O’Sullivan: The unexpected should be expected when it comes to Bill Belichick

  • New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick celebrates after the NFL Super Bowl 51 football game against the Atlanta Falcons Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez) Tony Gutierrez

Monitor staff
Published: 3/14/2017 11:13:33 PM

Following the Patriots has been wildly entertaining for nearly two decades now, and the team added a new wrinkle to its repertoire during the last week – the offseason bombshell parade.

Bill Belichick opened the new routine with a stunner, inking cornerback Stephon Gilmore to a five-year, $65 million contract last Thursday, the first day of free agency. It was the largest contract Belichick has ever given to a free agent, and it was only the start of his parade. The spectacle has also included intriguing trades (for wide receiver Brandin Cooks, tight end Dwayne Allen and defensive end Kony Early), more free agent signings (defensive lineman Lawrence Guy and running back Rex Burkhead) and re-signing some familiar faces (defensive tackle Alan Branch and safety Duron Harmon).

It’s easy to assume that Belichick has led New England down a new path with his offseason blitz, but that’s not really accurate. Yes, the parade is new, but doing the unexpected is quintessential Belichick.

He’s been doing it ever since he wrote a resignation letter on napkin that he was quitting as “HC of the NYJ” (translation, Head Coach of the New York Jets) to take the job in New England. He did it when he carved out space on his roster for a skinny sixth-round pick of a quarterback, and then let that quarterback (you now know him as Tom Brady) play over the Pro Bowler (Drew Bledsoe) who had lost his job to injury. He did it when he cut ties with legendary Patriots like Adam Vinatieri, Richard Seymour and Lawyer Milloy.

He did it when he went for it on fourth-and-2 against Peyton Manning’s Colts back in 2009 ... okay, so not all of Belichick’s against-the-grain moves have worked, but you get the idea. The New England football boss man cuts left when everyone is going right. It’s his version of Moneyball, the Michael Lewis book/baseball philosophy that shows how real value is found in places where most people aren’t looking.

Belichick doesn’t follow in anyone’s footsteps, not even his own. Not only was Gilmore’s contract the biggest Belichick has ever doled out, it was the first time since his 2007 signing of Adalius Thomas that he made a momentous splash in free agency. Heck, the big signings for the last two years have been Jabaal Sheard ($11 million in 2015) and Chris Hogan ($12 million in 2016). Gilmore dwarfs both of those combined.

So this week of offseason fireworks may have been unexpected, but that’s pure Belichick. And there are plenty of other signs that this is the same hoodie-wearing grump who has been running the show in New England for years and not some free-spending impostor.

Like he did with the above-mentioned Vinatieri, Seymour and Butler, Belichick is showing no emotional ties to Malcolm Butler and Dont’a Hightower, a pair of fan favorites and Super Bowl heroes who may wind up on new teams because of money.

Butler is the epitome of a Patriot, an undrafted player who worked for everything he’s gotten and played his best on the biggest stage. His game-winning interception against Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX may be the greatest single play in the history of the sport. But that hasn’t stopped Belichick from playing hardball in his contract negotiations with Butler, a restricted free agent who is now looking elsewhere (he has a meeting in New Orleans on Thursday) because New England won’t give him the money he wants (and deserves).

Same goes for Hightower. His shoestring tackle of Marshawn Lynch set up Butler’s historic interception. His strip sack of Matt Ryan in Super Bowl LI was instrumental to the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. He’s a playmaker, a captain and the quarterback of the defense. And on Tuesday he was in Pittsburgh as part of his unrestricted free agent tour because the Patriots are simply not going to hand out fat contracts for past performance, like so many NFL teams do.

Belichick’s willingness to use draft picks as bargaining chips also goes against the NFL norm, which means it’s business as usual in New England. Most teams cling to those picks, salivating over the chance to dip into the college talent pool. Belichick views picks as ways to acquire players, college or pro. In just the last week he swapped a first and third for Cooks, a second for Ealy and a fourth for Allen.

Here’s a final clue that this unique parade of offseason bombshells is, in fact, typical Belichick – the moves are all smart.

Gilmore’s arrival gives the team flexibility when it comes to signing Butler, hurts a division opponent (Buffalo, Gilmore’s old team) and gives the Patriots a young (26) defensive cornerstone for years to come.

Cooks comes with an affordable contract for the next two years and adds youth (23) to an aging receiving corps. Plus, he’s a player Belichick has seen up-close and personal over the last two years when the Saints (Cooks’s former team) and Patriots held joint pre-season practices.

“It’s a first class place, the type of place you would love to be a part of, so when we practiced against them it was always competitive and this is the type of team you want to go against to better yourself,” Cooks told patriots.com on Tuesday. “So to be on this team now is amazing.

Belichick picked up Ealy for next to nothing, giving Carolina the No. 64 pick and getting back No. 72 and Ealy. So all he did was move down eight spots in the draft, and it’s hard to imagine Ealy, who had three sacks in Super Bowl L, won’t provide at least that much value.

Acquiring Allen meant the Patriots didn’t have to overpay to keep Martellus Bennett as an insurance policy for Rob Gronkowski. Branch was one of the team’s most consistent, and valuable, players last year. And Harmon provides consistency on a defense that will be integrating new players.

For the team’s followers, the parade has been a treat. Picturing new faces making plays in your team’s uniform is pure gold for fans. Now, if Belichick would just bring back Butler and Hightower, Patriots Nation could rest easy.

But don’t count on it, because all you can expect from Belichick is the unexpected.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)

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