FOXBORO, MA — He’s gone, and it’s doubtful that the reality of that fact has really set in with every fan in New England just yet.
That’s right. Think about it, #11 is no longer a New England Patriot. If that doesn’t bother you even a little, you may have a problem.
Fans who know football are sorry to see him go. Those who are thinking “good riddance” apparently forgot exactly how much he has meant to this team.
The fact is the man who helped bring the Patriots back to respectability was just shipped off to Buffalo on Sunday. Prior to his being drafted in 1993 the New England Patriots were a laughing stock. They were a team that no one wanted to play for. They were the team that fans throughout New England had almost forgotten about. If anyone disagrees with that fact then you yourself were not watching those games on Sunday when Foxboro stadium was half empty. Frankly nobody cared.
Bill Parcells drafted Bledsoe with the #1 overall selection in 1993, and the presence of an established coach along with a top-notch quarterback launched the Patriots back into the spotlight. Their less then staggering performance in 1993 when they finished 5-11 was an improvement after finishing 2-14 in 1992. But just one year later they found themselves in the playoffs after Bledsoe finished the season with an astounding 4,555-yards passing and 25-touchdown passes. He completed nearly 60% of his record setting 691 attempts that season, and the Patriots suddenly were back on the map.
They were now contenders. It was a blast.
The best part of the season was his battle with Dan Marino in the opening game of the year when the two passed for over 400-yards in a 39-35 loss to the Dolphins. It was a match-up for the ages and a game very few will ever forget. They went on to finish the season with seven straight victories and dropped a disappointing 20-13 playoff loss to the Cleveland Browns who had then head coach Bill Belichick at the helm.
1995 was disappointing after Bledsoe separated his shoulder in a week three 28-3 beating in San Francisco and wasn’t the same that year. The team went 5-11 that season.
But in 1996 they returned to greatness, lead by Bledsoe’s two come-from-behind victories against the New York Jets and Giants to clinch a first round bye in the post season with an 11-5 record. He threw for 4086 yards that season with 27 touchdowns and just 15-interceptions, helping lead the team to their first AFC title since 1985.
In 1997 the team lost Bill Parcells and replaced him with Pete Carroll as head coach and Larry Kennan as offensive coordinator. Bledsoe threw for 3706-yards with 28-touchdowns and just 15-interceptions and New England finished the season at 10-6. They advanced to the AFC Divisional round against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but injuries to wide receiver Terry Glenn and runningback Curtis Martin caused them to come up just short in that game in a 7-6 loss to the Steelers.
The low-scoring effort helped lead to the firing of Kennan, and the hiring of former Dallas offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese. They also lost Martin who defected to the enemy New York Jets. New England went 9-7 that season, and the entire world got a good look at one of the greatest moments of the Bledsoe Era. In a Monday night match-up against the Miami Dolphins, the Patriots found themselves down 23-19 late in the game. After New England crossed mid-field Bledsoe hit his hand on a defensive player on the follow through of one of his passes. He later came off the field, calling time out to practice throwing on the sidelines in great pain with the game hanging in the balance, and a broken bone in the index finger of his throwing hand. He went back in and later completed a fourth down pass to keep the drive going, and finished the drive with a touchdown pass to lead the team to an exciting 26-23 victory.
It was courageous. It was heroic. It was done the following week against Buffalo.
Down 21-17 with time running out the Patriots got a pass interference call against the Buffalo defense on a pass attempt to Terry Glenn as time expired. Since a game couldn’t end on a penalty the Pats had one last chance. With the clock at 0:00 Bledsoe found Ben Coates in the endzone for a touchdown for a thrilling 25-21 win over the Bills in front of a packed house in Foxboro. The disgusted Bills went into the locker room after the score and kicker Adam Vinatieri took the snap and walked into the endzone for the two-point conversion.
New England beat the Steelers the following week, but Bledsoe took a pounding one week later against the St. Louis Rams and the pins that had been placed in the bones of his finger came through the skin, forcing him to the sidelines. The Patriots went on to lose the game 32-18, and Bledsoe said afterwards he may sit out the following week against San Francisco. A reporter then asked him if his decision was made because his team had just lost the game, to which Bledsoe responded, “That’s the dumbest question I’ve ever heard.”
Scott Zolak got the nod one week later against San Francisco, and unable to play Bledsoe was able to enjoy a 24-21 victory over the 49ers. However the following week Zolak lost 31-10 to the division rival New York Jets, and couldn’t lift them the following week in a 25-10 playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Despite the broken finger Bledsoe still managed to finish the year with 3633-yards passing with 20-touchdowns and 14-interceptions. The team had also gotten a 1,115-yard 9-touchdown performance from then rookie runningback Robert Edwards. Edwards was later suffered a career-ending leg injury in a beach football game in Hawaii and the Patriots never replaced him.
With an aging offensive line the Patriots finished the 1999 season at 8-8. Bledsoe was sacked 55-times despite passing for 3985-yards, but the stagnant offensive scheme of Zampese was exploited now that they no longer had an effective runningback. The Pats had signed an inconsistent Terry Allen who finished with just 896-yards rushing that season. When the team failed to make the playoffs Kraft had seen enough and fired Carroll.
Bill Belichick joined the team the following year, and Bledsoe behind an offensive line that consisted of three players that are now out of football had an impossible task. He would have to try and lead a one-dimensional offense behind a line that gave him little protection and a runningback tandem that consisted of Kevin Faulk and rookie J.R. Redmond who both couldn’t combine for 1,000 yards on the ground. Ben Coates was gone, Shawn Jefferson went to Atlanta via free agency, and Bledsoe found himself trying to throw the likes of Tony Simmons, Eric Bjornson, and Shockmain Davis when Troy Brown and Terry Glenn were both double covered.
It was an impossible situation, and despite how little talent the team had Bledsoe still finished the season with 3,291 yards, 17-touchdowns and 13-interceptions even though he was still sacked 45-times.
A solid 2-touchdown no interception performance in week 1 of 2002 in a 23-17 loss against the Cincinnati Bengals was Bledsoe’s last full game as a starter. He was knocked out the following week in the shot that ended his tenure in New England after his collision with Mo Lewis.
There were many great moments during his time in New England, and his story ended with another heroic performance in his final game as a Patriot. After Tom Brady was knocked out of the AFC Championship game with an ankle injury, Bledsoe entered the game completing passes of 15 and 21-yards which helped set up the 11-yard pass to David Patten in the endzone.
He was also instrumental in an 11-play 45-yard drive that helped set up a 44-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri for the Patriots final points of the game.
When it was over and the team had won the AFC title, Bledsoe found himself overwhelmed with the moment and tears ran down his face. His final game as a Patriot should be remembered and appreciated by fans who are able to watch a team that is now among the NFL’s elite. There are plenty who will be glad he’s gone, but hopefully there won’t be any who forget all he did while he wore #11 for the Patriots.
He never took credit for the win and always took the blame when the team lost, and his unselfish attitude after losing the job to Tom Brady this season was a final reminder of what a great player he truly was.
Reports out of Buffalo say that they are excited to get him.
Once upon a time every fan in New England felt the same way.
Hopefully in the end there are far more that will realize what has just happened, and that is the greatest quarterback ever to wear a Patriots uniform has just been sent off to a new team.
Thanks for the memories Drew, and good luck. You’ll certainly be missed.