The cauldron of NFL coverage has turned out its share of icky clichés. That’s the nature of a league which has the shortest and most intensely scrutinized season, yet there’s a need — no, a thirst — for more after the Super Bowl in early February. We need more speculation, more narrative, more controversy, and more conjecture. Mostly, we need a football item to discuss, and anything will do.
This is how the code commonly known as the “Patriot Way” was born, and it’s now used colloquially. What exactly it means depends on who you’re speaking to, and your geographic location. Some may think it refers simply to not just winning, but winning regardless of who’s on the field. Even if, say, your star quarterback breaks his leg and Matt Cassel has to start for nearly an entire season. Onwards and upwards.
More commonly, the Patriot Way is known as a complete intolerance for any inappropriate conduct and malcontent behavior. Oh, there’s been exceptions (some briefly), but when Albert Haynesworth began reverting to his natural tendencies while not producing, he was released. And when Chad Ochocinco/Johnson was utterly unproductive, he was marginalized and discarded.
Randy Moss wasn’t able to shut up, and then he was told to talk somewhere else that isn’t the patriots dressing room. Then earlier this offseason there was the cold treatment of defensive tackle Kyle Long, who was cut after being diagnosed with diabetes. There are two core requirements to march in Belichick’s line: produce, and behave (and apparently the lesser known stipulation about not contracting a disease).
Not meeting one can result in an abrupt termination. Aaron Hernandez become the latest case study today when he was released hours after his arrest in connection with the death of Odin Lloyd.
We don’t know the extent of Hernandez’s crime yet, though that will change a little later this afternoon once he’s arraigned. The common assumption right now is that he’ll be charged with obstruction of justice after reportedly smashing his cell phone and home security system following the death of Lloyd early last Monday morning.
However, if that truly was the extent of Hernandez’s crime, it’s unlikely the Patriots would have released such a crucial member of their offense, especially after Wes Welker walked during free agency, and especially with Rob Gronkowski broken. Ray Lewis was charged with the same crime in connection with his infamous night in Atlanta back in 2000, and although questions and accusations followed him throughout his career, he still had a career. A fine career. No, a Hall of Fame career.
The tolerance for turd behavior in the NFL is high, even with the seemingly square Patriots. With Hernadez’s swift release you won’t think that’s true, but then you’ll remember that this is a franchise which employs Aqib Talib, who was accused of firing a gun at his sister’s boyfriend (the charges were later dropped). He was also involved in a fist fight at the rookie symposium in 2008 (seriously), and he assaulted a cab driver.
Even with the code of the Patriot Way firmly instituted, a certain level of turd tolerance is an accepted reality of NFL team management. It’s the consequence of assembling a roster of players willing to have their bodies hammered repeatedly for a decade or so, and to sustain the mental punishment of preparing for that physical punishment. The character of that person isn’t always pleasant, so you — the head coach and general manager — are forced to look away, and say little.
It’s a dangerous game to play, because no one is fully capable of judging the character of these brutish athletes. Yet every February and March, that’s what we try to do during the draft evaluation process. We plant red flags over relatively mundane flaws stemming from marijuana charges, and wonder why some kid shoved another kid in the locker room. Must be a bad guy, we say.
Predicting Hernandez’s quick spiral from a premier tight end on a championship contending team to a premier tight end who’s in jail is impossible, of course. There’s a boundary between tolerating a poor personal makeup, and knowing when the basic decency required to exist in society supersedes winning NFL games. It’s drawn in pencil, surely, but evidently that line is crossed when the player in question could be involved in the taking of another human’s life.
For the Patriots, cutting Hernandez was simply the “right thing to do“. Here’s the statement they released:
“A young man was murdered last week and we extend our sympathies to the family and friends who mourn his loss. Words cannot express the disappointment we feel knowing that one of our players was arrested as a result of this investigation. We realize that law enforcement investigations into this matter are ongoing. We support their efforts and respect the process. At this time, we believe this transaction is simply the right thing to do.”
When the business of winning games resumes in September, Tom Brady will be missing up to five of his primary targets from last year, depending on Rob Gronkowski’s health. Combined, Gronkowski, Hernandez, Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, and Danny Woodhead caught 338 passes last year. At wide receiver they were replaced by the oft-injured Danny Amendola through free agency, along with Donald Jones, Michael Jenkins, and second-round pick Aaron Dobson.
The cavernous hole now lies a tight end. The assumption is that Jake Ballard will ascend with the tight end depth chart decimated if Gronk misses time, but he’s well over a year removed from microfracture surgery, and he’s only just now returning to full health. Beyond him there’s Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui, and they had nine catches combined last year.
Now you see why the NFL’s turd tolerance is so high, even amongst those who abide by the Patriot Way. Thankfully, winning games on Sundays isn’t valued over a human life.