FOXBORO -- Robert Kraft knew this day was coming.
From the moment Aaron Hernandez was arrested, charged and indicted for the first degree murder of Odin Lloyd, he knew the Patriots would come under heavy scrutiny for what they did and didn't know about their former star tight end's background.
Now that Rolling Stone has crashed onto the scene with a highly sourced and detailed story that accuses the Patriots owner and his coach of enabling Hernandez at the sake of protecting their football interests, Kraft has no choice now but to defend the way the Patriots do business. The Patriots have done all the right things in response so far. But now, their public relations defense will have to be on high alert again, led by Kraft himself.
Did Aaron Hernandez really take angel dust? Was he a paranoid schizophrenic? Did the Patriots really look the other way? How much did Kraft and Bill Belichick really know? Should they be held accountable?
These are all questions that Kraft, Belichick and most Patriots fans wish would go away so that the team can focus on another legitimate run at a Super Bowl. The members of the organization have done a masterful job of standing up and acknowledging the shame they felt when the story broke in late June. They acted quickly in cutting Hernandez after the murder (though the Rolling Stone account suggests Belichick was ready to do so much earlier).
Say what you will about Rolling Stone (and I will in a moment) but the legwork performed in the story speaks for itself. It's thorough, gripping and chilling.
Belichick will be focused on football, as he should be. He did what was right in releasing the player from his roster. He won't be commenting on the story. That much is almost certain.
But Kraft? He spoke like a father who was heartbroken but resolved to protect the rest of his family. He knows this is his franchise that -- as he reminded us Tuesday -- he and his family worked 20 years to build.
"This is a privilege to own this franchise," Kraft said hours before awarding the Ron Burton Community Service Award to Matthew Slater, the complete and total opposite of what Hernandez represents.
One year ago this week, the Patriots used the occasion of their kickoff gala to reward Hernandez with a five-year, $40 million contract extension.
On Tuesday night, Kraft was asked about his regret. He spoke in generalities and, like Belichick, refused to call Hernandez by name.
"Every year in all of our businesses we recalibrate what we're doing to make sure we're staying fresh and on top of things," Kraft said. "Once you stop doing that, you'll perish. This is a business that's the most competitive business I've ever been involved in. So, we have reviewed everything. We have been very diligent the way we look at things. We'll try to do things as best as we can to achieve the results we want."
In the Rolling Stone story, Kraft and Bill Belichick are, at the very least, accused of negligence and at times ignorance in allowing Hernandez's behavior to continue outside their fortress in Foxboro.
The magazine blames Belichick for weakening the organization's intelligence by replacing the team's security chief, former Massachusetts state trooper Frank Mendes, with Mark Briggs, a former British security chief who worked detail at London's Wembley Stadium. If only Belichick and the Patriots had kept Mendes, the story suggests, they would have known much more about Hernandez and his alleged associations with the "stone-cold" gangsters who led Hernandez down his path out of the NFL. They say Belichick suggested Hernandez "lay low" this past February after the player talked to the coach about fearing for his life.
The magazine that brought us the incendiary Dzhokhar Tsarnaev issue earlier this summer now is ridiculing Kraft for claiming he was "duped" by Hernandez. The publication says Kraft's claim was "arrant nonsense." While doing a remarkable job of sourcing the details of the night Hernandez allegedly murdered Lloyd, the magazine makes a sizable jump in wanting readers to believe the Patriots looked the other way when Hernandez was regularly using illegal drugs and associating with known gangsters and criminals.
Question the decision to draft Hernandez all you want, because clearly his reputation at Florida was sketchy at best. But to say the Patriots actively enabled Hernandez by quoting sources close to a highly unreliable and unstable Hernandez himself is highly questionable. What reason is there to trust them as journalistic sources? What is their motivation and endgame?
There are precious few sources who actually know and will cough up details about what goes on inside the walls of Gillette, especially when it comes to a sensitive story like this.
And there's this: Hernandez went three years in the NFL without ever being suspended under the league's substance-abuse or personal-conduct policies. The Patriots knew about his background at Florida, at least to a certain degree. But do you really think Kraft and Belichick would have signed off on a $40 million extension with $12 million in guaranteed money if they had even a shred of evidence that pointed to the kind of behavior of which Hernandez now is accused?
"Well, one thing I've learned is that it's a privilege to own an NFL team," Kraft said. "But every year there's some type of surprise you can't anticipate. Sometimes the difficult things help to bring a team together. I know people know what our intent is and what we're trying to do. I'm actually pretty excited about this team. It's a very young team, one of the half-dozen youngest teams in the league. They seem to be coming together pretty well. I'm excited about this season and the next few seasons."
Has this summer reinforced the need to look more closely at a player's background?
"We've always done that," Kraft said. "In 20 years, we've probably had over 2,000 people playing here. And I think by and large, we've done a pretty good job. I think if you look at the last four years, I don't think we've had any off-field incidents. We're as diligent as we can be. We know what we want to achieve. Yet, when people go outside this building, it's like those of you who have children, once they get to a certain age, you can't control all of their activities."
But before you can look ahead to the next few seasons or even the one that begins on Sept. 8 in Buffalo, there has to be a sense that the organization is moving forward.
"Look, in the end, we have a business and a company we're running here where we have 61 young men, most of whom are in their early 20s," Kraft told me. "It's a microcosm of the world. So, there's all kinds of things are going to happen. We do our best to hope that they understand they're in a unique place and playing in the NFL is a privilege. We hope they're wise and mature enough to handle that."
The Rolling Stone story overshadowed the NFLPA filing a grievance against the Patriots for $82,000 in workout bonuses. Kraft made it pretty clear Tuesday night that the Patriots will fight it.
"Simple, you can look at our history. We honor all our contracts and we expect the people who sign them to honor their part of the contract," Kraft said.
I followed up by asking him if this means that he believes Hernandez indeed broke the contract.
"We honor our contracts and we expect the people on the other side to do the same," he said.
Fighting for the $82,000 -- possibly before an arbitrator -- figures to be the least of the battles the Patriots face right now.
Rolling Stone has thrown the first real salvo at the Patriots.
Now all Kraft can do is what he did Tuesday night -- defend himself, his business and the team he loves so much.