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Money players are hitting it big

At some point, you can't dismiss the money. It doesn't matter how unselfish you are, how many platinum rings you have on your fingers, or how many Lombardi Trophies you have resting on your shelves.

When you're in a wind tunnel of cash, you naturally grab for fistfuls of green. And that's true for the majority of NFL personnel, even those who are -- or were -- members of the New England Patriots.

This is the time of year when some free agents don't have to go to the bank because the bank comes to them. It's as if teams are opening checking accounts for potential employees and saying, "Just tell me when to stop filling this thing up, OK?"

That's what the Detroit Lions did for Damien Woody yesterday. They all but placed a 24-hour ATM in his lap. Even though it feels strange to say it this way, Woody is the Patriots' former guard-center. He is a Lion now, and his new team made it official with a $9 million signing bonus. It is the largest bonus ever for an interior offensive lineman.

Just look at The Dollar this morning. She is a charming temptress, and she has already winked at a few Patriots. This was inevitable, wasn't it? Like a prophet with the gift of foresight, Bill Belichick once said that there is a hidden tax to being a great team.

Your people, with jewelry on their hands and applause in their ears, want to be paid. They look around the league and don't see anyone, outside of Foxborough, who has won two of the last three Super Bowls. There is no price list or chart that determines how much a player's championship contribution is worth, although that might make the decision of who not to pay easier.

As the 2003 Patriots marched to 15 wins in a row, their superlatives might have misled some of their fans. They really were smart, team-oriented, and unaffected by excessive hype. But they were not robots, and I'm pretty sure most of them were capitalists.

It's not that they didn't want recognition. They did. What made them so dignified and professional was that they never allowed the pursuit of recognition or cash to detract from their title run. The unspoken theme seemed to be that everything could be handled later -- after Tennessee, Indianapolis, and Carolina.

Later is here now. And it's time to pay some bills.

Or not.

The Patriots are going to miss the man known as Big Wood. He was their most dominating and consistent lineman. (Although I still can't figure out why shotgun snapping vexes him so much. He won't have to worry about a lot of it in the West Coast offense, which has few shotgun formations.)

New England was almost $2.5 million short of the Lions' bonus for Woody. The Patriots weren't going to pay that much for an interior lineman, even if that lineman is just 26. Already the owner of rings and Pro Bowl wreaths, Woody wanted to be paid like the best center in football.

He believed he had done enough to earn that here. His former employer did not agree.

It wasn't the first employer/employee disagreement of the week. Nose tackle Ted Washington left for Oakland after he saw a $4 million bonus on the table. Washington said he wanted to end his career in New England, but he had an opportunity to make twice as much at age 35 -- after two broken legs in two years, mind you -- as he did when he was 32.

Big Ted went with the money. Now defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel has to re-sod his 3-4 defense so the divot Washington left won't be so noticeable.

This is why modern coaches slowly shake their heads when observers start talking about dynasties. They know that the constant, pin-sized punctures can prevent a dynasty's rise. They realize that the more you win, the more creative you have to be with financial planning.

The Indianapolis Colts just printed money for Peyton Manning and gave him a $34.5 million signing bonus. Manning is no better than Tom Brady at recognizing defenses and quarterbacking a team. Brady also has two Super Bowl MVP trophies. So what is he worth if Manning can demand a bonus like that?

Ty Law intercepted Manning three times in the AFC Championship game. Law also had a season superior to that of former Washington cornerback Champ Bailey. But Bailey just landed an $18 million signing bonus from Denver.

What is Law worth if he figured out the man with the $34.5 million bonus and outplayed another getting $18 million?

Every day, a new number crawls across the bottom of a television screen. There are $4 million, $8 million, and $20 million bonuses. Every day, some Patriot somewhere stares at the screen and wonders what that guy has over him. You know, it's not like they're hiring players from Tennessee, Washington, and Jacksonville for their jewelry.

It would be unfair to say the Patriots are all about the money. But it would be dishonest to say it's not a factor. It is. It will continue to be something to watch as long as the Patriots keep winning.

Winning means that there might be more sparkling trophies in New England. Winning also means that if a star or two is going to be referred to as a money player, he will eventually have to be paid like one. Either here or elsewhere.

Michael Holley is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is

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