Patriots

It's fair to wonder where Bill Belichick stands on Donald Trump right now

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It's fair to wonder where Bill Belichick stands on Donald Trump right now

On the eve of the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump played an ace in the hole in New Hampshire.

It was a strong letter of support from Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. It wasn’t intended to be shared as a gesture of public support but Trump shared it anyway.

It read, “Congratulations on a tremendous campaign. You have dealt with an unbelievable slanted and negative media, and have come out beautifully. You’ve proved to be the ultimate competitor and fighter. Your leadership is amazing. I have always had tremendous respect for you, but the toughness and perseverance you have displayed over the past year is remarkable. Hopefully tomorrow’s election results will give the opportunity to make America great again. Best wishes for great results tomorrow.”

Trump understood the weight Belichick’s personal approval would carry. It meant the greatest coach in the NFL was on his side.

Is Belichick still there?

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Unfortunately for Belichick, Trump tore down his political firewall when he shared that private note. And in the nearly four years since Belichick MAGA’d for the would-be president, so many unfathomable things have been said or done that one wonders if Belichick still remains an unwavering ally.

Where the Patriots head coach now stands is relevant.

Absent any kind of statement otherwise, it’s inevitable to wonder whether Belichick’s support of a president who — since 2016 — has found myriad ways to undercut, minimize, demonize and insult NFL players fighting for social justice remains as strong.

So many current and former Patriots have taken public leadership roles in that arena — the McCourtys, Matthew Slater, Benjamin Watson, Duron Harmon, Chris Long, Martellus Bennett — all with Belichick’s blessing and support.

But it’s still hard to reconcile how Belichick can at once support those players and their causes while also supporting a president who undermines them.

It’s something some of his players have grappled with.

“He told the players not to get into the election or debate with the media because it would become a distraction,” one former Patriot told me this week. “So we listened but when we he endorsed Trump, a lot of people were upset. He tried to say he didn’t endorse him and that he was just writing a friend a letter but we all knew what that letter meant.”

Meanwhile, another ex-Patriot isn’t holding his breath for Belichick to make a comment.

“I think the minority of coaches actually give a shit enough to step off the ledge,” he said. “I think he cares about players but not enough to speak out on this. Is anyone surprised?  Great football coach. There’s a lot of different ways to be a great football coach. His is winning a ton of games.”

Even with his previous support for Trump being public, Belichick seems to have been conferred immunity from specific scrutiny as the nation rages over the murder of George Floyd. The Patriots released a statement that would seemingly cover Belichick. But while others in the league are tiptoeing through minefields or baring their souls, the most important non-player in the league isn't saying anything and probably won't.

It is fair to ask what a public statement by Belichick would accomplish. Anything less than a complete disavowal of Trump’s verbal treatment of NFL players would be used as a cudgel against him. And wringing a comment from Belichick to satiate the media or the masses? Fat chance. That’s the antithesis of who he is.

How many times has he said from the podium that he doesn’t share details of private conversations? If a player would like to know where he stands, there’s no doubt Belichick would turn him away. Further, in that locker room of 53 men there are plenty of players with conservative views. Does Belichick then have to go smooth things over with them? Where does it end?

Belichick's support is there, former Patriots Benjamin Watson told me this week on the Patriots Talk Podcast.

“I was talking to someone the other day with the team, and I was telling him just that the Patriots, I believe, have done a good job in allowing their players to get involved with issues outside of the game," Watson said. "They've provided a space. There was a bill about education that came up last year, here in Massachusetts. A number of players got on board, speaking about it and talking about it. They had support from Mr. Kraft. They had support from Coach (Bill) Belichick to go and do those things. Support from the PR department. Other teams aren't like that, so there are varying degrees of which the organization will support and understand.”

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If Belichick was just an Average Joe punching the clock, would his political views matter to the general public? Has Belichick forfeited the right to support whoever he wants politically? Does it matter what Seth in Gloucester thinks? No. No. And not really.

But it does matter what his players think.

It matters if they wonder whether he is fully supportive of them. And since Donald Trump decided in 2016 to brandish Belichick’s note as evidence their boss was riding with him, it absolutely calls that into question.

There is no debating whether or not Belichick has “done the work” during his 45 years as an NFL coach. Ask NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown, who received so much from Belichick to help the Amer-I-can Foundation.

“He has been face to face with my gangsters in L.A. and in Cleveland,” Brown said in 2008. “Belichick is the only person that you would know who has been in my home with these guys. He has been in the hotel room in Cleveland with them; not only that, he’s been to the graduation; not only that, he got us our first contract in Rhode Island. And not only that, when he fined his players one year, he gave all the fine money to the foundation.

“He was there to lend his support and credibility and allow the gang members to meet him,” Brown said. “What happens is that when someone like that comes into my living room and sits down with them, it makes them feel that they have support. They read about this guy and all that, they never expect him to come and sit down with us and be a regular guy.”

In October 2016, less than a month before the election, Belichick took the Patriots to visit Jim Brown’s statue when the team was in Cleveland. Belichick wanted those players to appreciate Brown’s impact both in the NFL and in the community.

That visit was just one of many important gestures Belichick has made over the years in an effort to get his players to understand and appreciate who came before them and, perhaps, what they themselves can do with their platforms.

Nobody with the Patriots franchise has a bigger platform and a more important voice than Bill Belichick. No one is more influential.

It’s not wrong to wonder what — if anything — he will do with it right now.

Report: Patriots kicker Justin Rohrwasser removed controversial tattoo

Report: Patriots kicker Justin Rohrwasser removed controversial tattoo

"I knew I had to have it totally taken off of my body."

In April, that's what Patriots rookie kicker Justin Rohrwasser told WBZ's Steve Burton about a controversial Three Percenters tattoo on his left arm that gained instant notoriety after he was drafted by New England.

Well, it appears he has followed through on that promise.

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According to TMZ Sports, the 23-year-old has had the tattoo removed. The report states that Rohrwasser started the painful removal process right after the NFL Draft.

After the Patriots selected the Marshall kicker in the fifth round of the draft, there was a public outcry about the tattoo displaying the logo of the right-wing militia group, which has been described as racist and anti-government. Rohrwasser had said he got the tattoo when he was 18 as a way to support the military, but didn't realize its other use.

"It's shameful that I had it on there ignorantly," Rohrwasser told Burton. "I'm sorry for all my (friends) and family that have to defend me. Putting them in that compromising position is one of the biggest regrets I'll ever have. To them, I'm sorry. I'm going to learn from this. I'm going to take ownership of it. This is not who I am. No matter what, that's not who I am. Hopefully, you will all find that out."

Though he might still face questions about the tattoo when the Patriots open training camp later this month, removing the tattoo should keep the issue from being a huge distraction during his first NFL season.

How Cam Newton's 'up to' $7.5 million contract fits under Patriots salary cap

How Cam Newton's 'up to' $7.5 million contract fits under Patriots salary cap

How did the Patriots pull this off? How did a team that had no financial breathing room, no salary-cap space, go ahead and sign Cam Newton to a contract that's worth up to $7.5 million?

The key words there are "up to."

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Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio drew up a deal that would pay Newton the way other quarterback reclamation projects have been paid, if he performs. In the meantime, his salary-cap figure for 2020 comes in at just a smidgen higher than that of long-snapper Joe Cardona.

Let that sink in.

ALPHABET SOUP

Understanding how the Patriots were able to pull that off — pay Newton the going rate for a quarterback looking to revive his career, while simultaneously getting his salary on their books when they had next to no cap space — requires an understanding of the letters "NLTBE."

That acronym stands for "not likely to be earned," and it describes the majority of the incentives Newton received in his new deal with the Patriots. By NFL rule, NLTBE incentives do not count against the salary cap immediately. NLTBE incentive markers are markers that a player didn't achieve the season prior. If those markers are reached, then that incentive payment hits the following season's salary cap.

(As you might guess, LTBE incentive markers are markers a player did hit the season prior. LTBE incentives are counted against the cap upon the player's deal being signed.)

For example, if a player did not throw for 3,000 yards in 2019 but would be paid a $1 million bonus for reaching the 3,000-yard passing mark in 2020, that would be considered an incentive that is NLTBE. It would not count against the 2020 cap. If that 3,000-yard mark is reached in 2020, it would count toward the 2021 cap.

We can deduce then that the $5.75 million in available incentives included in Newton's deal did not count against the Patriots cap for 2020. They couldn't. The team didn't have enough cap space on hand to give him that kind of money in LTBE incentives. The Patriots had less than $1 million in space prior to agreeing to terms with Newton, per Patriots cap expert Miguel Benzan.

We don't yet know the specific markers Newton has to hit to earn his 2020 incentives, but because he played in only two games last season, the Patriots could have given him very reasonable numbers to reach and they still wouldn't count against the cap immediately because they'd be NLTBE. 

For instance, New England could've given Newton bonuses for playing in three games, passing for 600 yards and throwing one touchdown. Because he didn't hit any of those numbers in 2019 — he played in just two games and threw for 572 yards without any touchdowns — they'd all be considered NLTBE and not counted against the 2020 cap. In all likelihood, though, it's going to be a little more difficult than that for Newton to reach the incentives laid out for him.

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WARNING: MATH AHEAD

So if $5.75 million of Newton's "up to" $7.5 million contract with the Patriots won't count against the cap, what will?

Newton's veteran-minimum $1.05 million contract, for one, will count. That's the minimum under the new collective bargaining agreement for players with at least seven years of NFL service.

Additionally, two games of Newton's $700,000 in per-game roster bonuses will count against the cap. If he's provided $700,000 total in per-game roster bonuses, that means he'll be owed $43,750 for each of the 16 regular-season games he's on the Patriots roster. Two games of per-game roster bonus — $87,500 — counts against the 2020 cap because it's LTBE; he played in two games in 2019. The rest of those per-game roster bonuses are considered NLTBE but will count against the cap with each game he plays. So if he plays in all 16 games, by the end of the 2020 season, his cap number will be $1.75 million. Active roster bonuses are the only earned NLTBE incentives that hit a current year's cap, Benzan relayed. 

Therefore, Newton's cap number for New England in 2020 — his base salary plus two games of roster bonuses — comes to $1,137,500. That's slightly more than the $1.08 million cap number assigned to Cardona and the $1.05 million number assigned to fellow quarterback Brian Hoyer for this coming season. It's slightly less than fullback Dan Vitale's 2020 cap hit of $1,287,500. 

Now the question is, how did the Patriots fit Newton under their cap if they had less than $1 million in cap space left prior to landing him? His cap number is over $1 million, isn't it?

It is. But there's an accounting rule the NFL uses to include only the contracts of the players with the top-51 base salaries against a team's cap until active rosters are finalized.

Newton's cap number replaces what was the No. 51 salary on the 90-man roster prior to Newton's signing. According to Benzan, that No. 51 slot was assigned to outside linebacker Tashawn Bower. Because the difference in cap numbers between Newton and Bower is only a few hundred thousand dollars, the Patriots had enough space to add Newton once Bower fell below the No. 51 spot.

If the Patriots were snug up against the cap before, they're even more so now. By Benzan's estimates, they have $263,489 left in cap room. To handle regular in-season spending, they'll need to clear out more space eventually. Re-working Joe Thuney's contract to reduce his nearly $15 million cap hit, for instance, could free up some significant cap room quickly. 

MAXING OUT

If Newton makes the team, plays, and plays well, he may have a chance to reach the full $7.5 million value of the deal. But why $7.5 million? Why settle there?

Marcus Mariota is getting a $7.5 million base salary to be the No. 2 for the Raiders in 2020. Teddy Bridgewater made about that much in 2019 from the Saints. Both were passers in need of a fresh start. Both carried a certain level of uncertainty.

The same is true for Newton in New England, though his résumé is vastly more impressive than that of either of those other quarterbacks when they signed their contracts.

It's the definition of a low-risk, high-reward deal. It just required a little bit of creativity to get it in under the minimal amount of cap space the Patriots had available for 2020.