In the afterglow of Super Bowl 49, Brandon LaFell gave all the insight you need in order to grasp why playing for the Patriots is an acquired taste.
A first-year Patriot in 2014, LaFell recounted a moment with Darrelle Revis, another player the Patriots signed before that season.
"Me and Darrelle were driving home one day in [organized team activities] and they must have worked us to death that day," LaFell recalled. "We said it at the time, 'If we don't win the Super Bowl this year after doing all this work, we're going upstairs to the front office and telling somebody something.' Man, just the way we worked, the way we worked in camp, I believe in this team.”
Tuesday night, Revis was released by the Jets after two seasons that leave a smear on an otherwise brilliant career. Revis’ conditioning, effort and off-field decision-making all indicated a guy who -- after earning a ring in New England -- just didn’t give the same number of flocks that he did in 2014 when he chose to subject himself to a one-year, NFL boot camp.
Idle speculation has begun as to whether or not the Patriots might want Revis back. The better question would be whether Revis -- 32 in July -- would want to subject himself to New England.
Consider this: Belichick sent Revis home in October of 2014 for being late to meetings on a Tuesday morning. I don’t know for sure, but I highly doubt Revis had his knuckles rapped like that in his entire career.
The rules, the practices, the conditioning, The Hill, the not-good-enough, gotta-be-better mindset, the need to self-censor for fear of saying something that will get you browbeaten in a team meeting, all of it wears the players down to a nub mentally and physically. There’s no “star system” per se. The best players are subject to the same expectations the undrafted rookies are.
And if there’s pushback, then GTFO. Recent illustrations of that would be Jamie Collins being traded to Cleveland, Alan Branch being put in detention for a week during training camp or Malcolm Butler being kept off the field for OTAs months after sealing the Super Bowl.
Free agency starts in a week and, when players weigh where they will sign, the work environment matters. New England’s stands out as being both the most difficult but also the most professionally -- if not financially -- rewarding destination in the league.
Year after year, players choose to come to play in a program that will be recalled in 50 years the way Lombardi’s Packers are now.
And some players choose to leave because the opportunity dangled elsewhere -- whether it be financial, geographical or atmospheric -- trumps Foxboro.
Donta Hightower is the Patriots most important free agent. He’s been candid about how much the expectations for success in New England weigh on a player mentally and physically. Since 2008, he’s won two BCS National Championships with Nick Saban at Alabama and two Super Bowls with Belichick in New England. He was 17 when he committed to ‘Bama. He’ll be 27 this month. That’s a long time in the grind.
When he signs, wherever he signs, he’ll be choosing where he wants to end his playing career. For Hightower -- for any player -- deciding to play in New England is a lifestyle choice.
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Why do NFL owners stand so united behind Roger Goodell even though he’s reviled by players, fans and media? He makes them soooo much money. The projected 2017 salary cap numbers came out this week and the $166 million-$169 million estimate is about $25 million higher than two years ago.. And since the yearly cap is a portion of total revenue (with a maximum to the players of 48.5 percent between 2015 and 2020) it stands to reason that if players are in line to make bushels more money, it’s because the owners are bringing in barrels more money. It’s also worth remembering that, despite the windfall for everyone, the NFL still tried to bilk players out of money by hiding revenues and are in the process of paying back the $120 million they stole thanks to a court ruling just one year ago.
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So bear that in mind when free agency starts and players with modest resumes sign for dough that dwarfs what elite players got just a couple of years ago. Last year, the Giants signed Janoris Jenkins to a $62 million deal, second in the league in guaranteed money behind only Revis. Collins, exiled to Cleveland by the Patriots with one Pro Bowl to his name, already signed for four years and $50 million and that would no doubt have been even more had he gone to the market. So prepare to have your chin hit your chest when Logan Ryan signs. He’s got the same agents as Jenkins (Neil Schwartz and Jon Feinsod, formerly Revis’ agents as well), he’s 26, he’s one of the three best corners in the free-agent class and he’s probably going to sign a deal that’s easily north of $10 million per season. And that might be light. Ryan has very good ball skills, is physical enough to match up with big receivers, can also play the slot and is a true professional. But he’s not yet been a Pro Bowl-level player and he’s going to get paid what we’ve come to expect All Pro-level players get.
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Which brings us to Gronk. That contract he signed which gave him great security when he was recouping from his string of injuries looks so awful right now. When the Patriots exercised their option on the back end of his contract, it was like signing him to a four-year, $36.51 deal with $10 million guaranteed. Coby Fleener signed a five-year, $36.5 million deal with $18 million guaranteed last year. Gronkowski is better than Fleener. Coming off another back surgery, Gronk isn’t in a position to agitate for having his deal reconfigured but he absolutely has his eye on the tight end market as he indicated in his comments about Martellus Bennett possibly breaking the bank. Gronk will be hoping for the trickledown effect from a player like Bennett. Weird, since it should be the inverse. My hunch is that Bennett won’t get an eye-popping deal but he’ll still decide against returning to New England in 2017. Absence may make the heart grow fonder in some cases but in the NFL, the warm camaraderie of the locker room fades a bit once March comes, visits are being made and offers are being slid across the table.