fb-pixel Skip to main content
christopher l. gasper

The difference between the Patriots’ approach to free agency this year and last: Tom Brady

After a 10-7 season and a return to the playoffs, Bill Belichick hasn't made any major roster moves this offseason.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Time often reveals the truth. A year removed from the Patriots Great Offseason Spend of 2021, the real reason for that unprecedented outlay of cash to remake the team and return it to respectability is obvious. It can be summed up in two words and one huge figure hovering over the franchise: Tom Brady.

The team’s relative inactivity and complacency a week into this year’s free agency, which kicked off last Monday, rendered it clearer than ever that the big-money binge of an NFL-record approximately $175 million in guaranteed money was a direct reaction to Brady winning the Super Bowl with the Buccaneers while the Patriots went 7-9 and missed the playoffs.


Oh, the budget-conscious Bill Belichick, a Wesleyan economics major, tried to dress up that glaringly anomalous offseason as another value play. He spun it as the team capitalizing on copious cap space in an environment in which COVID had forced a reduction in the salary cap to $182.5 million from $198.2 million.

Nope. In Bill The Krafts Trusted. They picked him over Brady (effectively if not actually). Brady’s Super Bowl success was an organizational embarrassment, so the directive for immediate improvement came from above. It worked. The Patriots rebounded to 10-7 and returned to the playoffs.

But now that the Patriots have been restored to respectability and playoff participation, Belichick, the beneficiary of that breathing room, is back to his old ways of doing business. The Patriots have mostly sat on the sidelines this offseason, creating more holes than they’ve filled. The intel from industry sources is they’ve reverted to their old ways in negotiations and behaving as if they are still the same destination they were when they were perennial Super Bowl contenders. The Patriots discount is back.

The Patriots don’t possess near the cap space they had last offseason. However, it was Belichick in 2013 who famously said, “Cap space can be maneuvered, as we all know, in a number of different ways.” Highlighted by the retention of venerable veterans such as Devin McCourty, James White, Matthew Slater, and Nick Folk — not addition — this offseason is about ideology, not economics.


See this tweet Monday morning from NFL information guru and certified FOB (Friend of Belichick) Adam Schefter: “New England likes to sit back and wait for free-agent bargains.”

You think? That sentence could’ve been written by an NFL insider in 2002 or 2012. Last offseason’s binge was just a Foxborough fever dream, folks.

The Patriots’ “major” additions have been Terrance Mitchell, Ty Montgomery, and trading for linebacker Mack Wilson. There was some potential movement Monday morning. We got a flurry of Patriots news, with the team hosting running back Leonard Fournette, restricted free agent guard Ryan Bates, and, incredibly, old friend Malcolm Butler.

Last seen saying the Patriots gave up on him after he was benched on defense while the Patriots were torched for 41 points in Super Bowl LII, Butler returning to replace J.C. Jackson would be the most astonishing Patriots comeback since 28-3 in Super Bowl LI.

If the price is right, BB will play ball with anyone.

The Patriots also delivered their biggest signing of the offseason — both literally and figuratively — re-upping right tackle Trent Brown to a two-year deal. That move was a must after Ted Karras absconded in free agency after getting shortchanged, and Belichick reunited right guard Shaq Mason with Brady in Tampa Bay. (Remember 2020 when the Patriots had approximately $23.5 million in money tied up in guards Joe Thuney and Mason while Stephon Gilmore awaited a contract upgrade?)


The free-agency frenzy and transaction carousel are the shiny baubles of team building, but the real sustainable pieces are found in the draft. The Patriots had a strong one last year and will need another fruitful one.

What’s alarming about the Patriots’ approach thus far, though, is that it evokes a certain level of complacency and institutional arrogance.

They’re running it back with the same roster, as if they’re the Rams or Buccaneers, the last two Super Bowl champions, not a team that lost four of its final five games, beating only the worst team in the league, the Jaguars.

After getting bludgeoned, 47-17, in the playoffs by the two-time defending AFC East champion Bills, the Patriots are a team that needs to get considerably better to insert themselves into the Lombardi Trophy conversation. Standing pat isn’t going to get it done, not when there is an arms race happening around them in the suddenly loaded AFC. Upgrades are mandatory.

What's the next move for Bill Belichick and the Patriots?Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Instead, it feels as though Belichick, who turns 70 next month, is on a Viking River coaching cruise to pass Don Shula for the all-time wins mark after affording himself some leeway to go back to doing things his way without critical commentary from ownership.


He has replaced Brady with a suitable signal caller in Pro Bowler Mac Jones and returned the team to NFL relevance.

As with any iconic figure in his or her field, no one believes in Belichick more than Belichick.

Never forget this seminal passage and quote from Ian O’Connor’s “Belichick: The Making of the Greatest Coach of All Time” when discussing the Brady-Belichick dynamic and eventual breakup:

“One New England assistant said the general feeling among staff members … wasn’t that Belichick’s system could make Super Bowl quarterbacks out of all 32 NFL starters.

‘But if you gave us any of the top 15, we could do it. I don’t think the coaches view Tom as special as everyone else in football does. Mr. Kraft thinks Tom is the greatest gift ever, but the coaches don’t.’ ‘’

My money is on that quote coming from Joe Judge, the new putative Patriots quarterbacks coach.

That brazen declaration of arrogance is a window into Belichick’s team-building philosophy. The same tactics and approaches that worked to the tune of six Super Bowl wins with Brady should work with Jones, so leave him alone.

At his core, this is what Belichick believes. Above all else, he believes in himself and his processes. There’s nothing more peak Patriots than the team currently having almost $10.7 million tied up in punter Jake Bailey, placekicker Folk, and undrafted free agent find receiver Jakobi Meyers.


After a one-year forced diversion from his football doctrine, powered by Brady and ownership chagrin, Belichick is back in Frank Sinatra mode, doing it his way.

Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at christopher.gasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.