The news for Patriots' tight end Aaron Hernandez came fast and furious today. Just one year removed from a massive investment of 5 years $40 million by his team, Hernandez was arrested in connection with a murder and then released by the Patriots in quick succession today. I read a lot of reports about how some GM's took Hernandez off their board on draft day entirely because of his checkered reputation in college. I wouldn't be surprised in the least if the Saints were one of those teams who would refuse to take him, even in the 7th round. The Patriots did take him, though, in the 4th round and benefited from three largely spectacular seasons from him before this debacle. Based on the his reputation leading up to the draft, though, the warning signs were there that this guy could run into trouble and cause problems. The Saints' current regime has always shied away from messing with players that fit that description, which at times has seen them promote character over talent.
I'll never forget what Scott Fujita said about the Saints after the 2008 season. They had been to the NFC Championship in 2006 and were successful, but in 2007 and 2008 had two mediocre seasons that saw the team fail to make the playoffs. He said something to the effect of: "we can talk about the character of this locker room all we want, at some point if we're not winning games it doesn't matter". I'm paraphrasing here, so my apologies if I didn't get that quote exactly right but the message remains accurate. That was a point where I feared the current regime's model of never compromising seeking high character players wasn't sustainable if you want to win. The primadonnas usually come with talent, and my concern was the Saints would passing on guys like that too often as a policy, which meant more guys like Scott Fujita, Scott Shanle etc… guys that worked hard and did everything right, but were limited athletically.
In the end, though, win, lose or draw, there's something about rooting for guys that I know are at least decent human beings that makes it a little more fun. Rooting for Jeremy Shockey never sat that well with me, and it would be worse if I had to watch Ray Lewis, Aaron Hernandez or Roddy White in black and gold. Does that mean every Saint is a model citizen? No. I've heard bad things about Sedrick Ellis in the past, Joe Morgan just got a DUI, Chris Ivory had a bad history in college and ultimately I think his character is what stopped him from breaking through with this team. Those are just three examples, but I'm sure there are countless others as well. The aggregate of the team is much higher than the average in terms of character, though, and that I do firmly believe. Part of it is the leaders that influence the younger players… guys like Drew Brees, Zach Strief, Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Roman Harper, Malcolm Jenkins, Pierre Thomas, Thomas Morstead, Jabari Greer to name some. Say what you will about these guys from a talent standpoint (some are elite, others are not) but it's undeniable they have had largely very positive influence on why you can characterize the Saints' locker room as "high character". These are largely good people that set good examples, they don't get into trouble (though some sketchiness has followed Smith and Vilma a little bit) and they vocally influence their teammates in positive ways.
Of course the Saints suffered through Bounty Gate and that ridiculous accusation of wire tapping by ESPN Outside the Lines. There was also that Vicodin scandal that surrounded the team, as well as the Kevin Houser scam. Most of those incidents involved the top, and you know what they say about organizations… if it's corrupt at the top it will trickle it's way down. So my view of the Saints as an organization and players is biased and distorted, but I will admit it's taken a bit of a hit over the things they've gotten in trouble for the last few years. Hopefully lessons have been learned. Still, I remain steadfast in my belief that the people in the organization, particularly the players, are largely decent human beings. You could probably say that for many teams in the NFL, and the Aaron Hernandez situation could have happened to some other team. Hernandez being a thug doesn't condemn the rest of the Patriots players by any means. I do think, though, on average the Saints are passing on a talent like Hernandez.
Overall I'm comfortable with the Saints' policy to value character players over talent. It could cost them wins in the short term, but I do believe it will build a more solid foundation in the long term. As we saw from the Saints in 2007/2008 versus 2009 and as we saw from Aaron Hernandez today versus his first three seasons, both approaches have their merits and downfalls. Ultimately it comes down to your moral makeup, and despite the negativity that's surrounded the Saints lately from a character standpoint, I'm glad they likely won't have guys like Hernandez on the team any time soon. Even if that means we don't win another Super Bowl for a long time.