Rush Limbaugh had it right and almost everybody else had it wrong. If I'm going to whine about not getting credit for calling the Carolina Panthers a "Super Bowl dark horse" before the season started then the least I can do is admit that. Rush was right.
You'll recall that in the days leading up to the NFL's opening weekend the big issue was the Patriots cutting All-Pro safety Lawyer Milloy in a salary-cap move. The Pats had tried to get Milloy to renegotiate his contract for a lower figure, but Milloy declined and took his chances on the open market. Not only did he sign for a hefty raise, but his new team was also a Patriots division rival, the Buffalo Bills, who you will recall were being talked about as a Super Bowl contender at the time.
The commentariat exploded. Pats coach Bill Belichick, who made the move, was roundly criticized for being arrogant, playing power games with his team. The Patriots were reported to be disconsolate, stunned. Their opponent in Week 1, deliciously, was the Bills, who smoked them, 31-0. Milloy had a big game.
Here's a quick sampling of quotes from that week:
Vic Carucci, NFL.com: "Milloy was a team captain for the Pats and well liked and respected by his former teammates. His departure is extremely difficult for his former teammates to absorb ... [Quarterback Tom] Brady said Milloy was 'what this team was all about.' If that's true, the Patriots obviously could have some problems refocusing on the fact they are widely viewed as a top contender for not only the AFC East championship but for another Super Bowl crown. With Milloy in their lineup, that designation might very well have legitimately shifted to the Bills."
Andy Hanacek, Pro Football Weekly: "Stunning. Just plain stunning. In my three years on board and in charge of the AFC East at Pro Football Weekly, never have I seen such a terrible roster move. The Patriots, who have left me in awe of the way they've mastered the free-agent wires and the salary cap for the majority of those three years, have made a flat out mistake this time ... Milloy's departure leaves a massive, massive void in defensive and team leadership. It's hard to emphasize that enough."
Anthony Pleasant, Patriots defensive lineman: "Look at this place [the downcast Pats locker room]. We just lost our team leader."
Tom Jackson, ESPN: Arguing with Limbaugh on "Sunday NFL Countdown," Jackson famously said that Belichick had lost his team. "Let me be very clear about this: They hate their coach."
Speaking of Jackson, here's one more quote, in which a columnist assesses the "Countdown" Milloy debate between Limbaugh and ex-players Jackson, Steve Young and Michael Irvin: "All three former players denounced the move, saying that [Belichick] had ripped the heart and soul out of the team on the eve of the first game by cutting a team leader. 'This is the reason I am on this program,' Limbaugh said with his trademark arrogance. He defended Belichick's move, arguing that the coach believed Milloy wasn't doing the job anymore. 'He's thinking, "I'm not going to stay with someone just because of sentiment."' ... Who was right? Bills 31, Patriots 0. The Patriots looked horrible and out of sorts. Lawyer Milloy was one of the stars for the Bills."
What big fat idiot wrote that? Me.
I'm not sure what possessed me to buy into the argument that cutting Milloy would hurt the Patriots because he was a team leader, when just two months earlier I had written that "team chemistry" was "hogwash" and "bunk." I think I had it right back then. That opening loss was just one of those flukes, and since then the Patriots have gone 16-1 and put together the second-longest winning streak in NFL history because they've been outplaying and outscheming their opponents, not because they have some sort of harmonic groove going. The Bills, Lawyer Milloy and all, lost seven of their last nine games to finish 6-10. The final score when the Bills and Patriots met again in the last game of the season: 31-0, New England.
"They discount, or don't know how to count, how much this man means to that football team, the other players on the football team," Irvin said about the Pats cutting Milloy. "He's the guy, when players come in the locker room and do not feel like practicing, he makes them get ready to practice. Guys like this, guys like Hugh Douglas in Philadelphia, they make the difference on your football team."
How ridiculous is the idea that the Patriots need a guy who can persuade them to practice when they don't feel like it? As Limbaugh said that day, "These guys are professionals." And Hugh Douglas? Didn't the Eagles go to the NFC Championship Game without him this year, same as they'd done with him?
I still think Rush was wrong about Donovan McNabb, but he was right about Lawyer Milloy.
The complete Milloy story may not have been written yet for the Patriots. Ron Borges of the Boston Globe, in a column following that Week 1 blowout, pointed out that aside from any chemistry or skill question, the Patriots might have hurt themselves in future salary cap-related negotiations.
Borges quoted an unnamed NFL front office source: "When the market turns out to be so much more than the team expected, it hurts you badly when you ask the next guy to take a pay cut. It's difficult to sell that when you just asked a guy to take a $1.4 million cut and the next day he gets a $2.6 million raise. It creates problems for you managing your cap. Eventually it wears off after a couple of guys try it and get hurt, but in the short term they've created a problem for themselves by miscalculating the market so badly."
It's a valid point, but the thing is, the Patriots might be in the process of proving that that "problem" isn't such a problem. Let's say the same thing happens next year. The Pats pressure a star player to take a pay cut to get under the cap and he refuses, saying he'll go on the market and get a fat raise like Lawyer Milloy did. Given that the Patriots went to the Super Bowl after cutting the irreplaceable Milloy, what player would they be unwilling to let go of in that situation? I can't think of one.
Maybe Rush Limbaugh knows.
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