The 2004 NFL free agency period is a week old and so far all is quiet on the personnel front at Gillette Stadium. To date the defending Super Bowl champions have made few moves, re-signing Russ Hochstein, Don Davis, J.J. Stokes and Kevin Faulk, hosting a number of second-tier free agents and signing restricted player Rodney Bailey to an offer sheet. Things have been so quiet this offseason that the Patriots have actually added more new coaches, linebackers coach Dean Pees, than new players.
But with all the money being thrown around by teams like the Redskins, does that mean that the inactivity in New England has the team behind the eight ball six months before Bill Belichick and Co. even have a chance to defend the title? Not necessarily, especially based on the recent offseason track records of the team that calls Foxboro home.
It has been said that you have to deal with free agency like marathon and not a sprint. To some extent that strategy has worked for the Patriots. Over the last three free agency periods (2001-2003) the team's earliest signing was that of linebacker and special teams captain Larry Izzo on March 6, 2001. Other than that New England's splashes in the open market occurred almost two weeks into the open bidding or later. Even last year's remarkable two-day span in which the team signed Rosevelt Colvin, Tyrone Poole, Rodney Harrison and Chris Akins, came later than most other franchises' start to spending.
In fact many of the Patriots earliest signings over the past few years have had minimal immediate impact. Despite the overall success of the team and high individual expectations last year's biggest free agent signing, Colvin, played in just two games. 2002's "key" free agent addition, wide receiver Donald Hayes, spent more time trying to master Charlie Weis' offense than making plays in it.
So while other teams are snatching up the perceived cream of the free agent crop, the Patriots are standing pat on the philosophy of fiscal responsibility and value that two Super Bowl championship teams have been built on. And though it may be frustrating for fans to sit back and watch other teams make the always overrated "improvements on paper," Belichick and Scott Pioli will continue to approach free agency with the same even-keeled nature they have in previous springs. Yes the team has lost four players in free agency, Damien Woody, Ted Washington, Akins and Mike Compton, that combined for 36 games played and 26 starts a year ago, but while those guys certainly made significant contributions in their time in New England the value placed on them by other teams clearly exceeded that which their previous employer was willing to pay.
So sit back and peruse the transaction pages of the newspaper, continuing to search for a Patriots veteran free agent signing and relax. Sooner or later the defending champs will begin the process of restocking the roster for 2004. And whether those signings take place this spring or later in the year leading up to training camp, like many of New England's most successful offseason additions like Bryan Cox, Roman Phifer, Victor Green and Ted Washington, realize there is a clear plan and philosophy in place in the management offices at Gillette Stadium. And also remember that those other 31 teams that are throwing money around in early March are striving to get to where the Patriots are -- the top of the football world.