They used to talk about retiring together; same day, same year. They would retire as Patriots. They would retire as Pro Bowl players, Super Bowl winners, the heart and soul of New England's defense. They would be loved, revered, and valued, the way franchise players who brought their team its first championship usually are.
But then, they knew better, didn't they? This is not a sentimental organization. Bill Belichick, the coach and decision-maker, is a bottom-line man. Just days before the season started, Milloy was released. Milloy's mantra had always been the same as his friend Law's: no cuts. Milloy wouldn't restructure his deal, and his agents, the Poston brothers, the same people who represent Law, would not budge. The Patriots negotiated until there was no time left to spare.
The heart of the defense got to stick around, but the soul was sent packing.
Law isn't stupid. He knows he might be next. He'll be on the books for close to $9.5 million next season, and that's too much money for a cornerback who will turn 30 in February, who had a solid season in 2002, but not solid enough to convince his coach that he is irreplaceable.
"It never leaves your mind," Law admits. "You never would have thought they'd let Bruce Armstrong go, or Drew [Bledsoe], or Lawyer, but it happens. There are no untouchables. No one is a stranger to the grim reaper when he comes around this place."
So here Law is, living his own football life, and watching his future from the corner of his steely eyes. Milloy was signed by Buffalo within 48 hours of his release. He was rewarded with a handsome contract and he is a starter for the Bills. Law tells us that his friend "appreciates being wanted," but what he doesn't tell us is Milloy sneaks back to the Boston area whenever he can. What he doesn't say is Buffalo is 4-6 and Milloy is becoming discouraged. Ty Law and the Patriots will likely be in the playoffs; Lawyer Milloy and the Bills will not.
New England is young and deep and strong. Who knows if the next team offers those things?
"I know they'll probably release me at the end of the season," Law says. "But I'm still under contract with them. Until then, I'm going to play my heart out for them. I might as well make the best of it."
Toughing it out
You have to understand that he is one of the most competitive athletes in the Patriots' locker room. He plays hard and he plays hurt. He should have missed at least half of his team's games this season with a brutal ankle injury, but he sticks it in a bucket of ice, tapes it up, and goes. Remember that mysterious rib injury? It wasn't that at all. It was a torn abdominal muscle, equally painful as it sounds, and the combination of that and his bad ankle did finally cause him to miss one game -- against Miami Oct. 19. Law didn't like the feeling of watching someone else control his destiny, so he told the trainers he would not be missing any more games. He reports his abdominal muscle is "coming along nicely." In other words, he tapes it up real tight, and goes.
"It makes it pretty hard to do any crunches though," Law confides.
He is playing like a wounded warrior; angry, proud, ruthless. He will take on the Houston Texans today having already matched his interceptions total (4) from last season, and is tied for the team lead in passes defensed with 13. He and Rodney Harrison have stabilized a secondary that underwent a major overhaul.
"Ty has done a terrific job," says Belichick, who was unusually effusive on this day. "He's fought through injuries to stay on the field. He's made big play after big play after big play all season long. And it's not only been big plays, but key plays.
"We all sit there and watch the game, and there's a point where everybody knows before the ball is snapped it's going to be a key play. You can feel it. No matter which way it goes, it's going to be a key play. A lot of the plays Ty has made have come at those times."
Consider third and 4 with the Jets driving late in the second quarter of a September AFC East matchup. Vinny Testaverde thought he had tight end Anthony Becht open -- until Law knocked the pass away. Testaverde thought he had Law beat again on a long ball to Santana Moss in the fourth quarter. Wrong again.
There's Law intercepting Tennessee league MVP candidate Steve McNair in the fourth quarter, and running it back 65 yards for a touchdown. There he is again, picking off Kelly Holcomb's pass in the final minute to seal a win over Cleveland. And you know who that was standing in the end zone, intercepting Quincy Carter's last-gasp throw and putting the final stake through the hearts of Bill Parcells's Cowboys.
"You could make an argument he's the MVP of the team," says offensive lineman Damien Woody. "Who's been better than him? When we need a big interception, he's there. When we need a big play, he's making it.
"He wants to be known as one of the best, if not the best. He's having the type of season where you could argue who at cornerback is playing better?"
See, here's where Ty Law's future might differ from Lawyer Milloy's. In Milloy's final Patriots season, he had no sacks and no interceptions. His numbers left him vulnerable. Law is doing everything in his power to make sure his numbers favor him, even if he has to play one-legged the rest of the way.
"I don't like missing games," Law explains. "I get paid to play. I've got people telling me, `Be careful. They're probably going to get rid of you at the end of the season anyway, so don't get all banged up for your next team.' But I can't think that way.
"They can make a business decision and release me, or they can still make a business decision and say, `We want more.' The last thing you want to hear is that old, `We're going in another direction' thing. Every week I go out there and hit somebody, or make a big play, I'm saying to [the Patriots], `Here. Here's the direction you should be going in.' "
A one-man team
In the past, before the reality of Milloy's abrupt departure smacked them both across the face, Law and Milloy were firm in their resolve not to restructure their contracts. Law predicted -- correctly -- he wouldn't be out of work long if the Patriots didn't want to pay him. But now it's a more contemplative Law who looks to the future, even as it unfolds in front of him. This Ty Law concedes he might just be willing to discuss reworking his deal.
"I'd look at it," he says. "Obviously I'd like to be paid market value. I'm not trying to kill anybody, but I'd like to be paid honorably."
He does not want to play for another team. He'll admit that now. He is four interceptions shy of breaking Raymond Clayborn's team record for a career, and he wants that honor. He wants to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, and he wants to get there wearing only one uniform.
"In a perfect scenario, we'd win another championship, and hopefully I'd get invited to another Pro Bowl," Law says. "Then, before next season starts, they would say to me, `We'd like you to retire as a Patriot.' That would really mean something to me.
"Nobody stays with one team their whole career anymore. It's a rarity. I think it says something about the individual when it happens."
The shock waves of Milloy's release still reverberate, if only slightly. Law talks to his friend every day; about football, about the future.
"It was a big loss," Law concedes. "There's no doubt I was affected by it personally. But I understand this is a business. But I still have an opinion about it. There's good business and bad business, and I don't think what they did was good business.
"I don't think any individual should be treated that way. Lawyer should have earned more respect than that."
Respect is fleeting in a business where you are only as valuable as your last packet of statistics. It was almost inevitable the Patriots would suffer an emotional letdown in the opener, particularly when Milloy turned around and signed with the very team they would be playing. Since that opening day clinker against Buffalo, New England's defense has been outstanding. Law, meanwhile, is still seething over the loss to the Bills.
"I never bought the letdown talk," he explains. "So what, we're supposed to say, `Lawyer's not here, so now we're gonna lose?' No, I don't accept that. What does that say about the rest of us? Some bad things happened to one man. You're telling me that should change the outcome of a game? The way we played, we would have lost even if Lawyer played with us."
He misses his friend, no doubt about that, but he quickly recovered from the initial shock and put it into perspective in football terms.
"I don't know why people thought I couldn't get past it," Law shrugs. "I mean, we were close, but we weren't married."
One of his immediate jobs in the days after Milloy's release was to diffuse the anger and disappointment that permeated the locker room.
"For a while, every time I walked into the locker room, everyone was staring at me," Law says. "The eyes were following me, wherever I went, waiting to see what I'd do or say. That's when I realized we needed to get a sense of normalcy again. I told the guys to relax, to start having fun. I told them to get past it."
Law has -- at least on the field. He laments the chance to finish out his days with his friend and defensive stalwart. But he's clear on the fact that football, particularly in New England, is, and always will be, a business transaction. He confronts that future right now, every day.
"It was very emotional for Lawyer, what happened to him," Law reports. "He was passionate about this place, passionate about being released. You have to understand. When you cut Lawyer, he bleeds.
"When you cut me, I'll bleed, too. But then I'll go out and find myself a Band-Aid."
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.