How the Patriots Outsmart the System: Losing the Offseason to Win the Season

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterMarch 7, 2019

New England Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers reacts after sacking New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 30, 2018, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Charles Krupa/Associated Press

The Patriots look like they're about to let their starting left tackle, their best pass-rusher and one of the most successful kickers in NFL history sign elsewhere as free agents.

For most teams, this would mark a disastrous start to the offseason.

But these are the Patriots, so they'll be just fine. In fact, history tells us they might even find a way to get better somehow.

The Patriots declined to apply their franchise tag to three key veterans: Trent Brown, who started all 19 regular-season and playoff games last season as Tom Brady's blindside protector; Trey Flowers, who has led the team in sacks for three straight seasons; and Stephen Gostkowski, a four-time Pro Bowl kicker who is 12th on the league's all-time scoring list.

The Patriots have not extended any of their contracts, and they have given no indication that they plan to. All three players are likely to receive multiple lucrative offers on the open market. All three will probably be gone in the next few weeks.

That would create panic in many organizations. For the Patriots, it's business as usual.

To understand how the Patriots can keep calm and carry on while bidding farewell to core veterans, we must remember where players like Brown, Flowers and Gostkowski came from. We must also be able to talk about the "Patriots Way" without genuflecting, rolling our eyes or banging our heads into the corner of the nearest desk.

       

Easy come, easy go

Brown arrived in Foxborough as part of a 2018 draft-weekend swap of middle-round picks with the 49ers. He was an unheralded right tackle coming off a torn labrum. The Patriots moved him to left tackle to replace Nate Solder, a seven-year starter who signed a four-year, $62 million contract with the Giants.

Trent Brown, draft-trade throw-in turned Super Bowl starter.
Trent Brown, draft-trade throw-in turned Super Bowl starter.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Brown won the left tackle starting job (first-round rookie Isaiah Wynn suffered a torn Achilles in the preseason, cutting the competition short), anchored one of the league's best offensive lines and did not allow a sack in this year's playoffs or Super Bowl.

So, the Patriots replaced an expensive veteran at a critical position with a no-name they grabbed on the cheap with no real drop-off in quality. Now they are replacing Brown before he becomes expensive.

They do this sort of thing all the time.

Flowers also arrived in Foxborough after a trade involving an offensive lineman. The Patriots traded then-six-time Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins to the Buccaneers in August 2014 for Tim Wright (a #2 tight end) and a 2015 fourth-round pick. That pick became Flowers, a high-effort Arkansas defender with little draft buzz.

A year-and-a-half later, the Patriots traded Pro Bowl defensive end Chandler Jones to the Cardinals for a second-round pick and failed offensive line prospect Jonathan Cooper. Flowers, who played only one game as a rookie, slid into Jones' multifaceted defensive line role.

Mankins played two uneventful seasons for the Buccaneers. Wright and Cooper had little impact. Jones is still a great player, but Flowers has recorded 21.0 regular-season and 5.5 postseason sacks while providing excellent run defense over the past three seasons for less than 10 percent of Jones' salary.

Incidentally, the Patriots selected both Flowers and Shaq Mason in the fourth round of the 2015 draft. Mason has started at guard for four years and may be the team's best offensive lineman.

As for Gostkowski, the Pats drafted him in the fourth round in 2006 to replace Super Bowl legend and future Hall of Famer Adam Vinatieri. Gostkowski has led the NFL in scoring five times and has kicked 39 field goals in the playoffs and seven in Super Bowls.

Stephen Gostkowski has been one of the most successful kickers in NFL history.
Stephen Gostkowski has been one of the most successful kickers in NFL history.Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Smart organizations don't draft kickers, right? They also don't let effective young veterans at key positions leave as free agents.

But the Patriots have been doing things differently for 18 years. And this is where that darned "Patriots Way" comes into play.  

       

The way it's done

"The Patriots Way" sounds like cultish, mystical mumbo jumbo. It's whispered about reverently in New England and triggers the gag reflex everywhere else. Reporters asked about it frequently before the last three Super Bowls, and players invariably acquired the 1,000-mile stare parents get when a toddler asks them where babies come from before they mumble something about "commitment" and "accountability."

The Patriots Way isn't the Eye of Agamotto or some secret way to unlock human potential that Bill Belichick or Tom Brady discovered. (It also isn't cheating, smart alecks.) It's simply the top-down organizational model that allows the Patriots both to acquire players like Brown, Flowers and Gostkowski (plus Solder, Mankins and Vinatieri) and to let them go.

The Patriots have self-scouted better than any other NFL team for the entire 21st century. They know where the talent of players like Brown and Flowers ends and the ability of Brady to make his linemen look good and Belichick to make his defenders look good begins. They know who they can afford to replace.

The Patriots scout the bottoms of other team's rosters, the middle rounds of the draft and the free-agent thrift shop better than any team in the NFL. For years, they have loaded their roster with miscast or underappreciated players from other organizations like Brown (and Kyle Van Noy, Danny Shelton, Jason McCourty, Lawrence Guy, Chris Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson and others from last year's roster alone) and later-round picks (Flowers, Mason, James White, Julian Edelman and so on).

The Patriots can successfully swap out veteran starters for middle-round picks and reclamation projects because Belichick's structure has been in place for nearly two decades, so the coaches, scouts and salary-cap people are always on the same page.

Needs are usually filled a year ahead of time, and there's always meaningful competition for roster spots at the non-Brady level. Acquisitions like Cooper may not work out, but they ensure that even the backup linemen and receivers had to clear a high bar to make the roster.  

No team creates meaningful offseason competition as well as the Patriots.
No team creates meaningful offseason competition as well as the Patriots.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

Brown won the starting job over Wynn last season, while Wynn is now the favorite to replace him. But don't be surprised if another low-cost tackle arrives to challenge Wynn.  

Gostkowski's play has slipped in recent years. The Patriots have two second-round picks and three third-rounders, so they can sift for the next Flowers/Mason/Edelman/whoever on Day 2 of the draft, then toss a later pick at someone like Utah kicker Matt Gay. And they couldn't care less about criticism from the "never draft a kicker" crowd.

As for replacing Flowers, this is the best draft in at least a decade for finding defensive linemen. Did we mention that the Patriots have two picks in the second round and three in the third?

The Patriots excel at every aspect of the offseason except the ones that make juicy headlines. Their first-round picks rarely capture the imagination (picking 31st or 32nd most years doesn't help). The Randy Moss trade was 12 years ago; since then, they are more likely to shed big-name talent in offseason deals than acquire it. Free agents like Solder, Logan Ryan, Dion Lewis and so on cash in elsewhere, while marquee free agents rarely arrive. The end result is offseasons that often look underwhelming if not terrible.

Then the teams that signed Patriots free agents usually end up with buyer's remorse, while some mid-round pick or free-agent rando starts in the Super Bowl.

That's the Patriots Way. And it's the reason why the Patriots seem to lose every offseason but end up winning.

                               

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.

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