Monday, February 22, 2010
Pats, Vince Wilfork playing nice so far
By Mike Reiss
When a player is assigned the franchise tag, it is almost cliché at this point to state that a team "slapped" him with it.
What unfolded Monday between the New England Patriots and nose tackle Vince Wilfork didn't seem like a slap. It was more like a kiss.
Whether that results in a long-term contract agreement remains to be seen, but the public statements issued by both sides were anything but contentious, which probably means that there has been at least some momentum toward a lucrative, long-term deal.
What stood out was the detail of the Patriots' remarks, which were not attributed to a specific person. In a statement, the club acknowledged that there have been "numerous conversations and proposals" and that a long-term agreement has been their "top contractual priority for some time."
For an organization that is generally tight-lipped about everything from injuries to coaching hires to a Canadian Football League player visiting as a free agent, this was a page not often pulled out of its business playbook.
That's why this seems like the opposite end of the spectrum from cornerback Asante Samuel and his franchise situation in 2007.
When the Patriots assigned Samuel the franchise tag that year, the sides were so far apart there was little reason to negotiate. The team's official news release regarding the Samuel franchise tag included a two-sentence comment that added no detail on the status of contract talks.
The same was true in 2009 when the Patriots assigned quarterback Matt Cassel the franchise tag, although that situation had different dynamics as the team wasn't as interested in a long-term deal as it was in finding a trading partner for Cassel (which it did in the Kansas City Chiefs).
So the comments and details made public Monday were significant.
Although it's topical to point out that the Patriots have used the franchise tag five previous times and only once was a long-term agreement reached (Adam Vinatieri in 2002), it's also notable that Monday's announcement was unlike any other past Patriots franchise-tag situation.
Some might call it high-powered public relations spin, but when the Patriots' statement is coupled with Wilfork's nonthreatening tone (Wilfork's wife, via Twitter, expressed hope a long-term agreement could be reached), it's not a major leap to assume that a genuine commitment is being made to strike such a deal. After all, Wilfork had previously said it would be a slap in the face to receive the franchise tag. If that's the way he reacts when he's slapped, he has impressive restraint.
Of course, in the end, all the happy talk won't mean anything if a long-term contract isn't reached.
As for where it goes from here, the next checkpoint is March 5 and the official start of free agency. That's when the NFL's financial landscape will change dramatically and teams won't be operating under a salary cap. With that change comes more freedom for teams to maneuver freely, and maybe that's what the sides are waiting for in their negotiations.
For now, the Patriots and Wilfork are playing nice, both acknowledging that there have been contract talks and that more are scheduled. Although these situations can change quickly, the tone both sides struck Monday was one of optimism.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.