(Updated March 12, 2015)
Vince Wilfork sensed in recent years a softening of Bill Belichick’s iron heart. In his 60s, perhaps there was a twinge of sentimentality in this crustiest of men — the greatest coach of American football, because, for one thing, he’s the most demanding.
For 11 years Wilfork has played nose tackle for the hooded maestro/evil emperor of the New England Patriots. Wilfork is the 6-foot-2, 340-pound fulcrum of their defense, Or you could say the guts of it. He’s a massive if jiggly force that effectively clogs the middle of the field. They don’t win the Super Bowl without his determined pushback against Marshawn Lynch.
Wilfork’s 2014 season was an impressive comeback after he missed most of the previous one with a ruptured Achilles. He hoped the team would pick up his $8 million option. Or at least offer to renegotiate for something less.
If any player could touch Belichick’s heart, it’s the veteran leader of a defense that’s his proudest achievement. Any coach could get three touchdowns a game from Tom Brady, but the Patriots’ defense, with its crafty stunts, shifts and disguised blitzes, is as much a constant as an offense that thrives on the efficiency and vision of its quarterback.
A month ago, Wilfork told ESPN.com in Boston that the Patriots coach “is still Bill . . . coaches the same way. . . demands everything the same way. But I think he’s got a little soft-heart now. . . . He’s more understanding now. . . . I’ve seen the difference in Bill in the 11 years I’ve been here, and I tell him he is getting soft.”
Not as soft as Wilfork would like.
When Belichick cut him last week, there was no hug, no “check back with us before you go somewhere else.” Belichick was on to someone else the way he was once on to Cincinnati.
Had there been some creeping doubt, Wilfork found that with Belichick the bottom line is still the bottom line. And there’s nothing soft about it.
Not that the bottom line has been so rough on Wilfork. Last year he pocketed $7 million of Patriot bucks. He was worth it and he was grateful for it. He tweeted gracious farewells when he learned the Patriots were not very interested in keeping him.
Even though the D-line market has risen, most evidently in Ndamukong Suh’s guaranteed $60 million on a six-year deal with the Miami Dolphins., Suh hit free agency at precisely the most opportune time. He’s 28, and except for Houston’s J.J. Watt, whose contract he bettered, Suh had more impact on games than any other defensive player last season.
Still, he comes at high risk. He is, with all due respect to Richie Incognito, the dirtiest player in the league, He has paid more than $420,000 in fines. His next suspension won’t be for one game. Next time they’ll be putting his photos up in post offices.
When he dug his heels into the injured leg of the MVP to be, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Suh crossed the line, into a level of scrutiny no one has reached before. His aggressiveness, an asset most of the time, could be a liability now.
Suh is being paid like a Pro Bowl quarterback, which seems unrealistic. How can we believe the Dolphins could do something smart? Then again, they don’t have a Pro Bowl quarterback and don’t have to pay for one. Sadly, there’s no free-agent QB better than their oh so gradually developing Ryan Tannehill. So they could not have done better than Suh as a game changer in this off-season.
Miami’s defensive line will threaten Brady with Suh and Cameron Wake side by side. Brady will not enjoy trying to elude them. He’ll be swearing like a drunk sailor.
As Belichick ponders how to stay ahead, it’s not a question of what have you done for us lately but what you can do for us next season. Coaches who build dynasties know when to hold ’em and when not. Pittsburgh’s Chuck Noll turned away from Terry Bradshaw at 35. Bill Walsh at San Francisco showed the door to Joe Montana when he was 36 and would go on to have two productive seasons with Kansas City.
A dynasty-maker must have a ruthless scale of value. Walsh said it pained him to part with Montana, Dwight Clark, Russ Francis and others, but that he could not have won multiple Super Bowls without his harsh exit strategy.
Walsh traded star players when he thought they had one good year left. When Belichick lets a veteran walk, you can be sure he’s had all the best of that career. He had little to regret about seemingly early departures of Ty Law, Lawyer Milloy, Richard Seymour, Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Logan Mankins. All went on to play for other teams (Law and Lawyer for three), but none have been worth what they made in New England.
Likewise, Belichick is making the right call on Wilfork, even though Pro Football Focus ranked him 13th best defensive tackle in the NFL, at +10.4. At 33, Wilfork is still a fine player who can run and jump better than anyone of his immensity. But he’s no bargain at his option price, with his injury record and obesity.
Belichick is considering a competing free agent, Terrance Knighton, 28, reportedly seeking $7 million a year. Playing for the Denver Broncos, Knighton was not called “Porkchop” for missing many meals. At 6-3, 335 pounds, he’s as big as Wilfork and was ranked by PFF just ahead of him in performance.
At their respective ages, Knighton is on the way up while Wilfork is trending down.
The Patriots may miss Wilfork. Right now they do not have a defensive tackle who can stuff the run and shove the middle of the pocket like he does, although Dominique Easley, first-round pick from last year, could step forward.
It’s not like the Patriots are cheapskates, even if they expect a discount on a team that’s always contending for rings. Last week, on the eve of the free-agency shopping period, they gave safety Devin McCourty six years at $6 mil a year guaranteed. But McCourty is 27. When his contract ends he will be a year younger than Wilfork is now.
Players leave the Patriots as soon as they slip from their peak. In 2014 their best defender was cornerback Darrelle Revis. But Belichick let the New York Jets outbid him. They bought back Revis Island for 5 years, $70 million, more than half guaranteed.
Revis is still in his prime, at 29. He should make the Jets better for the next two or three years. But then he will lose speed, unless he turns out to be Darrell Green or Champ Bailey. Belichick clings doggedly to the future, confident that he can take care of the present with an abundance of middle round draft picks and a Jonas Gray or two who other teams undervalue.
Revis made the obligatory It’s Not About the Money speech.
Call me a cynic, but if anybody was ever about money it’s Darrelle Revis. He’s earned $140 million as the wealthiest journeyman athlete in history. This is the third time he’s changed teams. He said he “wanted to go home.” Last time I checked, he was born in Pittsburgh. Fine by me. He should live wherever he wants, and spare us the reasons why.
And if the Jets think he’s a brilliant long-term investment, well, that’s why they’re the Jets.
The Jets and Dolphins and even the Buffalo Bills, with Belichick’s pesky nemesis, Rex Ryan, in charge, think their spending sprees at the free-agent market will make them competive with New England in the AFC East.
They’re probably wrong. Brady will keep Gronking and Belichick will keep repackaging and sub-packaging. Malcolm Butler, whose interception won the Super Bowl, won’t be an island, but he will be an adequate replacement for Revis. And their star middle linebacker, Jerod Mayo, returns from missing a season from injury.
It’s not even out of the question Wilfork ends up with New England for one more year. McCourty is pleading to make that happen. If it does, it will be at the price Belichick wants. It will be a business decision, nothing else.