In 1936, American author Munro Leaf wrote The Story of Ferdinand. The title character, a young bull living in the Spanish countryside, was different from the other bulls: he didn’t join the frenzy when the recruiters for the bullfight in Madrid came to the farm and instead kept sitting under a cork tree watching the spectacle from afar. Ferdinand kept minding his own business while the rest was competing for attention.
Bill Belichick is Ferdinand.
The story is the same every year: the rest of the NFL is scrambling to get the biggest names to enter the open market, while Belichick and his New England Patriots are sitting back. Seemingly inactive, they let teams outbid themselves for the upper echelon of players while they make minor moves: a re-signing here, a low-level trade there. Last year was a perfect example for this approach, that once again seems to be on display in 2019.
New England lost Nate Solder, Dion Lewis, Danny Amendola and Malcolm Butler during the legal tampering period, while bringing special teamer Nate Ebner (coming off a torn ACL) and rotational running back Rex Burkhead back into the fold. The four former starters, meanwhile, contributed to the Patriots getting the maximum of four compensatory draft picks the following year — two of which in the third round.
Only when the first wave of free agency started to die down a bit did the Patriots pick up speed. They signed Adrian Clayborn, and swung trades for Jason McCourty, Danny Shelton and Cordarrelle Patterson. And while New England did not acquire the same big names like other teams, they made cost-effective moves to bolster their roster’s depth by bringing in seasoned players to give them flexibility heading into draft season.
So far this year, it appears as if the Patriots — who, by the way, won the Super Bowl last year despite all their big-name departures — are taking the same route down the free agency rabbit hole. The club’s biggest players to enter the market, defensive edge Trey Flowers and starting left tackle Trent Brown, were both lost on day one of the NFL’s legal tampering period. Belichick, in true Ferdinandian fashion, sat back and waited out the storm.
As colleague Alec Shane wrote yesterday in his story Why do Patriots fans worry during free agency? New England fans “have absolutely no excuse for being upset over the lack of big moves the Patriots have made during these first few days of Free Agency.” After all, it is the same approach, discipline and value-based belief system that has helped the club stay on top of the mountain that is the NFL for the past two decades.
Of course, this also means that the Patriots have now entered crunch time when it comes to their involvement. With the first wave of free agency over, now is the phase during which Belichick and company throw their proverbial hat into the ring. The first sign of this has already been on display: New England signed a total of five players on Thursday in Bruce Ellington, Maurice Harris, Terrence Brooks, Mike Pennel and Matt LaCosse.
Slowly but steadily, they are looking for the high-value players: the Jason McCourtys, the Lawrence Guys, the Trent Browns — men who became available for one reason or the other and entered New England with little expectation before turning into starting-caliber players. For the first three-and-a-half days, the Patriots sat back and let other teams dictate prices and headlines but make no mistake: they knew their time would come.
In the story of Ferdinand the Bull, the other bulls are exhausting themselves trying to impress their judges. The main protagonist, however, does no such thing — but when he enters the arena, frantically running around after getting stung by a bee, he shows who is the strongest and most impressive of all the bulls; who is the one worthy of being praised for his outstanding performance in the spotlight.
Belichick, of course, enters the arena a bit differently than Ferdinand — more slowly, at least most of the times — but the impact should still basically be the same. He swings trades, signs under-the-radar players like ones already acquired on Thursday, and shows once again that financial restraint is a virtue when it comes to doing business in the NFL. In short: 2019 looks like another classic Patriots year.