Friday was Evacuation Day in Boston, but not Foxboro, which is too bad because they seem to be airlifting free agents out of Gillette Stadium these days.

Truthfully, it has taken longer for the Patriots’ free agents to embark for points south and west that it did the British to skedaddle north for Nova Scotia in 1776.

It just seems like we have a mass exodus on our hands, even though a grand total of two meaningful Pats are now ex-Pats, Willie McGinest and David Givens. That’s because Patriot fans are feeling more than their usual amount of off-season anxiety.

McGinest and Givens are significant losses, first because both were still productive, second because they’ll be tough to replace, and third, because they were two guys who had substantial roles in an unprecedented run for the franchise.

There have been murmurs of lament popping up around New England for the departures of these two popular players. If Adam Vinatieri leaves, though, we might start hearing murmurs building, potentially into a full-blown groudswell, questioning Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli’s financial philosophies. And, people let me tell ya, the last thing we need in New England right now is another groundswell.

It’s one thing losing Damien Woody or even Ty Law because the Belichick/Pioli team-building model won’t allow them to pay Player X at Age Y and Position Z what he wants. That’s a murmur. Watching Willie McGinest defect for Cleveland is a little bit more than a murmur for sentimental reasons, but paying a 36-year-old lineman for $4-$6 million does not compute in the B/P spreadsheet.

Patriot fans have learned to accept the B/P system because it’s worked pretty well so far. While Belichick and Pioli coldly and meticulously move players in and out of Foxboro like your office’s HR department moves papers in and out of their personnel files, Pats fans have tried to bury their emotion and sentimental feelings for the nucleus of their Super Bowl run deep into the back of their own fan cabinets.

But there’s a buzz surrounding Vinatieri’s potential emigration that indicates those feelings won’t be buried for long. The kicker paid his first visit as a free agent Friday, to Green Bay. No offer was made, apparently, yet one can’t help but speculate and have few dry heaves at the prospect of Vinatieri sawing through Lambeau’s wind while some guy who isn’t the greatest kicker ever (Mike Vanderjagt?) is trying to beat the Colts in a November swirl at Gillette.

Not that Belichick ever actually gives a damn what worst-case scenario us doom-and-gloom New Englanders can think up, but I’m sure he can see it coming over the horizon. He’ll hear lot of barking among the media and the fans about why he wouldn’t go to the extra mile for an iconic and still-productive kicker who everyone and his sister wants to retire as a Patriot.

Whenever there was a free agent defection or cap casualty in the past, Belichick could count on Patriot fans either blaming the greedy athlete (as many did with Law) or reassuring themselves that this is the way the Patriots do business, with nothing but business in mind. The dust would settle with a few more minor splashes into the free agent pool and another intriguing draft. When the season rolled around, the team would win (or have legitimate and handy injury excuses) and the defector’s name would join Law, Woody and others in the “Lawyer Milloy File” for ingrates who chose money over winning.

If Vinatieri walks, some fans will conclude he’s an ingrate before the season starts and toss him into the “Typical athlete” file, also known as the trash can. Some will slip him into the “Wait-and-see” folder and whip him out the first time a successor misses a big field goal.

But most Patriot fans will be angry, either at Belichick or his system, and we’ll probably curse both. Because no matter how much winning Belichick and his plan has won for us and no matter how much we’ve tried to follow his emotionless lead, we’re either spoiled or in denial.

For some reason, a lot of fans, myself included, still cling to the romantic notion that it’s still possible for teams to grow old together and keep winning championships. But salary caps and three Super Bowls in four years don’t mix very well. It’s time for Patriot fans to realize it, whether Vinatieri is sent packing or not.

Randy Whitehouse is a staff writer. He may be reached by e-mail at [email protected]


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