Flash back to the 2002 NFL Combine and try to picture the Patriots scouting staff. Scott Pioli was Bill Belichick’s right-hand man as vice president of player personnel. Thomas Dimitroff and Jason Licht were his national scouts. The two fresh-faced grunts right out of college were pro scout Bob Quinn and area scout Jon Robinson.
Fourteen years later, the saplings of Belichick’s tree have borne fruit across the NFL. Walk the hallways at the combine in Indianapolis, and you can’t help but run into an ex-Patriots scout who is now running his own team.
Dimitroff and Pioli are in charge of the Falcons front office, Licht is entering his third season as the Buccaneers GM, and Quinn and Robinson are both beginning jobs as first-time general managers (Quinn in Detroit, Robinson in Tennessee).
“It’s satisfying. It really is,” said Quinn, 39, who was born and raised in Norwood and spent 16 seasons with the Patriots. “We spent some long hours watching film together and going on scouting trips, coming to the combine, doing pro days. Those guys are friends, first and foremost, as well as colleagues that I can bounce things off being a first-time GM.”
“You’re sitting there late night watching tape and you try to come up for air a little bit, and it’s like, ‘One of these days, if we keep working hard, maybe we can be [a GM],’ ” said Robinson, who spent the last three seasons with Licht in Tampa Bay after spending 12 years with the Patriots. “We’d talk about it. But in the end, we’d just try to work at our jobs and try to be the best at what we were doing.”
The “Belichick Tree” didn’t have the best reputation a few years ago after Pioli, Eric Mangini, and Josh McDaniels struggled to replicate the Patriots’ success with other organizations. But five straight trips to the AFC Championship game and a Super Bowl title have certainly restored the shine.
Five of 32 teams — almost 20 percent of the league — are now trying to emulate the Patriot Way. In addition to the Buccaneers, Falcons, Lions, and Titans, the Texans also have a heavy Patriots influence from head coach Bill O’Brien, formerly New England’s offensive coordinator.
And Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said earlier this month that he hired Adam Gase as his new head coach because “I was looking for somebody that really could be the next, if you will, Bill Belichick.”
“New England is a unique place,” Robinson said. “It forces you to learn football and it forces you to learn more than just, ‘This player can do this.’ It teaches you big-picture things when it comes to roster building, and I think that’s kind of what has prepared Jason and Dimitroff and Scott and Bob and myself to really attack our own individual clubs with a similar philosophy but with our own personality on the football team.”
Licht, Dimitroff, Quinn, and Robinson all offered a similar refrain when asked what it was about Belichick’s program that prepared them to become general managers: Belichick’s insistence on finding ways to accentuate a player’s positives instead of worrying about whether he can fit into a specific scheme.
“Coach Belichick would always talk about, ‘Tell me what the guy can do, don’t tell me what he can’t do,’ ” said Licht. “ ‘We’ll find a way to put that positive skill set to use in the defense and not ask him to be in a position where he can fail.’
“That’s going to be true here too. You take bits and pieces of everywhere you’ve been, but at the core, it came from New England.”
“I think one of the things that everybody learns when they go into the Patriots Paradigm is that there was no ‘on the fence,’ ” said Dimitroff. “You had to come in with a strong opinion.
“Coach Belichick and Scott at that time, you weren’t going to just sort of fly under the radar and suggest that someone is replacing or is a backup in the league. You had to truly home in and compare him to the other talent on your football team. You had to be very specific.”
Ask the youngsters about the most important lesson they learned in New England, and the answer sounds straight out of Belichick’s mouth.
“Finding players that have a team-first attitude,” Robinson said. “There is nothing more important to a football team. No one part is greater than the other.”
Of course, fans in Atlanta, Detroit, Tampa Bay, Houston, and Nashville shouldn’t expect five straight trips to the conference championship right away. None of those teams has Tom Brady at quarterback, and none of the executives has Belichick’s acumen in running almost every facet of the organization, from on-field strategy to player development to adroit salary cap management.
“My time with Bill was so interesting because he is deeply involved in personnel, more than any of the other four coaches I worked with by far,” said Pat Kirwan, a former scout, coach, and cap manager who worked with Belichick with the Jets in the 1990s.
“The problem is, does everyone learn everything Bill knows, or do they all learn just the piece Bill teaches them? I think you’ve got to stick your nose in other people’s business, which he doesn’t always like, but I think that’s how you get the big picture.”
The former Patriots scouts are certainly having fun seeing each other reach the top of their profession after grinding away in anonymity in Foxborough for so many years.
“It’s amazing what you see when you see these guys working side by side with them,” Dimitroff said of Quinn and Robinson, about 10 years his junior. “You just realize that some guys have an eye, some guys have ability not only from an evaluation standpoint, but from an assessment standpoint. Both of those guys have a really good grasp for doing that.”
Checking in on Patriots’ agenda
Patriots news and notes gathered after speaking with many league sources at the combine:
■ One of the worst-kept secrets in Indianapolis was that the Patriots were looking hard at running backs — which makes sense, given how poorly the running game struggled at the end of last season, and that LeGarrette Blount is a free agent and Dion Lewis is coming off a torn ACL.
The Patriots are investigating some of the top veteran free agents — Matt Forte, Alfred Morris, Chris Ivory, and Joique Bell, among others — and used several of their 60 official visits on running back prospects, including Cal’s Daniel Lasco and Northwestern fullback Dan Vitale. Lasco was the early winner at the Combine — his broad jump of 11 feet, 3 inches was the best for any running back at the Combine in at least 10 years, and he added a 41.5 inch vertical and 4.46 in the 40.
The Patriots don’t like to pay more than $1 million or so on running backs, but this might be the year to splurge a little on a veteran. The team’s internal autopsy of the AFC Championship game loss to the Broncos concluded that Josh McDaniels’s hands were tied as a play-caller because of the team’s complete inability to run the ball.
■ The Patriots aren’t expected to be big players in free agency, instead focusing on re-signing their own guys. They don’t have many key free agents of their own — Blount, Akiem Hicks, and Nate Ebner are probably the biggest names — but about half of their starting defense is entering the final year of their contracts: Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, Chandler Jones, Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, and Duron Harmon, among others.
The Patriots, though, don’t seem to be in any rush to reach contract extensions with those players, as they hadn’t initiated talks with any as of Friday evening. They might start addressing extensions after free agency, but they have a full year-plus to work out deals. Hightower, for one, seems willing to wait it out and play 2016 under his fifth-year option, which is worth about $7.75 million.
■ The Patriots haven’t tipped their hand about what they’re doing with some of their veterans, as well. The expectation is that they are going to make more than a few changes with their offensive skill players, and Danny Amendola ($6.8 million cap number) and Brandon LaFell ($3.675 million) are certainly at risk of getting cut, providing a total cap savings of at least $6.6 million.
Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon (combined cap numbers of $10 million, combined savings of almost $7 million) don’t know their fates, either.
The Patriots want Ebner back as a core special teamer but are playing a little hardball right now, trying to get him for close to the veteran minimum.
■ Spoke to one pro scout whose team did its own psychological study of the quarterbacks in the 2014 draft (much more comprehensive than the Wonderlic), and the scout absolutely raved about Patriots backup Jimmy Garoppolo, calling him “borderline brilliant.” The scout noted that Garoppolo’s ability to retain and process information was among the best his team had ever seen.
Preseason slate may get a trim
Some positive news for those bored by preseason football games and weary of paying full price for tickets: The NFL Competition Committee has discussed cutting the preseason down from four games to three (or five to four for those teams in the Hall of Fame Game).
Starters and key players rarely play in the final preseason game, and although the games serve as a good opportunity to evaluate the bottom-of-the-roster players, teams will figure out another way to get the job done.
“I think there would be support for three,” said Packers president Mark Murphy. “Rather than playing that fourth game on a Thursday . . . don’t play a fourth game and then you’d have an extra week. We’ve looked at different models, but I think that’s the one that makes the most sense.
“You’re giving up some revenue, but [the fourth game] is one of the worst things we do. The move we made on variable [ticket] pricing helps a little bit in how preseason is viewed, but especially that fourth game is kind of a throwaway.”
Of course, don’t expect the 31 owners to agree to eliminate the fourth preseason game until they can find a way to replace the revenue.
Ramming into logistical issues
Winning over the NFL owners for the right to move to Los Angeles was the easy part for the Rams. Now comes the difficult part — actually moving while still preparing for free agency, the draft, and the season.
Coach Jeff Fisher said he and Rams administrators will meet with their players Friday in Manhattan Beach, Calif., to provide information about temporary housing, their practice facility, Southern California traffic patterns, and more.
For spring workouts, the Rams will practice at the football facility in Oxnard that the Cowboys use for training camp. They have had discussions with UC Irvine about holding training camp at that campus. The Rams will play their games at the Coliseum until their new stadium opens in 2019.
The move also means dozens of team employees have to uproot and move to California (assuming they want to). The Rams plan to keep their broadcast, production, and community relations employees, but will be hiring new corporate sponsorship and ticketing employees when they arrive out West.
The 2016 salary cap was officially set Friday night at $155.27 million per team, up from $143.3 million a year ago. The $12 million rise was due mostly to the league’s expanded Thursday Night Football package, a $450 million package split by NBC and CBS. The Patriots will carry over just under $1.4 million in additional cap space from 2015, and currently have about $13.3 million in cap space for 2016, although they can create several million more by releasing and restructuring current players. . . . As if there weren’t enough distrust between the NFL owners and the union, the league got caught red-handed trying to mis-classify more than $100 million in “waived gate” revenue that it didn’t want to share with the union. As a result, each team will get $1.5 million to 2 million more in salary cap space in 2016. “They created an exemption out of a fiction and they got caught,” DeMaurice Smith, the NFL Players Association executive director, told the Wall Street Journal. Improvements to the league’s discipline and drug policies have been and will continue to be difficult to come by thanks to the owners continually abusing their powers. . . . The Bills’ Marcell Dareus has the current high mark for defensive players with $61 million guaranteed in his contract, but we hear that Broncos pass rusher and Super Bowl MVP Von Miller has been telling people he wants to blow that out of the water — $80 million guaranteed over four years. . . . The Patriots are known for often getting rid of players “a year early instead of a year late,” but 11-year veteran Logan Mankins has had two productive years down in Tampa Bay and is mulling a third. “We’ll be talking to Logan in the next few weeks,” Licht said at the Combine. . . . Great to see Leigh Steinberg back at the Combine and promoting a significant prospect. Steinberg, the inspiration for the main character in “Jerry Maguire,” is back in the agent game after a well-publicized battle with alcoholism and bankruptcy. The former agent for star players like Troy Aikman and Steve Young now represents Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch, likely a second- or third-round pick, in this year’s draft. . . . The Browns re-shaped their front office with analytics-reliant executives from Harvard, but their outside-the-box thinking also extends to their medical department. The Browns’ medical team, led by head team physician Dr. James Voos, was measuring the vital statistics of the Combine participants with wearable, Fitbit-like technology during on-field drills. The technology provides instant measurements to the physicians, allowing them to monitor heart rate, functional movements, athlete workloads, and biometric markers. Voos and the Browns presented their new technology to other team doctors during the week in Indianapolis.
Running back Marshawn Lynch, who retired in early February, has always let his play do the talking, especially in the postseason. “Beast Mode” is eighth on the career rushing yards list in the playoffs. Here’s a look at how he stacks up with the others:
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.