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Something Wicked This Way Comes?

The Patriots prepare for what will likely be a truly bizarre season

Being for the benefit of Mr. Kraft.

The New England Patriots opened their training camp last week. They were supposed to open it Thursday, because that’s when all the players were supposed to arrive, including Tim Tebow, who is on what is likely to be one of his last chances to make an NFL roster before he goes off to convert the infidels, and Alfonzo Dennard, the cornerback from Nebraska who was busted for DUI while still on probation for belting a cop, and Aaron Hernandez, who was supposed to be an important part of this year’s offensive scheme, but who is now lifting weights at the Plymouth Bristol County House of Correction. It should be recalled that this is the one franchise over all the others that prides itself on its ability to keep Pablo Fanque’s Fair out of its locker room, and a coach who plays his cards so close to his vest that he probably has paper cuts on his spleen. Nevertheless, when the arrival of Tim Tebow at your training camp is only the third line down on the circus poster, it’s quite the training camp you’re having.

And, of course, we were all gathered there only because of a slight case of …

murder!

But this is not a normal season, and the way you know it’s not a normal season is that the New England Patriots started their training camp early, and that they started training camp with press conferences. During these, among other marvels, coach Bill Belichick spoke in actual paragraphs more often than he will do for the rest of the season. One of his team’s young stars, Aaron Hernandez, has been arrested for allegedly killing a man named Odin Lloyd. Hernandez subsequently was named as a suspect in two additional killings in the South End of Boston. As a result, the team, which only last year had bestowed upon Hernandez a monumental contract, found its personnel processes under minute inspection and under considerable ridicule. The problem clearly had to be addressed. So the Patriots decided to open the Gates of Mordor early. The result was a five-day exercise in open dialogue, frank exchanges of ideas, and everything else the New England Patriots have avoided like cholera ever since the Super Bowl hardware started piling up at the turn of the century. Locking up Aaron Hernandez freed the New England Patriots, at least for a weekend, and that’s only one of the minor ironies in the whole tragic escapade.

You can’t have an opening weekend like this one and then pretend that you can bluff your way past it. There is going to be nothing normal about the New England Patriots this season. The circus is never going to be very far offstage. They cannot wish it away. They cannot bury it under a mountain of clichés. Belichick cannot grimace it into oblivion. They can’t even win their way beyond it. It’s always going to be there, calliope music in the distant twilight and the low call of the carny barkers, tempting the suckers away from more wholesome entertainments, like knocking other humans around until their brains turn to marmalade, and luring them into the dank, sweat-sodden tents to watch shows of sin and perdition.

Honest to god, though, what was the man supposed to say?

Last Wednesday, in a press conference carried live by local and national television, Bill Belichick delivered what he claims will be his first and last words on the alleged crimes of Aaron Hernandez. Belichick read from a prepared statement and then he fielded as many questions as there were reporters to throw them. On several occasions, he did duck behind the excuse that he could not comment on ongoing investigations, which was fair enough, considering that the morning’s Boston newspapers had carried the news of Hernandez’s name moving to the top of the list of suspects in the South End slayings.

But, otherwise, he was not the way he always has been. It is completely unfair to criticize him for reading a prepared statement; among other things, the folks who will be prosecuting Aaron Hernandez likely would rather not have famous people ad-libbing their feelings on the case over national television. Moreover, Belichick’s answers to the various questions in the main were both thoughtful and measured. For example, he talked about the issue of players with guns and said that it had been a concern among his peers going back into the 1970s, which caught some people up short. And, when he was asked whether he thought the team’s vetting process had broken down, he actually made a stab at bonding with the assembled media.

Belichick: Well, nobody knows better than you guys that all sources are not equal. You guys know that better than I do. When you get information, you take the information, you evaluate it, and you do the best you can with it. So, there’s a variance in the quality and the amount of the information. It’s a case-by-case basis. Each one’s different. There’s no set formulas. I don’t think it works that way, but again, of the hundreds of players we’ve had through this program in the last 14 years, there’s been a lot of good ones, a lot of real good ones, and we’ll try to do a good job in bringing people into this organization in the future and try to learn from the mistakes that we’ve made along the way, of which there have been plenty. But we’re always trying to do a better job on that and that’s what we’ll continue to do.

Reporter: Without being too specific and getting too personal —

Belichick: I don’t think you need to worry about that, but I appreciate the warning.

It was exactly what needed to be said, and by the person who most needed to say something, and that was all to the good. And that, supposedly, was that, for the season. Now, it’s back to football, and to only talking about the players who are here, and, one suspects, to the strategic use of monosyllables. But it will not be enough, no matter how much Belichick wants it to be. As he was speaking, as if on cue, the folks watching at home saw their screens split, and Bill Belichick was on one side and there, on the other, in a blue suit, and looking less like a tight end and increasingly like the guy who folds the sheets in the jail laundry, was Aaron Hernandez, come to court again, and not for the last time. This entire season is going to be played on a split screen, where what happens on the field will be paired with what’s going on in a courtroom. To pretend otherwise is to appear to be either oblivious or downright inhuman. It’s like building a Chuck E. Cheese’s in the middle of Dealey Plaza.

Here’s a tip. When one of your young stars, and a guy in whom you invested millions, is jugged on one murder charge and a Person of Great Interest in two other slayings, it is probably best if you gather all your players together before the season begins and say, “Gentlemen, one of your former teammates may be a murderous sociopath, so, for the moment, let’s dispense with all that ‘Patriot Way’ bunkum because, otherwise, we’ll all look like idiots.” That’s what I would do, anyway.

That’s not quite the way it happened. Most notably, the “Patriot Way” came up the day after Belichick spoke, when the team’s various captains gathered in the rain to discuss the Hernandez case, and it was Tom Brady who mentioned it, and that was unfortunate, because this whole criminal episode seems to have wrong-footed the quarterback something fierce. First, he gave an interview to Peter King in which Brady seemed to locate the Hernandez case somewhere on the Overcoming Adversity Scale between a dinged ACL and a mishandled luggage situation at the Indianapolis airport. By the time he got to Foxborough, Brady’s answer was better, but it still felt oddly as though he were delivering it encased in glass.

“I think everyone had a certain range of emotions, whatever they might have been. But those were really personal, and I dealt with them. At some point you have to move forward, and I think we as a team are doing that. The best part is really coming out to start the football season and talk about the challenges we have ahead of us. Certainly, it’s been a challenging offseason, but we’re going to try to move forward as best we know how.”

They are all groping to explain these abnormal circumstances within the familiar vocabulary and syntax of their profession and, in doing so, even the most articulate of them, like Brady, are doomed to failure. The prosecution of Aaron Hernandez is not something the Patriots can “overcome” this season, whether they win the Super Bowl or not. Nobody’s asking these guys to bare their souls or to give answers to questions that have none. (Quick, now — somebody in your office gets arrested for allegedly capping some guy in an industrial park. The next day, 100 reporters are around your desk, asking you how you feel about it. And your answer is?) So they’re stuck with talking about it in the argot of training camp, for pity’s sake, and there’s no good way out of it, except not to comment at all, and these Very Special Press Conferences before the beginning of training camp were designed specifically to foreclose that option. No wonder Brady sounded like an automaton. No wonder almost all of his teammates did — even more than the members of the New England Patriots usually sound like automatons. The exception was Vince Wilfork, and he said pretty much the same things everyone else said, but his presence in the media scrum was different from Brady’s. It wasn’t what Wilfork said, it was how he said it — his voice gentle and low, and shaking his head sadly, from one side to another, his aspect even more compelling given Wilfork’s size.

“First and foremost, it’s a sad situation for the victim’s family,” Wilfork said. “You’re not dealing with just football right now. You’re dealing with a human being; you’re dealing with life, so it’s just sad. You’re just disappointed, but at the same time we get a chance to come do something that we love to do and play football … One thing we’re going to have to do is try to keep everything separate. When you step on the field, you control what you can control and that’s playing football, getting better each day … Disappointing. It was a disappointment. Sad. There’s not really much else to say.”

But they’re going to have to say it, day after day. They may think they won’t, but they will. Or someone will say it for them, over and over again.

On his first try at 11-on-11 drills, Tim Tebow threw two interceptions. To be fair, however, one of them was a startlingly athletic, diving play by Chandler Jones at the line of scrimmage. But, even if we are being fair, we should point out that professional quarterbacks should never throw passes on which defensive linemen can make startlingly athletic, diving plays. For one thing, unless it gets batted by someone, the football is not supposed to be in such a place. There was a great groan, and then some people chanted Tebow’s name again.

This was supposed to be the main act on the midway in Foxborough. Tim Tebow was going to pitch his revival tent and sing his songs to the tune called by Bill Belichick, who, while he may be religiously devoted to football, don’t take no mess otherwise, and therefore was expected to demonstrate (a) that the nonsense stops here, and (b) that he, Bill Belichick, could find in Tim Tebow the useful professional football player that had eluded coaching staffs in Denver and New York. (Belichick’s offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, was the coach in Denver when Tebow came into the league, and is reckoned to be the big guy’s first — and perhaps only — acolyte among NFL coaches.) The second may still occur. The nonsense, alas, is completely secular, has nothing to do with Tebow’s playing ability, and is utterly out of control.

And just to prove that Someone has a well-developed sense of irony, and that there are few people left uninjured at the intersection of Strange and Bizarre, Tim Tebow was Aaron Hernandez’s teammate at the University of Florida, which meant that, at Tebow’s first meeting with the press, he not only had to pipe up the company line about ongoing investigations, but he had to throw a lifeline to his college coach, Urban Meyer, now at Ohio State and currently bedeviled by questions about whether he’d been organizing a street gang–cum–meth lab down in Gainesville.

“It’s just heartbreaking and sad, and all my thoughts and prayers go out to all the families that were involved,” Tebow began. “I understand why you have to ask all the questions; that’s part of doing your job. Part of mine is listening to instruction, and we’ve been told not to talk about it.

“I feel like Coach Meyer is a great man, one of the best I’ve had the privilege of being around. He is someone that not only tries to win football games; he’s someone who tries to invest in young men’s lives and help young men grow. He cares very deeply about that. That’s one of the reasons I’m so close to him and so proud of him.”

Unfortunately, every single sentence of that answer, no matter how sincere, has a double life now as a punch line. The 2013 New England Patriots, even overhung as they are by bloody mayhem, also will play out the season as a fount of unintentional black comedy. This is as far from business as usual as you can get, unless you’re running a comedy club that’s also a front for the mob.

On the very last play of the very last practice of a very strange weekend, Tim Tebow threw a gorgeous pass down the left sideline, dropping the ball gently over coverage and into the hands of wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins. The fans went wild. There was a sense of normality descending on the practice field and around the team again. The difference was that it was not descending naturally. The team was grabbing it with both hands, pulling it down, and wrapping itself in it so tightly that it could hardly breathe. And, because of Aaron Hernandez, that effort is guaranteed to be futile.

Normality is a farce here, of course. A whole lot of somebodies are going to be handed subpoenas and a whole lot of somebodies are going to need lawyers. People are going to be riding every ride in Depositionland. Everybody who had a hand in drafting Aaron Hernandez is going to wind up in front of some piece of video equipment, explaining in excruciating detail how the New England Patriots came to employ — and to lavish millions on — a dude who might have killed three people. When they knock on his door and hand him the papers, what is Bill Belichick going to say the next morning? That he’s only there to answer football questions? He’ll look like a clown.

It is not their fault. There is no possible standard of vetting by which a team could conclude that a college player has the potential to be a killer and that, therefore, they probably, maybe shouldn’t draft him. But the Patriots drafted Aaron Hernandez, and Aaron Hernandez may have killed three people, and this is what happens when circumstances collide that way. You have to reinvent your public persona, nearly on the fly and knowing that you’re at the mercy of forces and events far beyond your ability to control them. And, if you happen to run the NFL’s most conspicuous control freak of a franchise, you have another whole layer of absurdity surrounding your every move. It is not their fault. But it is their reality, and the Patriots have to face it.

By the kabuki standards of an NFL training camp, and even according to the lofty kabuki standards produced by the microchips implanted in every New England Patriot on his first day as a rookie at training camp, the clichés are empty and meaningless, and they grow more hilarious by the day. The entendres triple by the minute. The calliope music rises, and the barkers call, and the suckers line up at the flap of the tent, pondering the dark spectacle inside. Having been some days in preparation, a splendid time is guaranteed for all.

pierce-bio-shot

Charles P. Pierce is a staff writer for Grantland and the author of Idiot America. He writes regularly for Esquire, is the lead writer for Esquire.com’s Politics blog, and is a frequent guest on NPR.

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