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June 26. 2013 9:19PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Pats won't get fooled again


New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez is led out of the North Attleborough police station after being arrested June 26, 2013. Hernandez, a 23-year-old rising football star with the New England Patriots, was arrested by police in a murder investigation and fired by the team on Wednesday, another blot on the National Football League's tightly protected image. (REUTERS/Dominick Reuter)


Former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez is led into the Attleboro district court house to be arraigned on charges in connection with the shooting death of Odin Lloyd, 27, last week. (Patrick Raycraft/Hartford Courant/MCT)

AARON HERNANDEZ had barely begun to get his due process. He'd been arrested, not arraigned. He'd been handcuffed, not formally charged. But the Patriots weren't going to wait and see how it played out.

They'd already let Hernandez significantly shape the future of their franchise for the better part of a year. And they weren't about to let it happen for a minute more.

Let alone for the length of a murder trial.

Today marks 10 months since the Patriots and Hernandez agreed to pay the tight end up to $40 million over five years, and thus since the team's brass effectively committed to him as a cornerstone of their future.

He'd enjoyed two terrific seasons since the Patriots ignored some of the whispers coming from the shadows, and drafted the University of Florida product with a fourth-round pick. There was time remaining on his rookie deal, but the impetus to getting his signature on his extension were the indications that Hernandez would be a focal point of New England's attack under Josh McDaniels — and the price would subsequently rise steeply.

That didn't happen because Hernandez sprained his ankle in the second game, and was out or limited the rest of the season. But by then the organization had already set its course.

They'd already undertaken the process of evolving their offense in a way that capitalized on Hernandez's unique skill set. They'd already decided that Hernandez was a better choice than receiver Wes Welker in terms of who deserved their long-term loyalty.

They'd already determined that Hernandez would ultimately take Welker's role in the offense, and so — although quarterback Tom Brady cleared out some space under the salary cap by doing a team-friendly restructure of his own deal — they'd already determined that they were eminently comfortable with letting Welker walk in free agency. This spring, he did, and he took his 118 catches with him.

With Welker in Denver, with Danny Woodhead in San Diego, with Brandon Lloyd on the street, with Rob Gronkowski recovering from back and arm surgeries, and now with Hernandez in jail awaiting trial for the murder of 27-year-old Odin Lloyd, the Patriots will likely open the season without the only five players who caught more than 21 passes from Brady last season, and received 338 of his 402 completions.

Gronkowski is expected to be back at some point during the season, Danny Amendola was signed to be a primary target, Julian Edelman has potential as a playmaker and veteran Jake Ballard figures to be a starting tight end — but all four been injury prone. Hernandez was supposed to be the sure thing. He was supposed to be the cog that made the engine hum. He was supposed to be the key to so much.

So it says a lot about how eager the Patriots were to distance their brand from any identification with him that they moved so fast to release him on Wednesday morning. They didn't wait for the facts of the case to be made public, or to find out if this was all somehow a misunderstanding, or even if Hernandez there was any chance a lawyer could plant doubt in the mind of a jury.

Within two hours of Hernandez' arrest the team terminated his contract — releasing a statement saying that "we believe this transaction is simply the right thing to do," and doing so with little regard for the financial ramifications. According to ESPN, by cutting ties with Hernandez Wednesday, the Pats waived their right to recover $12.5 million in bonus money, and he'll cost them more than $5 million toward the salary cap this season, then $7.5 million the year after.

But, again, they didn't want their association with him dictating decisions or lasting any longer. He had fooled them at the highest levels, not only convincing coach Bill Belichick he was a player to build an offense around, but convincing Robert Kraft that he was an ambassador of what the owner stands for.

When the Pats announced Hernandez's extension 10 months ago, Kraft spoke proudly of a "first-class guy" from Bristol, Conn. He talked about how folks should see through the tattoos, and how Hernandez had immediately donated $50,000 to the fund established in memory of the late Myra Kraft as a means of thanking Patriots ownership for believing in him.

"He didn't need to give me the amount that he gave me," Hernandez explained then, "and knowing that he thinks I deserve that, he trusts me to make the right decisions, it means a lot. It means he trusts my character, and the person I am, which means a lot, cause my mother, that's how she wanted to raise me.

"They have to trust you to give you that money. I just feel a lot of respect and I owe it back to him."

If prosecutors are right, everyone learned Wednesday exactly how Hernandez repays debts born out of trust and respect. He leaves the people who invested their faith in him with no choice but to kick him out of their stadium when he's barely been implicated, and no choice but to cut ties altogether before the justice system even has its say.

No choice but to make sure, after 10 months of building a future with him at the core, they didn't waste another minute before Aaron Hernandez was part of their past.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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