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How the New England Patriots Became the NFL's Biggest Circus Act

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How the New England Patriots Became the NFL's Biggest Circus Act

The world's sports media are, literally, hovering over New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez as authorities reportedly prepare to arrest him for something much worse than speeding.

Tim Tebow is on the roster as a quarterback. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is recuperating from an unexpected back surgery. Former receiver Wes Welker is saying he and Tom Brady were "upset" at the Patriots not seriously trying to re-sign him, according to Yahoo! Sports's Mike Silver.

Welker even cast doubt on Brady's famous hair, according to USA Today's For The Win blog.

What's going on in New England? How did the most no-nonsense, team-first organization in sports turn into the biggest circus act in the NFL?

 

The Patriot Way is No More

In the last decade, the Patriots established a sterling reputation. They followed "The Patriot Way," focusing on football, putting the needs of the team above their own—and above all, keeping away from (and out of) the media.

Tight-lipped coach Bill Belichick ran a well-oiled machine, keeping his players' heads down and eyes forward, away from off-field distractions. The results were unimpeachable: three Super Bowl wins in five appearances.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
The Patriots, famously, were introduced as a team at Super Bowl XXXVI.

The first sign the machine was going haywire came this spring. The Patriots made it apparent to Welker that they weren't going to pay him what he thought an NFL-record five 100-catch seasons is worth.

Then, Welker bolted for Denver—and Brady's career-long rival, Peyton Manning. "That was kind of by design," Welker told Silver.

Brady and team owner Robert Kraft got their side of the story out, with a Brady confidant telling Silver Brady "feels like he was pierced in the heart." Brady had agreed to restructure his contract so Kraft and the Patriots could spend free-agent money; letting Welker walk and signing Danny Amendola to a bigger deal wasn't likely what Brady had in mind.

Kraft set—in his mind—the record straight with a shockingly specific run-down of the negotiations to ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss. "In Wes’ case, we were willing to go what we considered above his market value," said Kraft. "In fact, our offer was better than what in fact he got from Denver. I’m just really sad about that."

Emotions are rarely on display in New England, and anything internal is supposed to stay internal. Some cracks, though, are too deep to paint over.

 

The Offseason of No Gronk

Gronkowski has been an incredible on-field weapon for the Patriots. His size, speed, hands and power make him a mismatch for any defense. Combined with Hernandez and Welker, Brady and the Patriots have given defenses headaches with their flexible passing attack.

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Gronkowski, though, has given the Patriots headaches with his fun-loving off-field life, to the point that Boston Globe columnist Christopher L. Gasper wrote an entire piece about Gronkowski's "shirtless antics" getting old.

Now, Gronkowski is in the news for another reason: This back surgery, a repeat of a procedure he underwent in college "could" be recovered from in time for the regular season, according to NFL.com's Ian Rapoport. Whether he'll be his usual dominant self when he does return remains an open question.

It's one thing when Gronkowski's name (and shirtless pics) make the rounds in the media, theoretically affecting the Patriots bottom line by serving as a distraction.

It's another thing when Gronkowski can't practice or play, depriving Brady of another of his favorite targets and slowing down Amendola's incorporation into the offense.

 

Tebowmania

Tim Tebow is not an NFL-caliber quarterback. He simply isn't. He didn't display pro-level passing skills in college, and looked completely out of his depth at the Senior Bowl.

Tebow "succeeded" in Denver only when then-offensive coordinator Mike McCoy threw out the playbook and re-wrote it around him—and the Broncos made their opinion of his long-term future clear when they traded him to the New York Jets for whatever they could get.

Al Bello/Getty Images
Tim Tebow, ironically sacked by the New England Patriots defesnse.

Everything about Tebow's time in New York was a failure. "When you look at it with the advantage of hindsight," Jets head coach Rex Ryan told ESPNRadio (via the New York Daily News), "it wasn't a good situation for Tim, it wasn't a good situation for the Jets."

It didn't take the advantage of hindsight to see that Tebow isn't a better pocket passer than incumbent Mark Sanchez, or that using Tebow as a change-of-pace option quarterback wouldn't work.

It also doesn't take the advantage of hindsight to see the only thing Tebow offers the Patriots is Tebowmania.

Why would a coach who loathes distractions and media controversy specifically seek out the player with the worst circus:performance ratio in the NFL? Because the reality is, Belichick not only doesn't avoid such players, he seeks them out.

 

The Audacity of Mope

Bill Belichick is the smartest coach in the NFL, and he knows it. Like his former protegé, Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz, Belichick has never shied away from players with red flags. Like Schwartz and the Lions last offseason, though, this year it's blown up in Belichick's face.

Elsa/Getty Images

Belichick has always seemed to think his brimstone-and-brimstone coaching style can grind out the inconsistencies of mercurial players like Gronkowski, leaving only talent and excellence. In many cases, like Dillion's, he's successful. In many cases, like Chad "Ochocinco" Johnson's, he isn't.

The mystique of The Patriot Way fogs our memories, players like safety Tebucky Jones, linebacker Bryan Cox, running back Corey Dillon and safety Rodney Harrison were magnets for controversy before their time in New England—and, in some cases, during and after.

Last season's trade for deeply troubled cornerback Aqib Talib—and this offseason's extension of his contract—is a perfect example of this. Nobody in the NFL wanted anything to do with Talib and his problems, but Belichick addressed a need with Talib's talent, and thought he could address Talib's needs with his own brand of genius.

There's a bit of arrogance involved in this approach. Belichick seems to presume he can get the best out of any player. Of course, if anyone's earned the right to believe his own press, it's Belichick—but he may have finally outsmarted himself.

Drafting Aaron Hernandez was a risky move. According to USA Today's Jarrett Bell, multiple NFL teams red-flagged Hernandez or removed them from their draft board entirely over character concerns. As Bell wrote, there were "widespread reports" that Hernandez flunked multiple drug tests at the University of Florida, and even "possible ties to gang activities."

It only cost Belichick a fourth-round pick at the time, but adding one more volatile personality to the mix may have cost him this season.

 

Long Live the Patriot Way

It's not that The Patriot Way no longer exists, it's that it doesn't mean what people think it means.

Bill Belichick values winning over everything else. By building a no-nonsense, football-first culture in the locker room, Belichick feels free to seek out talented, troubled players in hopes they'll assimilate.

However, it's like the vaccination concept of herd immunity: when most a population is immune to a disease, the disease can't spread. When the Patriots locker room is united in a single purpose, one or two players with lives full of problems and distractions can't possibly bog down the team.

It wan't just Hernandez that was the problem, or Talib, or Tebow or Gronkowski. Belichick's approach of seeking out problem children (while refusing to pay proven veterans and Patriot leaders like Welker, Richard Seymour) has finally caught up with him.

Whether Hernandez is arrested for murder, or merely stalked 24 hours a day by media and police until his name is cleared, the damage is done: the Patriots are officially the biggest media circus in the NFL, and it's going to take a lot of winning to wipe the clown makeup off of Belichick's face.

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