- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It is nothing personal, but the formula has worked for Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. If you're not here, we're not talking about you.
Curious if there has been any progress with a holdout situation? Good luck.
Wondering if a player who has been released might return? Check back later.
Hoping to better understand why a player hasn't reported? Fat chance.
Broach any of these subjects or something similar to Belichick and his staff members, and the response almost always is the same: "I'm happy to talk about the players that are here."
It's one decisive way to limit or, in the best-case scenario for the team, completely eliminate the distractions that those types of situations can cause.
All of which brings us to veteran offensive lineman Brian Waters, who as of early Sunday afternoon had yet to report to the Patriots, making it almost a certainty that he won't be in the lineup for the Sept. 9 season opener at Tennessee and raising doubts that he will even report at all.
Up to this point, the 35-year-old Waters had an excused absence (no fines), which is the Patriots' way of saying the door is open if he wants to return. They've held a much harder line with others in the past. Waters is under contract for the 2012 season for $1.4 million, and the Patriots would like him back, which is reflected in how they've left his locker intact inside Gillette Stadium and hadn't issued his jersey No. 54 to another player until the last moment possible, when rookie linebacker Dont'a Hightower switched to No. 54 on Monday because of NFL rules that prohibit linebackers from having a number in the 40s.
But Waters has mostly remained at home in Texas, where he's usually spent the duration of his offseason. He's told friends that his preference would be to play closer to home because being away from his wife and children for five months last season was especially difficult.
But that won't be an option in 2012 unless he gets released, which the Patriots have no plans of doing because such a decision wouldn't be in the best interest of the team. What if Waters ended up with the Houston Texans, who are viewed as one of their top AFC competitors?
And that's the crux of the situation, which has remained largely off the radar because the Patriots only "talk about players who are here."
Could the Patriots entice Waters to report by sweetening his $1.4 million salary, which is a bargain based on his Pro Bowl-level performance last season? Could Waters wake up one day and decide that he's willing to give it one more run in New England?
The answer to both questions is yes, which explains why the situation with Waters was recently described as "fluid" by one source.
Time, however, is running out if the Patriots are counting on Waters for the season opener.
Looking back, there were signs that Waters' return was anything but a certainty as far back as the moments after Super Bowl XLVI. At the time, Waters said he'd consider retirement.
About a month later, a source said that Waters decided he'd like to play again in 2012.
Yet Waters never reported for offseason workouts, a decision that wasn't out of the norm for him throughout his career. He was then given an excused absence from June's mandatory minicamp, at which time Belichick lauded his performance in 2011.
"He obviously had a great year," Belichick said at the time.
Then came training camp at the end of July, with Waters continuing to stay away. One line of thinking was that if he could sign on Sept. 4 last season and be ready to play in the opener Sept. 12, he could potentially do the same thing this year. Maybe, some theorized, the sides have an agreement worked out for that to happen.
Waters has offered no clues, telling the Boston Globe in late July, "I'm not really talking about it. You'll have to talk to the Patriots about it. Right now I'm just handling things between me and the team. I'm allowing them to handle all the media stuff right now. We're going to do it this way, because it's the best way to do it."
The next day, when Belichick was asked about Waters' remarks, he said, "We'll just take it day to day. There's no long-term plan."
When Belichick and others have been asked about Waters since that point, the response has been universal. There is nothing to say. They only talk about the players who are here.
Waters hasn't been, creating a significant void up front while raising questions if he plans to report at all.
What's going on with Brian Waters? Don't bother asking Bill Belichick.