Bill Belickick looking displeased. Or ecstatic. It's hard to tell.
You know the old saw.
One of the people in the relationship wants it to continue. Maybe they offer to change; maybe they demand an explanation. The person who ended it comes back with, "It's not you, it's me." Simple, effective and impossible to rebut. Things simply aren't working out, and one person has decided to make a change; it's all about what they need.
When the New England Patriots traded Randy Moss last week, I found myself coming back to one theme over and over. I kept telling friends and relatives—really, anyone who'd stand still for two minutes—that Bill Belichick had botched another relationship.
"He's started to believe his own press," I said. "He thinks he wins games, and not the players."
In other words, it's not them, it's him.
Too harsh? Well, yes, probably. Some of the greatest personnel evaluators of all time got there by being willing to discard aging, overpaid, or unhappy veterans and trust their gut when it comes to young talent. Branch Rickey used to do it all the time. Bill Belichick won three Super Bowls by doing it better than anyone.
But my goodness, he sure has had The Talk with a lot of solid veterans over the years, hasn't he? Doesn't there come a time when too many survivors have been thrown out of the lifeboat and the one guy who's left is rowing all by himself? As another cliche goes, "The one constant in all your failed relationships is you."
Well, you and the NFL salary cap. Here's a quick review of some of the more significant relationships Belichick and the Patriots have terminated over the years.
Bledsoe early in the 2001 season.
Okay, this one was a no-brainer.
Bledsoe's injury had opened the path for a sixth-round pick named Tom Brady to become one of the greatest players in football history. There was no way he was ever getting his starting job back, and he wasn't ready to settle for a backup role.
Besides, the Patriots got a first-round pick for him, not a bad return for a middle-of-the-pack QB with a tendency to hold the ball too long.
Lawyer Milloy during the 2001 Super Bowl season.
This one still mystifies me.
When the Patriots cut Lawyer Milloy—the soul of their defense, one of the toughest safeties in the league—immediately before the 2003 season, I thought it would cripple their pass defense and demoralize the team. They immediately rolled off two championships without him, Belichick became the unquestioned leader of the team, and Milloy, although he remained effective for several years, never made a Pro Bowl for anyone else.
Maybe this was the relationship that looked perfect from the outside, but the people involved knew it wasn't quite right. Anyway, Bill Belichick did, and he proved the outsiders wrong.
Damien Woody awaiting the word "HIKE!"
One of the more amicable breakups; the reigning Super Bowl champions always have cap issues, and the Detroit Lions were waiting in the wings with a big contract for Woody.
Like all things football-related containing the words "Detroit Lions," it didn't end too well, and the Pats just slid Dan Koppen over to center and kept rolling. No harm, no foul.
Ty Law in his third Super Bowl season.
If there's one cap casualty Belichick might have been well-advised to go into couples therapy with, it's probably Ty Law. The Patriots' secondary has been a concern ever since his 2004 injury. When a team starts playing Troy Brown at cornerback, what is that but a desperate—if amusing—cry for help?
It does have a sort of "all's well that ends well" quality, however. Law made the Pro Bowl with the Jets the next year, but never again, and the Patriots came up with Asante Samuel. Those of you familiar with the art of dramatic foreshadowing should start worrying now...
Vinatieri, kicking in a winter wonderland.
This one is kind of defensible; if you're going to spend a lot of money, you don't want it to be on your kicker. Let's face it, they're pretty much all the same. Some kick a little further, some kick a little straighter, but as long as yours isn't inept, it doesn't really matter what name is on the back of his jersey.
But like a doomed relationship that nevertheless puts everybody involved through the ringer, this one hurt bad. He won two Super Bowls with his kicks. He defected to the arch-rival Colts. He promptly won the Super Bowl with them the next season.
It's one thing when you break up; it's another thing when she ends up with that guy you can't stand. Perhaps better than anyone on this list, Vinatieri got his emotional revenge.
The once and future Branch.
...and then, too, sometimes you reconcile.
Other than starting another big kerfluffle with the Jets, the entire Branch 2006 saga can basically be imagined by taking Randy Moss 2010, making it even less pleasant and more pointless, and adding a holdout. But no matter how unhappy the separation, they're back together now and determined to make it work.
Here's the thing, though: At least the unpleasant split with Randy Moss involved the man who set the NFL record for receiving touchdowns. The Branch drama involves a man who has never caught 80 passes in an NFL season or reached the 1,000-yard mark.
You always idealize your first love.
Asante Samuel ran. He ran so far away...
If I'm going to keep reaching ever further for these comparisons, then Samuel is probably the embodiment of the guy or gal who keeps making the same mistakes over and over. The replacement for Ty Law as New England's top cornerback, Samuel quickly became an elite cover man himself. So of course they franchised him, followed his dust to one more Super Bowl, then watched him walk away.
It's even a little worse than that, however, because here is where cap constraints and Belichick's willingness to part with veteran talent dance across the line between helpful and hurtful. Unlike Law, who didn't really thrive outside New England, Samuel is still making Pro Bowls to this day. Of all the ones that got away, he might be the hottest...
Vrabel. And some bits of Green Bay Packer.
This one is both understandable and not. Vrabel was heading into his age 34 season, and was shipped off in the necessary deal that sent Matt Cassel to KC. On the other hand, all they got in return was a second-round pick, and they got a first for Bledsoe by himself.
If you must give away salary in order to trade your quarterback to a former coworker (Chiefs GM Scott Pioli) at a discount, you might not want to rip out the heart of your back-to-back champions in the process. But breakups do strange things to people.
Richard Seymour, looking tough as always.
This one hurt. I mean, Seymour could have been The One for Belichick and the Patriots. This was the deal that shook my faith in Belichick's canny personnel management and made all the other moves seem that much more questionable. Seymour was, is, and will be one of the best players in the NFL, an anchor you can build a defense around.
The Patriots did receive a first-round pick from a perennial loser, a pick that seems likely to pay off big time. However, it may have been the difference between a first-round exit in 2009 and another run deep into the playoffs.
Was it worth it? Ultimately that's a judgment call, even though the heart aches a little to imagine what might have been...
Moss has left us and gone back home. We'll always have 2007.
And here we are today. I put up the pic of him in his Vikings garb, just for that extra bit of pathos.
I don't know if Bill Belichick regrets any of the decisions that have dismantled the veteran core of a multiple champion and left Tom Brady surrounded by a team of rookies and longshot gambles. Given the frequency with which those gambles have paid off during—it must be said—an inordinately long run among the NFL's elite, my guess would be that he does not.
I do think trading Randy Moss was a mistake, though. I especially think it was a mistake to trade Moss for a third-rounder, turn, and then pick up a receiver half his stature (figuratively and almost literally) for a fourth-rounder. That looks like nearly an incoherent sequence to me. If you're going to give up on 2010, just give up on it. Don't try to patch things up with a quick fix that won't give you back what you've lost. That's like the ultimate rebound relationship.
But then, the problems of a couple of receivers don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy, mixed-up league. Belichick may regret trading Randy Moss—maybe not this week, maybe not this Super Bowl, but soon, and...
Aw, the heck with it. You know what I'm saying. In football, as in life, sometimes all you can do is recite the old lines, listen to some break-up songs, and hope your next game-changer is right around the corner...