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Stephon Gilmore was the Patriot Way done right

A massive gamble that paid off in the only dividend that matters: a championship

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NFL: Super Bowl LIII-New England Patriots vs Los Angeles Rams Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

When the Patriots posted this tribute to All-Pro defensive back Stephon Gilmore on Wednesday afternoon after what seemed like a morning that crammed a whole offseason’s worth of how-can-we-make-this-work HBO drama into about 10 hours, I can’t have been the only one who thought “4 years? No way that’s right....right??”

4 years seems wrong in both directions; it feels like Gilmore’s been locking it down in New England for way longer than that now, and it also feels like “4 years? it feels like you just got here yesterday!”

All the feels aside, however, Stephon Gilmore’s tenure as a New England Patriot ending as abruptly and (some would say) ingloriously as it did this week and the slow-burn surrounding his possible departure for the past year or so should always take a backseat to the following:

Stephon Gilmore, and all his accolades, awards, Pro Bowl recognitions, and yes, his Super Bowl ring, are as loud and proud of an example as we’ve seen in recent history of what happens when The Patriot Way actually goes off and delivers like it’s supposed to.

The origins of The Patriot Way™ are kind of murky, to be sure, and several prominent alumni have gone out of their way to act like it’s not really a thing, but for the purposes of appreciating the time Stephon Gilmore spent here and all he accomplished, we’ll go with the general definition of the term as Tedy Bruschi and a few other OG dynasty members have laid it down:

  • The team winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing
  • Any individual recognition is secondary to winning
  • Do your job, know your assignment, and deliver the results
  • No one player is any more important than the team

And then, of course, we have the way the term is frequently used to refer to Bill Belichick’s uniquely cutthroat approach to roster management; trading or cutting a player the moment a contract situation appears to be sufficiently FUBAR’ed that it was unresolvable, never hesitating to replace a veteran player with a young gun who can deliver most or all the same results for a fraction of the price, and not overvaluing the flashy Sportscenter-friendly positions like star wide receiver, double-digit-sack pass rusher, or....shutdown cornerback.

The exception to Belichick’s alleged Pawn Stars approach to roster management, though?

When he has the chance to get his paws on either a truly elite, top-5 at their position type talent, or a player he knows has the potential to become one, if their talents, skills, and intangibles are developed to the fullest into dominant, game-wrecking greatness. When they’re able to play for a team, a coach, and system that turns them from bound for the Hall of Very Good to an unholy, otherworldly terror on the football field for as long as the New England Patriots are lucky to have them.

Coming into the league in the 2012 NFL Draft, Steph appeared to be packing all the tools to be an easy first-round pick and a day-1 difference-maker at cornerback...

...who then had the possibly-career-torpedoing bad luck to be drafted in the top 10 by the Buffalo Bills in 2012.

Despite all this, Steph played his way into his first Pro Bowl nod after the 2016 season, which was great timing from a making-generational-money perspective. After the Bills decided to not use the franchise tag to keep Gilmore in Buffalo, and decided that he either wasn’t that crucial to what new coach Sean McDermott wanted to do defensively or simply hadn’t sufficiently delivered on his first-round promise, Gilly hit free agency, and surely you remember waking up that Thursday morning in 2017 to this news:

5 years, and $65,000,000 with a whopping $45,000,000 guaranteed, all while Bill Belichick and the Patriots had appeared to have fallen ass-backwards into a Pro Bowl cornerback talent of their own - Malcolm Butler, who’d made the Pro Bowl in 2015 and garnered a second-team All-Pro nod in 2016.

Thus, there was only one reason for the Patriots to throw that kind of elite shutdown corner money (that was the 6th-highest contract for cornerback at the time) at Stephon Gilmore while Malcolm Butler had been hit with the Restricted Free Agent tag just 2 days earlier; Bill Belichick believed that Steph’s skills gave him tools on defense Belichick had been dreaming of for years, if not decades. And Malcolm, for all his heroics and accolades, simply wasn’t playing the same ballgame, in terms of what the Patriots’ assessment of each player and the how bright the defense’s future was with both players.

The Patriot Way has had some spectacular faceplants with this approach to free agents that Bill Belichick prizes as elite, probably most famously with one of the first well-known Belichick man-crushes in linebacker Adalius Thomas, but also with the way wide receiver Randy Moss’s record-setting time in New England ended. (There’s many other notable dumpster-fire investments Bill’s made over the years, but, you get the idea). And about a half-dozen games into the 2017 season, the early results of the Gilmore deal didn’t look bad; they looked historically bad. Set-the-franchise-back-a-decade back. And perhaps most importantly, waste the last years of the greatest quarterback of all time’s career the season after he solidified his GOAT credentials beyond any shadow of a doubt.

To give you another way to describe just how embarrassingly bad the 2017 Patriots’ defense was early on in the season, especially the pass defense - and we can’t emphasize this enough - immediately following the addition of Stephon Gilmore at outside cornerback, all you have to do is Google “2017 Patriots defense bad” and here’s the first few results:

The Ringer: The Patriots Pass Defense is Bad at Everything

Pats Pulpit: 2017 Patriots defense makes other quarterbacks look like Tom Brady nearly 80% of the time

(That’s a Rich Hill piece, so, you know he has the facts to back up the point, but still...what are the odds a Belichick defense would ever be disastrous enough let him write THAT headline??)

Washington Post: Another Sunday and another shockingly bad game for the Patriots defense

SB Nation: Is Something Wrong With The Patriots?

MassLive: How Can The 2017 New England Patriots Defense Be This Awful?

After 6 weeks in 2017, the defense that paid Stephon Gilmore $65 million for 5 years was worst in the NFL in the following stats, per the Ringer article cited above:

total yardage allowed (2,644)

yards per play allowed (6.6),

first downs allowed (146)

passing yardage allowed (1,949, nearly 200 worse than the 31st-ranked Colts team),

and adjusted yards per attempt allowed (8.9).

They are 30th of 32 in points allowed per game (26.5)

And at about that point, as the story goes, after the Panthers game in which Gilmore committed one of the more egregious penalties I’ve seen from a Patriot this decade short of Gronk finally exploding on Bills CB TreDavious White and essentially handed Carolina the game, Steph suffered a concussion the following week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Which is what this reminded me of this afternoon:

Gilmore missed 3 games following his concussion, and while none of us would ever suggest that an NFL team would play a little loose with the injury report, to say Steph bounced back from that injury a different player than the one that got took a headshot in Week 5 barely even gives a nod at just how drastically he - and the whole defense - turned it around and said I Ain’t Got Time To Bleed.

Perhaps best summarized by this moment:

The defense ended the season ranked 5th in Points Allowed, and per Pro Football Focus, Steph played 653 snaps in coverage (including the playoffs) and only allowed 610 yards. And for however much stock you put in PFF’s grading system, for as get-me-OUT-of-here abysmal as the start to the season was for Gilly, he still ended the year with an 89.4 by PFF’s metrics.

The Super Bowl ended poorly, as we all know, but Gilmore had still blanked then-Eagles star wideout Alshon Jeffrey when they switched him into more of a shadowing role in the second half of the game and popped out a pass that ended in a Duron Harmon interception. However the season started for Steph, it ended in a Super Bowl berth and more importantly, the film to prove that the Patriots were not only right to trust him with the keys to the secondary, but that he still had untapped potential yet that’d make the team look like geniuses for almost the entire rest of his time here.

What’s one of those Patriot Way standards we mentioned earlier? The success of the player, the Pro Bowls, the SportsCenter clips, the Gatorade deals, all that, means nothing without the Lombardis. Guess what happened in 2018. Oh right, you were there, you remember:

NFL: Super Bowl LIII-New England Patriots vs Los Angeles Rams Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
NFL: Super Bowl LIII-New England Patriots vs Los Angeles Rams Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

That’s as Patriots Way as it gets - know your assignment, execute your assignment at the highest level, and when the lights are the brightest and the stage is the biggest and your team needs a hero play to ice the game with just minutes left on the clock, who delivers?

The one Bill Belichick and the Patriots bet big on just 2 years earlier, the one they looked at and said “We know what you can do. You’re good. We can make you an all-time great if you’ll join us”.

That all-time great part may sound like hyperbole, but what would you call the Defensive Player of the Year hardware that Steph added to his trophy case almost exactly a year later, following the 2019 campaign? The Patriots had taken a player with great tools and some success and turned him into the first cornerback to win Defensive Player of the Year since now-Hall-of-Famer Charles Woodson won it a decade ago in 2009, an award that lopsidedly rewards pass-rushers that rack up sacks at a borderline-comical rate. Gilmore, who’d by now fully earned his credentials as The Gilly Lock, finished 2019 with 53 tackles, 20 passes defended (!), a league-high 6 interceptions, and 2 of those picks going for touchdowns, had been every bit as good as the Patriots believed he had the potential to be.

And that bit of the Patriot Way where we’ve noted time and time again, especially on this blog, that Bill Belichick is more than fine giving you the bag if you’re putting up elite, game-wrecking production?

By the time Stephon Gilmore earned his DPOY crown in 2019, his contract that seemed like the Joker burning half the mob’s cash in 2017 ranked a mere 9th-highest in the league by average annual value. Among those making more annually than Gilly by then (this is mostly for comedic value, but also to drive the point home that the deal eventually became relatively quite team-friendly, given the results):

Josh Norman, Washington R-words ($15 million per year)

Trumaine Johnson, New York Jets ($14.5 million per year)

Xavier Rhodes, Minnesota Vikings ($14 million per year)

Desmond Trufant, Atlanta Falcons ($13.8 million per year)

Fast forward through an injury-shortened 2020 campaign and an equally tumultuous 2021 offseason, and then we’re all caught up to present-day with the Patriots currently sitting at 1-3 and either unable or unwilling to strike a deal with Stephon Gilmore to stick around and continue to offer his services. The idea of him retiring a New England Patriot, although it may have been a long shot, is now shot to pieces, and the team went from intending to cut him on Wednesday morning to recouping a pitiful 2023 6th-round pick in return from the Carolina Panthers. As our man Keagan Stiefel noted Wednesday afternoon, a 6th-rounder in a draft that’s almost 2 years away is a lottery ticket. That pick cannot be reasonably expected to produce anything of value, and while it’s better than nothing, that return compared to, well, let’s put it this way, Sam Darnold went for a second-rounder, a fourth-rounder, and a sixth-rounder. Only getting a sixth-round pick for a player of Gilmore’s caliber, contract, age and all, is such preposterous malpractice it almost makes you wonder if Belichick just got tired of talking on the phone and took the first offer he got after lunchtime.

That decision by Bill the GM will no doubt be thoroughly flamethrower-roasted by both columnists and readers alike, and rightfully so. It’ll almost certainly be a solid 1-2 punchline for years, along with the Patriots gifting the Atlanta Falcons a second-round pick for Mohammed Sanu in their 10,000th attempt to upgrade at wide receiver on a budget.

The Stephon Gilmore experiment, and the resulting Stephon Gilmore experience, though? That’s exactly how a big-money Bill Belichick gamble is supposed to work out. The Patriots under Bill the GM only give the bag to those that, like we said earlier, have already proven themselves with years of elite play in the Patriots’ system, or, like we said earlier, players that may have had flashes of greatness on other teams, but that Bill and the Patriots know have the tools, the IQ, the work ethic, and the love for football to be truly great. To be legendary. To go down in history as a proven winner on some of the greatest teams of the decade AND one of the, by definition, greatest players at your position of all time, period, full stop.

Bill Belichick and the Patriots made that bet, and Stephon Gilmore’s perseverance rewarded their faith by meeting every one of their expectations and quite possibly blowing a few of them clean out of the water, and he was absolutely crucial to bringing the team’s sixth (6th) Lombardi Trophy to New England. What’s more classic Patriots than that?