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Aaron Hernandez saga just the latest dark cloud hovering over Pats

The Patriots could be missing Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski at points this season. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images) The Patriots could be missing Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski at points this season. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Fort Belichick is in disarray.

Already, the franchise that espouses the fundamental (if somewhat ambiguous) "Patriot Way" mantra had endured an unusually tumultuous offseason. And that was before tight end Aaron Hernandez, less than a year removed from signing a pricey contract extension, became a possible suspect in the murder of 27-year-old Odin Lloyd and was released by the Patriots Wednesday.

The Patriots' mystique may be waning, and not just because of the potentially serious legal issues facing Hernandez and his subsequent release. This offseason has been unusually tumultuous for one of the league's more sure-footed franchises.

New England entered its offseason earlier than expected, following a humbling playoff home loss to the Ravens -- the Patriots' eighth consecutive postseason trip that ended without a Super Bowl ring and their third time in the past four years falling on their home turf. Then, Wes Welker bolted for rival Denver, Alfonzo Dennard was sentenced to 30 days in jail for assaulting a police officer and Rob Gronkowski became a frequent guest of the surgical community.

All of that (and the questions about New England's 2013 prospects that followed) occurred before Hernandez's home landed front and center in a murder investigation. That Hernandez's dreadful situation has happened less than a year after he signed a pricey contract extension will make the front office even more uneasy.

There are more pressing matters at hand, particularly in regards to Hernandez, but football minds can ask with the Patriots a month away from reconvening for camp: Is this team ready for a fall?

BURKE: What's next for Patriots after Hernandez's release?

The rest of the AFC East certainly hopes so, having watched New England roll to back-to-back-to-back-to-back division crowns. Miami spent big money to chase a playoff berth; Buffalo switched coaching staffs and landed a QB, E.J. Manuel, it hopes finally can be a franchise guy at that position; the Jets, though with myriad issues of their own, did the same by drafting Geno Smith.

Those three teams should feel that the door to first place has propped open, if only because the Patriots' own title window might have closed a bit.

The Patriots will have to fight that perception, at least, as they start the coming season with questions at wide receiver and tight end (if Rob Gronkowski isn't on the field in Week 1, the Patriots will open the season without their five leading receivers from last year), cornerback (where the team only added third-rounder Logan Ryan to a group that finished 29th against the pass last year) and off the field.

New England has the type of leadership to weather the storm -- Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, Logan Mankins, Vince Wilfork and others provide necessarily steady hands. Still, there is enough for the Patriots to be concerned about on the field, especially after cutting their talented tight end.

What must Brady think of his team's recent news? The future Hall of Famer has survived, sometimes even thrived, with an underwhelming cast of characters around him -- like the 2004 Super Bowl run, with David Givens and David Patten as the team's leading receivers.

That was a decade ago, though. The soon-to-be 36-year-old QB has proven he has plenty left in the tank, and yet the latest incarnation of the Patriots' offense was designed around Welker's capabilities in the slot, Hernandez's versatility and Gronkowski's elite abilities as a combo pass-catcher/blocker. What happens if Brady has to enter the season without any of those players available to him? (No, Tim Tebow's not about to dominate as a tight end.)

Admittedly, asking the question "Who will catch Tom Brady's passes?" is a gross simplification of New England's situation. Belichick has never shied away from rolling the dice on red-flagged players. Plenty of those gambles have paid off, too, but maybe there's a more fundamental issue at play.

Maybe the Patriots, by turning a blind eye to Hernandez's sketchy past, set themselves up for some of these problems.

New England likely will head into the 2013 season as the favorite again within the AFC East, if not one of the expected contenders in the conference. The outlook in Foxboro, however, is far from sunny.

If there is still exists a "Patriot Way," now would be the ideal time to rediscover it.

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