Patriots Q & A with James Lavin
Author of Management Secrets of the New England Patriots shares his thoughts on the team's offseason
Q: What was your impression of the Patriots philosophy on free agency? Has it changed, or did they always have the potential to have this kind of an offseason?
James Lavin: The Belichick-Pioli philosophy is (conceptually) simple and unchanging (though hard to execute, as any NFL GM will tell you because they're all trying to emulate he Patriots): Find the players who will collectively constitute the best-performing team subject to constraints imposed by the salary cap and draft picks.
The Patriots had a phenomenal offseason not because they changed their strategy of signing players with the highest predicted return-on-investment but because the available free agents were more attractive, the draft class was weak, and the team had salary cap space to sign some high-salary players. This is a change in tactics dictated by circumstances. Adelius Thomas is a high-salary signing but not an "expensive" signing because he signed with the Pats for at least $1 mil/year less than the 49ers were willing to pay him and projects to perform at an extremely high level in Belichick's defense. Most any team would have franchised Thomas, but the Ravens could not afford to. The Patriots were thrilled to pay a big (but below-market) salary for an All Pro they consider one of the league's best players at any position with the intelligence and adaptability to fit perfectly into their constantly morphing defense. Low salary does not guarantee a bargain, nor does high salary imply overpaying.
Also, some teams undoubtedly held back from bidding on the hottest free agents
because so many teams have been burned and because some teams misinterpret the Patriots' success as being based, in part, on avoiding high-salary players. The Patriots have given big contracts to Brady, Seymour, Harrison, Koppen, Light, Colvin, Dillon, etc. When they have salary cap room, the Patriots will pay for exceptional performers who fit their system well. Adelius Thomas and Wes Welker are expensive investments, but the Patriots anticipate performances worthy of those investments. And the low risk, high potential return of the Randy Moss deal is a no-brainer.
RB Corey Dillon
Just wanted to win
The Patriots are also benefiting from the desire of blue-collar NFL players to play in New England. Randy Moss accepted a huge paycut to play here. Junior Seau just said he wouldn't have considered playing for any other team this season. And Adelius Thomas accepted a lower offer from the Patriots than from his former coach, now the 49ers' head coach, because he wants to play here.
People also claim the team's philosophy changed because of Moss and Merriweather, but their perceived character issues are better explained by bad circumstances and youthful immaturity than permanent character flaws. I'm confident in both cases that the healthy, professional environment in Foxboro will prevent further incidents.
Finally, the Patriots appeared to "fill" all the roster holes before the draft by signing a running back, linebacker, tight end, and several receivers. They did the same thing the year they traded for Dillon. This frees them up to draft the best available football player.
Q: Why do you think the Patriots got rid of their 2007 Draft picks in favor of ones in 2008?
James Lavin: The Patriots are more patient than other teams and willing to wait a year to draft better prospects.
Trading our #28 pick this year to the 49ers could land us a high pick next year in addition to the extra 4th-rounder (#110) we used to trade for Randy Moss. The value board teams reference when trading picks (Trade Value Chart) rates the #28 pick as 660 points and the #110 pick as 74 points. To break even, the Patriots would need 586 points for San Fran's 2008 first-rounder. The lowest pick in Round 1 is worth 590 points, so they're guaranteed to at least break even. If the 49ers wind up at, say, #17 (worth 950 points), we would come out ahead by 364 points, basically a free 2nd-round pick. And the pick could be in the top 10, worth between 1300 and 3000 points.
Another consideration is that certain drafts (likely including 2008) are more talent-laden than others (like 2007), and the Patriots have a pattern of trading out of bad drafts and into good ones. This also helps explain why they traded their late 2nd-round pick this year for Wes Welker. They believed Welker is more valuable to them than anyone they could have drafted with that pick.
Q: Do you think the Pats deserve to be the 2-1 odds that the Vegas bookmakers have them at?
James Lavin: 2-1 implies a 33% chance of winning. 33% is very high in a 32-team league, and the Patriots have a very tough regular season schedule, and the NFL's best teams all play in the AFC. I'll give our boys an 80% chance of reaching the Divisional Round, a 75% chance of winning their Divisional Round game, a 75% chance of winning the AFC Championship Game, and a 85% chance of beating the NFC's best in next year's Super Bowl. That's a 38% chance of winning it all. So the odds sound reasonable to me. AFC competition will be intense, but the 2007 Patriots look like an incredible team.
Vegas actually thinks the Patriots have a somewhat less than 33% chance of winning. If you add up the probabilities for all the teams, the sum always exceeds 100% because Vegas wants to guarantee itself a profit. The higher the probability, the less money Vegas pays back to winners, which is why the 33% figure exceeds Vegas' estimated probability. Nevertheless, I do think 2-1 is reasonable.
Q: Do you think Randy Moss will change his ways to fit in at Foxboro, or will he just pay lip service to being a "team player"?
James Lavin: Someone asked me about Moss right after the trade. Here's what I wrote then. What I've read since only confirms my original feelings:
If they had signed T.O., I would say it's totally out of character because that guy is all about T.O. and can tear teams apart. I said before the Pats would never sign T.O., and I think I saw Scott Pioli later state that they would never sign T.O.
I've always seen Randy Moss differently. He clearly hates losing, and I'm sure that's a huge factor in his Oakland slump (which would have almost made him the Pats' #1 receiver last year). Also, even the new Raiders coach said that after watching film of last season he couldn't understand why they didn't throw more to Randy.
What grabbed my attention and, I gather, the Patriots' is Moss' agreement to cut his 2007 salary from $10 mil. to $3 mil. That's a strong signal that he wants to play for a winner. Few NFL players would take a $7 mil. salary cut. But Moss has never won a college or pro championship, and he clearly desperately wants one.
Also, I suspect he has matured over the past decade. And his former teammates all seem to generally like him as a person.
And the Patriots will keep him out of the limelight. They'll shield him from the media and give him advice on how to focus on his job. (Did you hear what he said about considering himself the second-best receiver to come out of Marshall? That's a classy thing to say when Troy Brown is on your new team.) When Corey Dillon came to N.E., Dillon appreciated that he suddenly wasn't burdened with being the star but could instead just worry about being Corey Dillon, running back. Moss will benefit from that too.
My biggest negatives about Moss have always been: 1) his salary is so high that he's not worth the headaches; and, 2) he can be lazy. #1 is obviously not an issue with the Pats, and I don't expect #2 will be an issue either, given his obvious passion for winning, the strength of character in the Patriots' locker room, and the apparent respect Moss has for the Patriots. I don't believe he's going to be telling Brady or Belichick how to do their jobs. And, if he does, he'll be gone with little lost to the Patriots.
So I'm excited. I think it's an excellent signing, esp. since the risk is so low (I think they can cut him any time before the season begins and pay him nothing) and the potential upside so high. The Patriots' offense suffered because opposing defenses could play their safeties closer to the line of scrimmage to stop tight ends and running backs. With Moss, Stallworth and Welker, they'll have to play the whole field, which will really open things up for Brady and Maroney to go wild.
Bottom line: The timing is right for this because Moss' salary is much lower and his performance (plus his impact in spreading the defense thin) should be much greater than in Oakland.
Q: How much of an impact of the Deion Branch situation do you think has on the Asante Samuel situation from either Asante's perspective or the team's?
James Lavin: Branch and Samuel seem to value maximizing their salaries above playing for a professional, championship team. Branch hit the lottery when the Seahawks gave up a #1 and paid him a fortune. That may well have jacked up Samuel's expectations. But I wonder whether Samuel's urgency to get a long-term deal this year is based on doubt about his ability to repeat his amazing 2006 performance. He had six INTs in three seasons before snaring ten (plus several in the playoffs) in 2006.
WR Deion Branch
Branch held out of camp to force a trade
The Patriots may feel the need to play hardball. I would look back another year to Richard Seymour. I said then the Patriots were setting a bad precedent in negotiating with a player holding out while under contract. I pointed to how the Steelers treated Hines Ward's holdout that same offseason as the right way to deal with a holdout. The Steelers basically said, "Hines, we love you, but you must end your holdout before we will talk with you about restructuring." Ward came back, and then they hammered out an agreement.
Every time the Patriots give in to a player who is holding out (or give him what he wants, as in the Branch case), they encourage future players to hold out.
I also suggested during the Seymour soap opera another way to prevent nasty contract fights: hand out unsolicited bonuses to players who are substantially "outperforming" their rookie contracts. Giving a guy like Deion Branch, who was getting paid close to the NFL minimum as the Super Bowl MVP, even a small unsolicited bonus would have bought some real goodwill, both with Branch and his teammates, who would have admired such a classy move by management. When a player feels he's being ripped off financially year after year, it eats away at him. For some, it's about the money; for others, it's about respect. Regardless, some players hold a grudge when it's time to extend their contract. Such thinking might have played a role in Adam Vinatieri's eagerness to flee New England. Unsolicited bonuses would also kill talk about the Patriots being cheap.
Q: Kyle Brady is obviously a favorite of Bill Belichick's from years past. Do you think that had as much to do with his signing as the team's need for a TE to replace Dan Graham?
James Lavin: Brady's a darn good blocking tight end at a fraction of what Denver paid Graham, so he was a sensible signing. I don't think Belichick would bring Brady in if he didn't think he was the overall best value (performance per dollar) available. If Belichick knew Brady and felt comfortable that he would "fit" the Patriots and contribute, that would be a legitimate reason to sign Brady over an apparently comparable player.
Q: How comfortable are you with the idea that Bill Belichick will return to coach the Pats in 2008 and beyond? Do you envision this (off-season spending spree) as his loading up for "one last run" as many have speculated?
James Lavin: My next door neighbor (sadly, a Jets fan) swears Belichick is headed to the Giants next year to win Super Bowls with multiple teams because Parcells never did it and to play in the same stadium as Eric Mangini. I can't rule that out, but I would be very surprised. Great leaders want to build great institutions that continue their winning ways even after the leaders who built them up leave, and self-confident people set their own course, not try to show up any particular person.
Loading up for one last run?
Coaching the Patriots will never become dull because, even if you start the season with the best team in the NFL, winning it all requires avoiding injuries, lucky bounces, innovative schemes, etc. Winning multiple Super Bowls over an extended period of time with one team is exceptionally challenging. NFL teams turn over, what, a third of their rosters annually? There are only a few Patriots remaining from the first Super Bowl win. As Seinfeld pointed out, personnel changes so rapidly we're practically cheering for laundry. Building an institution that sustains success following your departure is even harder. And starting from scratch elsewhere would soak up whatever free time Belichick has during the off-season to enjoy himself. And he won't find a better owner to work for than Bob Kraft.
I hate this "loading up for one last run" stuff I hear far too often. It doesn't make sense. Some people believe we're loading up for one last year before Belichick leaves. But then why trade away a 2007 1st Round pick for a 2008 pick next year? And why not just give Asante Samuel a fat long-term deal? Other people say Belichick will stick around a few more years. But if the claim is we're stocking up for a run over the next few years, isn't that what every team in the NFL is doing? Have we traded away all our 2011 draft picks or something?
The Patriots are simply doing what they do: strengthening their team year after year. You could point to one-year deals with Stallworth and Moss as signs of short-term thinking, but those contracts make sense because the Patriots signed each player to below-market "prove it" salaries, and one of them should emerge and sign a long-term contract. Didn't the Patriots do that with Corey Dillon? How about trading a 2nd-round pick for veteran Wes Welker? Again, I would point to Dillon as precedent. They could have used that 2nd rounder on a young linebacker (as many Patriots fans have been begging them to for years), but I'm betting they'll develop Oscar Lua, acquired with just a 7th rounder, into an excellent linebacker. Lua was voted a team captain at USC but became a backup to Rey Maualuga, whom the LA Daily News compared to Mike Singletary: "Does this look like Superman in cardinal and gold or what? He flies to the ball and then hits like a locomotive. ...Isn't this obviously USC's next superstar? ...Maualuga has given every indication of becoming the ideal middle linebacker." Mock drafts project Maualuga as a top-5 or top-10 pick in 2008. I bet Lua will prove a steal because teams overlooked him after he fell behind one of the best players in college football.
Q: looking at the team now, what are your expectations of them for the season?
James Lavin: They're easily the best team in football playing in a conference with all the best teams. The challenge will be, like last year, getting past the Chargers, Colts, and Texans. (I'm kidding about the Texans.) Last year, we basically had to play back-to-back Super Bowls to win the AFC and came up just short, due to injuries and illness. The more I think about this, the more I like our chances. Damn, isn't it September yet!?!?
Thank you very much, Jon
James Lavin is a noted Patriots expert widely recognized for his insights into the organization. He has written Management Secrets of the New England Patriots Vols 1 and 2, which can be purchased through his website www.patriotsbook.com. The site also contains reviews and exerpts.
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