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Aaron Hernandez's arrest, release could lead to end of Patriots' run of excellence

It began, chillingly, with a traumatic injury that could have turned tragic: Franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe was rushed to the hospital after suffering a sheared blood vessel in a 2001 game at Foxborough Stadium, and Tom Brady came in and spurred the New England Patriots to a prolonged run of excellence.

Did it end, symbolically, with Wednesday's disquieting arrest of discarded Pats tight end Aaron Hernandez on a murder charge?

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Aaron Hernandez (L) stands with his attorney Michael Fee during Wednesday's arraignment. (AP)

Surely, it is far too early to draw that conclusion. Yet as Hernandez sits in a jail cell for what prosecutors allege was the cold-blooded execution of a former associate — and the Patriots try to move forward from perhaps the darkest chapter in franchise history — it's not unfair to wonder whether an era has ended.

From a football perspective, the loss of Hernandez isn't insignificant. The 23-year-old tight end's role, in tandem with fellow 2010 NFL draftee Rob Gronkowski, represented the most significant innovation to an ever-evolving offense that has long been the team's strength. Having two such versatile, prolific pass-catchers at a traditionally underutilized position allowed coach Bill Belichick to dictate to defenses and maximized Brady's mastery of scheme, tempo and efficiency.

This is bigger than X's and O's, however. The psychic cost of Hernandez's demise, while not necessarily an indication that the much-trumpeted "Patriot Way" has been irrevocably tainted, could be steep and multi-layered. While owner Robert Kraft's noble and understandable decision to release Hernandez within 90 minutes of the player's arrest may mitigate the nightmarish fallout, this former Pro Bowler's legal saga will play out in conspicuous fashion over the coming months, particularly in the Boston area.

Even Belichick, who famously abhors distractions, understands that he won't be able to It is what it is this stain away from Gillette Stadium. And while the coach will relentlessly drone that he's simply "focusing on the players who are here" — and insist that said players do the same — there's going to be a lot of focus on the ex-player who's currently bunking at the Bristol County House of Corrections.

[Report: Aaron Hernandez under investigation for double-homicide in 2012]

How much focus? This may be a slight exaggeration, but I'll throw these two words out there nonetheless: Tim Who?

As Belichick's signing of Tim Tebow earlier this month suggested, this is a future Hall of Fame coach willing to take chances in the name of chasing history. That transaction carried more than a hint of I'm smarter than everyone else bravado, typically a sure sign of every successful sports team's eventual undoing.

Yet the Patriots, as 21st century franchises go, are pretty far from typical. Since that day in September of 2001 when Bledsoe charged forward in pursuit of a first down, absorbed a hellacious hit from New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis and sustained what his father would call a "life-threatening" injury, Kraft's organization has existed on an ethereal plane of its own.

Beginning with that Brady-led Super Bowl XXXVI run — one which, in fairness, required help from the Tuck Rule in snowy Foxborough and Bledsoe's gritty relief effort in Pittsburgh — the Pats have enjoyed a run of sustained success exceeded in the post-merger era only by the 1980s and '90s San Francisco 49ers.

During that 12-year stretch, the Belichick/Brady Pats have produced 12 winning seasons and 10 AFC East titles. Brady surpassed Joe Montana's NFL record with his 17th postseason victory last January and guided New England to its seventh AFC championship game during that span. That's so good, it's scary.

Much has been made of the fact that Belichick and Brady, who won three Super Bowls during his first four years as a starter, have failed to win a championship since the 2004 season. Yet it can also be argued that if not for a pair of near-miraculous catches by New York Giants receivers four years apart, the coach and quarterback would each be flaunting a ridiculous five rings obtained during this century.

It should also be noted that Brady's unlikely ascent was not as accidental as commonly portrayed. While it's universally accepted that Bledsoe got Wally Pipped after sustaining an injury that would leave him 20 pounds lighter, he might well have ended up on the bench had he stayed healthy.

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The upcoming season could be one of the most challenging for Bill Belichick (R) and Tom Brady. (USAT)

According to a very well-placed source, even before that defeat to the Jets had dropped New England to 0-2 in 2001, Belichick had already informed Kraft that Brady, in his mind, was the superior quarterback and that he was contemplating a switch. And though Kraft had signed Bledsoe to a 10-year, $103 million contract that was then the richest in NFL history the previous March, the owner was not inclined to overrule his coach on a personnel decision of that magnitude.

So give Belichick credit for recognizing Brady's potential for greatness, and for surrounding him with fierce, intelligent, productive leaders like Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison and Troy Brown who helped the franchise ascend to the top of football universe.

And give Brady credit for helping to preserve that lofty standard even after many of those decorated veterans departed — and, more often than not, their replacements proved to be lesser teammates, albeit functional ones.

That the Patriots have stayed so good for so long is remarkable — but their success is not ordained, and their perch may be more fragile than many of us realize.

Will the perpetually weak AFC East finally transform into a legitimate division, as the once-laughable NFC West did over the past two seasons? That may sound like a stretch, but the Miami Dolphins seem to believe they're on the verge of something special, and the Buffalo Bills sound kind of fired up as well.

Will the departures of Hernandez and the alarmingly productive Wes Welker, Brady's close friend and favorite target, reduce the Pats' offensive potency? Will that, in turn, expose a defense bereft of difference-makers?

And, most important, how will the team respond to the unthinkable scenarios being posed in the courtroom by the people prosecuting Hernandez?

Six years ago, Belichick's players channeled their post-Spygate frustration into a Screw The World swagger that produced the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history. Will the current crop of Patriots close ranks and rally in response to the grisly charges Hernandez faces, or will many of them quietly become unnerved and detached as they process the surrounding circus?

I can't answer those questions yet, and if the Pats fall flat in 2013 and beyond, I won't be able to state conclusively that Hernandez's horrific circumstances will have been the chief cause of their demise.

[Related: Aaron Hernandez denied bail during appeal hearing]

At this point, however, it's a possibility worth considering. Though the end of an era is inevitable — and, inevitably, is complicated — it's also true that watershed events often get associated with such sea changes.

For the 49ers, some regard Steve Young's career-ending concussion in 1999 as the death of a dynasty. For me, however, owner Eddie DeBartolo's earlier involvement in a Louisiana gaming scandal, which eventually forced him out of football, sealed the team's demise.

I also know this: The bigger the stain, the longer it lingers — and the more we're prone to attach symbolic significance to anything negative that happens in its wake.

If Belichick, Brady and the Patriots can retain their standard of excellence amid the ghastly blot of Hernandez's alleged crimes, it may turn out to be their greatest accomplishment of all.

NFL.com video on the Patriots losing faith in Hernandez:

Other Aaron Hernandez content on Yahoo! Sports:
Second person in custody in Odin Lloyd homicide investigation
Aaron Hernandez's journey from football star to murder suspect
Is Tim Tebow an option for Patriots at tight end?
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