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Shutdown Corner

Shifting blame does little to inform when discussing risky players

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Aaron Hernandez on June 26, on his way to the Attleboro District Court. (Getty Images)

He was a first-round talent who went in the fourth round of the NFL draft because teams were so worried about his character, some organizations found him undraftable. After a solid start to his career, former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was charged with murder and a host of other alleged criminal acts.

He was a first-round talent who went in the fourth round of the NFL draft because teams were so worried about his character, some organizations found him undraftable. After a solid start to his career, offensive tackle Ryan Tucker retired after the 2008 season, having played in 134 games for the St. Louis Rams and Cleveland Browns.

Hernandez's issues at Florida are now out in the open. Tucker was downgraded on every NFL draft board during the 1997 selection process because when he was at TCU, he was involved in the beating of fellow student Brian Boyd. Tucker pleaded no contest to an aggravated assault charge. Russ Lande, who is currently the director of college scouting for the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League, was part of the Rams' organization when that pick was made. Lande recently told me that despite Tucker's violent past, there were no repeat occurrences during his time in St. Louis, or when he signed with the Browns (where Lande also worked) before the 2002 season.

"I think what we were looking at was a great talent who's had some issues," Lande said. "But we met with him, and we felt that if he was surrounded with the right people, he's got a chance to get over the issues he had in college, and be a productive part of our team. He was so gifted, and we were so bad ... sometimes, you have to take a gamble to get good players and improve quickly."

The Rams certainly did that. Tucker's first year in the NFL was also Dick Vermeil's first year back in the league after a 15-year sabbatical. St. Louis went 5-11 that season and 4-12 the next, but it shocked the world in 1999 by improving to 13-3, introducing the league to Kurt Warner and the "Greatest Show on Turf" offense, and winning Super Bowl XXXIV. In that 1999 season, Tucker played in all 16 regular-season games, and he started all but three possible games over the next four seasons. Tucker, like so many other players with troubled pasts, was able to use his springboard to the league as a way to, if not atone for what he had done, at least make a new life for himself without the remnants of the past.

Lande told me that he never saw an inkling of whatever abhorrent traits drove Tucker to assault in college, but he and other current and former scouts have told me that there was more than one NFL team convinced that Hernandez was not a guy you wanted in your organizations as the 2010 draft approached. One personnel man who has spoken out about the Hernandez issue is Bill Polian, the current ESPN analyst who made his bones improving the fortunes of the Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers, and Indianapolis Colts. Polian recently told the Wall Street Journal that though his Colts were looking for a tight end in the 2010 draft, there was no way that he was going to get duped as the Patriots did.

Oh, no ... not Bill Polian!

"There were questions there, which is why a guy of that talent lasted until the fourth round," Polian said. adding for good measure that his team "never got that far" in their evaluation of Hernandez, and that "We were not in the Hernandez business."

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Ryan Tucker was a calculated risk who paid long-term dividends. (Getty Images)

Polian, who has developed a bit of a cottage industry when it comes to 20/20 hindsight except when it comes to his own shortcomings (perhaps his last five drafts are too much to take) failed to mention that in 1997, his last year with the Panthers, he selected a receiver from Colorado in the first round by the name of Rae Carruth. As you may know, in January of 2001, Carruth was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, shooting into an occupied vehicle, and using an instrument to destroy an unborn child, when he engineered the shooting that killed the mother of his unborn child. He was given a sentence of 18-24 years in prison. Polian can be faulted for his "analysis" of the Hernandez issue for several reasons -- most notably that he failed to mention his own mistakes and how the Carruth history might have informed his process.

Similarly, Mike Brown, the owner of the Cincinnati Bengals, recently came out of his hidey-hole and insisted that his team wanted no part of Hernandez ... which would be credible if the Bengals' history under Brown didn't include a litany of draft picks and free agents with serious character issues.

“That one is no secret. We just stayed away from it,” Brown recently told Fox Sports' Alex Marvez about Hernandez. “We didn’t question the playing ability. But we went for Gresham.”

That's Jermaine Gresham of Oklahoma, a productive player with no off-field issues. However, there have been enough recent Bengals-related arrests and debacles over the last decade to render Brown's opinion irrelevant at best. There is no part of legitimate analysis that includes hiding one's own screwups at the expense of another person or organization that's currently getting blasted for a high-profile faux pas.

Draft analysis in the media wasn't the major thing it is today, so the version of Rae Carruth that played at Colorado wasn't as publicly scrutinized as he would be now. Short of a few immaturity issues, there was nothing out in the open that would have given any executive pause when evaluating Carruth's future potential. Chris Henry, perhaps the biggest black mark on Brown's history as a team owner/personnel executive (and that's a very long list), had enough red flags as a college player for people to wonder why the Bengals would take him in the third round of the 2005 NFL draft. Henry was suspended several times by the league and was actually waived by the team in April of 2008. However, he was re-signed later that season. Henry died in a 2009 car accident, which was a sad and unexpected end, but for Brown to come out now and claim that his organization is some sort of moral standard-bearer is absolutely hilarious.

"We had some people that we had question marks on at the time of the draft," Brown went on to say. "A few were really tremendous players, but there came a time when for the most part they made life difficult. It wasn't always the case, but there was enough of it. In the last few years, we've gone back to our old formula. We bring in guys, but only when we know that they're sound people.”

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Urban Mayer in happier times, with Albert the Alligator and Tim Tebow. (Getty Images)

In other words, Brown is like any other current or former NFL executive -- he must balance athletic potential and personal character when evaluating prospects. Often, NFL people rely on certain college coaches to ostensibly make that task easier, and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has a well-known relationship with current Ohio State and former Florida head coach Urban Meyer. That relationship hasn't always worked out in Belichick's favor -- set aside the fact that Hernandez played for Meyer at Florida, and consider that Belichick overruled his own scouts and took Florida receiver Chad Jackson in the second round of the 2006 draft, based primarily on Meyer's recommendation. Jackson was perhaps the worst draft bust of the Belichick era in New England -- at least until now -- and his own people tried to warn Belichick against the move.

Now, Meyer is seeing the other, darker side of that relationship. Just as he's putting together a youth football safety clinic with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, the Hernandez story breaks, and Meyer is held at least partially responsible for the path that allowed Hernandez to allegedly skate through his time at Florida without commensurate punishments for his infractions. It's not Meyer's problem that Hernandez turned out to be a really, really bad guy ... but it does look a bit fishy when a coach who is usually so vocal about the attributes of his former players to anyone who will listen not only clams up, but tries to disassociate himself from the entire history.

"Whenever someone attacks your character, our staff — people aren’t aware of all the things we do in terms of being a mentor, dealing with issues and all that," Meyer told Tim May of the Columbus Dispatch on Sunday. "Yeah, I have been avoiding talking about this because you’re talking about a serious crime; you’re talking about families that have been very affected by this. And to pull something back personal that isn’t true from four to seven years ago, that’s mind-boggling to me."

But in the same interview, Meyer falls back on the argument so common to college coaches -- there was only so much he could do.

"Relatively speaking, he had very minor stuff," Meyer said of Hernandez's criminal history at Florida. "He was questioned about being a witness (to a shooting), and he had an argument in a restaurant (in which Hernandez allegedly struck an employee in an argument over an unpaid bill), and he was suspended one game (reportedly for a failed marijuana test). Other than that, he was three years a good player. That was it."

Apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play? Blaming Meyer for what Hernandez has done now is beyond strange, but Meyer must be held accountable to a degree for the actions of those under his wing when they are just that -- especially if he insists on portraying himself as a leader of men. If you'd prefer to dispense with the B.S. and go with a Barry Switzer-esque "Just Win, Baby," philosophy, that's a slightly different story.

In the end, it was no sure thing that Aaron Hernandez would do what he has allegedly done based on his history. There are enough stories of players turning their lives around, and of others having their lives undone, to eliminate the predictive aspects of youthful indiscretion. Hernandez could just as easily followed Ryan Tucker's career path after he dropped to the fourth round because of character concerns. That he didn't shouldn't make Bill Polian or Mike Brown or Urban Meyer or anyone else feel better or smarter because he didn't do it under their employ.

The Hernandez story is a brutal black eye for the entire NFL, and if the NFL is to learn anything from it, the first step will be to get past blame and focus on responsibility.

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