The moment Aaron Hernandez took that perp walk from his home to the police car , he was no longer useful to the New England Patriots. He might have caught 175 passes the last three years, the team’s other tight end – the dancing one – might be sidelined for months with yet another surgery, and the Patriots might not have another elite tight end on their roster opening weekend, but they did not need Aaron Hernandez’s problem in their locker room anymore.
A murder investigation and all that comes with it isn’t worth a few catches down the sideline.
In the past, an NFL team might have carried a player such as Hernandez along, letting a trial play out and not taking a stand. But this is a different NFL. Image matters. And the Patriots, for all the risks they have taken on players who have been in trouble in the past, want nothing to do with a player facing months of live television with a breaking news bar across the bottom of the screen.
Expect the NFL to suspend Aaron Hernandez. Wednesday’s arrest all but made that a certainty. Even if the charges end up being dropped, the handcuffs disappear and he is allowed to return to the North Attleboro, Mass., home we can now picture with our eyes closed, the league will punish him. It hates situations like this. It detests having its players attached to killings. And on Wednesday, it woke to two such story lines: Hernandez and that of an undrafted Browns rookie linebacker Ausar Walcott, who allegedly punched a man in the head and wound up with an attempted murder charge. The sponsors don’t like situations like this. And the NFL loves its sponsors.
So if Hernandez can’t play, why would the Patriots want him? Hernandez probably should have known his time with the team was done when team officials shooed him from their facility last week as helicopters hovered overhead and an armada of camera crews set up in the parking lot. Hernandez might have caught 18 touchdown passes in his time with New England. He might have been a critical piece in getting the Patriots to one Super Bowl and a game away from another, but he had nothing more to offer than constant distraction and Bill Belichick wanted nothing to do with that.
The irony in all this is that no coach is better prepared to handle such turmoil. Nobody stares down a media mob better than Belichick. Nobody is more willing to invite a commotion and let it blunder about his locker room if he believes the target of the disruption will help the Patriots' cause.
Just a week before the helicopters targeted their cameras on Hernandez’s white SUV and the daily stakeout set up on the tight end’s lawn, Belichick made the curious move of adding Tim Tebow, who might be the ultimate of all media distractions. In the time that Hernandez, for the most part, quietly developed into a dependable pass-catcher, Tebow became his own beat. Reporters were dispatched to Denver and then to the Jets to cover nothing but him. Tebow’s first minicamp practice with New England drew a media crowd like none the Patriots had seen for a June workout in short pants and numberless jerseys. It’s hard to imagine another team taking on an ordeal like Tebow, especially when Tebow is probably the team’s third quarterback.
But on Belichick’s team, Tebow has something to offer. Maybe he will be an occasional running option at quarterback. Maybe he will play some running back or catch passes. Maybe he will be nothing but a unique scout team quarterback who can give New England’s defense a different look in a league that is going more and more to mobile quarterbacks. Whatever Tebow’s purpose, he will have a purpose. He will justify the extra cameras in the locker room every Wednesday and Thursday afternoon. He will aid the Patrots’ cause.
Hernandez, sure to be handcuffed by the league now that he has been handcuffed by the police, had nothing left to give the Patriots. His selection in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL draft was a clever move. The Patriots made him a star. He helped them win a lot of games, but a big part of the vaunted Patriot Way is to not be overrun by nostalgia. When a player has served his usefulness he is gone. If Wes Welker – by all accounts a wonderful representative of all the Patriots were supposed to be about – could be allowed to leave, Hernandez was certainly expendable.
No way was the NFL going to let Aaron Hernandez be on the field for New England’s first game. No way did he have any value left to the Patriots.
No way was he worth a spot in the locker room.
That too is the Patriot Way.