May 17, 2011
1990s Standard Bearer Earns Just Reward
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
Tom Brady caught all the ripe plums that fell from the tree. But Drew Bledsoe planted the plum trees.
In 1993, the advent of Bill Parcells and Bledsoe turned out to be to the Patriots what 1967 was to the Red Sox. It's almost like nothing exists pre-1993 if you are a Patriot fan, especially a young Patriot fan. Older folks will still hold on to Gino Cappelletti, Steve Grogan, John Hannah, Stanley Morgan and Andre Tippett. But most fans of today will look at Bledsoe and see him as the official Patriot Renaissance Man.
The official record will show that Bledsoe did win a ring with the Patriots, and did start two games for the 2001 Patriots before suffering the brutal hit from Mo Lewis. The hit turned out to be perhaps the most seminal moment in franchise history. But to dismiss Bledsoe completely out of hand and heap all the glory of the franchise on Brady, while well intended and not completely off base, is wrong and disrespects Bledsoe and his exceptional career. Bledsoe was elemental in bringing the Patriots to prominence, and for eight full seasons, the Patriots had themselves a big time quarterback who always gave the team a chance to win it all.
Bledsoe was inducted into the Patriot Hall of Fame on Monday, along with Boston Patriot defensive lineman Houston Antwine. Despite the fact that Bledsoe's Patriot career came to a rather contentious end, Bledsoe said that he was "humbled" to become an inductee. He should be, and Patriot fans everywhere should remember Bledsoe for the great quarterback he was, not for the fact that Brady upstaged him in the 2000s and took a lot of the glory away from him.
Bledsoe, a tall and chiseled Montanan, was part of a quarterback factory in Pullman, Washington. He and Ryan Leaf enjoyed stellar careers at Washington State, and both were drafted high when the NFL came calling. New head coach Parcells took Bledsoe with the first pick in the 1993 draft, forsaking Notre Dame's Rick Mirer. Five years later, Leaf would be taken second in the draft by San Diego after Indianapolis took Tennessee's Peyton Manning.
Bledsoe went on to a much better career than Leaf, who was one of the biggest manchildren and draft busts in NFL history. But Bledsoe didn't enjoy immediate glory, as Parcells made him compete with Scott Secules for the starting quarterback job. Bledsoe did start 12 games in 1993, throwing to receivers like Vincent Brisby, Michael Timpson and Ben Coates.
But Bledsoe had taken over the team by season's end, and it was his team heading into 1994. Over the next five seasons, the Patriots would make the playoffs in four of them, including one AFC Championship. Bledsoe was the entrenched leader of the Patriots, with his howitzer of an arm and gaudy passing stats.
In 1994, Bledsoe led a passing attack where five different receivers caught 50 or more passes. The Patriots were a streaky team, losing two, winning three, losing four, and winning seven to make the playoffs for the first time since 1987. At the time, given the franchise's horrid moments in recent years, it was a remarkable achievement that Parcells and Bledsoe had the Patriots in the playoffs after only two years. Bledsoe was handcuffed in a 20-13 playoff loss at Cleveland, befuddled by a defensive game plan executed by the Browns' head coach at the time, this defensive guru named Belichick.
After an injury-plagued 1995 season, 1996 nearly brought the big prize. Thanks in part to an astonishing upset in the Divisional Round by Jacksonville at Denver, the Patriots only had to win two home games to get to Super Bowl XXXI. Bledsoe led the Patriots over the Steelers in the fog, then overcame a power failure at old Foxborough Stadium a week later to win the AFC Championship over the Jaguars, 20-6 thanks to two late turnovers.
The Patriots went on to lose in their second Super Bowl in franchise history, 35-21 to the Green Bay Packers in New Orleans. Despite the huge distractions carried on by Parcells as he sought to pry himself loose from Bob Kraft and the Patriots on his way to becoming HC of the NYJ, the end of this season exposed something about Bledsoe which fans often times ignore as time passes on.
Whereas you could put the entire weight of the world on the shoulders of Brady, you could not do the same with Bledsoe. Bledsoe would cave in under pressure, make the foolish pick, put the pig on the ground, not always be able to close the deal. Other than two clutch wins in 1998 and a stunning 45-pass rally against Minnesota in 1994, Bledsoe didn't possess that ability to carry the team on his shoulders. He always needed help in winning games. John Elway didn't win anything until he had Terrell Davis. Bledsoe badly needed Curtis Martin, and either he was too hurt or Parcells didn't use Martin enough when he was a Patriot.
The fact that Bledsoe tried to win the AFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl by himself speaks volumes. Martin rushed for almost 200 yards in the fog against Pittsburgh and the Patriots won by nearly four touchdowns. Bledsoe was able to run up big passing numbers in certain situations, but in big games, he was unable to win games solely on his passing acumen.
1998 saw Scott Zolak finish the season after Bledsoe sustained a broken finger in a comeback win against Miami, and the Patriots lost a 25-10 playoff game at Jacksonville. In 1999, in the moribund final days of Pete Carroll's tenure as Patriot head coach, the team had become flat and lazy, Bledsoe's offensive weapons went dead, and life in general was miserable. Martin left the Patriots for the Jets, Robert Edwards blew out his knee in a Pro Bowl pickup game, Sedrick Shaw and Terry Allen were eminently forgettable, Terry Glenn turned into a huge head case, Coates was at the end of his career, and the offensive line was a shambles.
Bill Belichick took over in 2000, and needed two years to return the team to prominence like Parcells did in 1993. But Belichick became what he is thanks to Brady, not Bledsoe. Bledsoe took the hit from Lewis, nearly died thanks to internal bleeding, then could not get his job back as Brady led the Patriots to a win in Super Bowl XXXVI. Bledsoe did play in the AFC Championship Game at Pittsburgh because Brady received a borderline dirty ankle hit from Lee Flowers. But Bledsoe's days in New England were over, and he knew it as the confetti rained down on him in the Superdome in February of 2002.
Bledsoe got traded to Buffalo on Draft Day 2002 for a first round pick and played three seasons for the Bills. Other than the infamous 31-0 Lawyer Milloy Game to lead off the 2003 season, Bledsoe generally got killed by the Patriots. The low point came in 2004, when Bledsoe was picked off by one of his former Patriot receivers, Troy Brown, filling in as an emergency cornerback. Bledsoe went to Dallas in 2005 to be reunited with Parcells, but retired after the 2006 season.
Bledsoe never saw the success Brady saw. But Bledsoe played hard every game, played hurt, almost fatally hurt (he played one series after the Lewis hit before coming out), and played with the heart of a lion. He should be remembered for making the Patriots the top dog in New England sports in the 1990s, during a time where the other three teams were going through dull stretches in their respective histories. Though Bledsoe seemingly fell short of being "immortal", he was a great quarterback, not one of the greatest ever, but someone who should be remembered among the best of his day.
Bledsoe may not have been the one to lead the Patriots on that famous drive against the Rams. But Bledsoe deserves his place in history as the most prominent Patriot of two decades ago. If you remember how bad the Patriots were during the Rod Rust and Dick MacPherson coaching eras, what Bledsoe did for the Patriots was an invaluable slice of team history that has more than earned the respect of all Patriot Nation now and forever.
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