Seventeen minutes into Tom Brady's meeting with reporters Thursday morning in the corner of a practice-field end zone Aaron Hernandez once knew well, Patriots public relations director Stacey James provided the equivalent of a two-minute warning:
"Last question, guys.''
Given the circumstances, the warning was necessary. The inquiries could have gone on all day. While Brady commented to Sports Illustrated's Peter King earlier in the week regarding Hernandez's arrest on a murder charge last month, further elaboration from the on-field leader of the Patriots was inevitable and necessary on the day players reported to training camp.
Brady handled it all with his affable, polished grace and, just as coach Bill Belichick had done the day before, immediately acknowledged the sadness that accompanies the loss of any life.
"It's a terrible thing that happened," Brady said. "In the city of Boston this year with what happened at the marathon, these are very terrible things you wish never happened to anybody. There's a very human, compassionate element that we all have, and when it's someone that has been on our team, it's a very sad thing. Hopefully nothing like this happens ever again."
When asked specifically the emotions he felt when Hernandez, his teammate of three seasons, was charged in the death of 27-year-old Odin Lloyd, Brady eluded specifics.
"Those feelings were just personal, you know,'' he said. "I'm sure there were probably like everyone else's. It was six weeks ago so it's hard to remember the exact emotion I felt but it's probably what everyone else here felt."
Sometimes, what Brady didn't say spoke louder than what he did.
How well do you think you knew Aaron?, he was asked.
"Don't think it matters at this point."
Have you spoken to him or had any communication with him?
"Stacey told me ... that's a good question but I'm not supposed to comment on any of those things."
Was Aaron part of the group of guys you trusted?
"I'm really not supposed to comment on Aaron. I wish I could."
As it turned out, It was the last question that elicited Brady's most thoughtful answer of the day:
Does a situation like this make you realize that as well as you think you know someone, sometimes you really don't?
"We all have relationships, and I'm not sure how you quantify those things,'' Brady said. "You have family members, you have friends, you have kids, even if you don't have kids, you try to do the best you can do. Everybody is ultimately responsible for their own decision-making, for the words that come out of your mouth, for the actions you take part in.
"I'm certainly accountable to a lot of people here, my family and to the community because I understand the role model I am. I try to go out and represent this organization the best way I know how."
In one sense, that was the purpose Thursday morning: to provide a reminder that Aaron Hernandez being hauled out of his mansion in handcuffs is not a fair image of the Patriots.
Removing Hernandez from a team's history is not as simple as having a jersey-buyback or taking down a photo or scrubbing his name off a brick. Every time we see him now, he is the image of cold-eyed, stone-faced defiance.
Thursday's gathering was small step toward escaping that association.
Among the players, Brady, who is entering -- yes, it's been this long already -- his 14th season, is undeniably the face of the franchise, one of the faces of the entire league.
He was joined on the practice field by the three returning defensive captains -- Vince Wilford, Jerod Mayo, and Devin McCourty, three players widely respected for their professionalism. They are that trustworthy ideal, for the fans, the franchise, and the quarterback himself.
"Look, you trust in your other teammates and you trust them to do their job so that you can do your job,'' he said. "The best teammates that I've ever had, guys like Wes [Welker] or Deion Branch, I never had to worry about. That allowed me to be able to do my job. I never have to worry about Vince, I never to worry about Jerod, I never have to worry about Devin [McCourty] or Matthew Slater, what their level of preparation is going to be. What that allows me to do is free my mental burden so I can focus 100 percent on what I have to do."
He'll be 36 on Aug. 3, nine years removed from the last time he hoisted a Lombardi Trophy, and at this point you almost expect him to spit out the old Danny Glover line from the "Lethal Weapon'' franchise: I don't need this ....
But cynicism isn't Brady's thing.
"That's what I appreciate about guys like that,'' he continues. "They allow me to be the best that I can be. When they can count on me, that's what makes a great team, is when guys can count on each other."
From this vantage point, a clear and often cloudless one, the Patriot Way is an ownership brand-building talking point and a term some in the media fall back on as a snarky punch-line whenever something goes wrong.
It's a term I've never heard Belichick, a man more interested in putting together a great football team than adhering to a vaguely-defined slogan, use.
I've never heard Brady mention it, either. But he was specifically asked if he believes in the Patriot Way, his affirmative reply provided his personal definition.
"You mean to win football games and represent well in the community? No question."
Maybe Brady has it right. Or maybe this is what the Patriots Way is now -- a micro philosophy that emphasizes the best the franchise has to offer, rather than a macro philosophy that implies everything associated with the franchise is admirable and unassailable.
In reintroducing us to Brady and Mayo and McCourty and Wilfork on the first official day of their new season, the Patriots certainly supplied the best the franchise has to offer.
And in doing so, they also did their best to distance themselves, measured word by measured word, from the worst of humankind.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.