The typical NFL player will never decide anything about his employment, unless he wants to quit the league altogether. An average NFL career lasts shorter than a rookie contract, and for the vast swath of players who are not Kirk Cousins, NFL teams use the enticement of security and a slight raise to sign players to extensions before their rookie contract is up. Most players are either bound to a team until that team is through with them, or otherwise financially incentivized to stay with that team as long as the team wishes. There is free agency for players in the NFL, but by and large, teams control player movement.
Many in the NFL reacted to the unusual case of Martellus Bennett with a raised eyebrow, directed at Bennett and his new/old team, the New England Patriots. Bennett signed with the Green Bay Packers this offseason, and he played for them for nine unhappy and unproductive weeks before he told them he wanted to have shoulder surgery, which led the Packers to release him.
Only Bennett never had that surgery. He instead signed with the Patriots, with whom he won a Super Bowl last season, and suddenly materialized Sunday night. He provided a familiar option for Tom Brady and a complement to Rob Gronkowski, catching three passes for 38 yards. “I love having Martellus on our team,” Brady said.
In Bennett’s telling, his move to the Patriots happened on a lark, through a series of unintended coincidences. After the Packers waived him, Bennett told his agent to let teams know he intended to have surgery and retire, so don’t bother claiming him. Except that Coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots claimed him, anyway, after Bennett fell to them in the claiming order because other teams believed he was not playing.
“When Bill called after they claimed me, I was [forget] it, and then he was like ‘What’s going on?’ ” Bennett told reports, per the Patriots’ official website. “I told him, and then we had a quick conversation, and then I told him I’ll think about it and I’ll call you back. Even then it wasn’t just ‘Hey, you want to come play?’ It was, let me just call you back in a few minutes and let me think about it and regroup because I don’t even know if I went through the seven stages of grief yet, I’m probably on step three, but I think the group of guys on this team couldn’t be a better place for me in what I’m going through right now and my situation. It couldn’t have been a better place, all of the familiar faces and things like that and it’s good to have those guys around.”
In Bennett’s telling, he decided on a whim to postpone the shoulder surgery and continue his career. In the views of many within the league, he orchestrated both his exit from Green Bay, where Aaron Rodgers had been injured and he wasn’t catching many passes, and his arrival in New England. In effect, the Patriots acquired Bennett in a trade after the trade deadline, without having to give anything away.
It’s unclear if the league believes Bennett really landed in New England through happenstance, and not some kind of backchannel. The NFL did not respond to a request for comment.
Any anger in the league will focus on the Patriots getting another one over on their competitors, again. But the remarkable thing about the saga is how Bennett managed to control his own situation and get what he wanted. It may cost him part of the signing bonus Green Bay gave him, but Bennett figured out how to get out of a situation he didn’t want and into one he knew and liked.
Bennett then provided instant help to the Patriots. He arrived in New England on Thursday, practiced Friday morning after some goading by Belichick and traveled to Denver with the Patriots. By Sunday night, he was lining up and catching passes from Brady.
“He worked really hard and was here early and stayed late trying to catch up on the assignments and terms that are different than last year, things that were different than the way he remembered them or things that we’re doing differently that we didn’t do last year,” Belichick said. “He worked really hard and made several good plays, in particular a good catch and run there a couple times. It’s good to have him back and good to have him contribute.”
Bennett may win another Super Bowl, but his impact has already been made. In the NBA, players force trades all the time, as a matter of routine — Eric Bledsoe got out of Phoenix just by tweeting he didn’t want to be there. In the NFL, teams control player movement. Bennett worked the system in his favor. Even if it really happened indirectly, he decided the terms of his employment. No matter how the Patriots’ season ends, Bennett has already won.