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Shuffling Off To Buffalo: Bledsoe Era Ends

Bob George
Bob George on Twitter
21 years ago at 11:33 pm ET

FOXBOROUGH – The earth shook in the northeast early Saturday morning, with the epicenter in northern Vermont.

It shook again on Sunday, with the epicenter in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

Twelve months ago, a deal like this would have been as unbelievable as Curtis Martin and Bill Parcells begging Bob Kraft to take them both back. You perhaps had a better chance of solving the conflict between Israel and Palestine than you had seeing Drew Bledsoe traded.

If anyone on the planet was his team, it was Bledsoe. No position more secure, no man more identified with his team, no man more in control of his situation and his status than the former number one draft pick from Washington State. Bledsoe was firmly established as his team’s centerpiece player, its signature entity, its established front man. He was like the CBS eye and the NBC peacock. He was like the Texaco star and the Budweiser eagle.

Drew Bledsoe now is a Buffalo Bill.

Bruin fans had to deal with Phil Esposito as a Ranger, Bobby Orr as a Black Hawk and Ray Bourque as an Avalanche. Wade Boggs and Roger Clemens donned the Pinstripe duds, as did this big fella sometime around 1920. It was sickening to watch Jo Jo White closing out his career with Golden State, and hating every minute of it. You wished Larry Bird well as head coach of the Indiana Pacers, but watching him there looked totally wrong.

And now, the Patriots will have to take a step back and imagine the once and future Greatest Patriot In History finishing his career in Buffalo. The Bills. A franchise who once lost four straight Super Bowls and whose Hall of Fame running back probably got away with murder. From a cold town to an even colder city. From world champion to a 3-13 team.

At least the Bills are a class organization with one of the more estimable owners in the business. The Buffalo fans are among the more fanatical in the league, with a deep passion for their team and their region. They may have lost four straight Super Bowls, but few fans would complain about four straight AFC titles to get to those Big Shows.

And now, the Bills have Bledsoe as their new centerpiece. They opened up the ticket offices on Sunday once news of the trade broke. Can you blame them?

What was supposed to be a deal, then never would be a deal, became a deal Sunday morning. Buffalo GM Tom Donahoe (remember the Tom and Dom show, folks?) insisted on keeping the 2002 first round pick, and used it a house named Mike Williams, a huge tackle from Texas. Donahoe decided to hand over their first round pick next year for Bledsoe. Done.

Assuming Bledsoe passes a physical, and assuming Bledsoe reports to Bills training camp in July, the deal is done. Both Ralph Wilson and Bob Kraft have issued statements on the deal, and the biggest blockbuster trade in the NFL this offseason is now done, signed, sealed and delivered.

Wilson: “I have been around this franchise, as you know, for many years but this tradeis probably as exciting as any we have ever made and maybe is the most exciting.”

Kraft: “Let me speak as a Patriots fan. Drew Bledsoe is a special player. I have great respect for all he has done for this franchise, not only for his contributions on the field, but also his contributions off the field. He gave our fans some of the greatest memories in the franchise’s history and there will always be a special place reserved for him in the hearts of Patriots fans. For many reasons, and at many levels, this was a difficult trade to make.”

Thus the Bledsoe Era in Foxborough is over.

It might not be as momentous as the day when Queen Elizabeth lays down her scepter and crown. But Patriot Nation may think it will be. It is a transaction of thunderous proportions. Gone is a man who not only led his team out of football Siberia and back into national prominence, but gone is a man who excelled in most every personal quality you could ever think of. The outstanding personal qualities in Bledsoe came out in the open for all to see during the championship campaign of 2001.

And it became the final chapter of a storied Patriot career. The story begins not in Foxborough, but in the small city of Pullman, Washington, up in rich strawberry country in a section of Washington state known as the Palouse.

Pac-10 teams hate coming here because of its remote location. College kids who much prefer to head to Los Angeles, Tempe, Tucson, San Francisco, Seattle or greater Portland are put out when they have to make the cumbersome and uncomfortable trip to Pullman, located way out in western Washington somewhere near Spokane but not easily reached by road. Washington State University (Wazzou) is a member of the Pac-10, so the city boys simply have to come here now and then.

When it comes to Washington, Wazzou has always seemingly been in the shadow of U-Dub (University of Washington). Don James built a powerhouse program in Seattle before relinquishing it to Jim Lambright amidst reports of scandals in and around 1992. Meanwhile, out in Wazzou, U-Dub’s little sister was famous chiefly for turning out a great quarterback now and then. Jack “The Throwin’ Samoan” Thompson, Mark Rypien and Ryan Leaf call this university Alma Mater.

Bledsoe came to Wazzou in 1990. During his career he would play in only 28 games but would still finish second in school history in passing yardage (behind Thompson). But the game that put Bledsoe on the NFL map was the annual showdown with U-Dub in 1992, Bledsoe’s final year at Wazzou as he would be coming out as a junior. In a blizzard (Bledsoe must have been a real wealth of information for Tom Brady), Bledsoe threw four touchdown passes in a 42-21 win over the cross-state rivals. It was his last game in Martin Stadium, and the hometown Palouse folk loved every minute of it.

Meanwhile, in just a few weeks, in a Massachusetts town which Bledsoe perhaps never heard of, a legendary coach named Bill Parcells was hired to lead the destitute Patriots. The 1992 Patriots went 2-14 and owned the top pick in the 1993 Draft.

The highest touted players in that year’s draft were both quarterbacks – Rick Mirer of Notre Dame, and Bledsoe. Parcells never once let on which man he preferred. Bledsoe was the favorite choice among Patriot Nation.

The Patriots went on the clock. It took Parcells maybe two minutes to make his choice, something that Houston seemed to ignore when they had David Carr all signed on Saturday yet took all 15 minutes to make their formality official. Parcells opted for Bledsoe. Seattle picked second and took Mirer. The rest, as they say…

While Mirer turned out to be a bigger bust than Morganna, Bledsoe embarked on a Patriot career that led him from Walla Walla to Foxborough, and most fans and experts figured that when he left Foxborough, his next stop would be Canton.

Scott Secules began the 1993 season as the starting quarterback for the Patriots, but by Week 3 Bledsoe got the inevitable start. In a game better known for Parcells nearly kicking the hell out of rookie Vincent Brisby for his way of celebrating first downs, fellow rookie Bledsoe took the helm and led the Patriots to a 17-14 defeat at the hands of Mirer and the Seahawks. The game was heralded as the big matchup between star rookie quarterbacks, and Mirer won this one in a slamdunk.

But it would be perhaps the high water mark of Mirer’s career. Bledsoe endured many bumps along the way, finishing 1993 just a shade under 50% pass completion percentage. Bledsoe won his first game in Week 5 over Phoenix, but the Patriots lost their next seven contests. The Patriots set the tone for 1994 with four straight wins to close out ’93, including a scintillating overtime regular season finale against Miami which knocked the Dolphins out of the playoffs. Bledsoe hit Michael Timpson on a deep right sideline pass for a touchdown, and the Patriots went into 1994 incredibly buoyant.

Bledsoe led the ’94 Patriots to an incredibly unlikely playoff berth, their first since 1987. The regular season featured arguably his greatest professional game ever, a November 13th home game against Minnesota. Trailing at the half, 20-3, Bledsoe set NFL records with 70 pass attempts and 45 completions, and his team rallied to win in overtime, 26-20. This triggered a seven-game win streak to finish the season at 10-6.

In the postseason, the Patriots went up against a Cleveland Browns team, a rematch of a 13-6 loss a week prior to the Minnesota classic. The Browns head coach concocted a defensive scheme that induced four interceptions from Bledsoe, and the Patriot slinger finished with only 21 of 50 passing for 235 yards. Cleveland won, 20-13, as pupil beat teacher in the coaching ranks. Parcells shook the hands of the man whose defense shut Bledsoe down, a defensive whiz named Bill Belichick.

1995 was a difficult one for Bledsoe. Despite the addition of rookie Martin in the backfield, Bledsoe suffered an injury in a Week 3 loss to San Francisco. Scott Zolak started each of the next two games and lost both. Bledsoe came back at Kansas City but came up short, 31-26. The team finished 6-10, as Bledsoe never fully overcame his Week 3 injury.

The 6-10 record enabled the Patriots to get the sixth pick in the 1996 Draft. Kraft overruled Parcells and chose Ohio State’s Terry Glenn. Parcells challenged Glenn’s manhood, and Bledsoe benefited from this by finding Glenn a rookie-record 90 times. Bledsoe rode Glenn and Martin’s great production to an 11-5 mark, an AFC East title, and the two seed in the playoffs. Bledsoe had subpar numbers in a 28-3 Fog Bowl win over Pittsburgh, then made ready to face the Jacksonville Jaguars for the 1996 AFC championship.

It was going into this game that the football watching public began to openly question the true championship calibre of Bledsoe. Mike Ditka made the observation that “this guy Bledsoe has yet to string together four solid quarters!” Many experts didn’t think Bledsoe could win the big game. In the AFC title game against Jacksonville, Bledsoe benefited from Jaguar turnovers and special team gaffes, and the Patriots advanced to Super Bowl XXXI with a 20-6 win. Bledsoe, hampered with a touch of the flu, became a Super Bowl quarterback despite a passer rating against the Jags of only 62.4.

In the Super Bowl, Bledsoe fired two short touchdown passes and led the team on a third quarter touchdown drive capped off by a 19-yard run by Martin. But Green Bay picked off Bledsoe four times, and Reggie White dominated Bledsoe in the second half. The Packers won, 35-21, and Bledsoe would lose his head coach after the game.

In addition to Parcells bolting, Bledsoe would also lose his quarterback coach, Chris Palmer. Pete Carroll came in as head coach, and Larry Kennan replaced Ray Perkins as offensive coordinator. This began a stretch of three offensive coordinators over the next five years, as well as a period of gradual decline for the Patriots in general.

Bledsoe took it upon himself to portray himself as a tough quarterback who really could win the big game. The 1997 season saw the Patriots repeat as division champs, but two negative moments defined Bledsoe’s season and cast doubts upon his ability to come through in the clutch.

A huge December 13th game at Foxborough gave the Steelers a chance at revenge from the previous year’s Fog Bowl. Leading 21-13 in the fourth quarter as the game neared the two-minute warning and the Steelers out of time outs, Bledsoe tried to get a first down instead of punting and pinning the Steelers deep in their territory. His screen pass intended for Dave Meggett was picked off by Kevin Henry, and the Steelers rallied for a 24-21 win.

The win gave Pittsburgh home field for the eventual playoff rematch between these two teams. Trailing 7-6 late in the fourth quarter with an offensive squad decimated by injuries, Bledsoe was leading his troops on a drive which only needed to result in a field goal for a win. But future Patriot Mike Vrabel beat Bruce Armstrong on the outside, and hit Bledsoe on his blind side. His fumble was recovered by Jason Gildon, and the Steelers held on by that one slim point.

In 1998, Bledsoe finally did garner all the adulation that seemed to elude him all his career, that he was tough and could win big games. Bledsoe, viewed by many as too laid back to be a true leader, led his team to two unbelievable come-from-behind wins at home on successive weeks, and he did so despite a broken finger.

On November 23rd, Bledsoe fired a pass into the Miami defense. His follow through caused his hand to smash into the helmet of Shane Burton. Bledsoe finished the game with a broken finger, but rallied his team to a last second 26-23 win over the Dolphins. The following week, with pins stuck in his broken finger on his throwing hand, he led his team back from behind against Buffalo. He hit Ben Coates with a late touchdown, and the Patriots beat Buffalo in a controversial decision, 25-21.

After leading the Patriots to a 23-9 win at Pittsburgh the following week, Bledsoe finally had to shut his season down the next week at St. Louis. Zolak lost to the Rams, beat the 49ers, and was embarrassed by the Jets and smothered by the Jaguars in the postseason.

Ernie Zampese had replaced Kennan as offensive coordinator for 1998, but in 1999 the Patriots became a dispirited and lazy bunch of sad sacks. The Patriots lost six of their last eight games, and both Carroll and Zampese would be fired at year’s end. Bledsoe began to get pounded week after week thanks to an offensive line too untalented to block and too lazy to care. He suffered a brutal beating in ’99, and was sacked an incredible 55 times during the season.

With Belichick coming on board in 2000, the losing continued, but Bledsoe’s career took an upturn in the process. Belichick brought in Charlie Weis as offensive coordinator, and made what turned out to be a key hire in Dick Rehbein, who would become Bledsoe’s position coach. Despite more shoddy offense, lousy blocking and more losses, Rehbein had helped Bledsoe cut down on his interceptions. Bledsoe always had a bad habit all during his career of poor, impulsive judgments when under pressure. Rehbein helped Bledsoe deal with that propensity, and his interceptions in ’00 went down.

As the 2001 season dawned, life slipped away from Rehbein. A man with a history of heart problems, Rehbein passed away during training camp on August 6th. Bledsoe was stunned by the tragedy, and immediately set out to take care of the college educations of Rehbein’s two daughters.

2001 would reveal the true Bledsoe, Bledsoe the man versus Bledsoe the player. Taking care of Betsy and Sarabeth Rehbein was only the tip of the iceberg. Bledsoe had his own foundation, and was as respected as an athlete of his ilk could be in the greater Boston area.

But his true manhood was revealed on the horrid evening of September 23rd, 2001. Twelve days after the darkest day in the history of the United States of America, the Patriots were playing the emotionally scarred New York Jets at Foxborough. Trailing late in the game, 10-3, Bledsoe tried to make a first down by rolling to his right. He was just about to reach the first down marker when he saw Mo Lewis bearing down on him.

The collision was horrific. Bledsoe went flying out of bounds, his helmet disfigured. It took Bledsoe a few seconds to get up. Brady called it the worst hit he’d ever seen, and put on his helmet expecting to eventually go into the game.

Bledsoe played one more series, then handed things over to Brady. The rally fell short, and the Jets won. But Bledsoe had to go to MGH after the game, and Patriot Nation would later learn in shock that Bledsoe nearly passed away that evening.

What proved to be the most telling moment of this evening was not the fact that Bledsoe nearly died. It was that Bledsoe played one more series after the hit before leaving. Bledsoe had suffered a sheared artery in his chest due to a broken rib from the hit. He wound up losing half his body’s blood. While all this was going on, Bledsoe was still in there, trying to rally his team. Bledsoe would no longer need to prove to anyone on the planet that he was a tough man.

But the injury began the process that resulted in today’s trade. Brady came in and took the team on a 14-3 ride for the balance of the season, and wound up becoming Super Bowl MVP. Once Bledsoe healed up and was pronounced healthy enough to play for the November 25th game versus New Orleans, the Patriots were on a roll, Brady was the hot man, and Bledsoe was told he was no longer the starting quarterback of the Patriots.

Here is where Bledsoe the man came out in further detail. He was beyond furious to find that Belichick had gone back on his promise of giving him back the starting job when he was ready. But rather than unleash his anger on his team and Brady, he took the high road all the way.

All season long, he befriended Brady, tutored him, worked with him, hung out with him, and brought him along. When the team MVP award is considered at season’s end, one has to wonder if Bledsoe got any consideration for the honor by perhaps being the man most responsible for Brady playing so well. If not for that, then it is for setting the best possible example in the “team first” concept by taking his demotion as a professional, and acting in the most professional manner at all times during the lowest point of his professional career.

Bledsoe’s shining example of how to behave as a true team player helped lead the Patriots to victories they never thought they’d get. The second Jets game, the second Miami game, and all three playoff wins were games that the Patriots really had no chance on paper to win. But Brady stood in there and did what he had to do to win, and a lot of that has to go to Bledsoe’s constant nurturing and encouraging.

And all through this, Bledsoe endured occasional criticism. Brady came off as being able to read defenses better than Bledsoe. Brady looked like he had better footwork than Bledsoe. Bledsoe often had to listen to critics who said that he would often look like he had reverted back to rookie form on certain occasions, and would make mistakes that a veteran of his experience should never make.

Bledsoe’s last hurrah came in the 2001 AFC title game at Pittsburgh. Forced into the game after Lee Flowers fell on Brady’s ankle and sprained it, Bledsoe came up with the three best passes of his distinguished Patriot career. After not having thrown a pass in four months, he came right in and fired a 15-yard bullet to David Patten. Bledsoe then ran around right end and was plastered by Chad Scott exactly like Lewis did to him in September. But Bledsoe came up snarling, hit Patten for 10 yards, the lofted a pretty 11-yard touchdown pass to Patten to put the Patriots up, 14-3.

Bledsoe spent the rest of the game keeping the team’s head above water. When it came time to take the final snaps, the Super Bowl berth secured, the television cameras focused in close-up shots of Bledsoe’s face. Bledsoe was clearly fighting back tears during the final 90 seconds of the game. When it finally ended, Bledsoe collapsed on the football and wept openly, thinking about finally getting back to the Big Show, his horrid season, and Rehbein. Other than Rehbein’s passing, it was the most poignant moment of the Patriot season.

What was Bledsoe’s reward? Being asked if he was surprised that he could still actually play quarterback. Being asked what he had learned from Brady. Going to New Orleans hearing everything except the words “Drew Bledsoe will start at quarterback for the Patriots!”

Getting back to the Big Show was one thing. Starting was quite another. As things turned out, Brady’s ankle healed, and Bledsoe watched the entire Super Bowl from the sideline. Brady embraced Bledsoe after Adam Vinatieri’s winning kick. Bledsoe wore his championship cap and smiled for the television and movie cameras. The Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVI with absolutely nothing from Bledsoe other than a great $5 million cheerleading job.

Bledsoe got his ring. But the pain of not playing when the championship was on the line hurt him worse than Lewis ever could.

And that is why Sunday became a very happy day in the life of Drew Bledsoe. He heads to the shores of Lake Erie as a starting quarterback once again. He will drive up and down Delaware Avenue as the big cheese in town. He will be embraced by a legion of rabid football fans who love him already.

Most important, Bledsoe is returned to his element, and that is as a starting quarterback, one of the best in the league. No more shall he languish as someone’s backup. No longer shall he be subjected to questions as to his fitness as a starting quarterback. No longer does he need to toil for a coach with whom he has no trust, and likely the coach has little or no respect for.

Dealing Bledsoe within the division for any reason makes one think that Belichick is showing Bledsoe no respect. Belichick, who has a history of coaching well against Bledsoe much like Peyton Manning, probably figures two easy wins over Buffalo by sending Bledsoe there. How true this may or not may be, if this is how New England remembers Bledsoe every time his Bills play the Patriots, it will be a rotten shame.

Bledsoe did nothing but distinguish himself in his nine years in New England. He went to three Pro Bowls, won two AFC Championship games, set a bevy of Patriot and league career and season passing records, and proved himself to be a tough leader and a gritty competitor. He displayed exemplary conduct in his nine years (when not hanging out in mosh pits), and was always a well polished team spokesman. He was a typical “pillar of the community” figure, who made Foxborough his home and did a lot more than just hang his hat there.

But his lasting legacy will be the 2001 season. In the face of adversity, near death and the loss of an untouchable starting quarterback job, Bledsoe was more of a leader than he had ever been. To say that Bledsoe had nothing to do with Super Bowl XXXVI is to be totally blind. Brady’s poise and execution on the game-winning drive was probably as much Bledsoe as it was Brady. Drop back and sling it, and a whole lot more.

Now Bledsoe is gone. And Brady had better not be the next Rypien, not that he is expected to be.

When there is a change in the presidency of the United States, the last thing that happens before the inauguration is an exchange of cards. The outgoing president gives the incoming president secret cards with code numbers on them which are used to activate nuclear bombs. If Bledsoe were in Foxborough instead of Montana, you might see the two men exchanging similar tokens Sunday morning. The keys of the Patriot franchise have literally been passed from Bledsoe to Brady.

And on the other side of the New York State Thruway, Alex Van Pelt is poised to do the same thing. The trouble is, the person who should really be handing the tokens to Bledsoe is Jim Kelly. Doug Flutie is gone, and Rob Johnson is hardly worthy of the honor, as is Van Pelt. Kelly marked the end of the last great era in Bills football. Bledsoe marks the beginning of the new one.

Meanwhile, Bledsoe leaves behind a team of champions, men who owe him a great debt of gratitude.

And a region who will never forget his great career, and who will scream for him when he gets his ring, followed years later with his number 11 being retired at CMGi Field.

The Bledsoe Era is over, earlier than anyone ever figured.

Well, not really. The Bledsoe Era continues. In Buffalo.

Posted Under: 2002 Patriots Offseason

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