INDIANAPOLIS – Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick arrived at the 2006 NFL Scouting Combine Thursday to begin a hectic four-day affair in preparation for April's draft. And despite the busy atmosphere created by the slew of NFL decision makers and pro prospects that have converged on the RCA Dome and adjacent Indiana Convention Center, Belichick found time in his first night in Indy to spend a few minutes with a small group of New England reporters to discuss a variety of matters, most notably his team's decision not to use either its franchise or transition tags prior to Thursday's deadline.
Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri played the 2005 season under New England's franchise tag with a salary of more than $2.5 million. Had the Patriots chosen to franchise the league's most proven clutch kicker, he would have earned a 20-percent raise on that salary and would have cost the team more than $3 million for 2006. Now, without the tag, Vinatieri is set to hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent if a deal with the Patriots can't be worked out by the schedule start of the new league year on March 3.
"We didn't feel like it was the right thing to do," Belichick said in the seemingly appropriate setting of Shula's Steakhouse, a restaurant chain named after Hall of Fame Coach Don Shula. "If we don't have a deal done with him then he will be a free agent. We've had players in free agency before and we'll have them again. So has everybody else. That's part of the system.
"I think the commitment you make financially and what all the implications of the franchise tag are, it's a tool that teams can use. A lot of teams don't use it and some teams do occasionally if you get the right situation. We just didn't feel it was the right situation."
New England could have also chosen to use either the transition or franchise tags on its other attractive free agents-to-be such as wide receiver David Givens or guard Stephen Neal.
"We considered all our options but we obviously did what we did, which was not to tag anybody, franchise or transition," Belichick said when asked about the other players.
In talking about the potential of Vinatieri hitting the open market in a week Belichick admitted that the current labor uncertainty in the NFL has added complexities to what are generally already complicated contract negations. Although, the coach was quick to point out that the actual decision to franchise Vinatieri was not affected by the uncertainty of the labor landscape.
"It takes two parties to agree to a point to make a deal," Belichick said. "When that happens you have one and when it doesn't we don't. That's just the normal course of negotiations. It's hard right now. I don't really know how…it's so hard to do a contract if you don't know what you are dealing with. That's why there haven't been very many. There have been a few done but there haven't been very many. It's hard. So the ones that got done, somehow those teams and players must have been able to come to a mutual point and get it done. But there isn't a lot of that right now."
Asked specifically how the lack of extension to the CBA has affected his offseason, Belichick responded rather candidly.
"I don't think you can do much of anything," he said with the new league year just a week away. "I mean I don't know what we are working with. So until that's defined it seems like an exercise in futility. And in a way, we've tried to put more of our time and energy into football and the draft and kind of known quantities rather than trying to work on contracts in a system that you don't know what the system is."
However the situation plays itself out, Belichick didn't seem happy working in limbo. Asked if he would be in favor of a rumored delay in the start of free agency and the new league year Belichick said, "Whatever. Talk to the NFL people. They have all the answers."
Beyond the labor issues that face all NFL teams right now, the Combine is in fact a certainty of the present. It's also one that Belichick said he's a little bit more prepared for in 2006 than in recent years. While coaches are always playing catch up with their personnel department and scouts that have been working on the current prospects for years, New England's earlier than usual postseason exit afforded Belichick and his staff extra time before the Combine to get acquainted with the college players.
"We always are [playing catch up]," Belichick said. "I've seen a little more this year than I have in the last two years. I know it's only a couple of weeks, but that does make a difference. There have been a couple times when I've come to this and barely known any of the names of the guys that are here. [This year] I've seen a lot of the players that are here."
"I don't know whether that's good or bad, either," he added before quickly answering his own question. "It's bad."
But it does give New England extra time to look at the potential ways it could improve in a variety of areas in a draft that's still two months away. With nine picks (and the possibility of more through the compensation process for lost free agents) the Patriots could be very active on draft weekend both in terms of selecting players and moving around through trades when necessary.
"We have enough picks that we probably have some flexibility to move in the draft," Belichick said. "But again, right now that's so far down the line. I think what you have to do is do your homework, know the draft, know the players and understand how they are going to fit in your system. And that's where we are. We are not even close to any kind of draft strategy, 'Oh, I think this guy will be there.' That's so far away."
That's not to say there aren't a number of players that the coach believes could help his team. On the first day of the Combine for a draft class that is already considered top-heavy at running back, surprisingly deep at offensive tackle and maybe as deep as ever at inside linebacker, Belichick saw some things he liked.
"It's early. I think there are some players out there that would be good on our team and could help our football team," Belichick said. "I don't know if that's going to end up being more or less than normal or how they are going to fall. But a lot of the guys I've seen have good futures in the NFL, will have a good career and they would help our team."
That's especially important when teams, including the Patriots, consider not only their current needs but also potential losses through free agency.
"There are changes every year," Belichick acknowledged. "I'm sure there will be changes on our team. There will be changes on every team. We'll do whatever we can to improve the team. I don't know what all those opportunities are or are going to be. But whatever we can do to improve, that's what we'll try to do.
"We don't have a game for quite a while. So there are a lot of things that could happen. They might be sooner. They might be later. We have to be ready to go to training camp. We have to be ready when the season opens. There will be changes in training camp. I mean it would be nice to get it all done now, but realistically I don't think that's going to happen."
But the process certainly has begun, and on a variety of different fronts.