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FARINELLA: Time for Pats to start cleaning up shop - The Sun Chronicle : Patriots

FARINELLA: Time for Pats to start cleaning up shop

Hernandez saga raises serious questions about personnel decisions

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Posted: Sunday, June 23, 2013 12:00 am

Needless to say, I am reminded with each keystroke to respect one of the most important tenets of the American legal system, that everyone is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

That being said, I don't think I'm breaking new ground by suggesting that there's enough information out there to suggest that no matter what the outcome of the ongoing murder investigation in North Attleboro may be, the New England Patriots would be well-served to sever their ties with Aaron Hernandez.

It may also be time for the Patriots to consider whether their personnel decisions require much more aggressive supervision by those above Bill Belichick on the organizational chart.

Even if there is no such thing as the "Patriot Way" - and that's a contention made by their sycophantic fan base when it serves the purpose of attacking a media corps that does not kneel in reverent praise of everything Belichick does - this is not the way things should be done in Foxboro.

Belichick deserves credit for what he did in the last decade - creating a culture where seasoned, hungry veterans were rescued from obscurity and devoted themselves unflinchingly to the pursuit of victory. It brought Super Bowl championships in 2001, 2003 and 2004.

But it's been a long time since they've won the big one - and as Super Bowl championships became harder to secure, the Patriots' organization turned an increasingly blind eye to transgressions or patterns of behavior in their prospects that would have taken players off their draft or free-agency radar screens in the past.

When Corey Dillon, a veteran player with a checkered past, was convinced that keeping his nose clean with the Patriots was his best chance to capture a coveted Super Bowl ring, it created the mythology that Belichick was a magician that needed only to wave his hands over a troubled individual to send him onto the path of righteousness.

It certainly seemed to work with Randy Moss, at least for a short while. In 2007, Moss realized that he finally had a quarterback that would put him in a position to set a slew of records and win a few important football games at the same time, and he played accordingly (for about a year and change) to add further luster to Belichick's supposed power to save lost souls.

But somewhere along the way, standards began to fall by the wayside. Players with past brushes with the law gained free passes at draft time. Brandon Meriweather, a safety out of Miami, was involved in gunplay while enrolled at "the U," but was not charged with a crime - and when he came to the Patriots, the incident was basically ignored because Belichick was convinced he could play at a level worthy of the first-round draft pick they spent on him.

He couldn't. And whether Meriweather was a bad guy or just a malingering nitwit, the only thing that mattered in the end was that he couldn't make enough plays to earn his keep.

Any of these players' transgressions pale before the situation in which it appears that Hernandez, the tight end from Florida, is at least tangentially involved.

Hernandez was always known to be a little off-center, but he did a good job of fooling a lot of people and staying out of trouble (at least for public consumption) long enough to earn what now appears to be undeserved trust.

At the time Hernandez was eligible for the draft in 2010, it became widely known that he had an affinity for marijuana. He admitted at the scouting combine workouts that he had failed one drug test while at the University of Florida, while media outlets claimed they discovered multiple drug-test failures in his past.

It was assumed at the time that the marijuana situation was what caused Hernandez to fall to the fourth round of the 2010 draft. But now, we're learning that the NFL's investigators had uncovered that Hernandez had an entourage of shady characters from his youth in Bristol, Conn., that continued to be a part of his life in Gainesville. The fear that these individuals might be a continuing influence upon Hernandez's professional career was the factor that sent him plummeting down many teams' draft boards, and not solely the wacky weed.

But Belichick the Healer was willing to gamble - and for a while, it appeared that the gamble paid off. Hernandez was a productive, if injury-prone receiver whose undeniable talent was rewarded last year with a five-year contract extension worth $40 million.

As stated before, it appeared to the public that Hernandez had focused solely upon football to earn the big contract - one which, after he signed it, prompted a soulful locker-side press conference filled with teary-eyed pronouncements of how his new riches would change his life and make him a better player and person.

And we in the football media bought it - lock, stock and manure-filled barrel.

Now we're learning that teammates saw a change in Hernandez after he got the big money, but not for the better. One report called his observed behavior "brazen." And what about the reports that have only just begun circulating about a shooting in Miami, or an incident outside a Providence nightclub? Or other transgressions that are only now coming to light?

Is this a case of piling on against a man who, to this point, has been convicted of nothing? Perhaps. But a pattern seems to be emerging - and each new revelation makes it easier to believe that Hernandez may have more than just a tangential connection to the murder investigation that is unfolding practically in his own North Attleboro backyard.

One way or another, the Patriots don't need this. Players have been released for lesser reasons and without the benefit of due process. There are clauses built into every NFL contract that demand at least minimal standards of lawful conduct, and if Hernandez has acted in any way that could be interpreted as a breach of those behavioral standards, he should be out of a job and forced to face the consequences of his actions on his own - and before Commissioner Roger Goodell steps in, as he most certainly will.

Even more importantly, this situation should warrant a halt to Robert Kraft's "hands-off" approach to the football operation - or, if the task of cleaning up the shop is too much for the 72-year-old owner of the team to handle, perhaps the responsibility of oversight should be transferred to someone more able to rein in Belichick's immense ego and keep a closer eye upon how the money is spent, and to whom it goes.

This isn't an isolated incident, although it's certainly the most serious and shocking.

One of the two starting cornerbacks and a running back are coming off NFL-ordered suspensions for substance abuse. The other starting cornerback is facing jail time in Nebraska after the season following his conviction in an assault against a police officer. Even some of the most revered names of the Patriots' recent past were involved in situations that involved guns, drugs or criminal assault.

It has to stop.

Even if it's determined that Hernandez had no involvement whatsoever in the murder of Odin Lloyd, the 27-year-old semi-pro football player that was found dead in the nearby industrial park early last week - and that seems highly unlikely, given all of the connections that have already been uncovered - the Patriots have to bite the bullet and tell Hernandez that he and his thug entourage are not welcome in Foxboro under any circumstances.

It should also serve as a message to the head coach that victories need not be sought at any cost, and to the rest of the roster and to the next generation of potential Patriots that a player's off-field conduct will not be judged less harshly according to the number of passes he can catch or yards he can gain.

If there really isn't a "Patriot Way," as some contend when it's convenient, then maybe it's time to start one.

MARK FARINELLA may be reached at 508-236-0315 or via email at mfarinel@thesunchronicle.com. Read Farinella's blog, "Blogging Fearlessly," at thesunchronicle.com/blogs/markfarinella.

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