This time last year, New England Patriots fans and staff were dealing with the fallout of Aaron Hernandez — a former star for the team and once believed to be the future of the New England franchise. As we now know, Hernandez led a private life that almost no one could begin to understand. These days, his legal woes have only worsened as he awaits trial for not only the murder of semi-pro football player Odin Lloyd, but also for a double homicide dating back to the summer of 2012. Still, fans cannot help but wonder what could have been.
The Hernandez saga ended abruptly, but what if none of this had ever happened? What if Hernandez wasn’t an alleged cold-blooded killer and was still playing in the NFL for my beloved Patriots?
During the 2013 regular season the Patriots finished with a 12-4 record. While I considered New England to be the worst of the best during the season, the Patriots finished strong nonetheless, finding themselves once again in the AFC Championship game. For most teams this would be an amazing feat, but for New England and their fans this was a disappointment that left many of us wondering “what if?”
Envisioning what the Patriots could have looked like had Hernandez been playing is a difficult task. Do I consider injuries? Do I think about players like Vince Wilfork and Rob Gronkowski, who were both lost to serious injuries for most of the season? Assuming everything else happened just as it did, New England may not have won the Super Bowl, but they probably would have been there.
Before his career as a professional football player ended, Hernandez posted some of the most impressive numbers in the league. During his three short years with the team, he notched 18 touchdowns, 175 receptions and 1,956 receiving yards. Each year he was improving all across the board, leading many to believe that the 2013 season would be his breakout year. He, along with fellow tight end Gronkowski, was a part of a powerhouse that seemed nearly unstoppable.
Speculation is a huge part of the NFL, so wondering what Hernandez could have done for the team in the future has never been far from my mind. Last year’s team struggled offensively on several occasions, and Hernandez was the missing piece of the puzzle that could have changed the course of the season entirely. There is no doubt in my mind that the Seattle Seahawks would still be the Super Bowl champions even if things had been different for the Patriots, but having Hernandez available would have been enough to get New England to their sixth Super Bowl appearance in the last 14 years.
Unfortunately, this is not the way things turned out. Hernandez is still in jail with the cards stacked against him and will most likely never put on a professional football jersey again. 20 years from now, when this team is long-retired and a part of NFL history, we may still be begging the question “what if?”