No clean break from Aaron Hernandez
Even though Patriots cut the troubled TE, team's brand has been tarnished
The New England Patriots seem to be trying to do the right thing. Now.
Now that they know Aaron Hernandez has been accused of executing an associate. Now that their star tight end is behind bars facing murder and weapons charges, denied bail and awaiting a trial that likely won't start until next year.
Hernandez is worthless to the Patriots now, and the organization is going to great lengths to disassociate itself from him. Less than two hours after his arrest last week, New England cut Hernandez and removed his jersey from its pro shop at Gillette Stadium. This weekend, the Patriots will allow fans to exchange any Hernandez jersey that was bought at the stadium for another of equal value at no charge. Out with Hernandez, and in with Tim Tebow.
But it isn't that simple and can't be that neat. New England has acted wisely and admirably in the immediate aftermath of this heinous story, but it can't be forgotten that New England was the organization that employed Hernandez. The Patriots chose Hernandez. Not once. Twice. They were the team that decided, since Hernandez had fallen into the fourth round of the 2010 draft, that the value of taking Hernandez trumped the risk of selecting a player with character issues.[+] EnlargeRon Chenoy/US PresswireAaron Hernandez looms over the Patriots, despite no longer being on the team's roster.
They were the team that picked Hernandez 113th overall -- after 31 other teams had repeatedly passed on a player who was viewed as a first-round talent -- because he was big and strong and could catch the football and make their team better.
And the Patriots were the team that renegotiated Hernandez's rookie contract -- a deal that was laden with financial incentives geared to encourage him to behave -- two years before it was set to expire. They were the ones who gave Hernandez a five-year deal worth $37.5 million, including a $12.5 million signing bonus.
The Patriots financially rewarded Hernandez because he had produced and, with Rob Gronkowski, gave the team the most potent, productive tandem of tight ends in the National Football League.
Given what Hernandez now is accused of in a story that gets more grisly by the day, New England tarnished its brand by choosing Hernandez twice, and it will take more than a jersey exchange to wipe that tarnish away. It will take time. And better choices. And fewer risks.
The team can try to collect and burn every No. 81 jersey it has sold, but it can't erase the fact that Hernandez wore a Patriots jersey for three seasons. Hernandez was part of the Patriot Way that seems to have gone awry.
Team owner Robert Kraft is to blame. So is coach Bill Belichick. They made the choice to gamble on Hernandez, and while they could not have foreseen that one day their star tight end would be charged with murder as well as five gun-related offenses, they knew he had issues, including reported multiple failed drug tests while Hernandez was at Florida.
Kraft is one of the most respected owners in the NFL, yet his organization -- his brand -- is now indelibly tarnished. He did the right thing once Hernandez was arrested, something Dallas owner Jerry Jones hopefully noticed, given Jones' refusal to part ways with Josh Brent. But for Kraft, it was too little, too late.
NFL teams go to great lengths to investigate prospects before either drafting them or signing them. Most employ skilled, veteran security personnel. The NFL is big business. And some teams are more willing than others to employ young men who have sketchy pasts as long as the player has talent and can produce on the field.
Kraft must now make sure that his franchise doesn't select players or gamble in the draft just because the Patriots hope the value outweighs the risk. It is going to take time, but the Patriots must be more selective, more cautious.
Former Patriots offensive tackle Matt Light told the Dayton Daily News last week that he "never embraced, never believed in anything Aaron Hernandez stood for." If Light could come to that conclusion based on his interaction as a teammate of Hernandez's, certainly the Patriots' brass could have done the same, if they would have allowed themselves to not be blinded by Hernandez's talent and the relentless pursuit of another Lombardi trophy. New England can and will overcome this, but there will forever be a stain on the franchise that neither the swift release of Hernandez nor the exchange of jerseys can erase. Odin Lloyd is dead. He was buried on Saturday. Hernandez is in jail awaiting trial. There undoubtedly are more gruesome details to come.
Hernandez was part of the Patriot Way because he could catch passes and make the team more successful. The franchise, led by Kraft, needs to recalibrate and be more selective going forward, starting now.
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