The moment police led Aaron Hernandez away in handcuffs, the tight end became expendable to the New England Patriots, despite the millions of guaranteed dollars that remained on his contract and the long legal process yet to play out.
With his arrest last week on murder charges, Hernandez had become the worst kind of distraction. And the Patriots, perhaps more than any organization in professional sports, do not deal in distraction, major or minor.
This was not another example to debunk the Patriot Way, though, not another shot at the dour coach in his hooded sweatshirts and the organization ensnarled in a videotape scandal known as Spygate a few years back. It was, instead, an example of the Patriot Way at work.
As New England became an NFL power, its method of operation, the way it conducted business, became more than a slogan. The Patriot Way was an ethos, carrying an air of superiority and arrogance, and it allowed coach Bill Belichick to take chances on players with unsavory pasts, to cull character from characters.
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That could be, and has been, misinterpreted, the definition broadened beyond the football field. The Patriot Way was always less about moral fiber and upstanding citizenship and more about how players prepared for and played in actual football games. Those who bought into that system won division titles and playoff games and, before Spygate at least, Super Bowl championships. Those who did not were gone.
“If there’s one thing above all about the Patriot Way, it’s about winning,” said Randy Cross, a retired player turned NFL analyst and radio host. “If you’re not of that mind, you won’t last there. There are plenty of examples of guys who have come in knuckleheads and adjusted, and there are plenty of examples of guys who came in and left as knuckleheads, too.”
The moment police eased the 23-year-old Hernandez into a squad car, the 175 passes he caught in the past three seasons did not matter. The contract extension he signed last year — reported as seven years, $40 million, $26.5 million guaranteed — did not matter. The Patriots’ depleted tight-end depth, which included Rob Gronkowski’s latest surgery, did not matter.
Hernandez helped New England win games, but the Patriot Way never left room for nostalgia, or misguided loyalty, or anything but decisions cold and calculated. When usefulness ended, so did contracts, even for community pillars and locker-room staples. See: Welker, Wes.
Perhaps another NFL team would have waited for Hernandez to stand trial, for the legal system — innocent until proven guilty — to run its course. The Patriots released Hernandez,hours after his arrest.
Still, to use Hernandez and the nature of his charges to bolster an argument the Patriots have lost their way is a dangerous stretch, a tenuous connecting of the dots. Here is the team that took a chance on ex-Washington Huskies running back Corey Dillon and Randy Moss, on Aqib Talib and Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth and, yes, on Aaron Hernandez. Here is the team that plugged in players like so many interchangeable parts. “Value picks,” Belichick called them.
Some of those players (Dillon, Moss, Talib, Hernandez) made great impacts. Others (Haynesworth, Ochocinco) made hardly any impact at all. But to say that because Hernandez flunked at least one drug test while in college at the University of Florida the Patriots could have in any way predicted he would be accused of murder is beyond any reasonable logic. To compare any of those other players and their past transgressions with Hernandez and what he is accused of is unfair.
“There’s no way you could have predicted this,” said Charley Casserly, a longtime NFL executive. “There’s no way you could equate a failed drug test in college to being charged with murder. That’s unfair. That’s grossly unfair.”
Cross played with O.J. Simpson in San Francisco, and Cross happened to be in the office of Dick Ebersol, then president of NBC Sports, when television cameras followed Simpson’s white Bronco, with the police in pursuit, all those years ago. They sat there silent, in shock, and when Cross watched all the recent Hernandez video, it brought him back to those images.
Before Casserly became an NFL analyst, he worked for decades in Washington and Houston and never confronted anything close to a comparable situation. When players were arrested, though, Casserly followed the same process. He gathered information from his own staff and NFL security, weighed the facts and the public-relations implications and decided whether to release the player.
Once that decision had been made, he looked at whether he could release that player. That meant an examination of the salary cap and the collective-bargaining agreement and a call to the league lawyers. By the end of that process, Casserly said, teams know more than the media and the public.
“You’re making an informed decision,” Casserly said.
That is also what the Patriots thought they made in August when they signed Hernandez to that contract extension and he delivered a $50,000 check to a charitable foundation linked to Patriots owner Robert K. Kraft. Hernandez promised that day to “live life as a Patriot.”
Now, he no longer is one. And the Patriot Way continues, unabated.