The Tebow Problem: Talent Trumps Integrity

The Patriots would love for us to forget Aaron Hernandez ever played for them. Last week, Bill Belichick answered the few questions on their former tight end that he’ll address, laid down a gag order and kept it moving.

Then I see Tim Tebow in camp, and Hernandez pops back into my mind.

The superficial connection is their history as college teammates. Past that, every story on Tebow, whether they pessimistically point to his weaknesses or try their best to make him seem better than he is, serves as a reminder of just how the Pats wound up with Hernandez, and why they’d probably take the same risks down the line with a similar player.

Winning takes great players. Winning Super Bowls requires lots of them. Right now, the Patriots don’t have many. They got two in the 2010 draft, Hernandez and the injury-prone Rob Gronkowski, both of whom were available because they were risky. Both finished the 2011 season playing in the Super Bowl. It’s unlikely either will suit up for New England, both because of the sorts of things some other personnel men feared.

Here’s a guess – faced with identical cases, the Pats would draft them again.

After all, they re-signed Aqib Talib this offseason, and his history includes a closet full of red flags (like a shootout involving his mother). Alfonzo Dennard, who was charged with DUI while on probation for assaulting a police officer, is still in camp. Neither player is a star, but they’re both too good to give up without a better option.

Good men are hard to find, but good football players are far less common. And football players as good as Hernandez? You can’t let those fall past you in the fourth round, and you lock them into extensions before they can leave. And if they get sent to jail, you act like they were never there, just like you would treat an injured player. It wouldn’t matter if Hernandez was out with a torn ACL, failed a drug test, couldn’t find his keys or wasn’t given bail. As your boss will tell you, the reason you miss work matters way less than the fact that you’re not there.

While the police are fishing in a Bristol, Conn. pond looking for the weapon that killed Odin Lloyd, Tebow’s still looking for what it takes to be an NFL player. It’s way more likely the cops will find a smoking gun at the bottom of a lake.

Tebow is the guy many wish all players would be. He’s had his moments of bad PR in the NFL, but he’s ridden the perception of being a “good guy” to stardom. Much of the nation has ignored his on-field shortcomings because they want him, or someone like him, to succeed. He’d be the perfect boy for the girl in Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’,” with his love for his mama, Jesus and America. They’ve even gone so far as to think he could be a good tight end, as if the risks the Pats took with Gronkowski and Hernandez didn’t speak to how hard it is to find a good tight end.

And where is he on the Pats’ depth chart? No. 3, behind Tom Brady and Ryan Mallett, another guy whose draft stock was hurt by “character issues.”

The Patriots got it right when they drafted Hernandez, then wrong when they gave him $12 million guaranteed on a five-year extension. They probably got it wrong last year when they gave Gronkowski the richest contract an NFL tight end has ever received, and they might be slower to double down after drafting risky talent at a discount.

But they’ll keep on trying. They have to. Every team in the league will pass on the Tebows of the world for a chance at someone as talented as Hernandez. Or even Josh Brent, the man alleged to be responsible for his teammate’s death, whom Cowboys owner Jerry Jones didn’t release. Why not? In large part because Brent was too talented to give up on.

You praise guys like Tebow in interviews and wish them the best. You also pick them up off the waiver wire, and you leave them where you found them if it doesn’t work out. Hell, that’s the same place they left Hernandez and, if he doesn’t stay healthy, where Gronkowski will end up. Same goes for Talib, Dennard and anyone else on the roster who Belichick thinks can’t play, no matter the reason. Nothing will change for the Patriots. The smart money is usually on playing with fire, because there’s no bigger trouble for a team than losing.