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Set up to go long?

It’s only way tag of Wilfork works

By Albert R. Breer
Globe Staff / February 23, 2010

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Do yourself a favor.

Take the $7.003 million out of this Vince Wilfork situation.

You’ll save yourself a lot of trouble and, judging by the comments from both the Patriots and Wilfork’s camp, if that’s the final figure for No. 75, neither side will have reached its goal.

So spare everyone the “He’s got 7.003 million reasons not to complain.’’ Because that number - the dollar amount affixed to the franchise designation placed upon Wilfork yesterday - is one of system failure on both ends.

For Wilfork, because it’s not close to the money that he wants. And for the Patriots, because it represents gripping desperately at their most important defensive player for one more year, rather than making him a cornerstone of their future.

The idea here is to reach a long-term accord. Period. If it’s not, there are some mistruths being floated in this case.

Shortly after news broke that the Patriots had filed paperwork to place the non-exclusive franchise tag on Wilfork, the family, through his wife Bianca’s Twitter account, released the following statement: “After six years of dedicated service, I do un derstand this is a business. With that being said, it is my hope that the tag is applied for its true purpose, for the purpose of allotting more time for us to continue our talks and be able to reach a long-term agreement. Only time will tell what the final result will be.’’

The Patriots responded with a quote, tucked in their announcement of the move and with no attribution, expressing similar intentions.

“A long-term agreement with Vince Wilfork has been the team’s top contractual priority for some time,’’ it read. “Unfortunately, despite numerous conversations and proposals, the goal has not yet been realized.

“Vince is a tremendous player for our team and remains a significant part of our future plans. It is because of Vince’s importance to this organization that we have assigned the franchise designation as we continue to work toward a long-term agreement. We are hopeful that Vince will remain a Patriot for many years to come.’’

For a team that issues news releases that often have all the information that a couple of mouse clicks could get you, that statement is significant.

Take the last two occasions that New England used the tag.

The announcement of Asante Samuel’s tagging in 2007 had a one-line reference to a long-term deal, with Bill Belichick quoted: “We hope Asante remains a Patriot for many seasons to come.’’ Last year, when Matt Cassel was tagged, a Belichick quote in the news release read: “We look forward to working with Matt again in 2009.’’

If those were pecks on the cheek, the comments on the Wilfork release were long, passionate kisses.

Wilfork, too, has changed his tune since saying the tag would be “a slap in my face.’’ At the Pro Bowl, when asked by the Globe if he was upset with the Patriots, he responded, “Not at all,’’ and, if Twitter is your guide, he’s cautiously optimistic now.

As for the notion that $7.003 million is nothing to complain about, forget about that.

Football players have a finite time to make as much money as they can, and the uncertainty of the labor situation, and possible 2011 lockout, means financial security is of the utmost importance.

In fact, agents over the last couple years, when speaking on contracts negotiated for their players, have made a habit of pointing out how much those guys are scheduled to make “before the lockout.’’

Additionally, when looking at that window of opportunity, it’s easy to see Wilfork, in this spot, as gaining $7.003 million. The truth is, if he signs the tender rather than negotiating a contract that could pay $30-35 million guaranteed, he’ll be losing $23-28 million that, in the roughest of sports, there’s no saying he’d ever get back.

So where’s the disconnect?

Had the Patriots and Wilfork negotiated a new contract before last February, they’d have done so in a different economic climate.

The upshot of waiting was that New England got Wilfork’s services in 2009 at a bargain-basement rate of $2.2 million.

The risk was that the market for defensive players would change, and it has.

Albert Haynesworth got $41 million guaranteed from the Redskins. DeMarcus Ware took home $40 million guaranteed from the Cowboys. Nnamdi Asomugha’s deal in Oakland was so off the charts in Oakland - worth $28.5 million in its first two years and at least $45.3 million (and maybe more) over three years if an option is picked up - that it only can be compared to the highest-level quarterback contracts.

So now, the Patriots and Wilfork’s people have to amend the numbers, and do so in a challenging new frontier with the rules of 2011 and beyond representing a great unknown.

It’s a challenge for all teams now, but the Patriots aren’t the first team and Wilfork isn’t the first player to have to surmount it.

In August, the Giants found a way to make it work with Eli Manning, and the Chargers got it done with Philip Rivers. In October, the Cowboys bridged the gap with Ware, and the Bears did the same with Jay Cutler.

In each case, the team saw a player it couldn’t go without and, 2011 be damned, something was going to get done.

Read into the Patriots’ statement, and the Wilforks’ tweets, and you can see that the two sides feel similarly about this.

So now it’s simply a numbers game. And for everyone involved, as these numbers go, $7.003 million is most certainly the wrong one.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at abreer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @albertbreer.

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