By Sterling Pingree
The Patriots finally made their most impactful signing of the off season. When it was announced, I got a text from Aaron Jackson and in my state of relief, almost switched lanes involuntarily. The player they signed isn’t coming off of his best season or entering the prime of his career. He isn’t going to give Brady another weapon and he isn’t going to ignite a dormant Patriots pass rush or replace Malcolm Butler.
The Patriots most impactful signing, didn’t have a catch in 2017 or return a punt. In fact, the last punt he tried to return, I’m pretty sure was fumbled. The player that they signed has more Pro-Bowl nods than anybody on the team not named Brady and has been voted a team captain every year since 2011. On Tuesday, it was announced that the Patriots re-signed Matthew Slater to a 2-year deal and it might have saved one of the most arduous off seasons in recent memory.
People inside of New England realize how important Slater is to the Patriots success because leaders like him don’t come along every decade but the presence of such leaders is precisely why the Patriots have been the longest running dynasty in league history. But it is a dynasty without internal sentimentality, it was built on moving on from players a year too early, not a year too late and setting a hard number of what a player is worth and not exceeding that number because of any value other than what they can produce on the field. We have learned that in a sustained dynasty, you don’t keep going by giving out contracts based on emotion.
The feeling across Patriots nation when the deal was announced was relief. Relief because this has been one of the toughest off seasons in team history; shrouded in rumors and innuendo about the relationships among its principle chess pieces, the losses of key players; Amendola, Lewis, Butler and Solder. Not to mention the time we spent this off season searching for clues in the Tom Vs. Time finale about when Brady will retire. (Did you notice they always showed him driving home, like he’ll probably do when he retires? That can’t be good, right? I learned all about symbolism in junior English class, and that is the most glaring example since Miss Ferris told us what pickles and donuts represented in Ethan Frome.)
Needless to say, Patriots fans have been a bit fragile since the Super Bowl and were almost pushed over the edge when the report came out on Saturday that Slater was visiting with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Why did it have to be the Steelers? Was it retaliation for signing James Harrison last season? It was hard enough to imagine #18 in different colors next season, but it was quite another for those colors to be black and gold. Who would break the team down at the end of the locker room videos after each win? Who would say “awwwwwwwww yeeaaaaaaahhhh”? Would he say “awwwwwwwwwwww yeeaaaaahhhhhhh” in Pittsburgh? These were things that Patriots fans didn’t want to find out and thankfully we didn’t have to.
It has taken 10 years in the league and 7 years of captaincy, Pro Bowls and All-Pro nods for the rest of the league to learn what Pats fans have known all along and that’s that Matthew Slater is, statistics and metrics be damned, very important to this football team.
I had the opportunity last month to interview Matthew Slater for an hour on stage in front of an audience. Besides Brady, Slater is the most decorated Patriot of this era and you wouldn’t have any idea about that from talking to him. You’d never know that he had won Super Bowls and awards for leadership or grew up the son of a hall of famer. If I didn’t know Mike DeVito, I would say Slater was the most humble athlete I’ve ever met. From talking to Slater, you get it. You get why other grown men choose to listen to him.
The moment that it clicked for me of how important Matthew Slater is to the Patriots wasn’t one of his best. It was the end of the 2015 season, the Patriots need to win one of the last two games, on the road at the Jets or on the road at Miami to lock up the #1 seed in the AFC. (As you’ll recall they didn’t, they dropped both games inexplicably and then had to go into Denver for the AFC championship game.) The Patriots ended the 4th quarter in New York gridlocked in a rock fight, tied. The Patriots sent three captains onto the field for the overtime coin toss: Jerod Mayo, Rob Ninkovich and Matthew Slater. It was a moment where just the conditions of the field and the dying last bits of December’s light framed the scene like NFL Films was happening in real time. The only thing missing was classical music and the voice of John Facenda. It was in this moment that I really realized what it was going to be like watching highlights of these Patriots teams in 20 years. These leaders, who have set a new standard for the NFL, are the backbone behind all of Brady’s records and Gronk’s spikes.
Ninkovich and Mayo are retired, both ended their careers as Patriots. This past week Slater signed a contract that will take him through his the 12th year of his career and to age 35. Chances are that Matthew Slater will probably never wear a colors other than silver, red and navy. I know from the reaction this week, Patriots’ fans are more than relieved about that too.
Sterling Pingree (@SterlingPingree on Twitter) is a co-host on The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket, streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.