Looking back at Patriots' releases of Ben Coates and Bruce Armstrong that were ‘just business'


Here we are again at the edge of the volcano. A Patriots player we thought irreplaceable is nearing replacement.

Why are we here? The usual. Age, money, future performance projections, a combination of all three. A legend is poised to be nudged over the edge. After that? Bill Belichick will return to business.

If history is our guide, the loss won’t stop the onward march of the Patriots dynasty. We won't know for a few years if the possible departure of Tom Brady will yield a different result. But there’s no room for sacred cows in Belichick’s empire. Not even sacred GOATs.

Belichick has had the mettle to move on from a long list of players — from very good to legendary — and stoically taken the ensuing hits. Every instance — we will look at 18 of them in the coming days — is rich in backstory. What happened? Why did it happen? And what did the player — a few years removed from the move — have to say about his ex-coach?

As Brady approaches free agency, these stories are a reminder we've been here before. Many times. It's just business. 

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For five consecutive seasons in the mid-90s, Ben Coates was a Pro Bowl tight end. In two of those years, (1997 and 1998) he was first-team All-Pro. An average year for him in that span was 75 catches for 835 yards and seven touchdowns. He was the crutch Drew Bledsoe leaned on.

The player most responsible for giving Bledsoe time to find Coates? Left tackle Bruce Armstrong. He went to the Pro Bowl every year from 1994 through ’97 and was selected to six overall. In 10 of his 12 seasons with the Patriots, he played in every game.

He was the team’s elder statesman. He was old, accomplished and – his career having spanned from the final seasons of Raymond Berry through Rod Rust and Dick MacPherson into Bill Parcells and on to Pete Carroll – he’d seen it all. His demeanor reflected that. Seen it all, done it all, still here, not going anywhere and who – pray tell – are you?

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In February of 2000, less than two weeks after he was hired, Bill Belichick fired Coates. A year later, in February 2001, Armstrong got his papers.

Talk about sending a message.

The reasons for their releases were simple.

Both were in decline – Armstrong was 35 after the 2000 season; Coates was 30 and coming off a 32-catch season in 1999. Both were at the top of the team’s salary structure. Coates had a 2000 cap hit of $3.46 million against the quaint cap number of $64M. Armstrong was asked to take a pay cut from his $3.5M salary down to $2M. He refused. He was gone.

And owner Robert Kraft – who could be given to sentimentality – was suddenly indoctrinated into the bottom-line, all-business, what’s-best-for-the-football-team approach of his new head coach.

Between Kraft and the triangular power structure that predated Belichick – GM Bobby Grier, cap and contracts guy Andy Wasynczuk and Carroll – going hard-line with a couple of lions in winter was unthinkable.

Too dangerous. The other players wouldn’t like it. The previous few seasons had been a nonstop financial windfall for all FODs (Friends of Drew). It was no wonder the team was in cap jail and the players felt entitled. Post-Parcells, they ran things.

Not anymore.

In a statement announcing the Coates move, Belichick said, “We are faced with some very tough decisions and unfortunately this is one of them. It’s a shame that in this era of salary cap constraints and value considerations, players of Ben Coates’ stature often finish their careers in places other than where they established themselves.”

Coates, who moaned about his role four months earlier after a 27-3 road win in Arizona, was miffed he wasn’t told directly of his release.

“I’ve been a pretty good player for so long, but no phone call, I had to hear it from my agent,” Coates said. “If that’s the way they do things, it’s fine with me. I want to play three or four more years. Right now, I’m a free agent. I’ll go wherever.

“Good luck to them. I thank them for doing what they did cause it gives me a chance to continue my career somewhere else. It’s still early enough in the year that I’ll be able to hook with another team. I know I can still play at a high level in this league. I’m not done yet. When I’m done I’ll hang my shoes up.”

Coates went on to sign with the Ravens, made nine catches in 16 games, won a Super Bowl and hung his shoes up.

Belichick, coming off a 5-11 season in his first year with the Patriots, was more expansive in his statement about Armstrong a year later.

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"This was not an easy decision," Belichick said. "In fact, we had been working on a number of different scenarios that might have allowed us to retain the services of Bruce Armstrong this season. We had hoped to reach an agreement on restructuring his contract. Obviously, it is very difficult for a player of Bruce's stature to accept a reduction in base pay after all he has accomplished in his career.

"It is unfortunate that today's transaction brings such an unceremonious departure," Belichick continued. "He has Hall of Fame credentials and we hope that there will be an opportunity in the future to honor him for all he has given this organization over the years."

Yes. Belichick really did issue statements like that 20 years ago.

Armstrong retired. In September, 2001 – a few days after Bledsoe had his artery sheared by Mo Lewis, a few days before Tom Brady’s first start – Armstrong was back in Foxboro to be feted by the team and have his number retired at halftime of a game against the Colts.

He also had a press conference. The first question was whether he’d seen the hit on Bledsoe and what his opinion of it was. His answer was from a different era.

“I played defense in high school,” said Armstrong. “As a defensive player, those are the hits that you always talk about. I mean we used to stand up in the meetings and talk about breaking his chest cavity or busting his spleen or something like that. In college, we would give out stickers for those kinds of hits. As far as professionally, you might not want to say it out loud, but those are the kinds of hits that people watch football for. But because he is my former quarterback and my friend, it was hard to watch.”

At the conclusion of the press conference, Armstrong was asked about how the NFL had changed during his career.

“You won't have guys spend 14 years in one place,” Armstrong predicted. “You won't have the fans having some type of bond with the particular players. It'll be rare. It'll be in cases like Bledsoe. It would be hard-pressed to see him play for anybody else. So it may be if you get your hands on a franchise quarterback or you get your hands on a star pass rusher, a defensive end, something that is hard to find, then you won't let those go.”

Ironic, right? Another irony? The money team saved releasing Armstrong? It helped fund the seven-year, $35M deal that made Lawyer Milloy the highest-paid safety in the NFL.

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