TAMPA — Jonathan Fanene’s brief tenure with the Patriots will go down as one of the strangest in team history, and the final chapter won’t be written for some time.
Fanene, 30, was signed by the Patriots March 20 after seven seasons with the Bengals. The defensive tackle was released Tuesday after participating in just five training-camp practices. He never played in a game.
That much is not unusual. Players get cut during camp all the time. But rarely does it happen in the first camp after a player signed a three-year contract with a $3.85-million signing bonus and earned another $100,000 during offseason workouts. That’s what happened with Fanene.
If there is an injury, a team would either shut down the player and hope the injury heals or place him on injured reserve and try again the following season.
Fanene, who passed a physical before signing his contract, definitely had an injury, according to a league source. An arthritic left knee became inflamed during offseason workouts but he continued to practice, which likely led to the right knee also becoming an issue.
“Early arthritis can be missed on a routine physical exam, even with MRIs and X-rays,” said Dr. Ralph Gambardella, an orthopedic surgeon at Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles.
After returning to Cincinnati in the break before training camp, both knees improved, Fanene passed another Patriots physical, and he impressed early on in camp, going 4-2 in one-on-one drills. And then Fanene was gone, sent home by the Patriots three weeks ago. The reason remains unclear.
Angelo Wright, Fanene’s agent, declined comment.
Perhaps there was another issue with Fanene, one that caused the team to banish him. Coach Bill Belichick offered no further details Wednesday.
“It just didn’t work out,” he said. “Nothing to add other than that.”
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis had some doubts whether Fanene, who hails from Pago Pago, American Samoa, would succeed in another organization.
“[He’s] very small-town,” Lewis said at the league meetings in March. “I don’t represent him. Sometimes those guys [agents] should think about that.
“Jon is a very hard-working guy. Prior to his time at Utah, he hadn’t played a lot of football. So it was all new to him. So going to a new team, it’s going to be interesting.”
Discipline doesn’t appear to be the issue because the Patriots terminated Fanene’s contract with the new “failure to disclose a physical condition” designation. An NFL source said that in the past, players waived with medical issues would be claimed by other teams and then the league would inform the team of the issue. Most of the claims were withdrawn. The new designation just cuts out the middle man. Now teams know there is an issue.
Fanene will have arthroscopic surgery on his left knee today, and may be ready to sign with another team in two to eight weeks. He would be eligible to sign with any team and could get another signing bonus.
Since Fanene was injured while with the Patriots, the team would be required to pay for that surgery. If the team believes Fanene had a pre-existing condition that he didn’t disclose, then it could start a battle over the surgery and his signing bonus. Fanene had $1.35 million of his bonus deferred until March 31, 2013.
If the team goes after its money, then there could be a lengthy injury grievance process in which the team’s medical and training staff could come under fire. It would be an argument over whether Fanene did not disclose an injury, or whether the Patriots’ medical and training staff didn’t properly diagnose and treat an injury.
Another possibility is that the Patriots could argue that Fanene faked an injury to force his release. That would seem very hard to prove.
If Fanene goes on to play well elsewhere for the next three seasons, then it will either be a case of the Patriots making a medical miscalculation or perhaps another discipline issue that was worth getting rid of for nearly $4 million.