Two weeks ago, Tom Brady posted video of his failure to neatly maneuver over a ski jump. “Why would he do that?” we wondered. “Seems risky.”
By Thursday at 4 p.m., the Patriots will place a first-round tender tag on restricted free agent Malcolm Butler. That means Butler can be courted by other teams and -- if he signs an offer sheet with the new team and the Patriots don’t match the contract demands --New England gets just a first-round pick in return. Further, Mike Reiss reports no substantive talks are going on between the Patriots and Butler on a long-term deal, and our own Mike Giardi says the talks they did have were 'brief'.
We would they do that? Seems risky.
I’m not talking about the high-tender offer. That’s just the normal course of business.
I’m talking about slow-playing the negotiations so another team can now go to Butler, wine and dine him, set his market, and show the long-term financial commitment that the Patriots haven’t so far.
There’s no doubting the Pats' high regard for Butler. Every chance Bill Belichick gets to praise Butler’s style, toughness, competitiveness and ascent, he jumps on it. So why give Butler reason to wonder if the team is ever going to pay him what corners of his ilk are getting?
There’s no real concrete answer except to say that’s the way the Patriots have come to do things over the past few seasons.
They slow-play their big-ticket decisions or avoid them altogether. In 2015, they allowed Devin McCourty to get to the brink of signing elsewhere before they upped the ante and reeled him back in. They traded Chandler Jones last spring, ostensibly because they couldn’t pay out extensions for Jones, Jamie Collins, Donta Hightower and Butler.
Now Collins is in Cleveland and Hightower’s about to become one of the most pursued unrestricted free agents on the market. And if a team decides it wants to cough up a first-round pick for the established Butler instead of drafting a cheaper, less-experienced replacement in April, the Patriots have invited them to do so by not actively trying to lock Butler down.
I’m always one who’ll acknowledge the team’s 17-year track record is plenty of proof they know what they're doing ”down there.” But that doesn’t mean I know what the hell they’re doing.
This confluence of events and business realities is unlike anything they’ve dealt with before.
After winning their second Super Bowl in three seasons, they have a huge amount of cap space and a gang of home-grown talent headed toward their first free-agent roundup (Hightower, Butler, Duron Harmon, Logan Ryan this year; Jimmy Garoppolo next year). Meanwhile, there’s a 40-year-old Hall of Fame quarterback whose resume defies anyone to bet against him and a likely Hall of Fame tight end who could use a generous raise if there was any guarantee he wouldn’t break again.
People -- fans, media, their players, those players’ agents, other teams -- would like to see them do something and yet they continue to let the game come to them.
Maybe this is a byproduct of their long run of success. They’ve learned some things. Sign a player long-term at a heavy-collision position and he may not give you the on-field return you hoped (Jerod Mayo). Franchise a player and maybe he gets irked by the absence of a long-term deal and has a lackluster offseason as a franchise guy (Wes Welker). A really good backup quarterback is a luxury until the day he becomes a necessity.
In Butler’s case, what’s the likelihood some team is going to go all-in on a five-year, $60 million deal AND give up a first-round pick for a smallish 27-year-old corner when they can draft a guy for less and know that in five years that guy will be hitting his prime while Butler’s on the downslope?
Somebody might -- never underestimate the penchant of NFL personnel men to make singularly dumb decisions -- but they probably won’t. So the Patriots are playing the odds.
By so doing, they may be irking Butler. And depriving everyone out here of a glimpse into their plans. But they don’t sweat that. And never have.
There’s an old English saying: “When in doubt, do nothing.” I don’t presume the Patriots are in doubt. But I can tell they’re committed to doing whatever needs doing -- trading Jimmy, signing High or extending Butler -- on their own clock.