Belichick bought into his own myth
New England drafted Hernandez believing 'The Patriot Way' would act as shield
Now that the focus of the Aaron Hernandez case is shifting toward courtroom battles, it's time to direct our attention to an obvious byproduct of this story: the need to stop celebrating "The Patriot Way."
It was an overblown myth when it first became popular a decade ago, and it's been too revered in recent years. "The Patriot Way" has always been about two things – the genius of New England coach Bill Belichick and the brilliance of quarterback Tom Brady. Everything else was just timely marketing.
That should be the overall takeaway now that we know "The Patriot Way" put Hernandez on the New England roster in the first place. Regardless of whether he's found guilty of first-degree murder in the killing of Odin Lloyd, he's already been painted as a garden-variety punk who had enough red flags to keep more sensible teams from selecting him. Belichick's willingness to gamble on Hernandez in the fourth round of the 2010 draft speaks volumes about how much he had bought into the hype of his locker room culture. The coach apparently figured he could control a player who had disaster written all over him.
Like many coaches who have had too much success, Belichick's hubris made him think the environment that had spawned so many winning seasons would make the team immune to the effects of off-the-field issues.
The truth is that "The Patriot Way" was never capable of producing such results. The entire concept started when New England was flush with talented, versatile veterans who meshed perfectly during an extraordinary stretch of dominance. It helped the Patriots win three Super Bowls in four seasons -- while Brady emerged as a surefire Hall of Famer -- and it made them the first undisputed dynasty of the 21st century. That high level of success gave them the right to tout their success any way they saw fit, and, somehow, "The Patriot Way" emerged as the latest blueprint for winning.
That philosophy supposedly explained how the Patriots survived when stars such as Lawyer Milloy, Willie McGinest and Tedy Bruschi vanished from the roster. It was apparently just as useful when younger faces such as Deion Branch and Asante Samuel went elsewhere. Since their memorable 2001 season, it basically hadn't mattered who was wearing the uniform. As long as players made their home in New England, they were bound to be blessed by their exposure to a higher class of football.
"The Patriot Way" gained more credibility when Belichick added troubled running back Corey Dillon to his championship team in 2004. It was even more revered in 2007, when it supposedly helped turn around the career of enigmatic wide receiver Randy Moss. When those players left town grumbling, few people noticed that Belichick actually hadn't changed their high-maintenance personalities. The really impressive trick he pulled was capitalizing on their skills at exactly the right time, just before they became legitimate distractions and corrupted his team's sterling reputation.
Over time, "The Patriot Way" became an easy way for New England fans to dismiss such controversies as "Spygate" at the start of the 2007 season. It obscured the fact that the Patriots have owned a feeble division, the AFC East, for the past eight years. (The Jets, Bills and Dolphins have combined to win 42.4 percent of their games in that span.) It has even become borderline offensive to the teams that actually have been winning championships lately. We too often forget that New England hasn't won a Super Bowl since the 2004 season and that both Pittsburgh and the New York Giants have claimed two Lombardi trophies in that time.
The problem with "The Patriot Way" is that New England's own decision-makers clearly forgot their team's limitations. Although they struck gold with Dillon and Moss for a few years, they found no such luck with defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth or wide receiver Chad Johnson in 2011. Both players arrived with noteworthy baggage. Haynesworth had been a free-agent bust in Washington, and Johnson had worn out his welcome in Cincinnati. Neither produced anything worth remembering. Haynesworth lasted all of four months with the team. Johnson was released after one season.
Those gambles didn't seem like such a big deal because the Patriots were winning and neither Haynesworth nor Johnson was crossing paths with the police. But now New England has to deal with the predictable scrutiny that followed the revelations about Hernandez. The Patriots also have one cornerback (Alfonzo Dennard) who might be facing a probation violation for a recent arrest on suspicion of DUI and another (Aqib Talib) who has a history of legal troubles. Presumably, all these men landed in Foxborough to learn what it's like to work with real professionals.
What they've actually become is ample evidence of how desperate Belichick is to win a fourth Super Bowl. He made the same mistake most powerful men make eventually -- he started believing in his own hype. There's a decent list of NFL power brokers who've been willing to gamble on high-risk talent over the years.
Their mistake was in reinforcing the notion that their locker rooms had magic chemistry that makes grown men toil harder, sacrifice more and produce greater results. It doesn't work that way in the NFL; never has, never will. The New England Patriots have won a lot of games in the past 12 years because they've been blessed in two of football's most critical areas: coaching and QB play. As they distance themselves from Hernandez, they'd be wise to remember the embarrassment they created by ignoring that simple fact.
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