Belichick Won’t Be Blamed For Hernandez’s Mess

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Bill Belichick is one of the few coaches who won’t get any of the blame for the current predicament that Aaron Hernandez is facing. You can read about the latest with Hernandez here, but at best it sounds like another player who got involved with “associates” who he would have been better served not to have been involved with. At worst, he’s in a lot of trouble.

Regardless of that, what would be said if this were another incident in the long line of incidents that occurred with the Dallas Cowboys under Jerry Jones and company? What would be said if it was Rex Ryan and the New York Jets with their overt lack of discipline and seemingly fundamental need to embarrass themselves with loud talk and little on-field action? The Cincinnati Bengals have had their share of off-field turmoil. The Oakland Raiders have a long history of actively seeking out players who would be in jail if they couldn’t play football—and they might be in jail anyway.

Fairly or not, there are organizations for whom the players’ behaviors are seen as an entity unto themselves with no responsibility doled out on the team or the men who signed them, tacitly agreeing to take the personal problems in order to try and win. That the Patriots, under owner Bob Kraft, were the team that drafted Christian Peter claiming not to know his history of misogyny and then chose not to sign him once they “found out” about them created the image of a team that doesn’t do it “that” way meaning the Jones way or the Al Davis way in not caring about personality as long as the player can help them.

The image failing to jibe with the reality is meaningless. If the coach of the Patriots were a Barry Switzer-type outlaw, then of course the blame for Hernandez’s predicament would be dropped on the desk of the coach because he couldn’t “rein in” his player as if that’s even possible with grown men. Since it’s Belichick, he has the power to do the things he wants and if that includes dumping a player who can still produce because he’s mouthy and violates team rules, so be it. Other coaches without Belichick’s resume and the organizational track record of success would have to make certain compromises and bend the rules to try and win to keep their jobs and have the fans come to the games. Belichick has the best of both worlds: he can dump the player or he can sign the player and no one will say anything either way.

Belichick can sign Randy Moss, Chad Johnson, Albert Haynesworth and other players who’ve had on and off-field issues and see if they’ll fit into his program. He can sign Tim Tebow and not worry if it’s going to lead to a huge media circus around his team, nor be frightented of Tebow’s legions reacting negatively if he cuts him. If these players don’t help his team, he can dispatch them with no harm, no foul. If they do, it’s more evidence of Belichick’s “genius.” In truth, it’s still a compromise, but the compromise doesn’t have to be buttressed by putting up with the same behaviors that got the players in trouble and made them available to the Patriots on the cheap in the first place.

No matter who the coach is, how scary he can be and the rigid discipline he displays to keep his house in order, there will always be players for whom trouble is a magnet. Some skirt it and rejuvenate themselves, dodging the bullet sometimes literally and figuratively, as Ray Lewis did; sometimes they end up in jail for the rest of their lives like Rae Carruth. When dealing with grown men making the money amid the fame that NFL players are today, there’s nothing a coach can do to keep his players completely in line during their off-hours. Nor should it come as a surprise if a vast majority of professional athletes are carrying firearms. In fact, given the history of people seeking out athletes to rob because their salaries are so prominent, they’re irresponsible if they don’t take steps to protect themselves. Given today’s debate regarding guns, it’s not politically correct to say that, but there’s a difference between a person who has a need to protect himself and a mentally unstable person who is able to acquire weapons for the express purpose of committing mayhem.

A coach can’t tell a player not to take steps to keep himself safe and no one—not even Belichick—has such omnipotent powers to shield a key to his team like Hernandez from what happened in this case. Belichick has protection as well: the championships absolving him from any questioning and blame. Other coaches don’t have that. That’s his weapon if he chooses to use it and, unlike what might have happened with Hernandez, it’s not going to get him sent to jail if he does.

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Rays and Orioles: Early Season Notes

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Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays were one of the few teams with a “surplus” of starting pitching. So they dealt James Shields and Wade Davis to the Royals and signed Roberto Hernandez (AKA Fausto Carmona) as insurance and to vie for a role in the rotation. Jeff Niemann’s season-ending shoulder surgery put a damper on the depth and they’ve gotten off to a rocky start as Hernandez has pitched poorly and Jeremy Hellickson—who I’m not a fan of anyway—has been inconsistent.

Key parts of the lineup haven’t hit. Some, like Yunel Escobar and Matthew Joyce, will. Others like James Loney and Ryan Roberts might or might not. In the end, they’ll score enough runs to win…if the pitching is good enough or David Price and Matt Moore carry the load for the shakiness of the back of the rotation.

This should’ve been expected of a team like the Rays who run their club making trades and signings with an eye on saving money, spending where they can, and hoping to hit at the roulette wheel with the likes of Hernandez and Loney. Amid all the hits such as Fernando Rodney and Casey Kotchman, there are also misses like Pat Burrell and Matt Bush. Some have been costlier than others.

There are calls to bring up Wil Myers to boost the offense and, in some manner, justify having traded Shields and Davis to get him. Inside the Rays clubhouse there are expressions of pained understanding as to why the Rays traded Shields and Davis, with the unsaid wishing that they were still there to help in the now.

The Rays front office isn’t concerned about what the players think. No winning organization is. They may listen to a point in order to placate the stars, but in the end, it’s the organization’s decision. Few sports figures exert as much influence over their club as Tom Brady does with the New England Patriots and even he had his knuckles rapped by club owner Bob Kraft over Brady’s overt displeasure at Wes Welker being allowed to leave. “I don’t answer to Tom Brady,” Kraft said.

Nor should he.

Bending to pressure, inside and out, would betray the entire reason the Rays made the trade in the first place; in fact it would contradict the entire foundation of the rebuilding of the Rays into a team that wins in spite of payroll constraints. Myers was acquired because he’s a top-tier prospect, cheap and will have value for them when they can no longer afford some of the players in their lineup who are expected to be significant offensive contributors now, like Joyce. If and when Myers is recalled, it won’t be until it’s financially and practically beneficial to the Rays, not before.

In general, veteran players will provide what’s expected of them and what they’ve historically done barring injuries or an age-related decline in skills. This is why there’s no need to be concerned about Escobar and Joyce and there is need to be concerned about Hernandez and Loney.

This is the situation the Rays face on an annual basis. Maybe it’ll work out and maybe it won’t.

Baltimore Orioles

To GM Dan Duquette’s credit, he didn’t make the mistake the Mariners did under Bill Bavasi and equate an overachieving 2007 season of 88-74 into an idea of “all we need is one more pitcher” and trade a large chunk of his system to the Orioles—including Adam Jones and Chris Tillman—for Erik Bedard.

(Interestingly, Mariners current GM Jack Zduriencik did pretty much the same thing in trading for Cliff Lee after a similarly overachieving season that was based more on luck than reality in 2009. Yet he was referred to as a “genius” for doing what Bavasi did. He’s not being called a genius anymore, but that’s another story.)

The Orioles of 2012, unlike the Mariners of 2007, made the playoffs. They bounced the Rangers and shook the Yankees before losing in the ALDS in 5 games. The Orioles, having won, are no longer viewed as a last resort location for old and declining players to get a last paycheck. The temptation to use the new street cred among marketable players willing to join the Orioles must have been great, as must have been the offers for the likes of Manny Machado and Dylan Bundy. Duquette did a tweak here and a tweak there, but mostly stood pat in spite of the Orioles having reason to say they were going for it in 2013, even though that would’ve been a mistake.

They’re around .500 now and the “experts” in the media had them taking a dramatic fallback to, at best, .500 for the season.

That doesn’t mean they’re going to stay there. Currently relying on the same template as last season with a deep bullpen, a power-hitting lineup and pedestrian starting pitching, the situation looks the same as in 2012, but is actually subtly different.

If his elbow stiffness subsides and he’s pitching in the minors soon, the Orioles can expect Bundy to help them in the second half of the season; Machado will be with the team all year. If they’re hovering around .500 and still in contention in a parity-laden AL East at mid-season, they’ll be very dangerous down the stretch.

I don’t see people referring to Duquette with starstruck, agenda-driven awe as they did with Zduriencik, but Duquette’s the one with the past success, courage of his convictions, and is a better executive.

Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide is now available on Amazon, Smashwords, BN and Lulu. Check it out and read a sample.

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