His draft choices, long-term contract moves and player maneuvering happen inside the same box as the other 31 NFL teams. Still, Belichick has found a way to separate himself from other personnel decision-makers, and this week he showed again how New England keeps its edge in building a long-term team.
Belichick used to have a strong edge in player moves as he led the Patriots to three Super Bowls in four years on the back of some solid veteran signings (Rodney Harrison, for starters) and key young players (Tom Brady). But if Belichick has looked off his game anywhere in recent years, it's been in that same area. The Patriots just don't have the same advantage they used to have in the draft, and Belichick's serial down-trading has become more of an object of ridicule than an obvious help as New England has endured a few years of draft duds (start that list with Laurence Maroney).
But, while the pieces may not always be there, Belichick has still been the master of team building. His pickup of Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez was a complete coup, as the Hall of Fame coach now has his tight end position stocked for a decade. Belichick used this year's draft to snag some talented young defensive players, and throughout the last few seasons he's inserted no-names at key points on the offensive and defensive lines — hand-crafting veterans that fit his system perfectly from what other teams saw as scrap heaps.
Gronkowski and Hernandez have been the biggest examples that Belichick knows what he's doing. Both were concerns coming out of college (Gronkowski had back issues; Hernandez had character questions), but Belichick used his usual Bill Belichick algorithm to judge them and decided to take a chance. Both have since exploded into huge players not only for the Patriots but also at a league level. When New England signed Gronkowski for six years and $54 million — to be tacked on the end of his rookie contract — it was seen as a great move by the franchise, as Gronkowski could one day be among the ranks of the best tight ends ever.
(There's not a Patriots fan out there that hadn't thought with wist that Gronkowski would end up somewhere else when his rookie deal was up.)
Of course, the Patriots have risks, too. Gronkowski could get injured again. But considering what a contribution he has made to the team so far, both in production and in being a great presence among the players, the Patriots had a classic case of a fan favorite on their hands. And while Belichick and the rest of those calling the shots may seem like they don't want to crack a smile or hold a fiesta, they in some way share the same love and loyalty that fans have for the team. The organization may look like the kind that would jettison a beloved player like Derek Jeter (see: Yankees, 2011, contract negotiations), but the Patriots have been solid in coming through on key guys who are loved by fans and are big contributors to the team. Picking up Gronkowski was not only an excellent tactical move but also a stellar way to support the fan base and warm everyone up further to the Patriot Way.
Gronkowski's signing came shortly after the Patriots made another big move that showed their priorities. While Gronkowski is undoubtedly talented, he's the kind that has come up in the Patriots system and rewarded New England for its trust in him. The other personnel move shows that, while the team may love being able to keep a guy like Gronkowski around for fulfilling his role, the Patriots sometimes have to go to the other side and cut once-talented players when building the team.
Belichick cast a wide net for his wide receiver spot this offseason, inviting Anthony Gonzalez, Jabar Gaffney and Donte Stallworth to join a receiving corps that already boasted Ochocinco, Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Julian Edelman and some young players.
Belichick is open to exploring options, but he also finds out in a short time what's going to work. Gonzalez was cut quickly, and after the Patriots tried to get whatever they could from Ochocinco's potential, he was let go this week, too.
New England fans aren't going to be heartbroken that Ochocinco is on his way out. He didn't do much in a Patriots uniform, and when it became clear that the reason he wasn't producing was because he couldn't keep up with the immortal Tom Brady — who can get guys ranging from newcomers Gronkowski and Hernandez all the way to the returning Branch into his workflow — his time in New England was done.
The parting of Ochocinco was only made easier by his predecessor, the truly talented Randy Moss. Coming in as the elite receiver that Brady had never had, Moss made good on his potential and the tools around him. But when he broke from the team ethos and became more of a liability than an asset, it was over.
Belichick, for all his ability with the Xs and Os, is a master coach in every way. That means he knows how to develop players, lead locker rooms and connect with guys. While his ability as a tactician may have helped him quite a ways toward his championship wins, having a cohesive team is a much bigger tool. And Belichick — never regarded as someone especially great with people — knew enough of what he was doing that he wouldn't squander a group of guys who were getting along together with one piece of spoiled talent. This isn't a coach who would put up with Manny Ramirez, let's say.
That's why Moss had to go. And while Ochocinco has fit in with the team, even his presumed talent and good sportsmanship wasn't enough of a reason to keep him and possibly upset the balance. It's a no-brainer to cut a guy who isn't contributing, but many teams stall when it's time.
By cutting Ochocinco, Belichick showed that he's not afraid of eating his bad moves, or of giving up remaining ounces of talent for what's better for the team. Signing Ochocinco was a bad call. His abilities and football smarts were obviously overestimated. But he was always welcomed and supported inside the Patriots organization until it was time to let him go. In that way, the Patriots did the dirty work, but they did it with class.
Patriots fans may not always agree with the way Belichick makes his moves, but this week he made two decisions that were obviously great for Patriots players and fans alike. It doesn't always have to be tough calls and bitter pills, and those proactive moves put the Patriots in line for a great stretch moving forward.
In this week, at least, Belichick and the Patriots seemed to have found a good balance. (Now, about this Welker guy….)