It's an irrefutable fact that the New England Patriots are in their 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 offseason, 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 had been drubbed, 46-10, by the Chicago Bears, the most lopsided score in Super Bowl history.
Fryar denied that he used drugs, just as he now 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 Friday.
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 yesterday that Tennant might have cost himself his new job with that remark, which the NFL Players Association says violated rules of confidentiality.
"A very difficult time," is how Billy Sullivan, the club president, describes the present.
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." Dealing With Difficulties
The players have been put on the defensive. Veteran linebacker Steve Nelson said that the events of this offseason have, at the very least, "tarnished what we did last year."
"I may be naive to the drug issue," said running back Craig James, "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 offseason, 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 percent over last season. Another club official said local businesses are itching to become associated with the club through advertising. Some players believe a couple of victories to start next season will be the best boost of all for the team's image.
But who can calculate the damage done to the team's most vital internal mechanism -- that seemingly air-tight trust and kindred spirit among players and between players and management? That trust and fellowship, mixed with the ornery mean streak of an unfulfilled underdog, sprung the Patriots (14-6) to an unprecedented three consecutive playoff victories on the road last year over the New York Jets, Los Angeles 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."
Things began to unravel the day after the Super Bowl, soon after the Patriots banners and signs had been removed from storefronts from Montpelier, Vt. to Bangor, Maine. That's when it was reported that about a dozen Patriots had been involved with drugs during the season and that the players secretly had voted to accept random drug-testing.
The next day, the names of six players became public after the club reportedly confirmed their drug involvement. Players felt deceived, saying their confidentiality had been breached. Both Fryar and cornerback Raymond Clayborn, who also was named as a drug user, asked to be traded. The other players named -- defensive end Kenneth Sims, running back Tony Collins, safety Roland James, receiver Stephen Starring -- mostly kept a low-profile.
So it followed: players distrusted players; players distrusted management. Since all six players named in the drug story are black, the black players on the team privately were asking racial questions. Nobody trusted the press.
"The names getting out," said Steinberg, "put a temporary taint on the players' belief in Pat Sullivan, general manager and Raymond. But I don't think there is a player-management problem here now."
"All of the relationships have been affected by this," said Brian Holloway, the team's union representative. "But they have been changed just like something would have been changed to become stronger. In hindsight, I'm sure Raymond would have done some things differently in terms of making the announcement. I think Pat Sullivan would have done some things differently, too. But we have all grown a lot closer through this."
Wooton said, "The truth is, the Patriots did have a minimal involvement in drug use and long before the story was written -- in fact, about one year earlier -- we had met the problem and solved it unilaterally with drug testing . We had taken as big a step as any team in the league. But that first story written after the Super Bowl was phrased like we had some major drug problem and that that was why we lost the Super Bowl. We lost that game because we didn't play well, not because of drugs.
"I know for the rest of my career, I'll never be able to speak candidly again," Wooton said. "I felt cheated and betrayed by some members of the media. I feel bad because, before this, I never knew I had the capacity to hate people." Berry in Central Role
Now, it seems players and management are seeking relief from the same source -- Berry. The head coach was recently rewarded with a five-year contract extension. His role is to put the Patriots back together.
Nelson, the veteran linebacker, said of Berry, "He's somebody we can lean on, our ace in the hole." And Billy Sullivan went two steps further, saying, "There's almost a Messianic character to him. . . . Without Raymond, this would have been a difficult thing to come back from."
Berry has been active during this offseason, trying to restore stability, if not tranquility. He has used what Steinberg termed "almost a four-level kind of attack" to combat a heap of negatives.
Berry's plan, according to Steinberg, included personal visits to players' homes by Berry and other coaches. It also included a mid-March meeting for players and their wives at Sullivan Stadium, which was held to "clear the air" on the drug issue, Berry said. Although the meeting was optional, 48 of the 57 players on the team's roster reportedly attended.
Apparently, the meeting helped. "Even the wives were ready to play after that meeting," James said.
Berry said he has had one-on-one discussions with each of the six players named in the drug story. He has spoken to Fryar since the gambling allegations became public and said, "Everything is, I think, good."
Fryar said he no longer wants to be traded. "I've been put on the firing line," he said, "and now it's my job to get off of it." One of Fryar's problems apparently was resolved yesterday in Boston, when assault and battery charges filed against him by a man who claimed Fryar "clawed him" in the face during an alleged altercation were dismissed.
Holloway said, "We have all had to reassure one another. There are some teams in the NFL that would be in real shambles right now because something as explosive as drugs and gambling can tear a team apart. But I think we have a real sense of community within our team. We've had to close our ranks and withdraw from the public, cover our backs. Emotionally, the players have done that and defended what is ours -- the AFC championship."
The Patriots must rekindle the spark of 1985 without veteran pass-rusher Julius Adams, who retired to his farm in Macon, Ga., and without all-pro guard John Hannah, who had surgery on both shoulders in February and recently retired.
As for the Super Bowl devastation, Steinberg said, "That's the least of our problems. That should be a motivational factor."
About the best thing to happen to the Patriots during their Reconstruction Period was the presentation of the rings commemorating their AFC championship. For once, something didn't hit the Patriots in the jugular. Instead, as running back James noted in a voice soaked with satisfaction, "It hit home."