Patriots fans have come to accept that talented players can be replaced

Plenty of the Patriots' stars have come and gone, and the Patriots keep winning.

Trey Flowers Patriots NFL
Trey Flowers has reportedly agreed to a five-year contract with the Lions after spending his first four NFL seasons with the Patriots. –The Associated Press

New item: Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers reportedly agrees to a five-year deal with the Detroit Lions for an average salary of $16-$17 million per season.

Patriots fans’ collective response to said news item: Shoot, that’s too bad. Wish they could have kept him. Flowers was a very good Patriot who played his best in big games. But that’s a lot of money and you just can’t pay everyone. Thanks for the memories, Trey. Maybe one of your former teammates will give you a ticket to come watch him in the Super Bowl next year.

The Patriots dynasty was born on February 3, 2002, the night Adam Vinatieri’s right foot delivered victory over the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl 36. The dynasty turned 17 on February 3, 2019, the evening when the Patriots hoarded their sixth Super Bowl with a victory over the Los Angeles Rams.

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In that span, the likes of Vinatieri, Ty Law, Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, and Deion Branch among others become Patriots legends, beloved players who will be fitted for a red jacket someday if they haven’t put one on and been feted as a franchise Hall of Famer already.

They also all played elsewhere, some a couple of different elsewheres. Vinatieri became and remarkably remains a Colt. Law, the ultimate big-game cornerback who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer, was also a Jet, Chief, and Bronco. Seymour became a Raider, which is the equivalent of being relegated to a lesser league. McGinest, who to me is the quintessential Belichick-era Patriot – bright, versatile, wily, talented, and fully committed — ended his career as a Cleveland Brown, which still doesn’t quite compute.

And still, Bill Belichick’s Patriots juggernaut chugged onward without them. There has always been little room for enormous contracts that make a roster top-heavy and limit the ability to build quality depth that matters so much late in a season. And there has been even less room for sentimentality.

Patriots fans know this, and the recent championships — three in the past five seasons, as if you’ve lost count — make the approach fairly easy to accept. Sure, it was tough to comprehend at the beginning — remember the hubbub when heart-and-soul safety Lawyer Milloy was cut before the 2003 opener because he wouldn’t accept a pay cut, joined the Bills, and promptly tormented the Patriots in the season opener? That stung briefly, but the sting faded by the time the Patriots mauled the Bills in the regular season finale on the way to their second Super Bowl victory.

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And it was sometimes difficult to accept in those middle years between the three-championship bookends of this dynasty when the Patriots went nine seasons (2005-13) in between Super Bowl wins Nos. 3 and 4. There were cases when moving on from a player left them short, most notably in 2006 when holdout Branch was traded to the Seahawks and the Patriots eventually sputtered in the second half of the AFC Championship Game because Tom Brady had no receiver nearly as reliable remaining on his side.

But now, when an admirable player of Flowers’s caliber leaves, it’s rather easy to accept, even if means that cash layout you made last fall on a No. 98 Patriots jersey was not a savvy long-term investment. (I should note that the departure of Trent Brown for $36.5 million guaranteed from the Raiders does not fit into this category. He did a nice job protecting Brady’s blindside for a year, but he was here on a layover all along.)

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What’s notable is that through all of the Patriots’ incredible success over the last two decades — the league is designed for prolonged success to be impossible — I think it’s only recently that the consensus of fans have come to accept this approach.

Think back to the beginning of the free-agent frenzy last April. Dion Lewis and folk-hero-turned-enigma Malcolm Butler left to join the Titans. Nate Solder signed a massive deal with the Giants. Danny Amendola became a Dolphin. It felt like a Foxborough exodus, didn’t it?

 

The replacements were not obvious, but they eventually arrived. Belichick drafted running back Sony Michel in the first round. He would score the only touchdown in the Super Bowl. Stephon Gilmore – the rare player who, two years ago, got a fat free-agent contract from the Patriots, money many of us thought should go to Butler – emerged as a truly elite cornerback, while Jason McCourty came aboard to add quality veteran depth. Brown filled the massive void left by Solder with relative ease. The Patriots never really did get the wide receiver situation all sorted out, but Julian Edelman’s return from an injury that cost him the ’17 season meant more than any acquisition would have.

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The Patriots’ approach has changed the way informed fans follow free agency and roster-building as a whole. You know it’s very rare for them to go all-in on a big-ticket player like Gilmore, or even to pay big money for one of their own. Instead, the fun comes in trying to figure out which undervalued players they might try to pick up as a bargain, and which properly valued players they believe will be a good fit here.

In a sense, they replaced Flowers before he was even gone by trading for Michael Bennett earlier this week. They do still need receiver help, and while ex-Buccaneer Adam Humphries was identified as a possible target, he got a rich deal from the Titans, who are coached by Vrabel and not coincidentally seem to covet the same players the Patriots do. This is at least the third straight offseason we’ve wondered whether the Patriots might go after Golden Tate. Maybe this is the offseason they actually get him.

It’s a strange quirk of being a Patriots fan to recognize that even your favorite players are probably replaceable. (It also helps, I’d say, to have Brady, the greatest quarterback there has been or will be, pulling the assorted parts on offense into a coherent unit year after year.) It is a little odd to root for fiscal responsibility, I know. And there are times when it will still hurt to see a favorite go – I’m never going to be ready to see a post-Rob Gronkowski Patriots team.

But what a weirdly satisfying status it is to be able to watch your good players leave knowing that somehow they will be properly replaced. Sure beats being one of those teams annually paying huge money for ex-Patriots in the desperate hope to catch a little bit of their magic.

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