The timing was ghastly, a public relations migraine in the making.
Just as the New England Patriots punched their ticket for their eighth Super Bowl, jury selection began in the trial of their former tight end, Aaron Hernandez.
Deflecting attention from a murder trial of a former player while a crush of national media turned its focus squarely on your football team would be daunting for any franchise.
"Not the Patriots," asserted former New England tight end Benjamin Watson. "They're built to handle it.
"What could be a bigger distraction than someone charged with murder? But the Patriots have this uncanny ability to approach what could be a catastrophe and turn it into a call to draw their team closer together."
And how do they do it?
"Brainwashing," Watson chuckled. "When you come to the Patriots, you are indoctrinated into a certain culture. They teach you how to handle the media, how to handle games, practices, all those things. It's a pretty unique approach that other teams have tried to duplicate."
In a dizzying turn of events, the potential noise from the Hernandez trial has been drowned out by allegations of deflated footballs and tainted legacies. Somehow the alleged weight of a pigskin became more compelling than the alleged killing of a victim whose final, chilling words via text message were to alert his sister that he was with "NFL." And then, "just so u know.''
"This is the last thing Seattle needs. Let me tell, you, [the Patriots] are pumped. They have another question to answer after all they've accomplished, and to have people doubt them, they are taking that stuff personally."Former Patriot Rodney Harrison
Few -- if any -- are querying New England players on the fate of Hernandez, yet new refrains of "Belicheat'' and "Deflatriots" dog coach Bill Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady and their team as they arrive in Glendale, Arizona, determined to quiet their critics.
Former Patriot Willie McGinest predicts the latest controversy will raise New England's resolve to "a whole new level mentally.''
"You're going to see a team that's fired up like never before,'' said McGinest, who is now an analyst for the NFL Network. "It's just another thing for Bill to make them feel that regardless of what they've already accomplished, it hasn't been enough.''
McGinest experienced Belichick's motivational speeches for six seasons in New England. While "Do Your Job" has been the stated mantra of this Patriots team, "Block Out The Noise" has long been Belichick's unspoken incantation. New England's players have learned to operate according to the terms of their demanding coach, whose insular approach is designed to limit voices, squelch controversy and negate outside influences.
"It was always the same with the Patriots -- an 'us against the world' mentality that worked for us,'' explained former safety Rodney Harrison. "Guys outside our locker room couldn't understand it until they became part of it. And then, once they did, they embraced it, because it works.''
In the 19 months since Hernandez was led from his North Attleborough, Massachusetts, manse in handcuffs, any discussion of him or his legal predicament has been forbidden inside the walls of Gillette Stadium. Every likeness of him was removed from the building. Fans were encouraged to turn in their No. 81 Hernandez jerseys for any other Patriots jersey of their choice, and the team announced plans to recycle the tainted shirts. After systematically eliminating any remnants of Hernandez's presence, it's almost as though the player never existed. Yet even Belichick can't erase the football statistics from Super Bowl XLVI on Feb. 5, 2012, when Hernandez led his team with eight catches for 67 yards and a touchdown.
Asked last week about the impending Hernandez trial, a current Patriots veteran smiled wanly and answered, "Seriously? You've been around long enough to know better.''
Former Patriots players said that while Belichick is masterful in blocking out the noise, he's also adept at introducing outside criticism at the most opportune moment.
This past December, as the Patriots approached a game with division rival Miami -- a team that had spanked New England in Week 1 -- Belichick strategically placed news articles in which Dolphins players made disparaging comments about the Patriots throughout the locker room. The message: This team doesn't respect you.
New England pummeled Miami 41-13 in the rematch.
McGinest said that is a standard Belichick ploy.
"He'd call us together before a Colts game and say, 'Listen to these teams talk all about Peyton Manning and how great he is,'" McGinest recalled. "Or, 'Here's a team talking about what they'll do to us.' He used all sorts of rhetoric, even when we were playing a team we knew we were going to beat. He'd feed us all sorts of stuff, then tell us, 'It's a trap game. Don't fall for it.'"
Belichick will have no shortage of material to pin to the bulletin board this week, as critics line up to take shots at the integrity of the team and its leaders in the wake of the deflation allegations.
Spygate was the ultimate motivator
Before Deflategate, the most onerous controversy on the team's dossier was Spygate. In 2007, the Patriots were caught taping defensive signals of their opponents in direct defiance of a league memo. Spygate proved to be a major blow to Belichick's credibility and his wallet; he was fined $500,000, and the team was fined $250,000 and docked a first-round draft pick.
"Our mindset became, 'You think we need to film your practices to win? We'll show you.' We went on a rampage that season. As much as we wanted to ignore Spygate, we couldn't, so we turned it into something positive."Former Patriot Ben Watson, on how New England handled Spygate allegations
According to Watson, who played for the Patriots from 2004 to 2009, as word of Spygate began to circulate in the building early in the 2007 season, Belichick called the team together, and while he did not acknowledge any culpability regarding the taping, he outlined the allegations that had been leveled by the Jets and former Patriots assistant Eric Mangini, who had been the team's Week 1 opponent.
"Maybe I was dumb or naive, but I had no idea whether the coaches were filming or not," Watson said. "I remember suspecting that they probably were, but I also figured we weren't the only ones doing that.
"But what I did know was all the work we had put in, the sacrifices we made, the injuries we played through, the surgeries we had, and the hours in the weight room we logged.
"So our mindset became, 'You think we need to film your practices to win? We'll show you.' We went on a rampage that season. As much as we wanted to ignore Spygate, we couldn't, so we turned it into something positive."
Harrison said Belichick masterfully worked his team into a frenzy by emphasizing how absurd it was that Spygate in any way diminished their accomplishments.
"Once people started putting question marks on the organization and our coach and our players, that was it,'' Harrison said. "We worked our asses off to get to where we got, and for anyone to question that ... it was a great boost to our team.
"It became our charge. It wasn't just 'Let's win' anymore. It was, 'Let's blow these guys out.' It was our motivation every single week."
New England's record that season was unblemished (18-0) until the New York Giants upended the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII on the strength of an extraordinary catch by receiver David Tyree.
Players didn't always fall in line
While "Block Out The Noise" has become a successful and accepted practice in Foxborough, the philosophy endured its share of growing pains.
Belichick's decree was first tested in 2001, when starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe suffered a sheared blood vessel in his chest and Tom Brady was plugged in as his replacement. When Bledsoe became healthy, Belichick made the historic decision to stick with Brady.
At the time, the locker room was split, according to McGinest and former tight end Jermaine Wiggins. Bledsoe was an accomplished pro who was popular with his teammates. While there was no animosity toward Brady, veterans were wary of his inexperience and felt a loyalty to Bledsoe. The tension was palpable.
"Some guys felt Drew should be the guy,'' Wiggins said. "There was that unwritten rule in the NFL about not losing your job to an injury. People were upset.
"But very few guys went against the grain because Bill let everyone know, 'This is how it works. Even if you don't agree with me, I'm the head coach.' His decision was the only one that mattered.
"He said, 'I am going to do what I think is best for the team and you need to keep in line with that.' Anybody who went against that probably wasn't going to stick around long.''
Belichick's uncompromising ways were tested again in 2003 when the team released Lawyer Milloy just days before the season opener because of a contract dispute. A number of veterans were outraged by the decision and expressed their dismay, among them All-Pro cornerback Ty Law and an emotional Brady.
Milloy immediately signed with Buffalo, a team quarterbacked by Bledsoe. The Bills also happened to be New England's Week 1 opponent.
Brady threw four interceptions in a humiliating 31-0 loss. It was arguably his worst game as a pro, and both owner Robert Kraft and Belichick pulled their young quarterback aside and explained to him if he wanted to be an effective leader, he needed to form a united front with his coach even if he didn't agree with all of his personnel decisions. If Brady fell in line, they explained, others would follow.
Since then, Brady has gritted his teeth as many other popular (and, in some cases, outspoken) players, among them Mike Vrabel, Wes Welker and most recently Logan Mankins, have left town under less-than-desirable circumstances.
Watson said the response of team leaders influenced the group as a whole, but there also was an underlying layer of intimidation that kept players silent.
"You're sitting in a meeting and Bill will announce, 'We've traded Richard Seymour' or 'We've traded Mike Vrabel' so you think, 'Well, golly, they'll do it to me, too,'" Watson said. "There's this built-in fear and trepidation. I've talked with a lot of guys who played there, and it's not always the funnest place to be. There's a cloud over there at times.
"And, when you finally leave, you realize, 'Wow, I found my voice. I do have an opinion.'
"At the same time, I understand why Bill does it. Not everyone understood where the line was. When I played there I didn't just walk the line, I stayed away from the line.
"I might have been thinking, 'I can't believe Richard Seymour is gone, this is so ridiculous,' but I knew Bill would think that was hurting the team.
"So I didn't say anything. We were robots.''
Those who danced over the line would expect to find a Post-it with a simple message affixed to his locker: "See me. BB.'' Welker received his fair share of them during his tenure in Foxborough, the first coming just a couple of months after he was traded to New England in 2007. Welker hadn't played a down of football yet but was called in and informed by the coach he was appearing too often in the gossip pages of the local papers.
Welker was later benched for the first series of a 2011 playoff game against the New York Jets for making veiled jokes about Rex Ryan and his wife's foot fetish after Belichick had instructed his team to refrain from commenting on the matter.
Former linebacker Brandon Spikes also chafed under Belichick's thumb and lashed out at him upon his departure as a free agent.
"You're either all-in, or you're out,'' Harrison explained.
Watson has played for Cleveland and New Orleans since he left New England. He admits he has mixed feelings about his tenure with the Patriots.
"I can remember new guys on the Patriots would be in the locker room after a big win and they'd say, 'We won, but how come it feels like we lost?'" Watson recalled. "There was always a fine line to how much you were allowed to celebrate.
"No moment was ever allowed to be too big. It might have been built up that way on the outside, but on the inside, we were staying the course. Bill only gave us one choice: a singular focus."
At the time, Watson found Belichick's approach suffocating. He was frustrated that as an educated adult, he was being told what to say -- and what not to say. The gift of hindsight, he said, has altered his view.
"Now that I'm 11 years down the road, I appreciate the order, the hierarchy of the veteran leadership,'' Watson said. "You never had to worry about guys not showing up or not being on time.
"I took a lot of that for granted. Truth is, everybody's got talent and everybody's got good coaches, but it's the little stuff, things you may not think are important at the time, that set the tone.''
Wiggins won a ring with New England, then subsequently played for Carolina and Minnesota. He was with the Vikings when a party boat sex scandal tore the team apart.
Wiggins said when the story broke he immediately harkened back to his training with the Patriots and told reporters, "Listen, we're focusing on the game. We're not talking about this.''
"The problem was guys at the locker next to me were answering all sorts of questions,'' Wiggins said. "They were talking because they wanted people to know they weren't involved, but they weren't putting the right spin on it, so the whole thing blew up on them.''
They're on to the Seahawks
No one from the Patriots will be talking about Deflategate in Glendale. Belichick may have given us a preview of how he plans to motivate his team in comments he made about his players before he left town.
"They are a physically and mentally tough team that works hard, that trains hard, that prepares hard and have met every challenge I've put in front of them,'' Belichick said during his impromptu news conference Saturday in which he emphatically proclaimed his team's innocence. "And I know that because I work them every day. This team was the best team in the AFC in the regular season and we won two games in the playoffs against two good football teams. The best team in the postseason, that's what this team is. And I know because I've been with them every day, and I'm proud of this team.''
Belichick's final science-based spin on the matter before he departed for Glendale will be the last word on a distraction the team didn't invite, but will likely use to its advantage.
"This is the last thing Seattle needs," Harrison said. "Let me tell you, [the Patriots] are pumped. They have another question to answer after all they've accomplished, and to have people doubt them, they are taking that stuff personally.''
Will Belichick paste Deflategate articles on the team lockers? Or will he tell his team to completely erase the story from their memory banks?
"I know exactly what Bill will do,'' Wiggins said. "He'll make a mockery of the media inside that locker room. He will say, 'Look at the nonsense these people are writing about you.' He'll stand up there and read to them and they'll revert back to [an] 'us against the world' mantra and use it as a motivational tool. It's a great way to have this team circle the wagons.''
Block Out The Noise. We assumed the Patriots have been doing it since Brady vs. Bledsoe, Spygate and the Hernandez trial, but now Deflategate has revealed something new.
Turns out the coach finds a little chatter useful -- as long as it's on his terms.