HOUSTON – Some of them escaped via trade. Others were allowed to leave via free agency.
However they got here, the New England Patriots have more than a few players who crawled through football foulness we can’t imagine and came out clean on the other side, in Super Bowl LI.
There are players who suffered with losing teams like the Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears, St. Louis Rams, or Detroit Lions and were given an NFL pardon. Instead of being a month into their offseason, they’ll play for a championship on Sunday.
[Ditch the paper and pen – play Squares Pick’em for the Big Game!]
An NFL player makes a good salary and it’s a major accomplishment to be on any of the 32 teams, but there’s a reality attached to playing on a bad team.
“Losing sucks,” said outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo, who spent his first three seasons with the Browns before a trade to New England. “You don’t want to show up the next day. It makes everything worse.”
Mingo was on three Browns teams that went 14-34. This season the Patriots went 14-2, as his old team went 1-15.
“It’s definitely better,” Mingo said about winning. “Everything is better about it. Coming in the next day after the game is better. You don’t dread going to meetings. You’re looking forward to it.”
Defensive end Chris Long spent eight years with the Rams. He never made the playoffs and never even was on a team with a .500 record. He had some fine seasons, and made a small fortune in salary with them, signing two deals worth more than $50 million each. When he was released, he wanted to be on a winning team. He said that was his only priority in free agency. And the Patriots are the surest bet in the NFL.
“When you’re on a team that’s struggling every year, beginning in camp you have to kind of convince yourself you have a chance,” Long said. “I always believed we had a chance but the difference was when I got here, we really had a chance.”
The Patriots know they have an edge in free agency because they are competing for a championship every season. They offer discounted deals to free agents who want to win. In a story by The MMQB, agents said the Patriots will often offer less and coach Bill Belichick will tell them: “It’s simple. Does your guy want to win a Super Bowl, or doesn’t he?”
The answer, from at least some, is yes they’d like to win a Super Bowl. For those players, that opportunity is worth taking a smaller deal.
“For me it was never about the money,” said linebacker Shea McClellin, who never made the playoffs in four seasons with the Bears and signed with New England this past offseason. “Life is so much better when you win. I can say from experience because I was in a place where we didn’t win very much. A lot of guys don’t get that, a lot of guys do chase the money and they don’t understand that. I can tell you, winning is definitely a lot better.”
Long admittedly didn’t know if he could hold up physically for another season or more. He had urgency to get on a winning team before his body broke down. He signed a one-year, $2.375 million deal with New England. Not only does he feel good after playing a more limited role than he was used to, he said winning has re-energized him.
“I wanted to resurrect my own career, but I wanted to win more than anything,” Long said. “Now all of a sudden I feel like I can play football some more.”
Linebacker Kyle Van Noy came in a midseason trade from the Lions. Van Noy said he texted his uncle a few days after the trade, and made the joke that he was going to the Super Bowl so he should get ready. Then he made a Super Bowl.
The Lions haven’t been that bad the last few years. Van Noy was part of a playoff team that lost to the Dallas Cowboys in wild-card weekend his rookie season. The Lions were back in the playoffs this season. But there’s a clear difference between being with a Patriots franchise that has been to the Super Bowl a record nine times and the Lions, who have won one playoff game since 1957.
“They have the same expectations, but the fans are more critical in Detroit than here, just because they haven’t won in so long,” Van Noy said. “But they are great fans. They are great fans in Detroit, but they want to win, and I don’t blame them.”