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The Collins Trade

There’s a famous — and glorious — story you’ve probably heard about Vince Lombardi. This happened after the 1963 season, a year when Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers went 11-2-1 but were beat out for the West Division title by the Chicago Bears.

After the season — as the story goes — the Packers great center Jim Ringo decided to hire an agent to help him negotiate with his famously stingy coach. Ringo walks into the negotiations with this agent, and Lombardi says, “Um, excuse me for a moment, there’s something I have to do.” And he leaves the room for a minute.

When he returns, he sits down and does not say a word. After a few seconds of awkward silence, the agent says, “Well, OK, we should get started talking about JIm’s contract for 1964.”

To which Lombardi says: “Yes, you should definitely talk to Philadelphia about that. Mr. Ringo has been traded to the Eagles.”

What a great story. That’s Lombardi for you, right? He didn’t put up with stuff like AGENTS or PLAYER RAISES or stuff like that. He was a man’s man. He walked into that room, saw an agent, walked right back out! No one was going to push around Vince Lombardi.

Thing is, as David Maraniss writes in his seminal book “When Pride Still Mattered” — the story isn’t true. It’s not even partly true. Ringo did not hire an agent that year. Ringo grew up in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, about 75 miles outside of Philadelphia, and had some interest in moving back close. And Lombardi had determined — in his slow, calculated and thoroughly unimpulsive way — that Ringo was near the end of his career, and the time was right to get some value for him. Also, it was Pat Peppler, the team’s personnel director, and not Lombardi who negotiated with Ringo in the first place.

Still, the story made the rounds and became NFL legend. You know why? Because LOMBARDI TOLD IT. He told the story because it got across exactly the message he wanted — that he was a man’s man, and he didn’t put up stuff, and no one was going to push him around.

See, Lombardi was not only aware of his own legend, he enthusiastically utilized it to get across his point. You want to hire an agent? Well, listen here, man, before you go off doing something like that, have you ever heard to the story of Jim Ringo?

Monday, the New England Patriots basically dumped Pro Bowl linebacker Jamie Collins on the Cleveland Browns. The Patriots are supposed to get a third-round compensatory pick, though that could end up being a 2018 fourth-round pick. In either case, it’s a clear dumping. Collins is 27 years old, impossibly athletic and a difference maker on the Patriots Super Bowl winner a year ago. Now he’s a Cleveland Brown.

And it has left everyone in the NFL gasping … and feeling utterly baffled.

Of course, Patriots coach Bill Belichick is famous for leaving everyone gasping at his baffling moves. Of course, I have to go back 20-plus years to the first time he did that. That was the time he flat released the Cleveland Browns’ starting quarterback Bernie Kosar in the middle of the season.*

*I do believe, according to the rules of the Joe Posnanski drinking game, me bringing up the Kosar trade requires one shot.

Belichick was much younger then, nobody knew what was ticking inside him, and EVERYTHING about the Kosar deal seemed impulsive, rash and intensely personal. The two men, Kosar and Belichick, did not see eye-to-eye at all on how the Browns’ offense should be run — there had been whispers about their feud for two years.

Then, in a blowout loss, Kosar changed the call late in the game — legend is he actually drew it up on the dirt the way you do on the playground — and he threw a meaningless (yet meaningful) touchdown pass. A few hours later, Kosar was in an office with Belichick and owner Art Modell … getting cut. This set off an emotional detonation throughout Cleveland. People loved Bernie. People despised Belichick.

Everything about that move — EVERYTHING — seemed angry, temperamental, done in a pique of anger. Belichick was obviously outraged that Kosar had undermined him and his coaches. Belichick obviously wanted to lash out and say, once and for, that this was his team and he wasn’t going to have some mutinous quarterback drawing plays in the dirt. And so

Only, I have been told by people who would know that it wasn’t that way at all. Belichick had come to believe after hours and hours of careful study over two years that his team simply could not win with a diminished Kosar at quarterback. They were going to have to make a move sooner or later. But Belichick didn’t really have any better options at quarterback. He was still a young coach, unpopular and feeling his way. He did not feel like he had the authority or the muscle to get rid of a Cleveland sports legend. So he stewed and stuck with Kosar.

But when Kosar changed that play — a public statement — Belichick had his opening. He had that “Who is the coach of this team?” moment he could use as leverage. He had the ear of the owner, Art Modell. He had the complete agreement of the people around him. And with all that, he was fine with the public backlash because he felt sure that it would make the team better in the long run. No, this wasn’t personal. This was business.

Over the years, this Belichick sort of Godfatheresque maneuvering has become as familiar as Christmas commercials in November. In New England, he has traded off, released or simply walked away from fantastic players like Deion Branch, Richard Seymour, Logan Mankins, Lawyer Milloy, Wes Welker, etc. He has made cold decisions time and again, so many of them that — like Lombardi — an aura has built around him. Everyone in New England knows the theme. Do your job — and, yes, it is a job — and you’ll get paid to be part of a winning team. When you are no longer helping the team win, we’ll find someone else who will.

Jamie Collins apparently had a brutal game against Buffalo last week. Fox Sports analyst Michael Lombardi, a former Patriots assistant and of no relation to Vince, tweeted about how Collins was basically doing whatever he wanted during  28-yard Bills run and how this was hardly the first time Collins has gone off script — Lombardi says that Collins has not played well all year. Pro Football Focus, which has ranked Collins among the best linebackers in football the last two years, agrees that Collins did have a poor game. though they say it was his first poor game of the year.

Either way, once again, the poor Buffalo game makes the Collins decision feel EMOTIONAL. It is well known that he is a free agent at the end of the season and well known that he will be looking for a big-money deal. The Patriots seemed almost certain to let him go at that point. But trading him now — and to the worst team in the league, no less — feels like a hot-blooded move by Bill Belichick.

But I imagine, knowing what we know about Belichick, that this isn’t hot blooded at all, that it as calculated a move as ever. It could be that the defensive scheme Belichick is pondering for the rest of the year does not play to Collins’ strengths. It could be that Belichick believes that this defense is better with rookie Elandon Roberts in there and trading Collins is the simplest way to make that happen. It could be that Collins — despite his great athleticism and playmaking ability — was distracted by his upcoming contract dispute and was distracting others in the process. It could be something that only Belichick and people inside the Patriots bubble know (and they’re sure not going to tell anybody).

Whatever it is, I don’t believe that this was just Belichick getting mad at Jamie Collins and trading him. I don’t believe this was some impetuous move made because Belichick suddenly got fed up with contract talks or Collins’ freelancing ways.

And I don’t believe this was some harsh message to the Patriots defense : DO IT MY WAY OR I’M SHIPPING YOUR BUTT TO CLEVELAND.

But I do believe that, like with the Jim Ringo story, if that’s the message the players want to hear, well, Belichick won’t complain.

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30 Responses to The Collins Trade

  1. Paul Lall says:

    Very interesting story. For us lesser fans, first Chandler Jones and now Jamie Collins. It gets me very nervous about the defense for this year. I assume Belichick is keeping his eye on the larger picture long term and if it means possibly missing out on a Superbowl to build a stronger team over the next 5 years, I guess it makes sense.

    • Danny says:

      Patriots are in win now mode not building for the next 5 years. Tom Brady is 39 and on borrowed time and Gronk can go down at any minute, I dont see how they can be building for 5 years from now when their 2 best players probably wont be around that long.

      • Scott P. says:

        Don’t think that’s the way Belichick sees it. He’s got job security — the most of any coach in the NFL. I don’t think he considers Brady indispensable.

        • MikeN says:

          Bill Belichick would trade Brady if a team delivered a Ricky Williams/Hershel Walker type deal. Say two 1sts, two 2nds, two 3rds, and an average or better offensive lineman and cornerback on cheap salaries.
          Probably wouldn’t even take that much because Garoppolo is that good.

    • TTommey says:

      I like the story very much!

  2. Mike says:

    As baffling as this is for the Patriots, it seems even more so for the Browns. Collins won’t sell tickets, they have no chance at the postseason, and I really can’t figure out why they sacrificed a small piece of their future for essentially nothing. Is he the difference between 0-16 and 1-15? That’s honestly the only rationale I could think of for the Browns making this move.

    • Bob says:

      For the Browns, if they like how Collins fits, they can try to sign him long term or franchise him. If they don’t, they can let him walk and gain back a compensatory pick for him to recoup what they gave New England. Not much risk for Cleveland here.

    • invitro says:

      I’m curious about the won’t sell tickets remark. I vaguely remember someone doing a (now classic?) study that suggested that no baseball player sells tickets except for Nolan Ryan (I suppose I should search for that study). Has any football player ever been shown to sell tickets?

    • Ross says:

      I was thinking the same. What are the Browns doing?

  3. invitro says:

    “*I do believe, according to the rules of the Joe Posnanski drinking game, me bringing up the Kosar trade requires one shot.” — Only if Belichick comes up first.

    Come on guys, let’s have some more rules. It can’t be too obvious… no mentions of Duane Kuiper, or iPad, or that weird spaghetti chili he used to always mention. Some brief nominations:
    – the Red Dress story
    – playing chess with Priest Holmes
    – Pete Rose selling autographs in that mall store in Las Vegas
    – Pete Rose touching some woman
    – a star athlete being a jerk on the golf course, like Dan Marino or Roger Clemens
    – that swimmer named Mel who’s a good friend, I forgot his last name
    – Albert Pujols being an inner circle Hall of Famer
    Of course, these only count if mentioned in an article that’s not mainly about them.

  4. invitro says:

    I enjoyed this article. I don’t follow the NFL much, but I love reading about Belichick. Has anyone written a good book about him yet?

    • invitro says:

      FWIW, the sports biography I want most is one of Gregg Popovich. I did search for one about a year ago and couldn’t find one. His dominance of the NBA needs to be explained.

      • MikeN says:

        I thought it was ridiculous when he became head coach, because Popovich was the GM who gave himself the job. I wonder if you had Belichick and Popovich switch jobs, how would they do?

        • Hamster Huey says:

          I had the same thought – not only that, he waited til Robinson was injured all year and they landed the first pick, then fired poor Bob Hill and hired himself. I couldn’t wait for him to fail… Er, still waiting. Before long, he/they became my favorite non-hometown coach/team in basketball.

    • John Tenbusch says:

      The Education of a Coach
      by David Halberstam

  5. D. Kelly says:

    Each year the average age of an NFL player gets younger and younger. With way more talent available than they can use, NFL teams have realized that, other than a few key players, most everyone on the roster is disposable.

    • Pete R says:

      Also,the minimum rookie salary is only $450K. Then it keeps increasing, until for a ten-year vet, you have to pay at least $985K (admittedly with only $600K counting against the cap).

      Or maybe it’s not the money at all: maybe it’s such a violent game that most players’ bodies can’t do what they did five years ago.

  6. Binyamin says:

    With Chandler Jones we at least had the synthetic marijuana-induced psychotic episode in the background. The Jamie Collins trade was a shocker for me … until, after it was pointed out today by a sportswriter, I realized that Belichick has been quietly stockpiling replacement linebackers all season – Roberts, Mingo, now Van Noy … in other words, this was not a last-minute or heat-of-the-moment decision.

  7. Dent Lynch says:

    Jon Morris was drafted by the Packers to replace Ringo. Instead, he went to the AFL to play for the Patriots, where he

    became an all-time great, enshrined in the Patriot’s Hall of Fame. So the Patriots came out ahead after all, again.

  8. MikeN says:

    He didn’t walk away from Deion Branch. He got a 3rd round pick for him, and at the time this was declared a steal for the Patriots. This trade was even rejected by the Madden video game. He did eventually bring him back by giving up a 4th round draft pick.
    This is the reverse of Randy Moss trades where he gave up a 4th and got a 3rd.

  9. Bryan Adams says:

    If I already took a shot when you mentioned Kosar, do I have to take a second one due to the game?

  10. invitro says:

    wooOOOOoOOoooo what a PLAYOFFS omg wooOOOOhooOOOO woWEEE raJAI davis RAIN homERS ERrors woOoOwww

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