I’m not sure who created the term, “The Patriot Way,” but I’ve never heard Bill Belichick, Bob Kraft or Tom Brady reject it. It’s used as a proud heading within the team history section on the New England Patriots’ official Web site. The Patriot Way suggests that the franchise’s methods of doing business are admirable, highly principled and beyond reproach, with Kraft, the affable owner, especially fond of the slogan.
This always struck me as laughable, knowing Belichick always will be associated with the sleazy Spygate scandal and the NFL-maximum $500,000 fine that accompanied the illegal videotaping of an opponents’ sideline signals during a game. That’s The Way you cheat, right? Belichick also is known for prickly, sourpuss scenes such as not shaking the hand of Tom Coughlin, the winning coach, after losing a Super Bowl. That’s The Way you lose poorly, right?
So let’s assume there never was a Patriot Way even before that notion was obliterated by the Aaron Hernandez murder case. In the period after Belichick won three Super Bowls in four years and was building a greatest-coach-of-his-time argument, there was a fascination that he could take on problematic discards — Randy Moss and Corey Dillon as prime examples — and minimize their character issues while maximizing their contributions within a team concept. But the Patriots haven’t won a Super Bowl in eight years, losing both appearances in that span, and have misplaced their aura with three postseason losses at home the past four years. In that period, some high-profile character risks — Albert Haynesworth, Chad Johnson, Donte’ Stallworth — haven’t done much in New England. Suddenly, nothing is special about the Patriots, other than the mastery of Brady, who remains a hair above Peyton Manning as the elite quarterback of the early 21st century.
The organization has been staggered by the charges against Hernandez. “Duped,” Kraft said. This could have happened to any franchise, but because it happened to the Patriots — the team of high standards that takes chances — they became vulnerable to criticism that their continued risk-taking was doomed to bite them in the ass. The Patriots now are known not only for Spygate, but as the team that drafted an accused murderer and rewarded him with a $39.5 million extension last year as one of Brady’s favorite targets. When other NFL teams were removing Hernandez from their draft boards, the Patriots were ignoring red flags coming from the University of Florida. Seems Belichick believed the hype that he was this great rehabilitative guru, the old-school disciplinarian who could impose God-like fear in anyone.
Kraft is the one person Belichick can’t control. The owner backed him, reluctantly, during Spygate, and when it was time last month to address Hernandez as an organization, Kraft asked his coach to speak candidly and abandon his usual say-little, monosyllabic media act. Basically, Belichick agreed that in-house vetting procedure must become more elaborate. But he also was a bit on the defensive, a highly unusual stance for a coach usually in command.
“This process is far from perfect, but it’s one that we’ve used from 2000 until today,” Belichick told reporters. “Unfortunately, this most recent situation with the charges involved is not a good one on that record … We stress high character and we stress making good decisions. We’ll learn from this terrible experience that we’ve had. We’ll become a better team from the lessons that we’ve learned.
“The hundreds of players we’ve had through this program in the last 14 years, there’s been a lot of good ones, a lot of real good ones. We’ll try to do a good job in bringing people into this organization in the future and try to learn from the mistakes that we’ve made along the way, of which there have been plenty.”
It’s fair to wonder if Belichick has looked the other way when he hears ugly whispers about a productive player’s off-field life. Given the 24/7 scrutiny of pro athletes, he surely heard at least bits and pieces about Hernandez and his associations. How could that ever elude a coach who strikes us as savvy in surveillance techniques? “This case involves an individual who happened to be a New England Patriot, and we certainly do not condone unacceptable behavior and this does not in any way represent the way that the New England Patriots want to do things,” Belichick said. “As the coach of the team, I’m primarily responsible for the people that we bring into the football operation.
“We look at every player’s history from the moment we start discussing it, going back to his family, where he grew up, what his lifestyle was like, high school, college experiences. We evaluate his performance, his intelligence, his work ethic, his motivation, his maturity, his improvement and we try to project that into our organization on a going-forward basis … Whatever the circumstances are on any one individual, you’ll have to make the decision based on an individual basis.
“I think that we’ll continue to try to look at ourselves in the mirror and see where we can do a better job, maybe where we can improve the process. But I think the fundamentals of the process will remain the same.”
Belichick says it’s time for the Patriots to “move forward,” if that is possible as Hernandez sits in a jail cell not far from Gillette Stadium, his case certain to dominate headlines as investigations continue and court dates loom. Which is why it’s no surprise that Kraft, every chance he gets, is extolling the virtues of the anti-Hernandez. Tim Tebow was signed by the Patriots before his Florida teammate was arrested. In retrospect, it’s a damned good thing he was, because every time the organization is marred by another Hernandez reference, Kraft can point to Tebow as counter evidence — like Brady — of what the Patriots want in a player. When the Patriots opened training camp, Kraft showed up on ESPN’s “Mike and Mike” radio show with a surprise gift for the hosts: a No. 5 Tebow jersey.
“We’re trying to collect as many good people as we can in all our businesses,” Kraft said on the show. “Here’s a young man that’s hard working, puts the team first, everybody who meets him likes him … The more good people you can have in your life, the better things are going to be.”
In June, Kraft spoke of Tebow’s “spirituality” in an interview with reporters. “The fact that spirituality is so important to him is very appealing to me,” he said. Little did he know how vital the Tebow symbolism would be. Some have speculated Tebow might not survive roster cuts, but, seriously, please. He could totally stink, lose all feeling in his hands and legs, and he’d still make this team. The Patriots need him as an example of human goodness, warding off the sinister aftertaste of Hernandez.
“It’s just heartbreaking and sad, and all my thoughts and prayers go out to all the families that were involved,” Tebow said of Hernandez. “I understand why you have to ask all the questions, that’s part of doing your job. Part of mine is listening to instruction and we’ve been told not to talk about it.”
Barring catastrophic injuries to Brady and skilled backup Ryan Mallett, there is no chance Tebow will get real time at quarterback. What exists is a possibility of using his bullish athleticism and running ability in creative ways, especially as Rob Gronkowski recovers from back surgery and Brady tries to cope with a hollow receiving corps. Tebow could line up as an H-back, a tight end, a running back, maybe in a manner we’ve never seen. It helps that the coach who enabled his success in Denver, Josh McDaniels, is back with the Patriots as offensive coordinator.
“I think we’ll use Tim wherever we feel like is best for the team,” Belichick said. “I know that’s what he’s committed to doing as well, whatever that is.”
“I just do what I’m told,” Tebow told the usual media swarm. “I’ll work as hard as I possibly can to do the best job that I can with whatever I’m asked to do.”
The Tebow Way, call it. You’ll be hearing a lot about it. Problem is, it will be confined to the sportscast.
The lead story, in real life, will be the murder suspect.