Aaron Hernandez was always a matchup problem for opponents. It turned out he was also a matchup problem for the Patriots. The team struggled to match up what it was seeing inside the walls of Gillette Stadium with the person the former Patriots tight end appears to truly be.
That person is behind bars in the Bristol County jail, charged with the murder of Dorchester’s Odin Lloyd and five gun-related violations of the law.
If the Patriots are guilty of anything it was letting Hernandez use the misguided belief that their building and their uniforms somehow build character or instill it where it doesn’t exist against them. They became intoxicated by this myth, the idea of the Patriots being more than a football team, but a way of life.
Fielding better teams than your competitors should never be confused or equated with having better human beings. That’s a dangerous and erroneous supposition. The folks at Patriot Place have learned that in painful fashion.
But the notion that the Patriots should have pegged Hernandez, who is also being investigated in relation to a double homicide in Boston last July, for an alleged criminal is grossly overestimating the oversight that an NFL team has over a player’s off-field life. It’s also piling on the Patriots while they’re down.
The flogging of the Patriots for not knowing they had an alleged murderer in their midst has been unfair.
The idea that the Patriots should have been reconnoitering Hernandez’s every move assumes they had such an option. But tailing or spying on Hernandez without cause or a prior legal entanglement surely would have been grounds for a grievance with the NFL Players Association.
Hernandez is very bright, and he duped the Patriots — hard.
He spent a lot of time inside Gillette Stadium. He was regarded as one of the hardest workers on the team. He was identified by coach Bill Belichick as a player with a real passion for football, the canonized coach’s highest imprimatur. Hernandez never tested positive for drugs with the Patriots. He ingratiated himself to the Kraft family on a more personal level than most players.
But if the charges against him and the subsequent stories of his violent behavior prove true then Hernandez was a charlatan, his talent matched only by his capacity for duplicity.
The legacy of Hernandez should be that he causes the Patriots to think twice about whether being a reputation rehabilitation center for the NFL is worth the risk.
It’s time to bury once and for all the notion that Hernandez, even after being charged with murder, was still a great “value” pick for the Patriots based on the three years he was here.
Who would you rather have today, Hernandez in handcuffs or Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta, taken one pick after Hernandez in the 2010 draft? The boastful chest-beating and back-slapping now belongs to the teams who took Hernandez off their boards or saw too many red flags to draft him.
However, the Patriots couldn’t have known they were drafting an alleged murderer in 2010, when they took Hernandez in the fourth round (113th overall pick). They couldn’t have known they were rewarding an alleged murderer with a seven-year, $39.768 million deal two years later, a deal that was done in part to show Hernandez he was valued as much as fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski.
The big-picture takeaway for the Patriots is that there needs to be a more rigorous system of checks and balances on at-risk players.
If you leave the vetting up to the football coach, he is going to get seduced and blinded by talent. Coaches will always believe they can remove the warts from a troubled player — at least on Sundays. The Patriots have flirted with flames with names like Dillon, Moss, and Haynesworth. This time, they got burned.
The Patriots have a protocol for reviewing players with behavioral red flags.
When Hernandez was drafted the only issue ever raised to owner Robert Kraft and team president Jonathan Kraft by Belichick and president of player personnel Nick Caserio was the tight end’s marijuana usage at the University of Florida.
Since Lloyd’s death and the pending investigation, there have been reports and insinuations that some NFL teams were concerned that Hernandez was socializing with people from his hometown of Bristol, Conn., who had gang ties.
Former Colts president Bill Polian said last week that his team was “not in the Hernandez business.” Bengals owner Mike Brown, whose team has been a virtual halfway house, said his team steered clear of Hernandez.
An NFL source said Belichick was never aware of any gang-related concerns about Hernandez or his associates.
“No. I don’t know that it was ever brought to Bill’s attention,” the source said. “I think teams bringing that up now, I would think it’s sour grapes. If it had been real gang stuff I think Bill would’ve stayed away. Bill would not have wanted to interject that into his locker room.”
Before the Patriots drafted Hernandez, Belichick got on the phone with Hernandez’s agent, David Dunn, and explained they would only pick the tight end if they could build protections into the contract.
Hernandez’s $200,000 signing bonus was not guaranteed and was $286,250 less than the player who had gone in his draft slot the year before, Vaughn Martin. Significant portions of his compensation were tied to incentives and roster bonuses.
By the time the Patriots signed Hernandez to a five-year extension last August they believed the risk had been mitigated. They were comfortable with him moving forward.
Hernandez pledged allegiance to the Patriot Way, saying it had changed his life. The only thing that had changed were the zeros in his paycheck.
A player who came to the Patriots with character cons had conned them with their own game.Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist and the host of Boston Sports Live. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.