The news that Asante Samuel may be resigned with the Patriots before the season after all could have implications that reach farther than filling a hole at cornerback.
Let's think back to the last time the Patriots were in negotiations with a high-profile cornerback. In two of his last three years with the Patriots, Ty Law had 60 tackles and more than a dozen assists each year; in 2003, he also was credited with 23 passes defended, according to pro-football-reference.com. At the time, Law was one of the core faces of the franchise during its Super Bowl run--who can forget the 2003 playoffs, when he had as many interceptions off Peyton Manning as Manning's receivers had catches?--and inarguably one of the premier corners in the league. His 2004 numbers show the shadow of injury: 23 tackles and 5 assists, 1 interception and three PDs in six games.
The injury factor is a glaring difference, but look at Asante's numbers and that might be a wash--in fact, 2006 was the first season he had more than 45 tackles, and his first 60-tackle season. But across the board, his numbers are pedestrian compared with Law's, especially earlier in his career.
Throughout his tenure as a Patriot--at least until the very end--Ty Law also fit well into the Belichickian system of discipline and unselfishness. He stood behind his coach when the team let his best friend Lawyer Milloy go. He was a hard worker, a tremendous athlete and a team leader.
Now take Samuel. In addition to numbers nowhere near Law's, except for in the last year, his attitude has sucked since at least last season, and probably longer. From the splashy interview with Jackie MacMullan bellyaching about his salary on the eve of the Patriots' first playoff game last year to his incessant off-season bellyaching--and all this when he's not even a free agent--it's clear Samuel isn't exactly the model of the Pats' all-for-one-one-for-all culture. His willingness to storm and tantrum with remarkably little leverage after just one season in which he was remotely Ty-Law-like isn't the biggest vote of confidence for his intelligence, in my book, either.
If you'd been Rip Van Winkled for the last five years, suddenly woke up today and were given only those facts, and then told we let one of those two go and kept the other, which one would you think we'd kept?
Yet Ty Law was the one let go, after helping the Patriots to three Super Bowls in four years, as one of the longtime stars of the league at his position, when his $12 million salary (among other things) proved to be too much.
And now here we are, where once Ty Law's "family to feed" line was the subject of more spilled editorial ink and on-air-decibels than most Presidential decisions, and the Patriots are reportedly playing contract ball with a guy who may yet be more punk than player.
So how did we get here? And what does it mean that a franchise that dismissed one of its brightest stars so easily is now lingering over a lesser player with a bigger mouth?
The age factor
A key difference between the two is age. Asante Samuel is seven years younger than Law, and his numbers, while below Law's, are on a steady incline over the last four seasons. That could very well be the sign of a young, maturing player who deserves the franchise tag; it could just as easily be, however, that last season was a flash in the pan and Samuel will regress to his own personal mean. After just one year, that is a question very much up in the air. Hence the Patriots' strategy in the first place with Samuel, which was to keep him locked up for the coming year and see what he's got.
But this is not good enough for Asante, who has been issuing more demands than Kim Jong-Il over this insufferable negotiation. One wonders what he's so nervous about--what he's afraid of. If he's really the player we saw last year, he'll get his. If he's not, and last year was a fluke, however, it suddenly gets a little clearer why he might be trying to play hardball before the market on him corrects itself.
My first instinct as a Pats fan has been to slot Asante into the Terry Glenn category and anticipate his bum's rush out of town. When my first instinct as a Pats fan about a franchise that's been as predictable as a Swiss watch in contract negotiations appears to be wrong, the next natural conclusion is that something about the franchise itself may have changed.
The Branch factor
And so here we meet another key difference between the Ty Law and Asante Samuel situations: only one of them has followed on the heels of Deion Branch.
As fans, we're kept away from 90% of what goes on inside a big-league locker room in any sport. Most of the time we're kept unaware of the true inner workings of the franchises we follow. It's up to us to piece together our impressions from the tips of these icebergs that surface in the press.
It's an inexact science. But if something is announced tomorrow, it will be a sign for me that things inside the Patriots' front office have shifted following the Deion Branch negotiation, especially when it comes to the no-stars mentality. It will show me that an organization once willing to take a gamble in the open market over even the smallest behavioral issues and even the slimmest gap in contract negotiations is beginning to reconsider how that position has led it to cut off its nose to spite its face. It will also suggest that the credit that has been showered upon "The System" may also be returned in part to individual players.
At an impasse
If that is indeed the case, there are obviously some fundamental implications for that, too.
On the one hand, if the Patriots have finally been forced to make some concessions to key players and to abandon the idea that every player is replaceable within the system, we hopefully won't be seeing Tom Brady trying to throw downfield to Reche Caldwell in any more AFC Championship games.
On the other hand, we may be having to deal with the intangible consequences of not calling the bluff of a malcontent like Samuel--especially with other powder-kegs like Brandon Meriweather and Randy Moss around--for years to come.
Some fellow Pats fans I've talked to lately seem to think the Patriots are on a launching pad--all we need is for the season to kick off, and then with all this talent stocked up, they'll easily go 19-0. "How is it possible they'll even lose one game this year?" is a question I have heard asked.
I can identify with that excitement, especially when I consider the possibilities of Brady with a top-flight receiver, but for me, it's more like the team's at a crossroads right now. They do have the potential to take that dominant path this season, but there are many big 'ifs' to negotiate. And any one of those 'ifs', particularly when it comes to Samuel, could make this a very interesting season--in the opposite direction.