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A nice recovery by safety

Milloy was hurt by Patriots, but he's doing all right now

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Awaiting Lawyer Milloy outside Ralph Wilson Stadium Sunday, nearly two hours after a loss to Miami ensured Buffalo a losing season, was a group of optimistic Bills supporters, who, like carolers in a shopping mall, joined in singing to Milloy the popular tune, There's Always Next Year. But since there would not be another home game until next fall, this was their last opportunity to show Milloy that, four months and nine losses later, they still appreciate his choosing them. And, of course, to get autographs.

 

Milloy signed two Bills No. 36 jerseys for one adoring fan. He signed T-shirts for another admirer. A helmet for another. A card for another. And another. And another. Last picture. OK, one more. All right now, last one guys. (In seconds, the crowd swelled so that Milloy jokingly yelled, "Security!") One woman's 50th birthday would not have been complete without a hug from Milloy, who obliged, guaranteeing that 50 more years will pass before she forgets the frigid Western New York night when Milloy gave her a warm embrace. Indeed, some things never change.

As Milloy left his impromptu evening autograph session, it seemed to dawn on him that what had just occurred meant as much to him as it did to them. "See, man," he said. "I'm going to be all right." For a while Milloy doubted that, even after starring in his new team's 31-0 defeat of his old one Sept. 7 -- five days after he and the Patriots agreed to a messy divorce, proving once and for all that love and money don't mix. Everything seemed fine with Milloy on the outside. That's how he wanted it to look. He couldn't let anyone, least of all the Patriots, see how hurt, how angry, and how bitter he was at having to leave the life he knew and start anew.

He spent his first two weeks as a Bill holed up in a hotel, living out of duffle bags. Apparently no amount of money makes sudden change easier. "I don't think I could have gone to any other team or another city," Milloy said Sunday. "I don't think I could have gone anywhere else and had it be as smooth of a transition. Because when I left, I went into isolation mode. I didn't really want to deal with anybody. The media and all that. Here, [media] are a lot more lenient than anywhere I could have gone to. The people were so genuine and friendly, they actually let me go through what I had to go through."

Milloy is through it. And, finally, he's happy. No, really happy. It doesn't feel "weird" anymore to look at himself in a Bills uniform. His teammates no longer are strangers, but friends. He feels comfortable leading them now. He is gradually becoming part of the Buffalo community. He has purchased a loft there, and he recently sold his Quincy-area home to Tom Brady. "Probably after the break [Nov. 2]," he said, "I really felt like, `This is home now.' "

Milloy called New England home for seven years. He comes back for the first time Saturday.

"I can't wait to see the fans more than anything," Milloy said. "And then afterward, I'll shake my ex-teammates' hands and wish them luck. The fans there, I'm glad that it turned out to where I have a chance to go compete in that stadium once a year. Me coming here had nothing to do with going to an AFC East team, having a chance to play the Patriots. This organization, this team, really made me feel like they wanted me."

Milloy said, for him, the game isn't about revenge. It's still personal, though. "I try not to play out of spite," he said. "I try to play for the love of the game. Anybody that I respect, I always want to compete hard. Every time I play the Patriots, until they start weeding guys out and have enough new guys, they have a team full of guys who, obviously, I want to give them my best, and that's the approach I'm taking. It's not a vengeful type of game for me. I just want to go out and play well. I don't worry about things like that.

"That chapter is closed to me."

Contract squabble

The story of how New England lost another of its favorite football sons began last spring.

Milloy was due to make roughly $4.5 million in what would be the fourth year of a seven-year contract extension he signed Feb. 10, 2000 -- two weeks after Bill Belichick became the Patriots coach. Milloy was to count about $5.7 million toward the salary cap -- too much for a safety, in Belichick's estimation, even a cocaptain who had been to four Pro Bowls, including the last two, and had not missed a game or practice in seven seasons. Milloy, in for a raise in salary of more than $1 million from the previous season, and knowing his contract soon would be an issue, hired hard-line agent Carl Poston in February. Milloy was so unsure about his future here, he said, he warned new teammate Rodney Harrison not to get too excited about the idea of playing alongside him.

According to sources familiar with the negotiations, by early June, Poston (who did not return several calls from the Globe) and the Patriots had agreed to a contract worth in the area of $10 million over three years and had progressed to the point of discussing incentives. But the deal fell apart.

The Patriots decided to revisit the matter later, only their later -- after training camp -- was sooner than Milloy expected; he thought he was at least safe for this season. Two days after the Patriots' final exhibition game, the team, approaching a salary cap crunch (effective Sept. 2 all players under contract would count toward the cap, not just the top 51), approached Milloy again about redoing his contract.

The sides spent Labor Day weekend working to keep Milloy in New England. They discussed the original three-year pact. They kicked around a two-year, $6 million deal with incentives, then a one-year contract worth $2.5 million. Belichick threw in another $500,000, which brought the compensation closer to "franchise" money for a safety, but still no deal.

Milloy had no intention of taking less than the $3.5 million or so he had made in 2002. The Patriots, according to sources familiar with the negotiations, did not wish to continue restructuring Milloy's existing contract and inflating his future cap numbers. Something, or someone, had to give.

Nothing gave, and time ran out. The Patriots released Milloy Sept. 2 -- five days before the start of the regular season. It should be noted that Poston, whom Milloy and Ty Law call the best agent in the league, had less to gain in both reputation and commission from a restructuring.

"The timing was really [expletive]," Milloy said Sunday. "To have negotiations and to wait the week before a game. Once we got in training camp there was no more talks. They made me feel like everything was cool. I was trying to figure out how I was going to play with Rodney and all that.

"It was really unethical the way [Belichick] handled it. You see the way they do business up there. Strategically it works. What they're able to do is use strategy to either put players that's done nothing but good for the organization in a bind and squeeze them into taking less money. They've got guys there that's overachieving, that's probably underpaid, and for whatever reasons, they're taking pay cuts.

"I think Bill and the organization have a way of making guys feel like they deserve less than probably what they're worth. They can go out there and get a Rodney Harrison and they're paying him less than a Lawyer Milloy, but the level of play is equal, so that makes the next player expendable.

"When they knew that me and my agent wasn't going to budge, their next strategy was to wait until the last minute. That's obvious. You know I would have been in the paper [complaining] a long time ago. I don't live life to give in. No. Never. That's the reason why I hired Carl Poston. I think that really messed them up. I've seen enough funny stuff go on in that organization to where I had to make sure I was ready. If they would have just said, `This is what's up. Either do this or we're going to have to let you go,' I was prepared for that. In the offseason. I was really prepared for that. Just the timing, dude. That was just really [expletive]."

Belichick, who has the final say on all football decisions, declined comment on the Milloy matter yesterday. He said the day after Milloy's release, "It's something that's been talked about for a long time. It's been going on since April. I think the feeling on both sides was that it was close and eventually it would work out. Unfortunately, it didn't. This isn't the way we wanted this story to end."

The next day, Milloy and the Bills, one of some 15 suitors, agreed to four-year deal worth a reported $15 million, a third of it signing bonus, making him the highest-paid safety in the league. The swiftness of the signing and revealing comments by Milloy regarding Poston's negotiations with other franchises raised suspicion of tampering by Poston. A league spokesman said yesterday that the NFL had not closed the book in investigations regarding possible tampering, charges that could cost a guilty team (or teams) a draft choice.

Matter of respect

Milloy may have still been a Patriot had the sides found a way to narrow a $600,000 gap.

"It was more about respect," Milloy said Sunday. "And money, too. Football isn't going to last forever. I signed a contract with [Belichick] and I wanted him to be loyal to it. I've been nothing but loyal. I thought it was a four-year deal. I thought something would have definitely happened after this year. I knew that after this year I'd probably be a free agent.

"The whole thing was really like a blessing for me, instead of hitting the free agent market at 30, I was 29, plus I was the only free agent out there so it was a hot market. They didn't expect me to take that risk. I had so much pride and anger built up in me, I didn't really care. I just knew that I was going to be OK."

Milloy was not OK, though, when he got the news that he was gone. He and longtime teammate Ted Johnson cried together as Milloy cleared out his locker.

"Everybody thought I was playing a practical joke," Milloy recalled. "I went into the weight room and the locker room and I was like, you know, `Thanks for taking care of me.' Everybody was like, `Yeah, right.' And I just left. I couldn't really sit there and be like, `Naw, for real.' I just gathered my stuff up. I think when people started seeing me take things out of my locker, people were coming in, and I was going out the other way.

"I was going out, and Coach Belichick's door is at the entrance, and he called me in, tried to say some [expletive]. It really didn't register too much."

Milloy was asked if he had forgiven Belichick.

"Forgive him? For what?" he said. "I don't need Belichick. I play the game and I keep friendships. It wasn't like he was my friend, anyway. He's all about winning, and he's done a great job of that. But the way he goes about it, he's shrewd. I still think he's one of the top coaches. That's obvious. It's just unfortunate the way my situation went down. This is a business. I don't know, man. Even though my teammates are winning and all that, any free agent that's going there, they've got to know what organization they're coming to. At some point, they're going to try to get that [cap] number down if they have to. That's how they do things."

Figuring it out

Milloy knew very little about how the Bills did things defensively when he arrived. He learned enough in less than a week to post five tackles, a sack, and a pass deflection that led to an interception against his old team. That performance, however, was misleading. He played that game and several games after on emotion and instinct. Learn a new defense? He first had to learn his new teammates' names.

"Grasping the concept was pretty easy for me, but now it's like, OK, learning the guy next to me's name so I can communicate with him and we're on the same page," he said. "The average commentator isn't going to realize that. That's something I had to go through. We call a check, then when we go to the sideline, I'm asking, `What the hell does that mean?' Or a coach assuming that I know something, so maybe he'll call something we haven't run in practice in a game and I'm like, `Hold up. You forget I wasn't here in training camp.' The average player couldn't have done it. It was a challenge. I figured out a lot of it on my own."

He did so while home in Seattle during the Bills' bye week, which interrupted a four-game losing streak. Milloy returned the player Buffalo knew it was getting. He has 126 tackles, 3 sacks, 14 pass deflections, and 2 forced fumbles for the league's second-ranked defense. This a year after he recorded fewer than 100 tackles for the first time in his career and no sacks, interceptions, forced fumbles, or recoveries. Both Milloy and Bills general manager Tom Donahoe believe Milloy has hit his stride in the last six games.

"I'm having fun again," he said. "For a while, the fun just was not there. I was trying hard not to let these guys see it. It was hard, man. Most of the frustration was coming from, you know, I just didn't feel comfortable in the defensive scheme. The first half of the season was my training camp."

Milloy knew the Patriots would be strong based on what he saw during camp. The 13-2 Patriots have, arguably, the strongest secondary in the league. Rookie Eugene Wilson has replaced Milloy at safety, allowing Harrison to play his natural strong safety position. Milloy said he isn't bothered by New England's success; rather, he's glad for his former teammates.

"They've definitely got what it takes, and that's a good thing to see," he said. "Actually, it's really good to see. They're taking on the form that we took on in 2001. I'm proud of those guys. I wish them well. It's exciting. I'll definitely be rooting for them."

Milloy seemed as annoyed as Harrison that the latter did not make the Pro Bowl. "I think Rodney got robbed," Milloy said. "I think he's been playing out of this world. He wouldn't have been able to do it without those corners. You see how I played the last few years, it wasn't blitzing every damn play like he's doing. That's the way I made my name in the first place. Because of injuries and all that, they've been putting a lot of pressure on those corners and they've both been holding up.

"The person that's impressed me the most, because in the offseason and training camp, I didn't really feel like he wanted to be there, was Tyrone Poole. He's had a hell of a year. Eugene has given them speed at the free safety position. I didn't think he could hit like that. It seems like everybody understands their role."

What Milloy doesn't get is why he's a Bill yet still attached to the Patriots.

"One thing I can't wait for to be over and done with, and it's [not] going to happen until the Patriots lose or until after the Super Bowl, is just for my name not to be affiliated with them," he said. "I turn on `Monday Night Football,' [Nov. 3, Patriots vs. Broncos] and somebody's saying `Lawyer' . . .

"I just want to go compete. I'm with a new team. It's just getting real old to me. That's the only thing right now that brings me back a little bit. I really don't even like watching ESPN and all that."

Milloy watches the Patriots win close game after close game and execute in key situations, and he sees the team he wants the Bills to be.

"They're the team to beat right now in my eyes," he said. "I want to get this team there, you know what I mean? I think it'll be even more joyous than when I did it with that organization because of the things I went through.

"I have something to build on here. I owe this organization a lot, for making me feel wanted. The same thing I gave the fans and the organization out there is what I intend on doing here."

Lawyer Milloy is OK now. He's home.

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