Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Months ago, the New England Patriots were poised for supremacy in the National Football League. But a promising season that ended with a thumping defeat in the AFC championship game has been followed by one distraction after another.
Losing Wes Welker is one of many blows the New England Patriots have suffered this offseason, along with the loss of Danny Woodhead, Aaron Hernandez's off-field issues and Rob Gronkowski's injury situation.
Aaron Hernandez's link to a homicide investigation in Massachusetts is one of the many negative stories swirling around the New England Patriots this offseason. Nonetheless, Maine fans are still optimistic.
2013 STATUS: Injured, might not play
WHY HE WILL BE MISSED: Gronkowski set an NFL record in 2011 for the most touchdowns (17) by a tight end.
2013 STATUS: Signed with San Diego
WHY HE WILL BE MISSED: A fan favorite for his short stature at 5-foot-8, Woodhead is a dual threat running and catching.
2013 STATUS: Signed with Denver
WHY HE WILL BE MISSED: The receiver has made five straight Pro Bowls and has led the NFL in receptions three times.
2013 STATUS: May not play due to possible legal problems
WHY HE WILL BE MISSED: The tight end made the last two Pro Bowls.
First, popular and prolific wide receiver Wes Welker followed dollar signs to Denver, and overachieving fan favorite Danny Woodhead left for San Diego. Then, tight end Rob Gronkowski had a series of surgeries, putting his 2013 season in jeopardy, and the team stunned its fans by signing New York Jets castoff Tim Tebow, perhaps the league's most polarizing player.
Now comes the news that another tight end, rising star Aaron Hernandez, could have been involved in the death of an associate.
Is the veneer of the Patriots' 12 years of excellence wearing off? Is the team becoming loathsome? More than two months before opening day, fans may be excused if they're a little pessimistic about their team's upcoming season.
"To be honest, I think the Patriots have gotten away from what made them very successful – bringing in good quality character guys and veterans that seemed to mesh together," said Dave Eid, sports director at WGME-TV in Portland. "The window is closing on the dynasty. The foundation is still there, but it has cracks."
John Wolfgram, the football coach at Cheverus High School and a Patriots fans since 1960, said each of the Patriots' issues this year has been unique.
"It seems like, with today's athletes, they have more off-the-field problems, for whatever reason," he said.
New England football fans have been spoiled by a team that wins 11 or more of its 16 regular season games every year. In 2001, the year Tom Brady became the starting quarterback, the team was extremely likeable and, in some ways, became America's team, Eid said.
They won the Super Bowl that season, then won it again in 2004 and 2005. In the 2007 season, they went 18-0 before losing, in heartbreaking fashion, to the New York Giants in football's championship game.
Since then, the team has become Enemy No. 1 in the NFL and has failed to win another championship. More than that, fans say, the culture of the team has changed, and not for the better.
Since losing the AFC championship game in January, the Patriots have endured their most tumultuous off-season.
Jim Hartman, football coach at Portland High School and a Patriots fan, acknowledged that the distractions are starting to pile up.
"The Hernandez thing is huge," he said. "How unfortunate that is for a 23-year-old kid."
But, Hartman said, if any clubhouse can dampen distractions and focus on football, it's a clubhouse led by Bill Belichick, the Patriots' enigmatic coach.
"These things are going to give their enemies more fuel, that's for sure," Hartman said. "But Belichick, the way he approaches business, he keeps the nonsense to a minimum."
Case in point? When news broke that the team had signed Tebow, the national media descended on Gillette Stadium. After a long news conference that featured the coach, in Belichickian fashion, refusing to answer questions about the media circus that has followed Tebow since he entered the NFL, the circus all but left town.
Jim Walsh, athletic director in Wiscasset, coach of the Maine Sabres semi-pro football team and a Patriots season ticket holder, agreed that the off-season has been unusual. He joked Friday that he's trying to put on some weight, in case the team needs another tight end.
Walsh is still optimistic, though.
"When I look at their off-season, I like some of the guys they brought in," he said. "They will lose some games, but in their division they are still the best team."
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Losing Wes Welker is one of many blows the New England Patriots have suffered this offseason, along with the loss of Danny Woodhead, Aaron Hernandez's off-field issues and Rob Gronkowski's injury situation. Above, Gronkowski catches a pass in 2012.