Patriots

Looking back at Patriots' releases of Ben Coates and Bruce Armstrong that were 'just business'

Looking back at Patriots' releases of Ben Coates and Bruce Armstrong that were 'just business'

Here we are again at the edge of the volcano. A Patriots player we thought irreplaceable is nearing replacement.

Why are we here? The usual. Age, money, future performance projections, a combination of all three. A legend is poised to be nudged over the edge. After that? Bill Belichick will return to business.

If history is our guide, the loss won’t stop the onward march of the Patriots dynasty. We won't know for a few years if the possible departure of Tom Brady will yield a different result. But there’s no room for sacred cows in Belichick’s empire. Not even sacred GOATs.

Belichick has had the mettle to move on from a long list of players — from very good to legendary — and stoically taken the ensuing hits. Every instance — we will look at 18 of them in the coming days — is rich in backstory. What happened? Why did it happen? And what did the player — a few years removed from the move — have to say about his ex-coach?

As Brady approaches free agency, these stories are a reminder we've been here before. Many times. It's just business. 

* * * * *

For five consecutive seasons in the mid-90s, Ben Coates was a Pro Bowl tight end. In two of those years, (1997 and 1998) he was first-team All-Pro. An average year for him in that span was 75 catches for 835 yards and seven touchdowns. He was the crutch Drew Bledsoe leaned on.

The player most responsible for giving Bledsoe time to find Coates? Left tackle Bruce Armstrong. He went to the Pro Bowl every year from 1994 through ’97 and was selected to six overall. In 10 of his 12 seasons with the Patriots, he played in every game.

He was the team’s elder statesman. He was old, accomplished and – his career having spanned from the final seasons of Raymond Berry through Rod Rust and Dick MacPherson into Bill Parcells and on to Pete Carroll – he’d seen it all. His demeanor reflected that. Seen it all, done it all, still here, not going anywhere and who – pray tell – are you?

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In February of 2000, less than two weeks after he was hired, Bill Belichick fired Coates. A year later, in February 2001, Armstrong got his papers.

Talk about sending a message.

The reasons for their releases were simple.

Both were in decline – Armstrong was 35 after the 2000 season; Coates was 30 and coming off a 32-catch season in 1999. Both were at the top of the team’s salary structure. Coates had a 2000 cap hit of $3.46 million against the quaint cap number of $64M. Armstrong was asked to take a pay cut from his $3.5M salary down to $2M. He refused. He was gone.

And owner Robert Kraft – who could be given to sentimentality – was suddenly indoctrinated into the bottom-line, all-business, what’s-best-for-the-football-team approach of his new head coach.

Between Kraft and the triangular power structure that predated Belichick – GM Bobby Grier, cap and contracts guy Andy Wasynczuk and Carroll – going hard-line with a couple of lions in winter was unthinkable.

Too dangerous. The other players wouldn’t like it. The previous few seasons had been a nonstop financial windfall for all FODs (Friends of Drew). It was no wonder the team was in cap jail and the players felt entitled. Post-Parcells, they ran things.

Not anymore.

In a statement announcing the Coates move, Belichick said, “We are faced with some very tough decisions and unfortunately this is one of them. It’s a shame that in this era of salary cap constraints and value considerations, players of Ben Coates’ stature often finish their careers in places other than where they established themselves.”

Coates, who moaned about his role four months earlier after a 27-3 road win in Arizona, was miffed he wasn’t told directly of his release.

“I’ve been a pretty good player for so long, but no phone call, I had to hear it from my agent,” Coates said. “If that’s the way they do things, it’s fine with me. I want to play three or four more years. Right now, I’m a free agent. I’ll go wherever.

“Good luck to them. I thank them for doing what they did cause it gives me a chance to continue my career somewhere else. It’s still early enough in the year that I’ll be able to hook with another team. I know I can still play at a high level in this league. I’m not done yet. When I’m done I’ll hang my shoes up.”

Coates went on to sign with the Ravens, made nine catches in 16 games, won a Super Bowl and hung his shoes up.

Belichick, coming off a 5-11 season in his first year with the Patriots, was more expansive in his statement about Armstrong a year later.

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"This was not an easy decision," Belichick said. "In fact, we had been working on a number of different scenarios that might have allowed us to retain the services of Bruce Armstrong this season. We had hoped to reach an agreement on restructuring his contract. Obviously, it is very difficult for a player of Bruce's stature to accept a reduction in base pay after all he has accomplished in his career.

"It is unfortunate that today's transaction brings such an unceremonious departure," Belichick continued. "He has Hall of Fame credentials and we hope that there will be an opportunity in the future to honor him for all he has given this organization over the years."

Yes. Belichick really did issue statements like that 20 years ago.

Armstrong retired. In September, 2001 – a few days after Bledsoe had his artery sheared by Mo Lewis, a few days before Tom Brady’s first start – Armstrong was back in Foxboro to be feted by the team and have his number retired at halftime of a game against the Colts.

He also had a press conference. The first question was whether he’d seen the hit on Bledsoe and what his opinion of it was. His answer was from a different era.

“I played defense in high school,” said Armstrong. “As a defensive player, those are the hits that you always talk about. I mean we used to stand up in the meetings and talk about breaking his chest cavity or busting his spleen or something like that. In college, we would give out stickers for those kinds of hits. As far as professionally, you might not want to say it out loud, but those are the kinds of hits that people watch football for. But because he is my former quarterback and my friend, it was hard to watch.”

At the conclusion of the press conference, Armstrong was asked about how the NFL had changed during his career.

“You won't have guys spend 14 years in one place,” Armstrong predicted. “You won't have the fans having some type of bond with the particular players. It'll be rare. It'll be in cases like Bledsoe. It would be hard-pressed to see him play for anybody else. So it may be if you get your hands on a franchise quarterback or you get your hands on a star pass rusher, a defensive end, something that is hard to find, then you won't let those go.”

Ironic, right? Another irony? The money team saved releasing Armstrong? It helped fund the seven-year, $35M deal that made Lawyer Milloy the highest-paid safety in the NFL.

Report: Ex-Patriots WR Danny Amendola to re-sign with Lions

Report: Ex-Patriots WR Danny Amendola to re-sign with Lions

Scratch that Danny Amendola-Patriots reunion.

Peter Schrager of the NFL Network reports the free-agent wide receiver is re-signing with the Detroit Lions, where he spent last season and had 62 catches for 678 yards. Former Pats defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will enter his third season as Lions coach in 2020. 

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The 34-year-old left the Patriots after five seasons to sign with the Miami Dolphins in 2018 and may have burned a bridge or two with Bill Belichick. 

It had been speculated that perhaps bringing in a former reliable Tom Brady receiver might be part of a plan to lure Brady back to New England, with a report in late January that Amendola could come along to wherever Brady lands in free agency, but a Brady-Amendola reunion in Detroit isn't happening, either. 

Next Pats Podcast: Will Patriots go mobile at QB if Tom Brady leaves?

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Next Pats Podcast: Will Patriots go mobile at QB if Tom Brady leaves?

There's one big question that New England Patriots are facing this offseason. Who is going to be their starting quarterback in 2020?

For the past 20 seasons, the team hasn't really had questions at the position. It has always been Tom Brady's job. But with the 42-year-old set to hit free agency, the Patriots can't necessarily count on him returning unless they want to pay him what he's worth.

So, now the question for the Patriots becomes, what will life look like if Brady departs?

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On the latest episode of The Next Pats Podcast, which returns for its first episode of the 2020 offseason, Phil Perry is here to explore that question. And really what it all boils down to is what the Patriots are looking for in a potential successor.

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As Perry notes, it's likely to be one of two types of quarterback: The traditional pocket passer or a more mobile athlete in the mold of some of the recent success stories at the position.

Do the Patriots look for the next Brady? Uber-accurate, somebody who's going to sit in the pocket and absolutely dissect every little aspect of the defense that he is looking at. Or, do they go a different route? Do they go with an athlete? Do they get more mobile? Because talking to people this offseason, I'm getting a whiff -- I'm getting a scent that people believe the pocket passer might be dead.

Perry is joined by guests including Pro Football Focus' Steve Palazzolo, Greg Cosell of ESPN and NFL Films, and NFL Network's Kurt Warner to answer questions about Brady's future and what his game has looked like in recent seasons.

For more thoughts about the Patriots offseason, check out the latest episode of the Next Pats Podcast, available as part of the NBC Sports Boston Podcast Network.