Patriots have lost their 'Way'

June 21, 2013

Before the New England Patriots won what would be the second of three Super Bowl titles in a four-season span, then-player personnel director Scott Pioli shed some light on how the franchise assembled its roster.

“The things that people refer to as intangibles we do not see as intangible at all,” Pioli told the media prior to New England's 32-29 victory over Carolina in Super Bowl XXXVIII, back in 2004.

“A player’s makeup, his character, integrity, leadership — all those things are very tangible. And they have a say in how we try to build our football team.”

Such a philosophy became known as the Patriot Way.

Almost a decade later, the Patriots have lost their way.

The latest reason to question some of the personnel decisions made in recent years by head coach Bill Belichick: Tight end Aaron Hernandez’s potential involvement in a recent Massachusetts homicide case.

Not that Belichick or the Patriots need apologize for one of the most impressive stretches in NFL history. The results speak for themselves.

New England has won at least 10 games for 10 consecutive seasons. Along the way, the Patriots have played in five Super Bowls and won three of them. They reached two other AFC Championship Games, including last season’s 28-13 home loss to eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore.

Yet there was a time when it seemed New England owner Robert Kraft might need to build an extension onto Patriot Place to fit more Lombardi Trophies. Instead, six other franchises — the New York Giants (twice), Pittsburgh (twice), Baltimore, Green Bay, New Orleans and Indianapolis — have captured titles since the Patriots defeated Philadelphia in Super Bowl XXXIX in 2005.

There is no single factor to explain why the Patriots have fallen short. Some years there were better teams. Tom Brady missed almost the entire 2008 season with a knee injury. Star tight end Rob Gronkowski was gimpy in Super Bowl XLVI.

Pure luck plays a role, too. With a couple of breaks here and there, Brady could have enough rings for both hands.

One of the reasons he doesn’t: The quality of Brady’s supporting cast has gradually diminished. His quarterbacking prowess and the outstanding coaching of Belichick and his staff has largely helped the Patriots overcome the drop in talent.

Trying to compensate for that dip, Belichick has proved more willing in recent years to gamble on players with character issues after finding earlier success with wide receiver Randy Moss and running back Corey Dillon.

Obviously, not every NFL player will have the choir-boy image of Tim Tebow (who, ironically, may end up helping the Patriots weather the likely loss of Hernandez if Tebow converts from quarterback to tight end). But Belichick’s belief that some leopards can change their spots has created its own set of headaches and bad publicity even as the majority of Patriots have steered clear of legal trouble and bad decisions.

* The Patriots dealt draft choices for wide receiver Chad Johnson and defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth in 2011 after bad behavior with their prior teams got them placed on the trading block. Neither caused problems in New England, but both were major flops.

* New England made cornerback Alfonzo Dennard a 2012 seventh-round choice despite a predraft felony arrest on charges he assaulted a police officer. Dennard recently was sentenced to 30 days in jail following the 2013 season and two years probation.

* The Patriots used three picks in 2009 and 2010 on players who reportedly failed college drug tests — Hernandez, linebacker Brandon Spikes and wide receiver Brandon Tate.

Tate was waived in 2011 and now plays for Cincinnati. Spikes and linebacker-defensive lineman Jermaine Cunningham, another 2010 second-round selection, both have served four-game NFL suspensions after testing positive for banned performance-enhancing substances.

As for Hernandez, his recent troubles have been well documented.

* The Patriots traded with Tampa Bay last October for cornerback Aqib Talib, who served a four-game suspension earlier in the season for a PED violation. Talib served a one-game suspension in 2010 for violating the NFL’s personal-conduct policy after being arrested for simple battery and resisting arrest the previous season.

* Tampa Bay also sent running back LaGarrette Blount to New England in April. Blount served a 10-game suspension while at the University of Oregon after sucker-punching a Boise State football player in the face.

The current situation with Hernandez stings the most. The Patriots were so confident Hernandez had moved beyond the college character concerns that caused his fourth-round slide in the 2010 draft that he was given a seven-year, $41.2 million contract extension with a $12.5 million signing bonus during the 2012 offseason.

As much as New England’s prosperity during its run of three Super Bowl wins bred contempt among opposing teams and fans, the professionalism of Patriots players was respected. The 2003 roster featured 35 players with college degrees, the NFL’s second-highest total behind Carolina (42) and Indianapolis (37). The Patriots were considered as smart as they were athletically talented. It showed on the field.

Why did this start to change?

Maybe it was Pioli’s departure to Kansas City in 2009. There was a mutual respect between Pioli and Belichick that generated give-and-take and sometimes saved the franchise from taking what later proved to be regrettable risks. Belichick, who has final say on all personnel moves, might not be receiving enough pushback from his current front-office members to avoid making these types of mistakes.

Maybe Belichick placed too much faith in the predraft feedback of friend Urban Meyer. Belichick selected five University of Florida players from when Meyer was the Gators’ head coach. Hernandez, Spikes and Cunningham are three of them.

Wide receiver Chad Jackson, a 2006 second-round pick, was a bust. Belichick also cut 2006 seventh-round pick Jeremy Mincey, who has started every game in Jacksonville at defensive end the past two seasons.

Maybe it was just bad luck and can come with the territory when trying to nab a bargain.

There is no guessing about what must come next in New England. Belichick needs to take a long look at the kinds of people he is bringing into the franchise. The integrity that Pioli spoke about must begin to carry more weight again.

Better character on the roster doesn’t guarantee Belichick and Brady will win another Super Bowl before they retire. But with what is transpiring in New England, it sure wouldn’t hurt.