I have been very amused by the story coming out of Boston and New York over this past week surrounding the Patriots’ waiver claim of former Giants’ tight end Jake Ballard. The situation began innocently enough, with the Giants needing to make a decision about whether or not to maintain the emerging tight end, who was a solid contributor for the Giants last season, on their 90 man roster. The Giants knew that Ballard would not be able to play in 2012 as a result of the injury he suffered in the Super Bowl this past February, but they wanted to keep the talented player. Because Ballard is not yet vested, NFL rules require a player to be placed on waivers prior to being sent to the Injured Reserve list for the year if the team is not willing to carry him on the roster through the preseason. This can be a dicey proposition, since all other 31 teams get a crack at the player being waived – in this case Ballard. Then, if the player clears waivers without being claimed by another team, the player is welcome to sign back with the team that waived him and head to the IR for the season, ready to go for the following season. And so the Giants hoped to waive a very talented young tight end in order to retain his rights for 2013.
This was not a wise move by the Giants. The safer play would have been to carry Ballard against the 90 man roster limit until after training camp and just before the regular season, when they could have moved him to either the IR or the PUP list. Sure it would have cost them a roster spot in the meantime, but that seems well worth it for a guy that caught 38 passes for 604 yards and four touchdowns. Instead the Giants gambled that no one would place a claim on Ballard, while tempting every other team to claim a bright young prospect. Which is exactly what the New England Patriots did.
The Patriots claimed Ballard off of waivers, willing to pay the $540,000 needed to secure Ballard’s services for 2012 and giving up a roster spot that will eventually be claimed back before the start of the new season. The Giants cried “foul”, citing the “unwritten rule” that teams don’t place waiver claims when they know that the team placing the player on waivers still has an interest in him.
Giants’ Head Coach Tom Coughlin tried to reflect his bitterness without specifically targeting the Patriots. When asked about the claim, Coughlin replied, “Discouraged is a minor description. Very disappointed. I don’t have a lot to say about that. Just the fact that we’re disappointed. Very disappointed.” When asked why the Giants didn’t just carry Ballard for another two months, Coughlin replied, “Don’t ask me those questions. I don’t have the answers for you. We’re all disappointed. That’s all.”
It took veteran quarterback Eli Manning to call out the Patriots for having done something wrong. When asked about the loss of Ballard, Manning replied, “Obviously just shocked. I knew because we were going to put him on IR — kind of just the rules of how things go before you put someone on IR who is not vested — we had to waive him thinking no one would pick him up because of his injury and probably not being able to play this year. And the Patriots of course kind of sweep in and steal him from us.”
Steal? Really, Eli? Is that your final answer, or do you want to phone a friend on this one?
Bill Belichick summed the situation up well when the question was put to him. “There aren’t any unwrittens,” Belichick said. “You can’t negotiate a contract, release him, and then re-negotiate another contract with him that was already done in advance. I’m sure the Giants weren’t doing that. So the player is on waivers, he’s on waivers — ours or anybody else’s. I don’t know what unwrittens you’re talking about.”
The claims by Coughlin and Manning that they are shocked or that they feel the Patriots stole from the are preposterous. The primary reason why the unwritten rule exists is that because in most cases when a host team places a player on waivers, the player is simply not good enough for other teams to take note and/or the player being waived simply doesn’t factor into their plans. Thus, if the Patriots place wide receiver Britt Davis on waivers between now and the regular season, maybe another team will take notice and maybe they won’t. And perhaps the Patriots would be simply trying to slide Davis through to get him to the practice squad, but they would be taking the same risk that the Giants took that no one else was interested in Davis. That’s the way it works with players of Davis’ caliber.
Now imagine that Drew Brees got hurt, and the Saints decided that they really didn’t want him eating up a roster spot prior to the regular season. Or imagine that the Lions had tried to do a similar thing with Barry Sanders back in the day. Does anyone really believe that all of the other teams in the NFL would pass on talent like Brees or Sanders because it would be concerned as bad manners and aviolation of unwritten protocol? Puh-leeeze.
To be sure, Ballard is no Brees or Sanders. But he does represent a notch above a Britt Davis. This is a guy that is a young talent and proven NFL contributor, and the Patriots got to see him first hand before an injury took him out of the Super Bowl. Ballard represents that middle tier of player that is a lock to be on an NFL roster, but not yet a star. It was therefore silly (or stupid) of the Giants to conclude that everyone else would take a pass when provided the opportunity to improve their roster, even if Ballard is unavailable for 2012. And the New England Patriots are the masters of thinking about roster management in the long-term. Ballard can’t play in 2012? No problem… he can still provided intelligence about the Giants in case there should be a Super Bowl rematch. Far more importantly, Ballard provides insurance in the event that Gronkowski suffers a serious injury that sidelines him in 2013, or if there is an injury to Aaron Hernandez. And given that the Patriots tight ends are a nearly unstoppable part of their offense, Ballard’s return in 2013 offers the potential of 3 tight end, 1 running back, 1 receiver offensive sets that will terrorize opposing defenses. Ballard is not better than either Gronk or Hernandez, but he would be a wonderful complement in addition to being insurance against injury or holdouts.
In the final analysis, the New England Patriots simply outwitted the New York Giants by calling their bluff, and now the Giants and some of their fans are whining like kids who had their favorite candy taken away. While the Giants have bested the Patriots twice in recent Super Bowl appearances, the Patriots maintain their shrewd team management practices and continue to establish themselves an ongoing threat to win the Super Bowl. The Giants finished 9-7 last season and while they are a very good team, they are not even prohibitive favorites to win their own division this season. In the meantime, the Patriots engaged in significant improvement of their own roster during the off-season and moves such as claiming Ballard demonstrate they are always focused on future improvement. The Giants may be Super Bowl champions, but it appears they have something still to learn about roster management. Perhaps their attention should be more focused on learning that lesson and less on whining that the Patriots did something wrong.