We're a little over 24 hours away from the start of Free Agency. That's why I figured I'd take today to sneak in another Top Moment while we're all busy speculating about what we're going to be speculating about over the next week. Plus, I want to get this one out of the way ASAP, as I have been dreading writing it ever since I first came up with my 2013 list. I could have easily divvied this up into two moments, but since they were both pretty awful and had a similar impact on the team, I figured I'd just lump them both together so we can all focus our efforts elsewhere.
But first, the list so far:
And now - somewhat reluctantly - the Number 18 Most Memorable Patriots Moment of 2013.
18. Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez depart for Denver and jail, respectively.
After a disappointing playoff exit in 2012, there were three main questions on everyone's mind: whether or not Gronk would be back to 100% for the next year, whether or not Aqib Talib would be back with the team, and whether or not Wes Welker had caught his last pass as a Patriot. The first two questions were answered fairly quickly: the general consensus was that Gronk was going to be ready to play in September, and New England was able to bring back Talib on a one year deal to keep their best corner around for another season. The only remaining question mark was Welker.
Most fans and analysts alike saw Welker coming back to the team; he was simply too valuable to let go, his relationship with Tom Brady was too solid to try and replicate, and Welker seemed to enjoy being in New England and wanted to stay with the quarterback who made him what he was. So when a deal wasn't done immediately, nobody panicked; after all, this is just how the Patriots do business. But then as more and more time passed, people started to wonder - what the hell are they waiting for? Just get the deal done! When rumors started circulating that the Denver Broncos were interested in Welker's services, the sense of urgency became a little more palpable; after all, there was simply no way that Belichick would let Welker go over to team Manning, would he? We all got nervous, but overall confidence was fairly high that Welker would still be returning.
Then, of course, he didn't. He signed a two year, $12 million deal with the Denver Broncos, which as it turns out was a meager $1 million more per year than New England offered him. Furthermore, Welker even went back to the Patriots to give them an opportunity to match, but he was turned away. Obviously, the Patriots were moving on, Wes Welker was not in their future plans, and so everyone's favorite little guy crossed enemy lines.
Of course, there was a whole lot of disappointment about the move - we just lost a fan favorite and a great player, and we allowed an AFC rival to get better by doing so. The usual "arrogant Patriots shoot themselves in the foot" articles plastered the internet and there were even a few Pats fans who thought that Belichick had gone too far this time . However, while it was certainly upsetting to see Welker go, most of us knew that it ultimately wasn't the end of the world. Sure, it especially stung to see him go over to a Peyton Manning led offense, but at the end of the day, everything was going to be fine. Julian Edelman had shown promise, and the Patriots were able to sign a younger, faster Danny Amendola to a contract almost immediately after Welker departed. Furthermore -and perhaps most importantly - the Patriots had the two best tight ends in the game locked up for the next several years, and the 2 TE offense wasn't as dependent on a slot receiver to generate yards, particularly when there was matchup nightmare Aaron Hernandez available to line up all over the field and exploit any facet of the defense that could be exploited. So the general consensus around Patriots Nation, after the initial shock wore off, was that Welker was no longer as important to the offense with players like Hernandez and Gronk able to do pretty much whatever they wanted out there.
And for a little while, everything was great. The Welker news wore off, the offseason wore on, and we turned our attention to the draft, the incoming rookie receivers, and mini-camp. There were initial reports that Tom Brady was already developing a rapport with Amendola, that Gronk was more or less on schedule to come back, and Aqib Talib was excited to be back with the Patriots. New England had made an interesting Draft Day trade and acquired LeGarrette Blount, who could be a nice compliment to the backfield, and there were a lot of key pieces in place. Everything was looking up, and everyone buckled down for what was supposed to be the most boring period in the NFL calendar. But that was OK; after all, the preseason was right around the corner.
Cut to June 17th, when we all woke up to the unexpected news that police found a bullet-riddled body in Attleboro, Massachussetts, and Hernandez was viewed as a person of interest. Nobody really knew what was going on, as there were several conflicting reports on how Hernandez was or wasn't connected and at the time there wasn't much evidence one way or another. It was a story we all followed somewhat closely, but the general consensus was that Hernandez was likely in the wrong place at the wrong time, and perhaps some of his old cohorts were up to no good and dragging his name into their affairs.
Not so much.
One short week later, Hernandez was arrested and charged with first degree murder, along with five separate weapons charges. Less than two hours after his arrest, he was released by the New England Patriots, and just like that the team lost two of their most dangerous targets in the span of a few short months, with another one somehow unable to shake an infection. All of a sudden, and for the first time in who knows how long, there were actually some legitimate questions surrounding the future of this team.
The 2013 offseason was hands down the most tumultuous, unnerving, and discouraging one that I have experienced in a very long time. While I never quite went down the rabbit hole into complete despair, I was certainly questioning whether New England would be able to bounce back from this one. And they most certainly did bounce back, in spite of everything that happened, and basically ended up a few questionable calls away from being the number one seed in the entire AFC.
And perhaps it's for this reason more than any other that makes Welker and Hernandez's departure a mainstay on this list, as it represents a definitive silver lining to all of the madness that we had to endure last offseason. For most teams (and quite possibly all 31 others) in the NFL, losing your most prolific receiver of all time to both free agency and a heated rival would be enough to set them back a season or two and focus on rebuilding for the following year. Compound that with losing your All-Star cornerstone tight end to a murder scandal that had the attention of the entire country, and a lot of franchises would simply implode. Not the Patriots, though. They simply circled the wagons, ignored the hype, made their perfunctory statements, and got back to work. And of course, by "got back to work," I mean took a converted quarterback, a bunch of rookies, and a smattering of nobodies to the AFC Championship Game. What resulted wasn't what any of us ultimately hoped for, but it led to what was hands down one of the mentally toughest, hardest working, and likable teams that many of us have ever had the pleasure of watching. When the Pats went down to the Broncos in their final game of the year, of course there was disappointment - but far more than that, there was a tremendous amount of pride and satisfaction of having watched this group massively overachieve for three straight months.
And plus, it's not like things ended any better for Welker or Hernandez.