What's it like to get cut by Bill Belichick? Not what you might think - The Buffalo News

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What's it like to get cut by Bill Belichick? Not what you might think

Jonesing for yet another reason to hate the New England Patriots?

The worst day of a Patriot's life probably ranks among the more rewarding experiences of his career.

That's right. Even when a Patriot gets fired, there's a chance he'll look back upon the moment gratefully.

For about as long as the Buffalo Bills have failed to reach the playoffs, we've been inundated with examples of how the Patriot Way is supreme to rest of the NFL's methods.

Such reminders became obnoxious to fans of the other 31 clubs a decade ago, but a part of the Patriots' process that rarely gets explored is how Bill Belichick goes about cutting players.

Those who've experienced a Belichick goodbye depart the team oddly flattered and might actually praise the fateful interaction. Those who walk away angrily nonetheless respect it.

There's a deference to the exiting player, but no apologies. It long has been established that New England's organizational philosophy places nothing — not sentiment or longevity or career highlights — above winning the next Super Bowl.

"Ultimately, you know everything Bill does, he really believes is what's best for the team," retired Patriots and Bills tight end Scott Chandler said. "That's what makes it pretty easy to live with."

When the Bills cut Chandler in March 2015, he heard not from new coach Rex Ryan, but from general manager Doug Whaley. The Patriots signed him two days later.

Chandler, as Rob Gronkowski's backup, caught 23 passes for 259 yards and four touchdowns. The Patriots fell three points short of a Super Bowl appearance.

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A knee injury forced Chandler to have offseason surgery. He expected to be released, yet he was impressed with the way Belichick handled it.

"What I always appreciated with Bill was how up front he was," Chandler said. "When he thanks you for fighting through injuries and for doing everything you could, it means something. He doesn't give lip service.

"So you feel those things. You know he's sincere. He's never going to fluff you.

"For a guy who had been cut five times already and bounced around on four different teams, man, honesty was pretty refreshing."

Belichick has cut potential future Hall of Famers, including Reggie Wayne, John Lynch and Ty Law. Belichick released Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch and Heisman Trophy quarterbacks Vinny Testaverde and Tim Tebow.

Belichick has waived two Gronkowskis a combined five times. But the Gronks won't catch the Ventrone brothers, whom Belichick cut 14 times. Special-teams maniac Ross Ventrone received 11 pink slips.

"I always felt wanted and respected in New England," Ross Ventrone said from Pittsburgh, where he works as a personal trainer. "Every time I was getting cut, they let me know they valued what I did for the team. I always felt respected."

That's not to say everyone reflects with automatic admiration upon being cut by the Patriots. A handful of Bills players will use their experiences as motivation Sunday, when they play the Patriots at New Era Field.

Six on the Bills' roster were previously cut by the Patriots: running back Travaris Cadet, offensive linemen Ryan Groy and Conor McDermott, linebacker Ramon Humber, cornerback Leonard Johnson and kick returner Brandon Tate.

"It's hard," Belichick said when he opened up — slightly — about the cut process in 2008. "The players work hard and give a lot. Some of them have given a lot for a number of years. It's not all rookies that we're releasing.

"You develop a relationship with the guys. They've won for you, played for you and given you everything they've got. At some point you have to make those decisions. It's one of the least fun parts of the job."

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick watches the field in a 2009 Bills-Patriots game. (James P. McCoy/News file photo)

Lawyer Milloy and Willie McGinest declined to be interviewed about the subject. They were Pro Bowl defenders for Belichick. They were on the Patriots' first championship team. Each was released.

"I don't want to talk about that no more, man," Milloy said when told the premise of this story. Then he hung up.

Milloy's release is among Belichick's most infamous transactions.

Patriots fans loved Milloy. So did his teammates. He helped bring glory to a punch-line franchise, a strong safety voted to four Pro Bowls over a five-year span when the honor still meant something.

Unable to compromise on a reconstructed contract, the Patriots cut Milloy five days before the 2003 season opener against the Bills. So he joined the Bills, sacked Tom Brady and broke up a pass that Nate Clements intercepted in a 31-0 victory over his old team.

On that afternoon in Orchard Park, Belichick looked like he didn't know what he was doing, that either the salary cap was too much for his front office to comprehend or he misjudged Milloy's value.

"I think 'shocked' is the word," Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said the day Milloy was let go. "You sort of just shake your head and ask yourself, 'Why?' "

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Five months later, New England won its second Super Bowl in three years. Rodney Harrison, the new safety, was voted All-Pro and would win another Lombardi Trophy the following season.

Milloy never returned to the Super Bowl and would need six years to reach the playoffs again, a 35-year-old Atlanta Falcon in 2008. He didn't make a Pro Bowl roster after the Patriots either.

Results, of course, are imperative to the Patriot Way existing as football's monolith.

Organizational philosophies are useless if the team doesn't win, and preferably win soon after the coach makes a controversial personnel decision.

"There's nothing else involved in this decision other than, 'How do I win this next game?' Or, 'How do I handle this next phase of the season?' " said Chad Brown, a two-time All-Pro linebacker in Pittsburgh and Seattle before New England cut him five times.

The Patriots since 2001 have been to seven Super Bowls and have won five rings. Their lone losses were to the New York Giants, with quarterback Eli Manning named Super Bowl MVP each time.

Giants coach Ben McAdoo, 2-9 this season, benched Manning this week for retread Geno Smith.

Three weeks ago, Bills coach Sean McDermott made a potentially disastrous decision to demote quarterback Tyrod Taylor for rookie Nathan Peterman, who threw five first-half interceptions in a loss that could cost the Bills a wild-card berth.

Belichick learned how volatile such moves can be in Cleveland, where he was the NFL's youngest head coach.

He benched beloved Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar for Vinny Testaverde in 1993 and four weeks later, despite Testaverde being sidelined with a separated shoulder, cut the franchise's most popular player since Jim Brown.

History shows Belichick made the right move. The Browns won a playoff game the next season. Kosar, born slow and hobbled by injuries, was a backup the rest of his career.

But Cleveland considered Belichick a joyless buffoon mostly because of one cold personnel decision that turned the town upside down.

In New England, however, Belichick is a deity because he continually wins while navigating roster brambles.

Someday, and Bills fans couldn't be more ready, he'll need to figure out how to move on from Brady unless they retire together.

Whatever way their discussion concludes — release, trade, free-agency exit or retirement — Brady will know Belichick believed the decision was best for the Patriots.

Personal and direct

Chandler laughed when asked who usually handles a team's cuts.

"Well, let me go through all the times I got cut for you," he said.

"Norv Turner in San Diego. Wade Phillips in Dallas. Then Tom Coughlin with the Giants. And Jason Garrett in Dallas. Then Doug Whaley; he was the only GM I ever heard from instead of the coach. And Bill Belichick.

"I got cut by some of the best."

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick talks with QB Tom Brady during one of New England's previous trips to Buffalo. (Mark Mulville/News file photo)

Belichick's policy is to inform each player who is getting released, in person when the team is together, sometimes with the player personnel chief alongside him.

"I've heard stories how different teams go through the cut, like a higher-level scout or an assistant coach or people like that," said Ventrone, waived five times alone in October and November 2011. "But I always had interactions with the GM and head coach.

"I was highly informed about what was going on with me. I feel that's a higher respect when the head guys come to you instead of some director of scouting or whatever."

Phone calls are necessary during the offseason.

Chandler was rehabbing his knee in Iowa and contemplating retirement.

"When you're being released, it's never fun," Chandler said. "He could've just called me and said, 'Hey, Scott, we're releasing you. Good luck,' and that would've been that. I've been released like that plenty of times.

"But we had a full, 15-minute conversation. Bill went out of his way to thank me and tell me the things he thought I did well and the things that didn't go as planned.

"It resonated with me. It was the best experience I've had getting cut."

Such graciousness enhances an organization's reputation and could be a competitive advantage.

To treat exiting players with deep respect is an admirable human-resource principle that's apparently not shared by all 32 NFL clubs.

Ventrone played only for the Patriots and his hometown Steelers, but he has been around the league enough to have absorbed a broader understanding through teammates and his brother. Ray Ventrone played for the Patriots, Browns and San Francisco 49ers over eight NFL seasons. Ray now works for Belichick as assistant special teams coach.

"People took getting cut as a negative, but I took it as them keeping me, around with the way they handled it," Ross Ventrone said. "When people are cut, it switches their mood and puts them down in the dumps, but I felt wanted and valued.

"I felt as much a part of the team as Tom Brady. I was a Patriot."

Ventrone described the way the Patriots manage cuts as a form of team building, particularly for the players like him at the bottom of the 53-man roster during the season.

Those waiver-wire bodies might be back on the team soon and are instructed to stay prepared. So they view themselves as the 54th man on the Patriots' roster even when officially unattached.

"It's their way of almost extending the roster," said Ventrone, whose sister, Dana Ventrone, ran track at the University at Buffalo. "I always felt respected in New England.

"Every time I was getting cut, I left there with the feeling I would be back."

Imperative to the trick of making termination feel rewarding is Belichick's penchant for making sure every player knows what is expected of him before he's signed. That role might shift a tad from week to week or even during a game, but it's constantly reinforced through direct communication.

A Patriot shouldn't be shocked to be told he has been replaced because he should always be aware of the individual expectations.

Chad Brown was more impressed with the Patriots' operations than those of his previous organizations, notable because he had played for Super Bowl champion head coaches Bill Cowher and Mike Holmgren and defensive coordinators such as Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau and Dom Capers.

"Bill is perhaps the best, and I've been around some very good coaches, at defining your role," Brown said. "He helps you define your role early on. In the course of conversation, you get a sense of your role, and he always says to come to him if you ever have any questions.

"Bill wants to teach every player what the right play is for each situation. So it's not always the spectacular play. Even if we're not as fast or haven't been in the program for two weeks because a guy just got here, that player knows what to expect. That's how guys who are 7's athletically can go out there and compete with guys who are 9's."

"Do your job," a Belichick mantra, was the title of NFL Films feature on the Patriots' 2014 season.

You can purchase "Do your job" sweatshirts, wristbands, hats, shot glasses, scarves, hats and necklaces at Patriots.com.

No sour grapes

Brown vividly remembers the last time Belichick cut him. The coach was eating grapes in the Patriots' commissary. The axe fell right there.

The unusual lack of decorum was OK with the veteran linebacker. Brown had been cut twice already that season, and the message was consistent.

He was 35 years old and chasing a ring the first time he played for New England in 2005. He went back to Pittsburgh in 2006, but came back to the Patriots in 2007 for one last gasp.

"The very first time I was released, it was a very professional experience," Brown said from Littleton, Colo., where he sells and ships reptiles. "I was called up to the office. Bill was in the chair behind his desk, and [player personnel vice president] Scott Pioli was next to him. It was handled with a tremendous amount of respect.

"The last words are, 'We're going to call you back. It's a long season. So be in shape. Be prepared.' I took the words to heart because I'd seen how it works there."

Brown was far removed from superstar status. He was at the bottom of the 53-man roster, the part that gets churned weekly because of injuries or a strategic tweak.

Brown was back in Foxborough a month later. He played the next game. He made one defensive tackle and one special teams tackle. Then he was inactive for three games.

"I'm playing some backup linebacker and special teams," Brown said. "He comes to me, pulls me into the linebacker meeting room, and this time it's a little less formal. 'Hey, we've had some injuries. We're going to have to let you go, but what I said before still stands. You're probably going to be back. Keep yourself in shape.' "

Sure enough, while watching the Patriots play the Philadelphia Eagles on "Sunday Night Football" in late November, Brown watched linebacker Rosevelt Colvin leave the game with a foot injury. A half hour after the game, Pioli called.

Brown played one more game. He made no tackles.

Eleven days later, Brown was lifting weights when Pioli told him to go find Belichick.

"I run into Bill in the team dining hall," Brown said. "He's got a cup full of grapes, and while he's eating grapes he says, 'We've got to let you go.' "

Brown cracked up at the memory.

"At this point, formality is all gone," he said. "I wouldn't say there was a lack of respect because I knew when I signed up with the Patriots what my role was going to be like.

"It was a clear football decision. They needed a better, faster guy on special teams than I could provide at that particular time."

How the Patriots release players is indicative of their organizational beliefs.

Every wee detail is fixated on, as legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler once exhorted, "The team. The team. The team."

"Tiny things add up over the course of a ballgame, over the course of the season," Brown said. "That's why those guys are always successful.

"Bill's moves weren't made to hurt feelings or from loyalty or from sentiment. His moves were made to win football games. I could never argue with the football decision of it."

Neither Brown nor Chandler won a Super Bowl ring with the Patriots. Brown arrived one year too late. Chandler's only season was sandwiched by championships.

Yet each was captivated by the Patriot Way, down to their goodbyes.

"I learned more in my first year with the Patriots than I had learned in my previous 12 years combined," Brown said. "Gosh, just simple things."

Chandler admitted when he was with Buffalo he was suspicious of New England's success, with the illegal surveillance and deflated footballs and visiting team's malfunctioning headsets and whatnot.

"We always used to feel like, 'There's got to be something else.' Then you get there and it's just preparation," Chandler said. "They work harder and are smarter than any other team I was on. It was pretty simple."

Having the greatest quarterback in NFL history obviously galvanizes the cause, but the Patriot Way also is composed of myriad little details other teams apparently fail to execute.

That's right.

The Patriots even cut players better than anybody else.

"When free agents who have options pick New England," Ventrone said, "they're there because every year there's one goal in mind, and that's to win the Super Bowl.

"It all feeds that objective. All the time, you hear guys who've come through New England say, 'I've never experienced anything like that. It's not like that where I've been.' "

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