FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Maybe the first hints of what was to unfold came in the days before Super Bowl XLIX. Darrelle Revis was asked over and over about his future, if getting to a Super Bowl with the New England Patriots meant he would be a Patriot for the rest of his career. Each time, Revis demurred. He enjoyed being with New England, those close to him said, he loved playing in relevant contests, he wanted to be on the game's biggest stage. And Revis understood the importance that a title would confer to his legacy as one of the game's great cornerbacks.
But signing with the Patriots a year ago had always been a business decision. Revis might have wanted a title, but when the Bucs released him, he first wanted to go back to the New York Jets. Jets brass, who traded him to Tampa Bay just a year earlier because owner Woody Johnson had tired of Revis' contract demands, were not interested. So Revis decided to chase a championship instead of money and signed with New England.
It turns out the truth of where Revis' head was was written into that contract. He was a perfect Patriot, a good locker room presence, a relentless competitor, the best cornerback Bill Belichick had ever had. But Revis, who is regularly praised for his outstanding footwork, had one foot -- or, at least, a few toes -- out the door all along. The deal with New England had been structured to force another negotiation after just a year, and the plan worked for both sides. Like a baseball team that rents a dazzling reliever for a pennant race, the Patriots rented Revis for a season -- at a below-market price, to boot -- to win an elusive fourth Super Bowl. The Patriots got the Lombardi Trophy, Revis got his ring, and then business resumed, just as they intended back in those heady days last March.
On Tuesday, the master plan came to its logical conclusion. Revis signed with the Jets because Johnson had finally realized the error of his ways -- the thousands of empty seats last year emphasizing to him that he was also losing credibility with his fan base -- and went where the Patriots would not go financially, to $39 million guaranteed. It was a stunning comeback for New York and new general manager Mike Maccagnan, not least because while improving the Jets, he managed to deal a blow to their most hated rival. That will buy him and the team a modicum of goodwill among fans and a truckload of back pages among the local newspapers.
In New England, squaring the bottom line with the heartstrings is not a unique endeavor. It is hard to argue that the Patriots are cheap, even if the decision on Revis came down to what might not have been more than a few million dollars guaranteed. Their fans have been stung before by the loss of key players -- remember Richard Seymour? -- but fiscal discipline especially hurts in those rare cases when the player wields it on the team instead of the other way around. That is what Revis did. In a different circumstance, it is the kind of savvy maneuvering that an owner and coach as ruthless and successful as Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick could appreciate.
Maybe in a few weeks, they will. Though losing Revis stings right now, in the cold light of Wednesday morning, it was clear the balance of power hadn't really shifted at all. The Jets are better because Revis will help them run new coach Todd Bowles' blitz-heavy defense. The Patriots are weakened because neither of their Super Bowl starting corners are under contract, and losing a player of Revis' caliber is never a positive. But unless Tom Brady and Belichick are the next surprise retirements in this deeply weird offseason, the Patriots remain the kings of the AFC East and quite possibly the AFC overall.
The rest of the division has spent the early part of the new league year trying everything to upend New England. While Johnson nabbed Revis, Terry Pegula and Stephen Ross have written large checks to LeSean McCoyand Ndamukong Suh, respectively. There is some merit in throwing money at this particular problem. It is going to take great players and a whole lot of luck for the Jets, Bills or Dolphins to finally supplant the Patriots, and those additions are all good starts.
But none of the three pretenders to the divisional throne has what the Patriots have: a great, reliable quarterback. The teams with one of those -- the Broncos and Colts, primarily, along with the Steelers and Ravens, depending on the circumstances -- are still the biggest threats to New England's supremacy. The Colts have loadedup this week, clearly trying to put together a team that can take the next step beyond just making it to the AFC Championship Game.
Revis put the Patriots over the top in 2014, making the defense good enough that the team could lean on it while struggling early last season behind a shaky offensive line. He was so good at essentially taking away half the field when assigned that New England could approach a game against Peyton Manning by basically daring him to throw the ball.
There is simply no single player available -- whether in free agency, on the Patriots' roster or in the draft -- who can replace Revis. New England's defense had struggled before Aqib Talib was acquired in 2012, and it struggled whenever Talib was hurt. It made a leap when Revis arrived to replace Talib last year, but even he could not obscure some of the other issues, especially a need for an improved pass rush. The opposite starting corner, Brandon Browner, remains a free agent as of now; it would seem logical that the Patriots' first order of business would be to bring him back into the fold.
Belichick has six months to figure out how to fix all this, though that is, of course, a lot of time for a coach who had done plenty of winning before Revis came to town. In the past, the Patriots have brought in a raft of less-talented players and used intelligent scheming to mask their deficiencies. Maybe that is the route they take again, although New England now has salary-cap flexibility, with Revis off the books.
However they manage this, it's back to business for the Patriots. If business is about having the best assets, well, they lost a beauty on Tuesday. But a strict adherence to their own valuations is the Patriot Way, and it's hard to argue with the results of the last 15 years.
This is what business looks like in professional sports now -- cold-blooded and steely-eyed, with no room for sentiment to sway the senses -- as it does in all other successful businesses. Just ask Jimmy Grahamand Nick Foles and the other pieces that got moved around without, in the case of McCoy, at least, even a personal phone call.