After starting this countdown with a couple of great displays of regular season decision making from Head Coach Bill Belichick, I want to pivot before I go any further by praising some of the under appreciated personnel moves by General Manager Bill Belichick. Who has been much maligned around here:
Because never let it be overlooked, here or anywhere else, until the heat death of the universe, that GM Bill built and maintained the Dynasty he ruled over with the sweat of his telephone dialing fingers.
Sure, we remember and celebrate his greatest moves. Making the greatest selection in sports history with the 199th pick of his first draft. Then getting Hall of Famer Richard Seymour with the sixth pick of his second draft. Signing Darrelle Revis and Stephon Gilmore to win Super Bowls many years later, and so on.
But I'm here to discuss the rare finds GM Bill made. Ones no one else could have. Either because they never would've been able to swing them, or because no one else was looking where he looked, seeing what he saw. In chronological order:
Just about half of his 2001 championship roster. Never let it be said that Belichick came into a good situation when he got here in 2000. Without getting lost in the weeds of the numbers, previous GM Bobby Grier had been handing out guaranteed money in contracts like he was tossing Fun Sized Snickers into a plastic pumpkin held by a kid in a Boba Fett mask. The Patriots were so deep in Salary Cap Shawshank, paying so many players who were no longer on their roster, that cutting the guys he could cut was barely saving him anything. By June of that first year, he got the team under the cap. In his words, "by about 20 bucks." At the start of the season, they were 29th in payroll. After a 5-11 season, he went to work, shopping in the free agency Dollar Store, clipping coupons and buying clearance players in a desperate attempt to fill his cart.
What he got was the foundation of a team that would win three titles by 2004. None of them household names. Mike Compton was signed to be the guard opposite Joe Andruzzi, who'd been added the year before. DB Terrell Buckley. RB Antoine Smith. Wideout David Patten. Linebackers Roman Phifer, Anthony Pleasant, and the slightly better known Bryan Cox. Plus one other who deserves a separate paragraph all to his own:
Mike Vrabel. I'm sure I've mentioned this in a recent post about Vrabel, but it bears repeating in this context. When the free agency period used to start Friday at midnight, meaning before the NFL realized they weren't maximizing their revenue from it, Vrabel's phone rang before the clock hit 12:01. It was Belichick. Despite the fact he'd labored in obscurity on Dick Lebeau's bench in Pittsburgh, Belichick immediately began to fanboy him. Citing chapter and verse of specific plays he'd made. The down and distance, what package the Steelers were in. Vrabel's reads on the plays. Suffice to say he signed with New England quickly. Became a staple on the edge of one of the best defenses in the league. And in a twist that's going to be a theme of this post, was eventually used in a role he'd never attempted before: Tight end. Where he caught 10 passes for 10 touchdowns in his Patriots career, two of them in Super Bowl victories.
Stephen Neal. When it comes to demonstrating GM Bill's genius when it comes to thinking outside the proverbial box, this is a personal favorite of mine. Belichick signed Neal out of Cal State Berkeley in the summer of 2001 as a guard. Despite the fact he never played football. He was a wrestler. Most famous for defeating Brock Lesnar to win the NCAA Heavyweight championship in 1999. In 2011, Lesnar told Opie & Anthony he's never gotten over that loss. What Neal got out of Belichick taking a flyer on him was a 10-year NFL career, 86 games, the starting job from 2004-10, and three Super Bowl rings. Did I mention he didn't play football in college? Well I'm going to repeat it. Because this simply doesn't happen.
Matthew Slater. Taking a guy with the 155th pick in the draft who lasts 16 years and plays 236 games for you is a hell of a thing on any GM's resume. Now make that guy a 10-time Pro Bowler and two-time All Pro who is basically a mortal lock for the Hall of Fame, and it borders on sorcery. Slater has been listed as a wide receiver every year since he joined the team in 2008, and finished his career with one catch for 46 yards on eight targets. And still qualifies as one of the most successful value picks of all time.
Julian Edelman. You know what happens with equal or even less frequency? Julian Edelman-type stories. Unless there are others I'm not familiar with. If you're having a dinner of all the guys who played quarterback for Kent State that were drafted in the 7th round, were trained up to be wide receivers, eventually got tasked with replacing a perennial Pro Bowl slot receiver, and became a Super Bowl MVP, you'll only need a table for one. That man he replaced, Wes Welker was an interesting enough find, since he had 100 catches in three seasons in Miami, then had 100 by Thanksgiving virtually every season in New England. Only to get Wally Pipped:
… by a former Golden Flashes QB who finished his career second in all time playoff receptions behind only Jerry Rice. Find me another GM/coach who could've ever made this happen.
I could go on, because there are dozens of such moves. Drafting Nate Ebner, a rugby player at Ohio State who only saw the field on special teams, in the 6th round on Vrabel's recommendation comes to mind. But the names listed above are a tough act to follow. And in and of themselves are worthy of a spot on the Belichick countdown. Terrible GM, my ass. See you soon for No. 17.