THE New England Patriots did not wait until Aaron Hernandez was charged with murder to cut ties with the troubled tight end, releasing him from the roster on Wednesday morning soon after police led him from his house in handcuffs.
In a rare instance of public relations before football for one of the league's most successful teams, the Patriots released a statement saying, "At this time, we believe this transaction is simply the right thing to do."
The swift dissociation came the same day the Cleveland Browns released rookie linebacker Ausar Walcott, who has been charged with attempted murder and accused of punching a man outside a New Jersey strip club. And it comes the same week NFL rookies are gathering at the Browns' facilities for lectures and workshops designed to help them avoid the pitfalls of professional sports.
From Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick's dogfighting ring to the murder-suicide involving Kansas City linebacker Jovan Belcher, the league has struggled to keep pace with its players' off-field problems, some of them violent. Hernandez was charged Wednesday with the slaying of semi-pro football player Odin Lloyd.
Prosecutor Bill McCauley said at the arraignment that Hernandez "orchestrated the crime from the beginning." Hernandez, who was held without bail, did not enter a plea, but his lawyer said the case against the 23-year-old football player "is not a strong case."
If convicted, Hernandez faces life in prison without parole.
Even as Hernandez was being arrested, the Patriots continued the business of football.
The decision to release him broke up the tight end tandem of Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski that had been one of the most effective in history, a pairing of Pro Bowl players who combined for 16 touchdowns and 1,479 yards receiving last season -- the most for any team at the position, according to STATS. Two years ago, with 169 catches for 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns, the New England tight ends set NFL records in each category.
In most cases, players are given short-term deals that make it easy for the team to purge them if the problems reappear.
But under the five-year, $41 million contract extension Hernandez signed last year, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, he will cost the Patriots about $4 million under the league's salary cap in 2013. That would include the $1.323 million salary for 2013 plus a pro-rated portion of his signing bonus, according to an NFL agent familiar with the contract who spoke on the condition of anonymity because such details are not public.
Next year's cap hit would be even worse -- the $7.5 million left on his signing bonus plus his base salary of about $1.1 million, the agent said. The NFL's collective bargaining agreement allows teams to recoup bonus money when a player is incarcerated, but by releasing him the team probably lost the opportunity to take advantage of that provision, the agent said.
An all-American at Florida, Hernandez's behaviour in college led him to be red-flagged entering the NFL, when several teams reportedly took him off their draft boards -- refusing to pick him under any circumstances -- and enough had questions about his character to let him slide all the way to New England in the fourth round.
Afterward, Hernandez said he had failed a single drug test in college, reportedly for marijuana, and was honest with teams about it.
And the Patriots seemed like the perfect fit.
Even before Bill Belichick became the coach, the organization tried to maintain a delicate balance -- publicly stressing good character while signing players with questions in their past.
Despite his problems in college, Hernandez seemed to be staying out of trouble in New England. But since Hernandez was connected with Lloyd's death, other issues have become public.
-- The Associated Press