The signs were ominous when Aaron Hernandez showed up to the New England Patriots' team facility last week. Usually welcome at any time, the star tight end was treated like an outsider and told to quickly exit the premises.
Just footsteps away from the stadium where thousands cheered him for the past three seasons, Hernandez's presence suddenly was no longer wanted. It was a prelude to Wednesday’s events, when New England released Hernandez, who is being investigated in the homicide of a 27-year-old man near his home in North Attleborough, Mass. Hernandez was eventually charged with murder and also faces five gun charges.
This move should not come as a shock to those who know the Patriots. They are a football factory, very machine-like in their approach. As a result, they’re never afraid to cut bait when they determine a player’s negatives outweigh the positives.
New England waited more than a week to collect the facts and determined that Hernandez had forced the team's hand, even before the judicial process could determine guilt or innocence. At the very least, Hernandez is looking at a legal battle that could take months to resolve. That could mean a season-long distraction for a team that despises distractions. The worst-case scenario is that Hernandez's NFL career could be over if he gets significant jail time. The Patriots’ title window is closing, and they don't have time to wait on a verdict.
This is a big blow to New England from a football perspective. The Patriots simply are not the same team without Hernandez, who was one of their most talented and versatile players.
Hernandez could play all over the field with equal effectiveness. He could make catches over the middle, as well as line up outside at receiver. Hernandez even played tailback when asked. His talent was immense, which is why New England tried to keep Hernandez long term with a $40 million contract last summer.
Jake Ballard now steps into Hernandez's spot as the No. 2 tight end behind Pro Bowler Rob Gronkowski. Ballard is experienced but doesn’t have nearly the same skill, versatility or athleticism as Hernandez. The drop-off in talent is significant, and the Patriots' passing attack will be easier to defend this season.
Backup tight ends Mike Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells are limited. Perhaps the Patriots also can explore popular third-string quarterback Tim Tebow in a limited role at tight end. Tebow played a little H-back last season with the New York Jets, although the experiment was a disaster. Chances appear slim that Tebow can immediately be an effective tight end.
The Patriots thought Hernandez and Gronkowski would lead them into the future. That is why the team paid the duo a combined $93 million last summer in extensions. Wednesday’s release confirmed that the Patriots' long-term investment in Hernandez was a mistake.
Without Hernandez, look for New England’s top-rated offense from 2012 to take a step backward this season.