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.

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.”

Chris Sedenka, host of the PM Jab, a sports talk radio show on WJJB in Portland, said the Patriots will be a playoff team as long as Brady is its quarterback. The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and Brady is among the best, even though he will be 36 by the time the 2013 season begins.

“I think the atmosphere has changed. People are weary of how this has played out with Hernandez, and (the Patriots) have brought in some other guys of questionable character,” Sedenka said. “But if you’re winning, that can cure all.”

The Boston Red Sox remade their team this year after suffering through their worst season since 1965 last year. This year’s team is considered much more likeable, and it’s winning. The Sox have been in first place for most of the season.

The Patriots “don’t need a makeover,” Walsh said. “They have worked hard to fill in roster spots. But their fortune is tied more to one person (Brady) than most teams.”

The team will report to mini-camp in late July. Tebow likely will make as many headlines as Brady. Gronkowski, when he’s not in a bar, will be on the sidelines nursing his five surgeries. Belichick will be surly and tight-lipped with the media. Who knows where Hernandez will be?

And who knows what else might happen before opening day?


Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

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Twitter: @PPHEricRussell