Patriot Way or the highway

Wes Welker

Drew Bledsoe was among the NFL's most prolific quarterbacks (44,611 yards and 251 touchdown passes) when he retired in 2007 after 14 seasons.

Today, it seems, he's even busier.

The Bledsoe Capital Group is a venture capital and private equity company that focuses on emerging technologies. His Doubleback Winery in Walla Walla, Wash., produces a cabernet sauvignon so stout he can charge $89 a bottle. Oh, and in his spare time, Bledsoe, a father of four, is the offensive coordinator for his son's Summit High School football team in Bend, Ore.

In late November he sat down to discuss the Patriot Way, a phrase that means markedly different things to different people.

"The Patriot Way," Bledsoe said, smiling, in a bittersweet kind of way. "I think it's just that simply no one player or group of players is bigger than the team or the organization. I was a prime example – maybe Example A of that.

"I just signed a big, big contract with the Patriots [for a then-record $103 million in 2001] and looked like I was going to finish my career there. All of a sudden I got hurt, and this Brady kid stepped in and next thing you know, I was off to Buffalo."

Bledsoe suffered a torn blood vessel in his chest when he was hit by Jets linebacker Mo Lewis and lost nearly half his blood at the hospital. And just like that, a second-year backup, the 199th choice in the 2000 draft, started the Patriots on a run that would feature three Super Bowl victories in four years.

In their 14th year together, Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick find themselves precisely where they usually are this time of year – contemplating a home playoff game. Despite a grisly offseason that saw tight end Aaron Hernandez charged with murder and receiver Wes Welker signed as a free agent by the Denver Broncos, despite getting only seven games from injured tight end Rob Gronkowski, New England somehow went 12-4 and won the AFC East title for the 10th time in 11 years, the greatest display of divisional dominance since the merger.

That the Patriots continually defy the gravity of the salary cap era – they've played in five of the 14 Super Bowls since the millenium, two more than the New York Giants or Pittsburgh Steelers – is a fierce achievement.

In the NFL, it is good business to be unblinkingly unsentimental, to pay for future performances, not those of the past. Nostalgia, the record shows, is for losers.

"If they decide that they can live without you and they can find somebody to play the position for less money," Bledsoe explained, "you're out the door. It doesn't matter how long you've been there or what you've done for the franchise.

"They say, 'Thank you very much,' and let you move down the road."

About the money

When the Hernandez case was creating an endless spiral of news cycles this past summer, the Patriot Way began to take on a cruel, ironic tone.

Owner Robert Kraft, speaking on the NFL Network, was asked to explain what it meant to him.

"It's about trying to collect a lot of good people," he said. "Having everybody in the organization on the same page, doing things in the community. I think people in America today, it's not just about money. They want to be connected to something they feel is special and when they get up every day, they look forward to coming to work. We try to create an environment here that does that.

"We're not always successful, but we give it our best shot."

But with the Patriots, more often than not, it is about the money.

A number of high-profile individuals in the organization who see their personal stock rise with the team's fortunes are forced to go elsewhere to get paid. Scott Pioli was the team's vice president of player personnel for seven seasons, then left in 2009 to become the Kansas City Chiefs' general manager.

The list of marquee players who followed Bledsoe out the door -- either by free agency, trade or release -- to continue their careers includes Lawyer Milloy, Damien Woody, Ty Law, Adam Vinatieri, Deion Branch, Willie McGinest, Asante Samuel, Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, Randy Moss and, most recently, Welker.

Before the Broncos played New England in Week 12, Welker sat down with former teammate Tedy Bruschi for an ESPN interview. Bruschi asked him if he had any hard feelings toward the Patriots.

"No, not at all," Welker answered. "It's the way the business model's set up, the way things go in pro sports these days. There's no hard feelings. I understand it."

The week before the Broncos played the Patriots in November, Brady was interviewed by ESPN's Mike Tirico.

"I'm used to it at this point," Brady said of Welker's departure. "It's just the way it is. You can't sit here and whine and complain about things aren't the way they used to be, or it's different.

"It's going to be different."

Cutting bait

Milloy, a safety, was coming off his fourth Pro Bowl season in five seasons when he says the Patriots asked him to take a pay cut for 2003.

"Take it or leave it," Milloy said. "They are already seeing everybody on that roster and seeing where they need to cut back. 'How do we keep the numbers down and get a competitive roster? Hey, we love this guy, but his numbers are high.'

"Just ethically and morally, I could not look in Coach Belichick's face any more after that."

So on Sept. 2, 2003, the Patriots released Milloy. A day later, he shuffled off to Buffalo, signing on with the Bills and reuniting with Bledsoe.

"You can't help but take things personal, even though you know it's a business," said Law, sitting in the family room of his home in Rhode Island. "If anybody, in our opinion, was earning his paycheck, it was Lawyer Milloy."

After helping the Patriots win three Super Bowls in four years as a cornerback, Law was on his way out, signing with the New York Jets for the 2005 season.

"At that time, being young, a little naïve, I wore my heart on my sleeve," Law said. "I asked out at one time because I didn't feel that I needed to restructure, take a pay cut when I was at the top of my game. I was first-team All-Pro, Pro Bowler, [Pro Bowl] MVP, all that stuff. It was like, 'Why are we even having this conversation?'"

A year earlier, offensive lineman Woody, a former first-round draft choice, parted ways with the Patriots after winning a second Super Bowl.

"I felt salty about the move because I felt I should have been compensated at a certain level," said Woody, now an analyst for ESPN. "But it never happened."

Woody, like Bledsoe, Milloy and Law, eventually was paid handsomely – by another team. He signed lucrative contracts with the Detroit Lions in 2004 and the Jets in 2008.

"I remember Coach [Belichick] telling me a story," Woody said. "He said [San Francisco's] Bill Walsh once said, 'It's better to get rid of a player a year early rather than a year too late.' That's why they've been able to sustain for so long. They've recognized in their own mind that, 'Now's the time to cut bait and move on with the younger guy.'"

Five-time champions?

Law, for one, believes that the Patriots' lack of loyalty – and their unwillingness to factor leadership into the financial equation – has worked against them.

"I think it has cost them championships," Law said, emphatically. "Everything comes to light when you're in the big game and in those certain moments. I think certain players tend to rise up in those moments, and I think you can recall certain moments that may have been the difference.

"I think they let go of too many guys that can rally the troops and pull together and win those big games when it counted. We would have been the five-time Super Bowl champions, instead of three. That's just my opinion."

Law, Milloy and Woody were all still playing in the NFL when the Patriots lost to the New York Giants 17-14 in Super Bowl XLII. Of course, you can argue that by paying their castoff stars something close to market value, the Patriots couldn't have afforded some of the other talented players that helped the team reach Arizona with an 18-0 record.

"It would be hard to make a case that their business model is costing them much," Bledsoe said. "While that is awfully painful when you're living it, the Patriots have had success by bringing in younger players and developing them so they're able to reload, as opposed to going through a down cycle like most teams."

Said Milloy, without a hint of bitterness, "I think it is pretty magical what they have done."

One thing that's not debatable is the team's bottom-line success in 14 seasons under Belichick. His record in New England, including playoff games, is a scintillating 180-68. That works out to a winning percentage of .726. Only Vince Lombardi (.750) and John Madden (.739) have career marks better than that – and Belichick has already won far more games than they did. In fact, his total of 217 victories (including five seasons in Cleveland) is No. 6 on the all-time list. If he keeps coaching and maintains a similar pace, Belichick could conceivably pass No. 3 Tom Landry in another five or so years.

Brady, whose contract is team-friendly relative to the few other quarterbacks with his skill set, has the best winning percentage of any quarterback in history. His 148 regular-season victories are tied with John Elway for No. 3 all time.

During a Week 11 interview in advance of a "Monday Night Football" game, Brady talked about the loss of Welker.

"You have to be mentally tough enough to put those things aside and still perform at a high level," Brady said, "because if you don't, then there's going to be someone else here ready to take your job."

You won't get an argument from Bledsoe.

"If you play for the Patriots – and, honestly, it doesn't matter if you're Tom Brady – you're there as long as you're useful," Bledsoe said. "Tom will have his time, too. And he knows that."

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