Boo Hoo. How the Patsies Lost Their Way
NFLUpdated July 11, 2013, 9:08 p.m. ET
.How the Patriots Lost Their Way
A Move to Invest in Young Stars Backfires In New England .Article Comments
The New England Patriots drafted tight end Aaron Hernandez in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL Draft.
.In the months before and after their narrow loss in the 2012 Super Bowl, the New England Patriots made a highly uncharacteristic move: They decided to start committing huge sums of money to young players.
One of the first beneficiaries was a 23-year-old tight end named Aaron Hernandez, who was given a $40 million contract extension after just two seasons. On the night the deal was announced, Patriots owner Robert Kraft called Hernandez "a super player and really a first-class guy." Hernandez told reporters it was one of the happiest days of his life. "I just hope I keep going, doing the right things, making the right decisions," he said.
Today Hernandez sits in jail, facing a murder charge in the killing of an acquaintance, Odin Lloyd. Search warrants unsealed Tuesday by police describe Hernandez as uncooperative with investigators when they questioned him at his home the day Lloyd's body was discovered. He has pleaded not guilty. His attorney has called the case weak and circumstantial.
If the allegations prove true, the Patriots, a team long considered a model of fiscal prudence and solid character, were the unlikely conduit for one of the most ill-advised contract offers in NFL history.
Kraft told reporters this week that if the allegations against Hernandez are true, "then I've been duped, and our whole organization has been duped." He said the Patriots "obviously made the wrong decision" on Hernandez and that the deal didn't include provisions for any sort of extra monitoring. A Patriots spokesman declined to comment further.
Interviews with NFL executives, agents and former players suggest the Hernandez contract was the result of a decision the Patriots made to embrace more risk—not only in the way the team invested in players, but in the types of players it chose to pursue. They also suggest the NFL's current economic climate played a role in encouraging that decision, and that all teams may be more inclined to make serious commitments to a riskier pool of players.
Joel Corry, a former NFL agent, said teams that spend money on young players with short track records are bound to make mistakes. "You can't get all those contracts right," he said.
Not long after head coach Bill Belichick arrived in 2000, the Patriots adopted a teambuilding philosophy that was decidedly conservative. Typical winning NFL teams at the time, like the St. Louis Rams and Denver Broncos, paid top dollar for a handful of superstars at important positions and surrounded them with cheaper role players. Belichick took a different approach: trying to assemble the best possible group of 53 players, top to bottom, regardless of star power.
To enforce this "flat" approach, the Patriots were forced to be ruthless with popular veteran stars when they believed the market had overvalued them. In 2001, New England decided not to re-sign defensive tackle Chad Eaton, whose contract had expired and who was set to command big dollars as a free agent. The Patriots used the money to sign 17 solid but mostly unspectacular mid-level free agents. Two years later, the team famously released safety Lawyer Milloy, a four-time Pro Bowler, rather than pay him market rates. In both cases, fans and columnists went berserk at first, but soon all was forgiven as the team continued to win Super Bowls. New England's philosophy came to be known as "The Patriot Way."
Another cornerstone of the Patriots' foundation was an emphasis on character. While some NFL teams tried to get an edge by signing players with troubled histories at a discount, the Patriots did not. In a 2000 interview with The Wall Street Journal, Kraft said the team always conducted rigorous background checks and looked for high-character players, "even if they're less talented."
A person familiar with the team's inner workings said New England had a strict rule on players with discipline issues: The team would only acquire one or two at any time—and only if those players had already spent many years in the league. One example this person cited: wide receiver Randy Moss, who as a Minnesota Viking in 2001 admitted to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that he didn't play hard on every play. He also accrued a handful of fine, most famously $10,000 for mock mooning opposing fans. As a Patriot in 2007, Moss caught an NFL-record 23 touchdown passes.
As the Patriots were winning Super Bowls, another innovative team was pioneering a new teambuilding trick: locking up young players early. According to Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman, the team decided that if a rookie or young player showed great promise, they wouldn't wait to negotiate until his contract expired. They would try to sign him to a multiyear extension as soon as possible. In the short term, the player would earn more than most players with similar experience. And if the player's performance fell off, or if he got into trouble, the team would take a serious hit.
But if the player turned out to be as good as advertised, the final years of the contract would put his salary below the top market value—saving the team a bundle just as the player was hitting his stride.
After the 2012 Super Bowl, many of the Patriots' mid-level veterans had left and many stopgap players needed to be cut. Several poor drafts had left the team's pipeline depleted.
At the same time, the Patriots and other NFL teams came to believe that the league's salary cap, which is tied to revenue, wasn't likely to grow much in coming years, reducing their buying power.
The team signed an NFL-high 13 free agents that off-season. "They started to take a bit more of a risk," said former NFL executive Gil Brandt.
The Patriots also decided it was time to roll the dice on its most promising youngsters. In December 2011, New England had given linebacker Jerod Mayo a five-year extension midway through his rookie contract. In June 2012, they gave a $54 million multiyear deal to the young tight end Rob Gronkowski.
The next player they targeted was Hernandez.
Before the 2010 draft, Hernandez faced questions about his off-field behavior. A scouting report made available to NFL teams gave Hernandez 1 out of a possible 10 in "social maturity" and said "he enjoys living on the edge of acceptable behavior." In a 2010 letter to the Patriots, Hernandez offered to submit to voluntary biweekly drug tests in his rookie season. Hernandez's lawyer declined to comment.
By drafting him in the fourth round, the Patriots were not obligated to pay Hernandez the millions first-round picks command. According to people familiar with the contract, Hernandez's bonus was $200,000, and the team structured a large percentage of his salary as bonuses to be triggered over time if he stayed out of trouble.
On the field, Hernandez's potential was obvious. "I knew he was going to be a star," said former Patriots linebacker Tully Banta-Cain. He started seven games as a rookie in 2010 and made the Pro Bowl in 2011.
Shortly after Hernandez agreed to the extension, Kraft said the salary cap had changed things. "We're playing in a system where you have to identify your good young players and sign them up as you develop them," he told a reporter.
The Patriots cut Hernandez just hours after his arrest last month. The team has paid $9.25 million of the $12.5 million signing bonus it owed him, according to people who have seen the contract. It's not clear if this can be recouped. The deal still counts against the salary cap, limiting the team's ability to sign players.
Kraft told reporters Monday the team will face its mistake "head on" and take a look at how it audits players.