ATTLEBORO, Mass. — The New England Patriots did not wait until Aaron Hernandez was charged with murder to cut ties with the troubled tight end, releasing him from the roster on Wednesday morning soon after police led him from his house in handcuffs.
In a rare instance of public relations before football for one of the league’s most successful teams, the Patriots released a statement saying, “At this time, we believe this transaction is simply the right thing to do.”
The swift dissociation came the same day the Cleveland Browns released rookie linebacker Ausar Walcott, who has been charged with attempted murder and accused of punching a man outside a New Jersey strip club. And it comes the same week NFL rookies are gathering at the Browns’ facilities for lectures and workshops designed to help them avoid the pitfalls of professional sports.
From Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick’s dogfighting ring to the murder-suicide involving Kansas City linebacker Jovan Belcher, the league has struggled to keep pace with its players’ off-field problems, some of them violent. Hernandez was charged Wednesday with the slaying of semi-pro football player Odin Lloyd, whose bullet-riddled body was found in an industrial park about a mile away from Hernandez’s North Attleborough, Mass., home.
Prosecutor Bill McCauley said at the arraignment that Hernandez “orchestrated the crime from the beginning.” Hernandez, who was held without bail, did not enter a plea, but his lawyer said the case against the 23-year-old football player “is not a strong case.”
If convicted, Hernandez faces life in prison without parole.
“The involvement of an NFL player in a case of this nature is deeply troubling,” the NFL said in a statement. “The Patriots have released Aaron Hernandez, who will have his day in court. At the same time, we should not forget the young man who was the victim in this case and take this opportunity to extend our deepest sympathy to Odin Lloyd’s family and friends.”
Even as Hernandez was being arrested, the Patriots continued the business of football.
The decision to release him broke up the tight end tandem of Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski that had been one of the most effective in history, a pairing of Pro Bowl players who combined for 16 touchdowns and 1,479 yards receiving last season — the most for any team at the position, according to STATS. Two years ago, with 169 catches for 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns, the New England tight ends set NFL records in each category.
Gronkowski has had five operations this offseason on his back and broken left forearm, leaving his future uncertain and New England — at least temporarily — with five other tight ends expected to be ready for the start of training camp; together they caught a total of nine passes last season. Tim Tebow, a quarterback who may be better suited for tight end, is also an option.
With a single-minded focus on football that has made him one of the most successful coaches in NFL history, the taciturn Bill Belichick has long been willing to take a chance on talented but troubled players in hopes that a fresh start with New England and a winning environment would keep them in line.
In most cases, players are given short-term deals that make it easy for the team to purge them if the problems reappear.
But under the five-year, $41 million contract extension Hernandez signed last year, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, he will cost the Patriots about $4 million under the league’s salary cap in 2013. That would include the $1.323 million salary for 2013 plus a pro-rated portion of his signing bonus, according to an NFL agent familiar with the contract who spoke on the condition of anonymity because such details are not public.
Next year’s cap hit would be even worse — the $7.5 million left on his signing bonus plus his base salary of about $1.1 million, the agent said. The NFL’s collective bargaining agreement allows teams to recoup bonus money when a player is incarcerated, but by releasing him the team probably lost the opportunity to take advantage of that provision, the agent said.
An All-American at Florida, Hernandez’s behavior in college led him to be red-flagged entering the NFL, when several teams reportedly took him off their draft boards — refusing to pick him under any circumstances — and enough had questions about his character to let him slide all the way to New England in the fourth round.
Afterward, Hernandez said he had failed a single drug test in college, reportedly for marijuana, and was honest with teams about it.
And the Patriots seemed like the perfect fit.
Even before Belichick became the coach, the organization tried to maintain a delicate balance — publicly stressing good character while signing players with questions in their past.
In 1996, New England drafted defensive lineman Christian Peter from Nebraska in the fifth round even though he had been arrested eight times, accused of grabbing one woman around the throat and of sexually assaulting a former Miss Nebraska. “They’re not all choir boys in this league,” then-coach Bill Parcells said, but the team — spurred by the wife of owner Bob Kraft — soon relinquished its draft rights to him.
Nor has Belichick shied away from players with troubled pasts more recently, though none faced charges as serious as Hernandez. Among the players signed by the Patriots were receivers Randy Moss and the one known at the time as Chad Ochocinco; defensive backs Alfonzo Dennard, Aqib Talib and Brandon Meriweather; running back Corey Dillon, and offensive lineman Nick Kaczur.
Most had questions about their personal lives before coming to New England, already wearing out their welcome with one or more other NFL teams. Some ran into legal trouble only after signing with New England. Others, like Moss and Dillon, produced on the field for a while before the Patriots grew tired of them, too.
Despite his problems in college, Hernandez seemed to be staying out of trouble in New England. But since Hernandez was connected with Lloyd’s death, other issues have become public.
A South Florida man filed a lawsuit last week claiming Hernandez shot him in the face after they argued at a strip club. The man, who lost his right eye, told police after the February incident that he did not know who shot him.
The Boston Globe reported that Hernandez lost his temper and threatened teammate Wes Welker during an argument in the team’s weight room shortly after being drafted.
But Hernandez became a father to a daughter on Nov. 6, and he said it made him think.
“I’m engaged now and I have a baby. So it’s just going to make me think of life a lot differently and doing things the right way,” he said. “Now, another one is looking up to me. I can’t just be young and reckless Aaron no more. I’m going to try to do the right things, become a good father and (have her) be raised like I was raised.”