An entire industry tries to get inside Bill Belichick's head after every surprising move he makes, and no one has successfully cracked the code yet.
That leaves a lot of guesswork on days like Monday, when the Patriots traded star linebacker Jamie Collins to Cleveland for a mediocre third-round compensatory pick. Even for Belichick, this marks uncharted territory on the "What the ... ?" scale.
Belichick has traded away great players before, from Richard Seymour to Randy Moss to Chandler Jones and Logan Mankins. Money is always part of the equation, as it likely was with Collins, who is in the final year of his rookie deal. The Moss trade is the closest precedent to the Collins swap, but Moss was on the downturn of his great career. That's not the case with Collins.
Collins, 27, is coming off a second-team All-Pro season. While he may have given up a few big plays this year, he was making impact plays all season. ProFootball Focus had him ranked as the top 4-3 outside linebacker in football.
Belichick clearly saw Collins' talent differently, but that's only part of this equation. The trade is the most shocking of the Belichick era because of the timing. The Patriots are 7-1 during yet another season where Tom Bradycould make a run at the MVP award. Brady is 39 years old, and conventional wisdom would suggest the Patriots should do everything possible to win another ring while Brady is still at his peak.
Belichick has no use for your conventional wisdom, and he probably enjoys thumbing his nose at it.
The Collins trade is part of an overall organizational philosophy that limits the importance of any non-Brady player in the ultimate team sport. Many of New England's shocking moves over the years have worked out brilliantly, and many have not. But it's hard to argue with how the overall philosophy has shaped the team's success, especially during the current run of six consecutive playoff byes.
It's almost like Belichick operates in a post-take society, where he is above immediate criticism but also shouldn't be handed reflective praise. He's going to do what he wants and trust his version of The Process. We're just the ones reacting in his wake.
And with that in mind, here are a few quick winners and losers from the Collins deal:
Sashi Brown, Cleveland Browns executive vice president of football operations: The Browns have plenty of young players and draft picks. They need top-shelf core pieces to build around, and Collins qualifies. Giving up a third-round compensatory pick for the right to test-drive Collins, which includes an exclusive negotiating window with him until next March, is absolutely worth the possibility of "wasting" the pick.
Browns coach Hue Jackson might have to sell Collins on the prospect of the 0-8 Browns long-term, but money ultimately talks in these scenarios. We suspect the Browns will be ready to make Collins one of football's highest-paid defensive players, and they have plenty of cap room to do so. Great NFL players rarely make it to free agency, and Collins is unlikely to be an exception.
Dont'a Hightower's chances for a contract extension: Belichick clearly has a soft spot for Hightower's leadership ability and versatility. He is the most obvious descendent of the kind of linebacker Belichick has won titles with. It was always going to be complicated to sign Hightower, Collins, Malcolm Butler and Chandler Jones to long-term extensions around the same time. Now Collins and Jones are gone, with Hightower in line for a big deal.
Elandon Roberts, Patriots linebacker: I wrote about the emergence of the team's sixth-round pick two weeks ago, though I did not expect Roberts' presence to make Collins expendable. Roberts excelled when given starter snaps in Collins' absence, and he replaced Collins on running downs in Buffalo on Sunday. He is going to be asked to do a lot more following Collins' trade.
"In Bill we trust" tweets:Patriots fans know not to get too attached to players like Collins after all these years, yet days like Monday can still make for a confusing time. Hence, the popularity of the phrase, "In Bill we trust," which acts almost like a Biblical declaration of faith in a higher power when confronted with that which we don't understand. It's paid off more times than not.
For the rest of us, having faith that Belichick knows what he's doing and being stupefied by the Collins trade are not mutually exclusive responses.
This isn't just Lombardi trying to look smart after the fact. He has publicly indicated throughout this season that Hightower and especially Collins were not playing to their ability. Lombardi painted Collins as a somewhat mercurial talent whose play was inconsistent.
"I used to tell Jamie in the meetings: 'We are as good as you want us to be.' But there's times where Jamie just didn't really want to be," Lombardi said on FS1 on Monday.
Lombardi believes the move was about "sending a message" to the rest of the defensive locker room that their play this season has not been at a championship-level. It's an example of Belichick not buying his own team's 7-1 hype.
Stuck in the middle
New England's chances for a fifth title: The Patriots were clearly ready to move on from Collins. Much is made about the team's "unemotional" moves, yet the desire to dump a good player after his worst game of the season amid some persistent contract talk still smacks of emotion. Judging by the compensation received, it sounds like the Patriots just decided to dump Collins and take what they could get.
The effect on the team's overall chances to win in February will probably be overstated. One defensive player can only impact the 53-man roster so much. Perhaps Lombardi is right that removing Collins will be a splash of cold water to the rest of the defense. But it's still hard to see how removing such a talented and versatile defender can truly make this year's team better. Perhaps the Patriots' chances of winning a title only go down 1 percent by taking away Collins, but it's hard to imagine the chances going up as a result. (For what it's worth, FiveThirtyEight.com gives the Patriots a 22 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl, almost double that of the next highest team.)
People's understanding of compensatory picks: We've seen it written in many places that the Patriots would have ended up with the same third-round compensatory pick if they had just held on to Collins. That's not necessarily true. The byzantine compensatory picks formula is complicated, but the key part here is that each team's entire list of free agents lost and gained is applied.
As OvertheCap.com succinctly writes, "Any team that has more CFAs (compensatory free agents) lost than CFAs gained will then be eligible for compensatory picks for the CFAs lost that were not cancelled out by CFAs gained."
In short: Collins leaving to sign elsewhere guaranteed nothing. If the Patriots signed more quality free agents than they lost in the offseason, they wouldn't get compensatory picks regardless of what happened with Collins. The compensatory pick for Collins also would have come in 2018, while the pick they acquired in the trade is for 2017. (If you are interested in knowing more, bless you. And click here.)