While the Pats have been souffléed in some quarters for letting Adam Vinatieri take his Reeboks and his ball holder to Indianapolis, both parties had logical reasons to break up. Say what you will about us, but kickers aren't stupid. With his biological clock ticking, Vinatieri was likely looking at his last NFL contract. So: Continue playing in the Arctic Division for a psycho special-teams coach named Mother Nature? Or spend at least half of your remaining games in the controlled and comfy climate of a dome, on snowless, bumpless FieldTurf? New England's bean counters, meantime, had to ponder the wisdom of devoting $2 million or so a year in salary-cap space to someone whose best kicks, remarkable as they were, might be behind him. Indy offered Vinatieri 3.5 million extra points' worth of bonus cash, plus a salary averaging about $2.4 million.
Take the money and kick, man.
There's no crying in football. The NFL is the most ruthless of the leagues because a) contracts aren't guaranteed and b) mathematically speaking, the marginal value of any single player is less on a 53-person roster than on a 12- or 25-person one. Are the Pats worse with barely legal Stephen Gostkowski ($425,000 bonus, $275,000 salary) kicking field goals than with 33-year-old football Methuselah Adam Vinatieri? On the field, too soon to say. Off the field, perhaps $10 million better over the next five years, money that can be spent on the other interlocking parts of an NFL team.(That figure assumes Messrs. Gostkowski and Vinatieri will play to the end of their contracts, which, as you well know, is about as likely as Denny Green winning Coach of the Year, because NFL contracts are predicated on salary-cap accounting, not actual spending.)
To your broader point about the meritocratic nature of The League. Certainly Tom Brady was drafted (and better late than never) by the right team. As you explain in Moving the Chains, the Patriots suits and the coach in the hoodie didn't have much riding on Brady, financially or otherwise, but didn't let that cloud their decision-making. Taking chances is anything but S.O.P. in the NFL. The Pats could have signed some retread to replace the injured Drew Bledsoe. That's what most teams would have done. Not to pick on the guy, but the immobile Bledsoe should have been replaced by Tony Romo, who quarterback coaches have adored for a while, as the Cowboys starter sooner than two weeks ago, arguably last season. There are dozens of players like Romo, trapped by the NFL's culture of job insecurity: Coaches won't take a chance on a player who lacks experience because they're afraid of what might happen to them if the kid is a bust. Brady was, of course, good, but also fortunate.
Players understand they are carburetors on the NFL's assembly line of profit. If I had a nickel for every time one of my Denver Broncos teammates told me, in a range of inflections that would make Stanislavski proud, that "it's a business," I'd be at least as wealthy as Mr. Gostkowski. From a player's perspective, the difference among organizations isn't whether they'll screw you or not; everyone loses his job eventually, almost all sooner than they think they should. The difference is how teams treat you while you're there—and I mean as people, not monetarily—and whether you can pack your dignity along with the contents of your locker in the plastic garbage bag you get when you're cut. Believe it or not, that matters, and such behavior may redound to an organization's long-term benefit. The Broncos have players—linebackers Ian Gold and Keith Burns, to name two—who returned to the team after discovering the grass was browner on the other side.
That's not to say there's more hugging in Denver's thin air than in other NFL cities. Teams don't win as consistently as the Broncos do by letting sentiment cloud cold personnel evaluation. But I didn't hear much hate, from players or staff. It doesn't sound as if Bill Belichick is getting holiday cards from many of his former players and assistants. I mean, what is up with Belichick and his protégé Eric Mangini, who now skippers the New York Jets? Belichick won't even say the guy's name? Isn't there something weird and attention-seeking about that? And it's not the best recruiting tool, either, is it?
NFL teams aren't going to show up on Fortune magazine's list of happy workplaces anytime soon. But there are different ways to run a military organization, which is what football teams most resemble, humane and not so much. Is there a cumulative effect to the unceremonious (and competitively questionable) dumpings of Adam Vinatieri, Deion Branch, and those other guys you mentioned? Does word get out that maybe New England isn't the, um, funnest place to play? Because in the iPod-and-Bose-headphones-encased cranium of the modern NFL athlete, Super Bowl XXXIX might as well have been played in XXXIX B.C.
I've gotta go kick 100 balls now, from all hash marks and distances. Let's lace 'em up and do this again sometime.
In the flat,