Commentary

Bill Belichick strayed from principles

Failed attempt to turn around Albert Haynesworth could serve as important reminder

Updated: November 9, 2011, 4:22 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

Even the best football coaches need a jolt at times so they don't stray too far from their core principles. The failed Albert Haynesworth experiment should be one for New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, a reminder to return closer to his more successful team-building roots.

If that turns out to be the case, it will be the greatest impact Haynesworth had during his brief, disappointing stay in New England.

[+] EnlargeBill Belichick, Albert Haynesworth
US Presswire/Stew MilneBill Belichick apparently thought he could turn Albert Haynesworth around, but he ultimately decided it wasn't working out.

It's easy to pile on Belichick now, his personnel missteps starting to outnumber some of his recent excellent decisions, such as drafting emerging star Rob Gronkowski (2010 second round) and signing veteran free agent offensive lineman Brian Waters and veteran defensive lineman Andre Carter this year.

But don't forget what many were saying at the time Haynesworth was traded to New England, how it was a low-risk, high-reward, Randy Moss-type of move. The Patriots gave up little (a fifth-round pick and $1.5 million in base salary) to acquire Haynesworth, and those who watched him dominate in his first brief training camp practice couldn't help but think big. Some football savants were predicting a seven-sack season (can I have that one back?).

It all looked good then, so the question now is why it went wrong.

After three months, we know Haynesworth didn't fit into the Patriots' hard-driving program, shades of receiver Joey Galloway in 2009 and defensive tackle Steve Martin, a free agent who talked a big game but didn't back it up on the field, which led to his ticket out of town before the 2002 season ended.

That's part of the risk that comes with signing or trading for established veterans, especially ones who arrive with some baggage; they are more set in their ways, and the coach/general manager acquiring them doesn't truly know what's in their DNA. You might get a good year or two out of them, like the Patriots did with Corey Dillon in 2004 and Moss in 2007, but you also know it could end in an instant.

The Patriots signed up for that with Haynesworth, who was different from Dillon and Moss in one respect -- he had dogged it on the field in Washington. Some might say Moss and Dillon did the same, but their actions seemed to be more a result of the lack of competitiveness around them, and it was easier to project they could thrive in a more demanding, competitive setting. Haynesworth was different and bringing him aboard ran counter to some of the core principles that guided Belichick's personnel decisions in past years, when catchphrases such as "football is important to him," "we're building a team, not just collecting talent" and "younger and faster" were uttered regularly.

Belichick thought he could turn Haynesworth around, a common belief of coaches regarding former stars who have bottomed out elsewhere. But on Tuesday, Belichick met with Haynesworth and thanked him for his hard work in returning from a back injury, then told him it just wasn't working out and that he wasn't a fit for the Patriots' scheme, a source said.

So how could he have so badly misjudged Haynesworth's fit in New England?

One line of thinking is that some of the Patriots' recent personnel struggles, decisions such as the one to acquire Haynesworth, are a result of not having someone to challenge Belichick. Maybe he misses a Scott Pioli-like presence, which brings to light something Pioli said during the team's Super Bowl run.

"Bill and I understand how demanding his program is," Pioli said. "I know his personality well, and I understand what he's willing to tolerate and what he's not willing to tolerate. We make sure we don't bring in the kind of people he's not willing to tolerate.

"People who don't get it, they aren't going to make it."

One can only come to the conclusion that Belichick ultimately felt Haynesworth didn't get it. It's also obvious Haynesworth didn't click with line coach Pepper Johnson, but the question remains, why did Belichick think he would? Also, did Belichick have anyone questioning him on the trade?

Only Belichick knows whether the Patriots' front office is set up so different opinions are heard and welcomed. Dissent can be healthy as long as everyone is working toward the same goal, even in the "one voice" environment Belichick prefers.

As for how the loss of Haynesworth will affect the Patriots, it shouldn't hurt much. He pushed the pocket as a sub rusher and that is what will be missed most, but otherwise, he was an inconsistent backup in the base 4-3 defense, playing behind Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork and second-year player Kyle Love, who was signed as an undrafted free agent and has come on strong.

So from an Xs and Os standpoint, the Patriots should be OK, while Belichick eliminates a potential distraction with Haynesworth, whose time on the field had been declining and who would have earned an additional $1 million for playing in 20 percent of the team's defensive snaps.

What they potentially gain is something greater, if Belichick is willing to retrace his steps and acknowledge where he went wrong. Low-risk, high-reward moves can be effective, but only if they don't violate championship core principles.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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