Patriots fans weren’t the only ones who took hard Wes Welker’s departure from New England after the 2012 season. Mike Tannenbaum, fired by the Jets that same offseason after seven years as the general manager, couldn’t believe the timing of it.
“I’m thinking to myself, ‘I have spent so much money, effort, draft choices, and years of my life trying to cover that little guy. And now he leaves?’ ” Tannenbaum said.
Tannenbaum is in the media now, hired by ESPN this offseason after being let go by the Dolphins after four years as executive vice president of football operations. I gave him a call this past week because I thought he could provide a unique perspective on the Patriots.
Tannenbaum, a Needham native (and former Globe delivery boy), has spent 10 of the last 13 years running the front office of two AFC East franchises. He had a front-row seat to compete in the same division against arguably the greatest quarterback, greatest head coach, and greatest dynasty in NFL history, and has interesting perspectives on why the Patriots have been so successful over the last 20 years.
“Every team has its challenges. Ours, with the Dolphins and Jets, just happened to be Tom Brady and Bill Belichick,” Tannenbaum said.
Tannenbaum’s teams actually had more success than most against the Patriots. The Jets won a 2010 Divisional Round game in Gillette Stadium. They went to back-to-back AFC Championship games, the only other AFC East team to advance that far in the last 20 years. And Tannenbaum’s Dolphins won three of their last four against the Patriots in Miami, including last year’s miracle.
Still, the Jets’ success lasted only two seasons. No one in the AFC East has been able to consistently challenge the Patriots over the past 20 years.
“There was a lot of things to admire about [the Patriots’] program, but one of the things that stood out was they did a really good job of filling needs from within, that weren’t necessarily household names,” Tannenbaum said. “Their player development was just really good. And guys that nobody talked about in training camp were meaningful contributors toward the end of the season. That’s the essence of coaching and player development.”
Tannenbaum believes the new practice rules established under the 2011 collective bargaining agreement give the Patriots a significant advantage over their AFC East rivals. The offseason program was shortened by five weeks, two-a-days were eliminated, and full-contact practices were cut back significantly, making practice time a scarce resource.
“The CBA absolutely enhances their advantage, because their continuity, the amount of reps they’ve had over the other three teams becomes more pronounced,” Tannenbaum said.
The Jets, Bills, and Dolphins are always starting from scratch every three years when they bring in a new coach, front office, or quarterback. Meanwhile, the Patriots have had the main people in place for two decades — Brady, Belichick, Josh McDaniels, Nick Caserio, Dante Scarnecchia, and many others. The Patriots’ continuity and institutional knowledge is one of their greatest weapons.
“It becomes a force multiplier. You have people that are really good, that also have a lot more reps,” Tannenbaum said. “On opening day this year it will be the 15,000th play between McDaniels and Brady. It will be Play 1 for [Adam] Gase and [Sam] Darnold, Play 1 for [Chad] O’Shea and [Josh] Rosen, and the 17th game for [Brian] Daboll and Josh Allen.”
Tannenbaum said the old trope about Belichick making teams play “lefthanded” was reality every time his teams played the Patriots. And that Belichick does an incredible job of taking a lot of complex information and distilling it into simple strategies.
“All the coaches I’ve worked with over the years, even when we’ve had some success [against the Patriots], they’ve always talked about, ‘For us to win, it’s going to be the fourth or fifth thing we do best that’s going to have to carry us,’ ” Tannenbaum said. “Sometimes it’s really hard for teams to come up with other ways to win.
“Bill does an incredible job, to take voluminous and complex information and distill it into things that are very important. After the Super Bowl, he talked about, ‘We had to stop the Rams’ deep passing game off of play-action.’ And they did that.”
Tannenbaum saw the Patriots at their lowest moment last year when the Dolphins beat them in December on the Miami Miracle, a loss that looked like it could eventually cost the Patriots a trip to the Super Bowl. But Tannenbaum said he wasn’t surprised that the Patriots found their mojo right before the playoffs began.
“Bill does an incredible job of saying, ‘Hey, this is what we need to do this week, nothing else matters,’ ” Tannenbaum said. “And as much as that’s true in the regular season, it really shows up in the playoffs. That’s why it really doesn’t matter what a team looks like in October or November.”
Tannenbaum also did plenty of homework on this year’s draft prospects — first with the Dolphins, then as an analyst on draft weekend for ESPN — and was impressed with the Patriots’ pick of receiver N’Keal Harry in the first round.
“I thought that was a really smart pick,” Tannenbaum said. “He was really good at making contested catches. He actually reminded me a little bit of Anquan Boldin — this guy is physical, and he can run better than Boldin. The way Brady is so accurate where he could throw guys open, I think [Harry] has a chance to be more productive than usual as a rookie receiver. I think this guy’s size is going to be a great complement to what they already have. I suspect he has a chance to contribute right away.”
Breaking down a pair of contracts
Let’s take a look at the contracts of two players who recently signed with the Patriots:
■ Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman got a well-deserved pay raise a couple of weeks ago that puts him under contract through the 2021 season. Edelman was supposed to make between $2.5 million and $5.5 million. Now he will make between $9.5 million and $11 million. But as has been the case throughout Edelman’s career, a significant chunk of the contract is tied to him being healthy and productive.
The three-year deal has a maximum value of $25.5 million. That includes $7 million in performance incentives and $2.3 million in per-game roster bonuses.
Put another way, more than one-third of the contract’s value ($9.3 million) is tied to Edelman staying on the field and producing big numbers.
The full guarantee is $12 million over two years (which includes an $8 million signing bonus). The 2021 season has no guarantees, but Edelman’s salary is manageable ($4 million in salary and bonuses, $3.25 million in incentives).
His salary-cap number increases from $5.41 million to $6.077 million this year. His cap number next year is $7.167 million, and in 2021 it is $6.67 million. It’s a nice reward for Edelman, who certainly deserved it after the great end to his 2018 season. However, the deal still pales in comparison to what most elite receivers are making, and is more of a prove-it type of deal than what most of his peers get. But considering that Edelman doesn’t want to play anywhere else, he loses a lot of his negotiating power.
■ After the Patriots traded Jamie Collins in 2016, he signed a contract extension with the Browns that paid him $27 million over two seasons.
The Patriots just signed Collins for considerably less. Collins’s one-year deal has a maximum value of $5 million, but only $250,000 is guaranteed. I expect Collins to be here this fall, but with numbers like that, he’s not necessarily secure with a roster spot. If Collins is a bust in training camp or something drastic happens, the Patriots can move on swiftly, with just the $250,000 investment (that would be reduced to $150,000 if Collins signed with another team).
Of the $5 million, Collins has $3.85 million tied to him being active on game day, playing a lot of snaps, and making the Pro Bowl and first team All-Pro. Collins’s cap number will be $3 million.
Here is a breakdown of Collins’s earnings, in practical terms — If Collins is cut before the regular season: $350,000; if he suffers a season-ending injury before Week 1: $1.25 million; if he appears in all 16 games: $2 million; if he plays a lot of snaps: up to $4 million; if he plays a lot of snaps, and makes the Pro Bowl and is named All-Pro: up to $5 million. This is a no-risk, high-reward investment by the Patriots. And while it’s not a friendly deal for Collins, if he has a great year, he hits free agency again next year.
Patriots prefer veteran presence
The NFL is a young man’s league, but according to research from Philly Voice, the Patriots are a haven for old guys. The Patriots have a league-high 15 players age 30 or older, one more than the Falcons and just about double the league average (7.6). The Browns are at the other end of the spectrum with just three such players, while the Cowboys, Chiefs, Dolphins, and Buccaneers have four each.
This news shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. With Tom Brady and Bill Belichick simultaneously in their prime and also in the twilight of their careers, the Patriots have more use for older veterans — such as Michael Bennett, Patrick Chung, Ben Watson, and Demaryius Thomas — than do teams that are further away from competing for the Super Bowl.
What is interesting about this research is the fact that only 242 of the 2,880 players (8.4 percent) currently signed to NFL rosters are age 30 or older. And I would bet a decent number of these players are quarterbacks, kickers, punters, and long snappers.
The number now is skewed because offseason rosters are increased to 90; the more relevant number will be how many over-30 players are among the 1,696 players that make Week 1 rosters. But there has been a lot of talk about how the collective bargaining agreement has actually made it tougher for most veteran players to sustain long careers, and these numbers back that up.
At the bargaining table
In the last week, Sports Illustrated, the New York Times, and the Boston Globe wrote that negotiations between the owners and NFL Players Association are much friendlier this time around than they were in 2011, when the owners locked out the players. Last Sunday, I wrote that one NFL management source predicted that the sides could agree to a new CBA by next offseason, a year before the current deal expires. So it was interesting to see a report from the Sports Business Journal last Tuesday that NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith sent an e-mail to all NFL agents advising them to help their clients save money in preparation for 2021.
“We are advising players to plan for a work stoppage of at least a year in length,” Smith wrote. “We are also encouraging all players to save 50% of their salary and bonuses and to save the entirety of their Performance Based Pay amounts they should earn over the next two regular seasons.”
Why the ominous tone? All these reports of owner-union harmony probably aren’t playing too well with many current players, many of whom aren’t thrilled with how this CBA is working. Even if NFLPA leadership wants to extend the current agreement, it has to make the appearance of putting up a fight.
Alcohol policy is softened
The NFL has embraced gambling and is studying the benefits of medical marijuana. Now it is softening its stance on another vice — alcohol.
The NFL is easing its restrictions this fall on the use of team and player likenesses for beer, liquor, and wine advertisements, per the website Morning Consult. Beer companies will only be allowed to use current players, and liquor and wine companies will not be allowed to use any players at all. But it seems like a big win for the beer companies to now be able to use star players in advertisements. And liquor and wine companies can now form official partnerships with teams.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame has been inducting five players, a senior candidate, and one or two “contributors” (an owner, GM, etc.) per year for the past five years. But the Hall is considering a giant class for 2020, possibly with 10-12 inductees or even more, a few voters have told me. The regular five candidates would get inducted, but with the NFL set to celebrate its 100th season, some voters and Hall executives view next year as a good opportunity to ease what it considers a logjam of older, mostly deceased players who deserve enshrinement . . . Interesting item from the New York Daily News, detailing how the Jets essentially went behind the back of then-coach Todd Bowles last December to gauge the interest of potential coaching candidates. The Jets certainly come off as dysfunctional, but I don’t think what they did was all too uncommon. Most teams just do a better job of keeping it in-house. The Jets also snooped around GM candidates last month, and were rebuffed by at least one candidate a week before firing Mike Maccagnan . . . Packers coach Matt LaFleur will have a less-than-ideal start to his head coaching career. The 39-year-old reportedly tore his Achilles’ on Wednesday night while playing basketball, which won’t make it easy to get around the football field for the next several months . . . Richie Incognito truly has nine lives, as the four-time Pro Bowl selection keeps getting jobs despite his very public mental and behavioral issues. Now 35, and out of football for the past year, Incognito signed a one-year, minimum-salary deal ($1.03 million) this past week with the Raiders, who have never been afraid to take on a player with some issues. “100 percent destined to be a Raider,” Incognito quipped via text. Incognito was a third-round pick in 2005, and given his past issues with bullying, dirty play, and mental health (which led to an arrest last year), it is fairly remarkable that he is still playing football in 2019 . . . Lamar Jackson hasn’t exactly been kept in the loop this spring. First, Ravens GM Eric DeCosta said the team wasn’t going to consult with Jackson on any of their draft picks. Then when Jackson showed up for offseason workouts, he was hit by a surprise. “I didn’t know we would have a totally different offense,” Jackson told reporters this past week. “When I got here, Coach was like, ‘Yeah, we have a totally new system. You’re going to have go through this and that.’ It’s been getting to me a little bit.”