From a football standpoint, that would be a shame. Ever since Aaron Hernandez traded infamy for celebrity the Patriots have been trying to find a partner for Rob Gronkowski in the two tight-end offense. Over the past few years they tried Michael Hoomanawanui, Zach Sudfeld, Matthew Mulligan, and Scott Chandler. All were lacking and later dumped.
However, Bennett was an ideal fit. He was as big as Gronkowski, picked up the offense quickly, just as talented a pass-catcher as Gronk, and even proved more durable. And now he appears headed for the door.
The Real Reason Bennett’s Gone
What is even more disappointing is the reason Bennett won’t return next season. It might look like it’s a money issue, but that’s only part of it. If the two parties wanted to work out the money they could.
The real reason Bennett is almost certain to play elsewhere next year is a man who resides 450 miles southwest of Boston, in Washington, DC: Donald Trump. Or more to the point, Trump’s public political supporters: Patriots owner Robert Kraft, head coach Bill Belichick, and quarterback Tom Brady.
Bennett has not been shy with his opinions of Trump. He accused the president of being prejudiced, and said he wouldn’t visit 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with the Super Bowl championship team because he wouldn’t “feel accepted in the White House.” He referred the recent travel-ban Executive Order as “hateful,” and he hit Trump hard on his treatment/views of women and minorities.
At the other end of the scale are Kraft, Belichick, and Brady, all of whom publicly supported Trump’s candidacy. Kraft has dined with Trump since the election; Brady kept a Trump campaign hat in his locker; and Trump read a letter of support from Belichick in the waning hours of the election.
With such diametrically opposing views, on an issue that is obviously very important to Bennett, why would he come back? Especially when his payday elsewhere is likely to be significantly greater than it would be here.
Don’t get me wrong. If Bennett’s contract ran another year, or if the Patriots had a lot more money than any other team, he would stay and be a productive member of the team. He thrived in the locker room, becoming one of the more popular players. And it isn’t every receiver who gains Brady’s trust in the first year… at least on the field.
However, given that he’s a free agent, the Patriots will have to pay a premium if they expect to keep him, partially owing to the Trump rift. If the Pats offered 15-25% more than the market, Bennett might swallow his words and stay for the extra cash. His post-football career options are expansive and growing all the time, and the extra millions would enable him to put more resources into the businesses and causes he cherishes.
But the Patriots aren’t likely to offer much more money to keep him in New England. Based on their history, the best they’ll do is match – or maybe slightly exceed – his highest other offer. And there’s no way he would come back for roughly equal money; not for an owner, head coach, and quarterback with whom he has such a fundamental public disagreement.
So on the one hand there are the Patriots. They won the Super Bowl with an injured Bennett as their only viable tight end option. And they probably think there’s no reason to extend themselves financially to bring back Bennett when they already have an injured Gronkowski coming back next season.
And on the other hand is Bennett. He’s a great player who can get his $8 – 10 million from any of a dozen or so teams. So why would he choose to take that from an organization that helped elect a president that Bennett seems to despise?
It really is too bad. On the field the Patriots and Bennett represented a perfect match. After years of playing for losing franchises, Bennett became a key contributor on a world champion. And in Bennett, the Patriots finally found a dynamic second tight end to pair with Gronk.
Sometimes other factors matter less than money. But the Patriots are unlikely to offer enough to turn Bennett’s head once another franchise catches his eye. A few more bucks won’t matter as much as his integrity. Some players would suck it up and come back for the extra dough. But don’t expect Bennett to.
Thanks for the championship and the memories, Marty. And good luck at your next stop.