or without the NFL scrambling in the aftermath of a lockout, the Patriots could be downright dominating.
All of this brings us back to Belichick, whose latest maneuvers highlight so many of the traits that have made him one of the most successful coaches in NFL history and one of the more resented (but respected) personalities in professional sports. Remember all that talk about the strength of the Patriots’ locker room and the veterans who policed the room? In retrospect, much of it was bunk. Belichick always has been the sheriff in this town and he remains so. When the Patriots had a strong locker room, Belichick should have gotten the credit. When the room deteriorated in 2009, he should have received more of the blame. The simple truth is that the Patriots have been Belichick’s team since the Krafts hired him in 2000 and since Belichick elevated Brady to starter status in 2001, moves that further changed the course of Patriots history in the wake of the Bill Parcells hiring.
This was never really about Tedy Bruschi or Mike Vrabel or Rodney Harrison. This has always been about Belichick. Adalius Thomas was his mistake just as surely as Harrison was his success. In one way shape or form, all of those moves were made with a level of defiance or arrogance, Belichick bringing in controversial players with everything but a sneer.
But he’ll play for me.
And far more often than not, he’s been right.
Has Belichick made his share of mistakes? Of course. The Pats ultimately got Nate Solder for Seymour, but their run defense has suffered nearly as much as their passing game did immediately after they cut ties with Branch in 2006. Had they kept Seymour, maybe the Pats would have won a Super Bowl in the last two years. We will simply never know. Belichick’s bravado has sometimes gotten the better of him, from fourth-and-13 against the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII to fourth-and-2 against the Indianapolis Colts in 2009, but he’s won on his share of gambles, too.
Through it all, Belichick has continued to shoot from the hip with a gunslinger’s mentality, operating with the kind of swagger rarely seen among professional sports executives anymore.
His team, his decisions, his rules, love him or hate him.
Everyone else be damned.
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