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Firn ’16: The Patriot Way: Backbone of a dynasty or overblown myth?

By
Sports Columnist

For the past decade-plus, the prolonged success of the New England Patriots has been predicated on a singular philosophy. This so-called “Patriot Way” is designed to create an environment in which no individual transcends the team. Winning is all that matters, leaving no room for distractions or personal gripes. Every player and coach understands and accepts his role.

The results have been astounding. Regardless of the personnel surrounding the core of owner Robert Kraft, Head Coach Bill Belichek and quarterback Tom Brady, New England’s system predictably churns out victories. In a league marked by relative parity ­— 28 of 32 teams have made the playoffs since 2007 — the Patriots have compiled 148 regular season wins against just 46 losses since 2001, including 10 playoff appearances, and three Super Bowl titles. By comparison, the Indianapolis Colts are a distant second with 129 victories since 2001.

But in the wake of perhaps the most shocking criminal revelations in recent football memory, it’s worth posing the question: Does the famed Patriot Way have any legitimacy? With the first-degree murder charges brought against former Patriot star Aaron Hernandez have come questions about how the genius of Belichek and Co. could have committed such character oversight. The Patriots’ philosophy was supposed to filter out the good guys from the bad guys, winners from losers — both on and off the field. New England would seem like the last franchise to be leveled by such a newsworthy off-field incident.

By now, everyone with even a passing interest in sports knows about the Aaron Hernandez case. Hernandez faces six charges related to the murder of Odin Lloyd, including first-degree murder and five gun-related violations. Hernandez, who signed a five-year contract extension worth up to $40 million last summer, has seen a steep fall from grace. But should the zero-tolerance Patriots have seen it coming?

Trouble first found Hernandez back when he was still in high school in Bristol, Conn. Following his father’s death, Hernandez was “very angry” and “wasn’t the same kid,” his mother told USA Today Sports in 2009. He took to marijuana and began hanging out with questionable influences. Originally intending to play football at the University of Connecticut like his father, Hernandez instead committed to the University of Florida because he needed to “get away,” Hernandez told the Hartford Courant.

The change of address hardly brought a fresh start. In his first two years in college, Hernandez was arrested in a bar fight, questioned in relation to a shooting and suspended for marijuana use. His final season at Florida, though, was marked by stellar play and zero off-field incidents, leading his mother and coaching staff to believe that Hernandez finally “turned a corner and was maturing,” said a Florida staffer in a Boston Globe article.

Nevertheless, concerns about persistent marijuana use and gang connections scared most teams away from Hernandez, despite his immense talent. Prior to the 2010 draft, Hernandez wrote a letter to the Patriots assuring the team he would not present a distraction and proposing that his compensation be tied to behavior-related clauses. This sincerity prompted the Patriots to select Hernandez in the 2010 NFL draft, and over the next three seasons, Hernandez lived up to his word by delivering on the field and making himself publicly invisible. It wasn’t until this past summer that everything fell apart.

If the Patriot Way is being called into question in the aftermath of the Hernandez fallout, the Patriot Way is being misconstrued. On the NFL Network, Kraft said it’s “about trying to collect a lot of good people” who are “doing things in the community.” That’s a tidy quote for public relations, but above all, the Patriots care about one thing: the ruthless march to victory. Throughout the Kraft-Belichek-Brady era, the Pats have consistently shown a willingness to gamble on clubhouse cancers and legal liabilities with the hope that the stringent Patriot aura would whip them into shape. Sometimes this strategy has worked (see: Corey Dillon, Randy Moss and Aqib Talib). Other times it hasn’t (Chad Ochocinco, Brandon Lloyd Albert Haynesworth). The Patriot Way is not a panacea and cannot apply to every player. Those whom it does sway, however, elevate their production. In any case, the Patriots have never hesitated to cut ties as soon as a player’s distraction exceeds his worth on the field. The Patriots’ system rewards those who work hard, shut up and produce. Talent doesn’t buy a second chance, either. Replacement-level players who can grasp the playbook and don’t make mistakes are more valuable in Belichek’s formula for success than a Pro-Bowler who divides the locker room. Everyone outside of the Kraft-Belichek-Brady triumvirate is ultimately replaceable, so all players focus solely on their football responsibilities.

With a strategy that balances risk and reward, the Patriots have historically managed to avoid a personnel decision that blew up in the face of the organization, a la Aaron Hernandez. But with a closer look, the Hernandez story actually fits fairly well into the Patriots’ mold. The team took a flier on a player whose talent was undervalued by the market due to non-football flaws. It extracted elite production from Hernandez for three seasons and released him immediately when he became a distraction that outweighed his production. This case is simply more high-profile. This time, a win-at-all-costs strategy brought collateral damage.

When Kansas City Chiefs’ linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend at their house and then himself at the Chiefs practice facility last December, the tragedy elicited sympathy, not accusations, toward the Chiefs. So does New England deserve blame for Hernandez’s crimes? Does it have a responsibility to make sure such a legal risk was never on the team in the first place? That judgment is for you to make. In the meantime, the Patriots will just keep on winning.

 

Mike Firn ’16 doesn’t condone murder but loves those Patriots’ W’s. Contact him at michael_firn@brown.edu

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  • GUEST

    Stunning and insightful first article from a talent that could herald (HA) a new dawn in the publication’s content creation. Blown away.

  • Leigh Maxwell

    An excellent thoughtful piece. I look forward to reading more from this new columnist