It's an irrefutable fact that the New England Patriots are in a reconstruction period, picking up the pieces.
It started five months ago when, after a 26-year climb that was, at times, tragicomic, the franchise made it to the Super Bowl. Once there, all hell broke loose and the heat has been on ever since.
One Patriot, guard Ron Wooton, stood at a New England airport during this off-season, suitcase at his feet. Wooton said: "Some guy comes by, looks at the suitcase, and says, 'Must be full of drugs.' It burned me up."
Another player, wide receiver Irving Fryar, said he feels like he's become the bull's-eye on everybody's Patriots' target. Fryar was one of six Patriots reportedly confirmed by the club to have used illegal drugs last year. That story broke only two days after the Patriots were routed, 46-10, by the Chicago Bears, the most lopsided score in Super Bowl history.
Fryar denied that he used drugs, just as he denies allegations that he gambled on NFL games last year, which the league still is investigating.
"It's like somebody is out to get the Patriots and me," Fryar said. "They are on a witch hunt. The next question I'll get asked is 'Did you ever throw dice in your life?' . . . It's getting to the point now where I don't trust anybody. I don't want it to get where I walk around with my lip poked out, not talking, and having a chip on my shoulder. But it's getting close to that."
The depth of the wounds caused by reports of drug use and gambling is unclear as the Patriots prepare to assemble for the start of training camp.
Matters weren't helped when Dr. Forest Tennant, recently named to oversee Commissioner Pete Rozelle's controversial new drug program, was quoted as saying that the Patriots "are an area of special concern." There were reports this week that Tennant might have cost himself his new job with that remark, which the NFL Players Assn., says violated rules of confidentiality.
"A very difficult time," is how Billy Sullivan, the club president, describes what the Patriots are going through.
But remember, this is the same franchise that endured the shocking paralysis suffered by receiver Darryl Stingley, the 22-year (1963-85) void of playoff victories, and so much stadium-hopping in the early years that one 1968 home game actually was played in Birmingham, Ala. Management thinks it can survive the latest traumas.
Sullivan said fans know the gambling allegations against Fryar are unfounded. "Dirty pool," he termed the charges. Sullivan said the Patriots' popularity "may be a few points below where it was before the Super Bowl, but higher than any other time in history."
The players have been put on the defensive. Veteran linebacker Steve Nelson said that the events of this off-season have, at the very least, "tarnished what we did last year."
"I may be naive to the drug issue," running back Craig James said, "but I know this: we don't have guys walking around our locker room sniffing things up their noses and looking like they are freezing to death."
Quarterback Steve Grogan, a veteran statesman on the team, said: "Last year, we did something that nobody--even ourselves--ever thought we could do. I know when we all come back to training camp everybody will be talking about what happened in the off-season, not our accomplishments of last year. We won't know how everybody on the team will handle all of this until we get back."
And Dick Steinberg, club player personnel director, said, "If it hadn't been for the team's performance in the playoffs last year, it might have made it seem like the burden of the world was on our shoulders now."
The damage to the team's image may be only superficial. Sullivan said season-ticket sales are up about 34% over last season. Another club official said local businesses are lining up for advertising purposes. Some players believe all it will take to boost the team's image are a couple of victories at the start of the season.
But who can calculate the damage done to the team's most vital internal mechanism--the trust and kindred spirit among players and between players and management? That, mixed with the ornery mean streak of an unfulfilled underdog, powered the Patriots (14-6) to an unprecedented three consecutive playoff victories on the road last year over the New York Jets, Raiders and Miami Dolphins.
Is it possible that belief has been damaged beyond repair?
Coach Raymond Berry said, "Issues don't go away--they just get bigger. You have to define them and then address it head on. This team has developed a history of coming from behind. I just look at the experiences we've had, whatever they have been, and believe they are all going to lead to a better future for us."