When the New England Patriots were the class of the National Football League, winning three Super Bowls in four years, they were the picture of discipline on the field and made very few waves off of it.
When their ruthlessly efficient hurry-up offense is working the Patriots are still the model of precision on the field.
However, all of the recent distractions and antics surrounding their players have certainly churned up the waters off the field, and many have actively begun to question the future of the franchise.
Among those was writer Nick Underhill of MassLive.com, who summed up quite nicely the doubts that have circled the Patriots since they were defeated by the Baltimore Ravens in last month's AFC Championship game.
Another year had melted off the Brady-Belichick dynasty without ending in diamonds – the same way it has each of the last eight seasons – making it one year closer to the end. Now they were left to ponder what that means and wonder if the Teflon has worn too thin to ever climb back atop the NFL's biggest podium.
Those doubters are only becoming emboldened by all the controversies swirling about the Patriots at the moment.
Among those is the continuing assault trial of cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who was arrested in April of 2012 for assault in Nebraska. As KLON-TV reports Dennard allegedly punched a police officer during his arrest, an incident that helped contribute to Dennard's free-fall in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Assuming that Dennard doesn't get significant jail time for this charge, or go around punching more people, this one's sort of a non-issue. The Patriots were well aware of Dennard's arrest before they drafted him, and it actually helped them get a quality cornerback at a bargain price.
Not that that will help them if Dennard's in jail though, and the last thing that New England needs is to lose depth in the secondary.
Alfonzo Dennard is far from the only personnel issue facing the team. The Patriots have a number of key contributors set to hit free agency, including offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer, cornerback Aqib Talib and wide receiver Wes Welker.
Of the three, it's Welker's situation that has by far the biggest chance of descending into a soap opera. The veteran is wildly popular with teammates and fans, has caught more than 100 passes in five of his six seasons with the team, and former player Matt Light believes that the Patriots have to take care of their "heart and soul", according to Comcast SportsNet via Mike Reiss of ESPN. Light went on to say:
You have to find a way to make him right. I think he made really good money last year -- you can't argue that fact ... at some point, you have to say, 'just do the right thing for the guy; he's been there long enough.'
The problem is that it's not that simple. As I stated earlier, Welker isn't the only key free agent the Patriots have to make a decision on. The franchise tag isn't really an option either, as applying it to the same player in consecutive years can get very expensive very quickly.
Then there are the offseason antics of star tight end Rob Gronkowski.
It's important to note, before we go any farther, that to this point Gronkowski hasn't done anything "wrong." He hasn't been arrested for DUI or run afoul of any of the NFL's personal conduct policies that I'm aware of.
In fact, according to this photo from Busted Coverage, Gronkowski is sorry for partying at all.
Rob Gronkowski is a grown man, and he is entitled to do what he wants, including racking up a $9,600 bar bill on Super Bowl Sunday. However, when that party includes bodyslamming buddies while still wearing a cast on your broken forearm then a line has been crossed.
At best, it puts all sorts of unfortunate ideas into the heads of Gronkowski's teammates. If he can do that on YouTube, maybe that motorcycle isn't such a bad idea after all!
At worst, one of the team's stars needlessly risked re-injuring an arm he already re-injured once. That shows either a big-time lack of maturity or an even more alarming preference for partying over working.
That may be normal for a 23-year-old, but having over $50 million isn't. It's time for him to stop acting like a frat boy and starting acting like a professional football player.
That sentiment is shared by former players such as Tedy Bruschi and Willie McGinest, who according to Jeff Howe of The Boston Herald think "Gronkowski needs an intervention for making too many offseason headlines."
For all we know the organization has already taken steps there. Bill Belichick has been as stoic as ever since the loss to Baltimore, and getting information out of the New England camp is harder than detecting North Korean nuclear tests.
So, does all this hoopla make the Patriots a "freak show?"
Not really. Not yet, anyway.
The Dennard trial should end this week, although appeals could drag things well into the 2013 regular season.
The Patriots may have already tentatively decided what they're going to do about Welker. And if the free agent market for him is soft, the path for a return to the Patriots could be eased.
Rob Gronkowski will probably realize that although having fun is just that, the demands of his chosen profession mean a few less bodyslams (at least until retirement), especially while rehabbing from injury.
Hopefully this will happen before Gronkowski tries to jump a gorge on a rocket scooter.
What this does show, however, is that it can be a slippery slope. Great teams turn into good teams and then bad teams gradually as often as suddenly.
One leak becomes two, then three and so on. Attrition and distractions pile up.
That makes this a very important offseason for Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots.
The hoodie is starting to show some wear. Better hem it up.
Or next thing you know you'll be the New York Jets.
And nobody wants that.
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