TWO DAYS before the players pull the pads back on, and put an end to an offseason that was more about the penal system than the playbook for the organization, the football fans of New England received reassurance that their Patriots are going to be OK.
It came courtesy of coach Bill Belichick, who Wednesday afternoon met the media for the first time since star tight end Aaron Hernandez was released after being arraigned on a murder charge, and with a tone of reflection and regret delivered a pitch-perfect statement that took an important step in distancing the team from the situation as it moves forward with football.
A pencil tucked behind his ear, he wore a blue Patriot-emblazoned windbreaker like it was any other Wednesday — but shortly after stepping to the podium he explained it was hardly that.
“It’s a sad day, a really sad day on so many levels,” he offered at the outset, saying that he felt the matter was important enough that it needed to be addressed before Friday’s start of training camp, and offering condolences for the “tragic loss” suffered by the family of 27-year-old victim Odin Lloyd.
He then described the shock and disappointment he felt upon having his foreign vacation interrupted by reports of the investigation into Hernandez’s involvement, subsequently saying that he worked with ownership in acting swiftly to cut Hernandez before he’d even been charged, and that he stood by everything owner Robert Kraft said a couple weeks ago in a meeting with three hand-picked reporters.
But it was when he specifically related the murder to the team that he did himself and his organization the greatest service.
“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,” he said, reading from a prepared statement.
“As the coach of the team, I’m primarily responsible for the people that we bring into the football operation. Our players are generally highly motivated and gifted athletes, they come from very different backgrounds. They’ve met many challenges along the way, and have done things to get here.
“Sometimes they’ve made bad or immature decisions, but we try to look at every single situation on a case-by-case basis and try to do what’s best for the football team and what’s best for the franchise. Most of those decisions have worked out, but some don’t. Overall, I’m proud of the hundreds of players that have come through this program.
“I’m personally disappointed and hurt in a situation like this.”
Finally, after the star they’d invested $40 million in proved to be a monster, and their response began to look a bit cold and faceless after opting not to address in front of cameras and microphones for more than a month, in speaking for the team’s leadership Belichick looked human. He seemed genuine and sincere. When he said he was disappointed and hurt, it sounded like he really was.
It’s too far a stretch to call him and the Patriots any sort of victims here, but a man notorious for his steely demeanor and sheer ability to stonewall even the most innocuous of questions cast a vibe that he was still struggling to digest this — not in the way it would impact his team’s roster or strategy, but simply as a citizen.
And that was important for any corner of the public holding a belief that the Patriots were somehow complicit in this, having drafted and re-signed Hernandez despite the red flags — some of which weren’t unfurled until after his arrest. It was important for the coach to confirm that the team studies the backgrounds of its players, not because one went horribly awry, but because the system is validates by the hundreds they got right.
“I can tell you that we look at every player’s history from the moment we start discussing it,” Belichick said. “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. It combines a player’s personal history, but again, it also has to project what we think and how we think he will be in our environment.”
This time they obviously thought wrong, and they owned up to it. They were accountable. They took responsibility for bringing Hernandez here — yet they managed to do it without revealing what they missed, where they erred, or why their system failed.
And so, in the end, Belichick came across more caring and honest and humble than most probably expected. He gave the impression that the Patriots aren’t running from this situation as an organization, even while moving on as a team. And as a result he made the case to his players, to his fans, to everyone invested in his franchise that the situation is under control.
That with Hernandez in their past, and with the focus now ready to shift to football, the Patriots are going to be OK.
“We’ll learn from this terrible experience that we’ve had. We’ll become a better team from the lessons that we’ve learned,” Belichick said. “We have so many players on this team that work hard, that do the right thing, and that set a great example of being a professional and being a solid representative of this team and the community.”
Dave D’Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.