One week into their reign as Super Bowl champions, with barely enough time to savor their second title in three years, the New England Patriots are already confronting the first difficult personnel decision of the offseason.
The Patriots must pay veteran tailback Antowain Smith, who struggled during the regular campaign but once again proved his value in the postseason, a $500,000 roster bonus by Monday or allow him to become an unrestricted free agent. The stipulation is part of the five-year contract renegotiation Smith signed with the Patriots on March 4, 2002.
The two sides could rework the deal and, towards that end, Smith's representatives and Pats officials spent the weekend swapping proposals. But the deadline looms and, barring a new deal, New England probably will eschew the option and hope to re-sign Smith to a more palatable contract at a later date.
Club officials have declined to comment in recent days on Smith's status or their plans for dealing with the roster bonus.
Under terms of the existing contract, Smith would earn a base salary of $2.4 million in '04, an option that would be triggered by the $500,000 payment. He is also due a workout bonus of $105,000 and his cap charge is $3.972 million.
With the Patriots already tight against the projected 2004 spending limit, that cap charge might be considered excessive for Smith, who celebrates his 31st birthday next month.
The seven-year veteran, who always seems to rise to the occasion in playoff contests, rushed for 252 yards and two touchdowns in New England's three postseason victories. He had at least 69 rushing yards in each game and posted a 100-yard performance in the AFC championship game victory over the Indianapolis Colts.
But in the regular season, Smith rushed for just 642 yards and three touchdowns on 182 carries, and he started only six games and was inactive for three contests. The 642 yards represent Smith's lowest output since joining the Patriots in 2001 as a free agent. In his first two years in New England, he totaled 2,139 yards.
A former first-round choice of the Buffalo Bills (1997), Smith said during Super Bowl week that he preferred to remain with the Patriots if an accommodation fair to both sides could be agreed upon. He sidestepped a question about what defined "fair" in his mind.
Smith's current contract actually runs through the 2006 season and includes an even larger roster bonus next spring, of $2 million, to trigger the final two years of the deal. In 2005, he is due a base salary of $4.4 million and the base rises to $4.9 million in 2006. His current salary cap charges, respectively, for those two seasons are $5.972 million and $6.472 million.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.