September 20, 2011
Anyone who was a Patriots fan in the 90’s has mixed memories of Drew Bledsoe. They remember the man with the rocket arm who was one of the best quarterbacks in the game throughout the 1990’s. They also remember him standing like a statue in the pocket and taking more sacks than anyone would have believed. They remember the youngest quarterback ever to be named to the Pro Bowl at the age of 22 in 1994. They also remember his play falling of in the late 90’s. They remember him leading the Patriots to a Superbowl appearance in 1997. Unfortunately what they probably remember most is him being hit by Mo Lewis and eventually replaced by Tom Brady. However, when one takes Drew Bledsoe’s whole career into consideration, what they should remember is a truly great quarterback and consumate professional who was instrumental in bringing the Patriots back to relevance.
When the Patriots drafted Drew Bledsoe out of the Washington State with the first overall pick in the 1993 NFL draft he joined a team that had managed only nine wins in the past three seasons. But from day one in New England it was clear that Bledsoe was the real deal. A man who knew nothing about football would have taken one look at the giant from Walla Walla High and thought “quarterback.” The man had a right arm that could have been declared a weapon of mass destruction. If he had been drafted during the Cold War the Russians probably would have worried about a possible Drew Bledsoe gap. He started the first game of his rookie season and immediately took the Patriots from two wins to five. The next year he lead them to the playoffs.
In 1994 the Patriots started 3-6. Losers of four straight the in Week 10 the Patriots found themselves in Foxboro trailing the Minnesota Vikings 20-3. In the second half Bledsoe set records for pass attempts and completions in a single game, lead the Patriots to 26-20 comeback victory over Minnesota, and would go on to lead the Patriots to seven straight wins and their first playoff appearance in since 1985. He had the Patriots back on the map on the strength of his right arm and two years later he had them in the Superbowl. The Patriots would lose Superbowl thirty one to Green Bay thanks to Desmond Howard, the only special teams player ever to be named Superbowl MVP. Despite this the fact remains that Drew Bledsoe came to Patriots when the team was an NFL laughingstock and turned them into competitors. He took a team with an alienated fan base and made them popular again. The first jersey current Patriots tight end and Connecticut native Aaron Hernandez bought was Drew Bledsoe’s number 11. It was the first one I bought as well.
People examine Bledsoe’s stats for the remainder of the 90’s and simply conclude that his play fell off. They conveniently forget that Bill Parcells, the man who drafted Bledsoe and coached him for his most successful seasons, cruelly quit the team after their Superbowl appearance. His replacement Pete Carroll promptly benched Bledsoe’s two favorite receivers Terry Glenn and Ben Coates, traded star running back Curtis Martin, and dismantled the offensive line. One of the only remaining players from the 1996 Superbowl was Bledsoe who now, instead of playing in Bill Parcells’ talented offense, was surrounded by the fruits of Pete Carroll’s horrible drafts. In three drafts Carroll found one good player – Kevin Faulk. Bledsoe was one of the only survivors of a team that had disintegrated around him. So anyone who remembers Bledsoe as not very good first remember that Pete Carroll screwed him. How that guy got back to the NFL after how he destroyed a team that had just been to the Superbowl I don’t know.
Despite all this Bledsoe still managed some highlights over the next three years. He lead the Patriots to two playoff appearances. Any Patriots fans of the 90s will remember Bledsoe throwing last minute game winning touchdowns in back to back weeks in 1998 all while playing with a broken finger on his throwing hand. The image of Bledsoe sprinting down the field waving that finger around after throwing the game winning touchdown to Ben Coates is eternally etched in my mind.
But by the time Bill Belichick arrived as head coach in 2000 he saw a quarterback who had gotten the living hell beat out of him for three seasons and, largely due to this, wasn’t really the player that Belichick had worked with when he had been in New England with Parcells during Bledsoe’s best years. Then came that hit by Mo Lewis in 2001. Before that hit, despite the beating he had taken over the years, Bledsoe had always gotten up. No one could have got up after that hit and in came Tom Brady. In retrospect being replaced by a guy who would go on to be one of the greatest players ever is nothing to be ashamed of. But for a man like Bledsoe, a proud man, a pro bowl player, and the face of the franchise it was a cruel blow. Being replaced due to injury is every player’s worst nightmare, yet despite being too upset to even answer questions when he got the news Bledsoe still handled it like a true professional.
The other day Tedy Bruschi said that few people exemplified putting the team first more than Bledsoe in 2001. Despite his personal displeasure he came in the next day and said “I am going to do whatever I can to help this team win and that involves conducting myself in a manner that allows people to be supportive of both Tom and myself.” Instead of sulking like most players in his situation would have, Bledsoe took the headset and set about helping Tom Brady become a better player. Few other franchise quarterbacks would have done that but Bledsoe did. Then came the 2001 AFC championship game.
Brady got hurt early in Pittsburgh and in came Bledsoe. So many players in Bledsoe’s position would have stalked back onto the field with their nose in the air and gone “well look who suddenly wants me back.” Instead Bledsoe ran off the sidelines clapping his hands and exuding a positive attitude with every step. On his opening drive he threw a beautiful touchdown pass to David Patten and, with the help of the incomparable Troy Brown, went on to lead the Patriots to a win and a Superbowl birth. Lost in the fact is that got hit on the sideline in almost the exact same place that Mo Lewis almost killed him. But seconds later big Drew was back on his feet more charged up than ever.
The Patriots went back to Brady for the Superbowl but even then Bledsoe found a way to help the team. When Belichick sent Brady and the offense on the famous two minute drive he yelled at Charlie Weis to make sure Brady took care of the ball. While Weis was talking to Brady Bledsoe hopped in front of him and said “f— that, go out there and sling it.” Without the support and positive attitude the Bledsoe gave that young quarterback Tom Brady probably doesn’t become the player he is now. Even after losing his job Bledsoe found a way to help the Patriots. That is what fans should remember about him.
Bledsoe went on to have productive seasons in Buffalo and Dallas before retiring in 2007. But he left New England with a sour taste in his mouth, that is until last weekend when the Patriots inducted him into their Hall of Fame. It must have been hard for Bledsoe to watch a team he had meant so much to establish a dynasty without him. Watching the man who replaced him become probably the most popular figure in New England sports would have been a tough pill to swallow. Though Bledsoe always remained the consumate professional and handled it with class, anyone put in that position would have had a hard time watching. But last weekend Bledsoe went into the Patriots Hall of Fame behind the largest fan vote ever allowing him to finally get some closure on his years in New England.
He didn’t leave New England on his own terms. It didn’t end the way he wanted it to, but this weekend showed Bledsoe that the fans still remembered what he did for the franchise. Many people who love Tom Brady because he won them Superbowls wouldn’t be Patriots fans at all without Drew Bledsoe. He eventually got overshadowed, but Patriots fans still remember how good Bledsoe was in his heyday. He ended up getting pushed out of town but last weekend showed Bledsoe that New England still loves him. And after swallowing a lot of hard pills and eating a lot of humble pie over the last ten years you could tell that it meant a lot to him. He made it through both speeches without getting too emotional, but it was clear that he was touched and that makes every Patriots fan feel good. Without Drew Bledsoe who knows if the Patriots would ever have gotten off the bottom of the heap. Patriots fans remember what Drew Bledsoe did for them and it was important to show him we remember.
A big red jacket for a big man. Well deserved.