FOXBOROUGH, Ma. — Chris Long had a decision to make last spring. At 30 years old and several seasons removed from a spate of double-digit sack campaigns, he knew he wanted to leave the Rams, who hadn’t reached the playoffs in his eight NFL seasons. There were a handful of attractive options for the four-down defensive end, a former second overall pick who could be had on the cheap. The Lions, Cowboys and Falcons were all interested, but Long left money on the table and took a one-year deal with the Patriots for $2.3 million, with only $1 million guaranteed.
“I had never hit the market before, but I knew where I wanted to be,” he said last Sunday, standing in front of his locker minutes after the Patriots won the AFC championship at Gillette Stadium. “If I didn’t have an opportunity to play somewhere I could win, I would have retired. I would have played this year for five dollars—I just wanted to be here.”
That the Falcons are in a position to potentially spoil Long’s Super Bowl dreams doesn’t invalidate his decision. The conventional wisdom in the NFL holds that if you want to win a Lombardi Trophy, you go to Foxborough and don’t worry about getting paid. Bill Belichick’s take-it-or-leave-it negotiating style and his Machiavellian approach to salary cap economics—made possible, in part, by the quarterback he drafted in the sixth round 17 years ago—gives free agents very little leverage. But the overriding factor, the reason why league insiders say the Patriots have the shrewdest and least accommodating fiscal operation in football, is older than the coach, the team and the game itself: winning.
“They’re a nightmare for agents,” one agent told The MMQB, “because you know that if your player wants to play for the Patriots, they’re going to take the discount.”
The MMQB spoke with seven agents who have negotiated multiple player contracts with the Patriots since Bill Belichick took the head-coaching job in 2000. The agents spoke on the condition of anonymity because they have to continue working with Belichick and his lieutenant, Nick Caserio, the Patriots’ unheralded director of player personnel. These frustrated agents recall a go-to refrain from the 64-year-old coach/executive who delivered four Super Bowl titles to a once-moribund franchise.
“It’s simple,” Belichick says in his curt monotone, according to men who have been on the other end of the phone. “Does your guy want to win a Super Bowl, or doesn’t he?”
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One agent who has negotiated deals with New England for more than a decade described four categories of players that the Patriots employ in their ever-changing cast of complements to Tom Brady.
• “One is the guy they draft low or sign as unrestricted and let him go when he wants money,” the veteran agent says.
• “Then there’s the malcontent. Corey Dillon, Randy Moss. He might not have the right personality for the team, but he comes for a year or two at below-market value, produces, and then when he wants money you let him go.”
• “Or they find a guy like LeGarrette Blount or Chris Long. Guys near the end of their career who want to win and still have something to offer.”
The final and most exclusive group is made up of players whom the Patriots end up paying market value. They are the standout players—Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Devin McCourty—who are believed to buy into the so-called Patriot Way and are integral to the team’s success at the time of their re-signing. By committing to only a handful of these players over the years, the Patriots avoid contracts that overpay players past their prime, allowing the team to instead focus on developing the sort of cheap talent that Belichick and his staff are expert at identifying. “You might get a good deal from them,” says one agent, “but it wont be because you’re a good agent. It will be because they like the guy.”
“I would have played this year for five dollars,” Patriots defensive end Chris Long says. “I just wanted to be here.”
For every Devin McCourty there is a Chandler Jones, the Pro Bowl defensive end whom New England traded last March after a 12.5-sack season. One theory behind the Jones trade revolved around a blockbuster free-agent deal signed just seven days earlier: The Giants inked former Dolphins edge defender Olivier Vernon to a five-year, $85 million contract, with $52.5 million guaranteed, elevating the market for ascending edge rushers to unforeseen levels. Belichick saw the basement for an elite player at that position rise to $52.5 million guaranteed, and decided he could cut bait, salvage some value, and still go to a Super Bowl this season. Before the rest of the league could get a handle on the new reality, Belichick dealt his own ascending edge defender, with similar traits, to the Cardinals for a second-round pick. A handful of contributors, including Long, have picked up the slack, and the Patriots are back on the game’s biggest stage for the seventh time under Belichick.
“This is the key,” one longtime agent says. “To pull off that trade, first of all, you need job security that no other coach in the NFL possesses. Then there is no other coach besides Belichick with his fingerprints all over the organization, with the balls, the vision, the foresight and a genius level of insanity to make that deal.”
There is another essential piece to the puzzle, a person without whom Belichick might lack the necessary influence: Tom Brady. The three-time Super Bowl MVP’s 2017 cap hit of $13.7 million ranks No. 27 in the NFL, according to Sportrac.com. That’s about $200,000 less than Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson.
“They use Tom Brady’s deal in every negotiation they do in the sense that Tom has never demanded to be the highest-paid quarterback,” one agent says. “So because of that, they never want to make someone the highest-paid at their position.”
“Having Brady take less money and still work his ass off, that helps the organization run the building they want to run,” another agent says.
Brady and his agent, Donald Yee, have long accepted below-market value from the Patriots while maximizing every available dollar from Brady’s endorsers, including Under Armour, Movado and Ugg, according to two sources familiar with those negotiations. Plus, Brady’s wellness company, TB12, has office space in Patriot Place (the mall adjacent to the stadium and team facility that was built by team owner Robert Kraft). And TB12 co-owner Alex Guerrero is a de facto member of the team allowed to used space for treatments at the facility despite protests from Patriots’ medical and athletic training staff. The Boston Globe, in 2015, detailed how Brady’s company profits from its relationship with the Patriots and pondered whether it constituted a circumvention of the salary cap. (At the time, the team did not respond to requests for comment. The Patriots also did not answer The MMQB’s question as to whether the league has inquired into this relationship.)
“When you ask these guys how they get Tom to take less money,” one agent says, “they don’t even think Tom is doing the team a favor. They see Tom as the quintessential Patriot, and he understands whatever we ask him to do, he will do.
“Plus he has the external business and players are fed to him, and because it’s a privately held company, you and I can never get a copy of that lease. But I guarantee you it’s not what Foot Locker is paying [to be in the mall].”
The Patriots’ flexibility and (relative) frugality gives them leverage that virtually no other organization enjoys in pro sports. When Brady’s contract influences players such as Julian Edelman to agree to below-market deals—another of Yee’s clients, he earns $4.25 million per year—it has a chilling effect on the rest of the roster.
“It’s kind of an understanding, an unspoken thing,” says former Patriots tight end Ben Watson, who left the team in 2009 with one Super Bowl ring on his hand. “What a lot of people who played there will tell you is, you come there to win, but you may have to go somewhere else if you want to get paid.”
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One agent uses the oft-quoted line from The Usual Suspects, whispered mendaciously by Kevin Spacey’s character, to describe The Patriot Way of doing business: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
Belichick, according to several agents, has been known to let his No. 2 man, Nick Caserio, nail down free-agent deals or contract extensions and then interject himself into the negotiations at the 11th hour, offering less money and little explanation. He and Caserio will also call up the representatives of mid-tier free agents who are sure starters elsewhere and offer contracts for part-time roles and half the compensation that other teams are willing to spend, unconcerned with whom they might offend.
“They’re not as active as other teams; they usually get the castoffs,” an agent says. “They know—not feel—know they’re going to win regardless of who they have. It’s not arrogance because it’s a fact. You can’t go down their roster and say it’s a more talented roster than half the teams in the NFL.”
Belichick, exercising his abundance of leverage, will often go on vacation in the heat of free agency and make his take-it-or-leave-it offers from faraway beaches while other coaches are flying around the country on private jets to court players. When prospective players visit Foxborough, they express to their agents a sense of fear but often leave feeling as if they have just met the lone coach who understands their true purpose on a football field.
“With players, there’s a tremendous amount of intimidation because of how the media portrays the team as the evil empire,” says one agent. “But once they meet them, they freaking love [Belichick]. They’re blown away by his personality and how much he knows about the player and his skillset.”
Says another agent, “They’re never going to end up overspending for somebody, because they understand the skill sets of players across the league and understand how those guys are going to fit as puzzle pieces. Guys buy into the system Bill runs.”
Agents, however, don’t always abide by The Patriot Way.
When New England drafted Watson at the end of the first round, in 2004, the team insisted on a six-year contract, a rarity for that position in the draft. Watson’s agent, Tom Condon, stood firm on five years, and Watson held out. As the season approached, however, Watson says that Condon told him to find another agent so a deal could be worked out. (Watson fired Condon, signed another agent and agreed to a six-year deal.) While the team has fostered close relationships with a handful of agents such as Yee, it has periodically blacklisted others such as Condon, who once said Belichick pretended that he and his agency “didn’t exist.”
“In Bill’s world, if you do what he wants, he likes you,” says one agent who has known the coach for decades. “If you don’t, you’re an a------.”
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Bill Belichick’s loathing of overspending is something the Krafts envisioned when they bought the team in 1994, when Belichick was still struggling as the head coach in Cleveland. Shortly after the sale, Bob Kraft’s Harvard Business School-educated son, Jonathan, gave a speech before the 1776 Quarterback Club of New England—a prominent fan group that hosted an annual awards banquet—–and spelled out the family’s vision for a team that had won just 19 of 80 games from 1989-1993.
The new salary cap that had just been introduced, the younger Kraft explained, was one of the biggest reasons they purchased the club. He believed there were inefficiencies in the market and used a hypothetical to illustrate his point.
Player A makes $2 million per year and is 10% better than Player B, who makes $500,000. Too many teams, Kraft argued, were committing to the marginally better player at the higher price. The Patriots, he said, would prefer the cheaper player in nearly every instance. Bill Parcells, the Patriots’ coach at the time, generally agreed with this principle, but it was Belichick, taking over six years later, who made it the team’s doctrine. By winning almost immediately, with a Super Bowl in his second season, Belichick wrestled full roster control away from Andy Wasynczuk, the senior vice president and chief operating officer who contributed in negotiations at the time of his hiring, according to a source with knowledge of the team’s affairs at the time.
“They know—not feel—know they’re going to win regardless of who they have,” one agent says of the Pats. “It’s not arrogance because it’s a fact. You can’t go down their roster and say it’s a more talented roster than half the teams in the NFL.”
Scott Pioli, who arrived in 2000 with Belichick, ascended to director of player personnel in 2001, and he and Belichick created their niche in the NFL’s negotiating landscape. Caserio picked up the torch when Pioli left for Kansas City in 2009, and while Caserio is viewed as a potential general manager candidate for another team, there is an accompanying sense of doubt about the prospects of Patriots employees who leave the nest. From Pioli to Charlie Weis to Josh McDaniels to Romeo Crennel, the list of former Belichick disciples who have stumbled after leaving Foxborough only enhances Belichick’s leverage over the rest of the league.
Still, the elephant in the room is Brady, who turns 40 in August. There is ongoing debate in league circles centered on Belichick and the team after Brady retires. Is it possible for the coach to win consistently without him, not just for short periods of time—as he did with Matt Cassel in 2008, and early this season with Jimmy Garoppolo—but for the rest of his career?
Says Watson, “I think Brady is underappreciated in that debate. I didn’t realize how special he was until I left and realized that other quarterbacks were nothing like him.”
“You look at what he did with those guys, and you have to ask, is Tom Brady one of the greatest quarterbacks in the NFL if he doesn’t have Bill Belichick?” says one agent. “I don’t know that answer.”
We may not get an answer to that question anytime soon. Brady has expressed his desire to play into his 40s, and if he keeps putting up performances like last Sunday’s—when he set the team record for passing yards in a postseason game (384)—that means bad news for agents and any player thought to be expendable.
The next man up for a new contract is cornerback Malcolm Butler, the undrafted free agent from Division II West Alabama who was the hero of Super Bowl XLIX and has evolved into one of the Patriots’ best defenders. Scheduled to become a restricted free-agent this summer, Butler will be looking for an extension this off-season; his agent, a personal injury attorney out of Huntsville, Ala., has never negotiated a veteran NFL contract.
“I can’t even imagine going into a negotiation with the Patriots having never done one before,” one agent says. “That would be like strolling into the lion’s den.”
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