Vince Wilfork has made a living for 10 years in the NFL by holding his ground. It’s part of the job description of a two-gap nose tackle, a position where a stalemate is a job well done. Not moving off his position has made Wilfork a five-time Pro Bowler on the field.
But Wilfork is still a Patriot, agreeing to a three-year extension/restructuring on Thursday, expressly because he was willing to do what he doesn’t on the field: cede ground to his opponent. Wilfork gave ground, so did the Patriots, and the sides met where Wilfork will still reside in the New England defense: in the middle.
Wilfork got the David Ortiz treatment from the Patriots. The team made an exception to the rule and the actuarial tables for a beloved big man who is a big part of their championship culture.
The fairest negotiations are ones in which neither side can claim absolute victory. That is the case here. Sometimes it takes coming close to a breakup for each side to appreciate their relationship. In the end, neither Wilfork nor the Patriots wanted a divorce. They went to compensation couples therapy and reconciled.
The new deal that will keep Big Vince in Foxborough is a compromise compact. Wilfork agreed to a contract that could pay him up to $8 million this year and $22.5 million over the next three.
This year, Wilfork will make more than $2.5 million in signing bonus and base salary, according to a league source. Then he has the same weight bonus ($300,000) and workout bonus ($200,000) he had in his previous deal. Wilfork has another half-million-dollar bonus for spending one game on the 53-man roster and then he has per-game active roster bonuses up to $1.4 million. The remaining money is earnable in playing-time incentives.
The Patriots then have an option bonus to pay before the start of the 2015 league year that would trigger the second year of the deal
A lot was made of the report that Wilfork cleaned out his locker, ripped down his nameplate, and asked for his release. That’s true. But that was three weeks ago, and the context is that Wilfork and the Patriots had been discussing a deal since right after the Super Bowl.
Wilfork was probably legitimately angry when he left Gillette Stadium. He was about to head out on vacation, and if he couldn’t reach a deal with the team and was going to be cut, he was not coming back to Fort Foxborough for the Former Patriot Walk of Shame.
For the Patriots, it wasn’t practical to live with the contract the way it was, not with Wilfork coming off a torn Achilles’ tendon, turning 33 in November, and counting $11.6 million against the salary cap.
But they didn’t want to cut the doyen of their defensive line and the only player on the team not named Tom Brady who has won a Super Bowl in New England.
We can debate how much the cap can handcuff a club. But it will always play into the decision-making process of the fiscally responsible folks in Foxborough, like it or not.
Wilfork was in the last year of the five-year, $40 million deal he got in 2010, a deal that was due to pay him $7.5 million in base salary and another $500,000 in weight and workout bonuses. But it would have cost the Patriots $11.6 million against the salary cap.
That’s too much in this day and age for a nose tackle, even one as talented as Wilfork. It’s a passing league, and those types of cap hits are reserved for pass rushers and pass defenders.
Wilfork blew out his Achilles’ tendon in the fourth game of the 2013 season. The Patriots finished the season with sieve-like run defense, ranking 30th in the NFL. But that was not their downfall in the AFC Championship game against the Denver Broncos. It was Peyton Manning shredding their pass defense like an old pay stub.
The NFL system is always slanted against the player in these contract impasses.
When the terms of the final year of Wilfork’s rookie deal were favorable for the Patriots, they made him play it out, earning $2.2 million.
But when the final-year terms were favorable for Wilfork, the onus was on him to renegotiate.
Wilfork and wife/business manager Bianca had every right to be indignant about that hypocrisy.
But that’s the harsh reality of the NFL, where the contracts are as disposable as the work force.
This ended well for Wilfork and the Patriots. It was the anti-Wes Welker negotiation, a Route 1 battle royal that left black-and-blue marks on both sides, where winning the deal meant losing the player.
Pro sports is a business. But there is a personal connection as well when a player has been with a team as long as Wilfork has. When a deal gets close, the personal feelings can help close the gap.
At one point, there was a significant gap between Wilfork and the Patriots.
However, the writing was on the wall at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando on Monday, when Patriots owner Robert Kraft offered praise for Wilfork.
“Going back over the last 20 years, we’ve had some pretty special people come through, and he is one of my personal favorites,’’ Kraft said. “I’m thinking of Tedy Bruschi and Matt Light and Kevin Faulk and Troy Brown.
“They made their careers with us, and I surely hope Vince will be with us next year.’’
Kraft mentioned Wilfork’s name with players who all finished as Patriots. At that time, the Patriots and Wilfork were already close to a deal.
Three days later, they had one.
Wilfork has a big stomach, but ultimately, he didn’t have the stomach to play somewhere else.
Sometimes you have to give some ground to stay right where you are.