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.