The stretch between now and the final week of July — the start of training camp — is usually the quietest time on the NFL calendar. Most everyone is away prepping for the start of a new year, attempting to squeeze in a few final weeks of vacation before the long season ahead.
For the next five weeks in Foxboro, the busiest man at Gillette Stadium will be New England’s senior football advisor Floyd Reese. When it comes to hammering out deals with agents for first-year players, he’s the man at the table representing the Patriots. And with seven members of New England’s 2010 draft class still unsigned, it’ll likely mean a busy July.
Few people in the game have a resume that can match Reese — he’s been in pro football for 35 years, dating back to the 1970s when he and Belichick were together with the Lions. As the former GM of the Houston Oilers and later the Tennessee Titans, he was the man at the table, working on most every contract that came up for the Titans/Oilers franchise for nearly 20 years.
When he joined the Patriots in January 2009 shortly after the departure of Scott Pioli, agents say he was the one who was placed in charge of several aspects of the franchise, including the negotiation of rookie contracts.
How does that process unfold? In conversations with five agents who have worked on contracts with New England in recent years, they describe Reese and the Patriots as being “efficient” and “professional” when it comes to negotiating a deal for a draft pick.
Agents say one of the most positive things about the Patriots is that they are consistent on several fundamental levels, including a belief that any deal for a non-first rounder is four years. Going in, that level of consistency can be easier to deal with than a team that isn’t sure what they’re doing when they start trying to hammer out a deal.
As is the case with most teams, the first substantive contact between the Patriots and agents begins shortly after the draft. The two sides don’t necessarily come together for real talks until a couple of weeks after that. But unlike other teams, agents say there’s no wasted time — New England traditionally opens the negotiating process completely prepared.
“It was a very efficient and cordial,” said one agent who recently put together a rookie deal with the Patriots.
The Patriots often have a very specific number in mind — one that doesn’t necessarily reflect the market, but a number that works for them. They also take the measure of the agent who sits across from them, and try and anticipate where they will try and guide the talks.
“All business,” one veteran agent said of New England’s senior football advisor.
“They know what they want and they have a really good idea of what they are negotiating against, in each instance,” said another. “By that, I mean that they know what points of a deal a guy is going to push to change and they rely on past history to brace them from having to budge.”
Like any good negotiator, Reese sets the tone. Agents say he projects a genial, kindly image. Universally accorded as one of the nicest men in the game, you would have a hard time finding someone in the NFL who has a bad thing to say about him. The reps that have worked with him say he makes that image work for him at the negotiation table.
“I’ve found that relationships always help in negotiations,” said one agent who has known Reese for more than 20 years. “We’ve always been fair with each other and know what the market for a particular player will bear.”
In fact, when it comes to working out a rookie deal, Reese and Belichick will often project a “good cop/bad cop” routine. But as is the case with most teams, the man at the table is simply a go-between. (In this case, Reese reports back to Belichick, who agents say calls all the shots on personnel.) Across the board, agents say any frustrations that arise from dealing with the Patriots are the result of the fact that Belichick he rarely (if ever) actually has to “interface” with them.
“Everything goes through Bill — there is no doubt he is running the show, and Floyd reports directly upstairs,” said one agent. “[Floyd] didn’t even try to hide it.”
“Historically, Bill has the final say on any deals, so who ever is doing the negotiations always can say they have to check with Bill,” said another. “Therefore, the process can be frustrating, as Bill doesn't have to interface with the agents.”
That represents a dramatic difference from how the Patriots were run when Scott Pioli was the point man. Pioli was in charge of handling most rookie deals before he left to run the Chiefs in January 2009, and agents say when Pioli sat down with them, there was no good cop/bad cop routine. (“Back in the day with Scott, it was more of a bad cop/bad cop routine,” said one veteran agent of the Patriots’ old process.) One veteran agent recalled Pioli getting “pissy” at the negotiating table.
When it came to rookie deals, it was an approach that worked for the Patriots — shortly after he was taken in 2004, they were able to get Vince Wilfork into a six-year contract. The NFL later made six-year contracts illegal, and the contract remained a sticking point with Wilfork well into this past season when the subject of Wilfork’s new deal came up. “We never asked for a six-year deal from the get-go,” Wilfork told WEEI in the days leading up to this year’s Pro Bowl. “I didn't like the six-year deal but I did honor it. ... We tried for a five-year deal and we didn't get [it].”
In addition, they suffered only one substantial rookie holdout when Pioli was the man at the table — tight end Benjamin Watson missed a sizable chunk of the 2004 preseason before making it into camp.
“When Scott was there he projected a sense that you were only talking to him. None of us were that naive, but that was his personality,” said one agent who worked with both Pioli and Reese. “Scott has a different perspective, very honest and effective. He is up front, takes command and when he wants to get something done, he does.”
Since he took over, it’s clear Reese operates in a far different fashion. However, while he may not hold the power within the franchise that Pioli did, he knows exactly which side holds the hammer.
“Floyd is an old pro — one of the best in the business — because his patience can break you down if you are not careful. He has been through this enough times to know where the leverage lies and how to use it,” said one agent.
It's hard to argue with success: All 12 of New England’s rookies were on the field in time for training camp in 2009, and that even with the looming labor uncertainty, there remains a sense of optimism that all dozen draft picks will be on hand when camp begins in just over five weeks.
In the end, no matter how you go about it, agents say you need to remember that it’s business, not personal. Do your homework, show some flexibility, and they say the Patriots will work with you.
“It is a very businesslike approach,” said an agent who recently completed a rookie deal with Reese and the Patriots. “When each side does its homework, a deal is not hard to do.”