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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

New England Sports 366, #100: Drew Bledsoe

The ballad of Tom Brady is often written in the ashes of Drew Bledsoe. Certainly there are distinct eras in Patriots history, and September 23, 2001, is the kind of clear line of demarcation that historians salivate over. Mo Lewis nearly kills Bledsoe on a vicious sideline hit, and Tom Brady comes in and wins six Super Bowls in the next 20 years. We've all seen the sepia-toned hagiographies, the epic poetry that casts Bledsoe as the speed bump on the way to Brady's legend.

That's unfair to a guy with an arguable case for the NFL Hall of Fame. For those self-styled Patriots fans who think the world began in 2001, try to understand that there was life before Tom. Some of it was bad, especially in the late 80s and early 90s, when the New England Patriots were the laughing stock of the NFL, a team that flirted with moving to St. Louis, a team that was far more likely to be number one in the NFL draft than in the AFC East. That changed with the arrival of three men in Foxboro - Bob Kraft, Bill Parcells, and Drew Bledsoe.

I was a senior in high school when Bledsoe was drafted first overall out of Washington State, a big pocket passer with a cannon of an arm and concrete for cleats. Suddenly, the Patriots were exciting again. Before long, they'd be relevant again, too. Bledsoe started 12 games as a rookie in 1993, going 5-7 and passing for almost 2,500 yards with 15 touchdowns. The real leap was the next year, when the Patriots went 10-6 and actually made the playoffs. Bledsoe exploded for 4,555 yards and 27 touchdowns en route to his first of four Pro Bowls. I know 4,000 yards passing induces yawns now, but it was a rarity in the mid-90s. That was the same year Bledsoe led the team back from a 20-3 deficit against the Vikings with a 26-20 overtime win, in which he set NFL records with attempts and completions. Drew was our guy.

The team scuffled again the next year, but in 1996 had the best year the team had seen in a decade. They went 11-5, won the division, and Bledsoe had probably his best season, surpassing 4,000 yards again with 27 touchdown passes. The team made it to the Super Bowl and traded punches with the steamrolling Packers before succumbing 35-21. It was a hell of a ride, and while Bledsoe could be frustrating and footslow, he was a fighter, and he was our guy. We had a franchise quarterback, one of the best in the league. This was when Marino-Montana-Elway-Kelly were leaving the game and Manning-Brady hadn't arrived yet. Along with Young, Favre, and Aikman, Bledsoe was the class of the NFL signal-callers.

It would never be as good as it was in 1996, but in 1997 Bledsoe made the Pro Bowl again with 3,700 yards and a career-high 28 TDs. The team went 10-6 and made the playoffs, falling in a tight 7-6 game against the Steelers that ended on a Mike Vrabel sack for the bad guys. In 1998 he became the first NFL QB ever to throw game-winning touchdowns in the last 30 seconds of consecutive games. He beat the Bills and Dolphins in back to back weeks with a broken index finger in his throwing hand, a long pin sticking out of it in the second week. Driving to beat the Dolphins, he blew off new head coach Pete Carroll's frantic signaling for a time out, instead throwing the game winning touchdown. Stupid Pete Carroll. Drew was our guy.

As Bill Belichick assumed the reins, it became clear that Bledsoe wasn't his guy. Bledsoe was a bomber, a risk-taker down the field, not the careful surgeon Bill wanted at the controls. So when fate intervened on September 23, 2001, it was already likely that a change was coming. I will admit I was slow to see it. Everything is clear in hindsight, but back then Bledsoe was a decorated veteran with a mountain of stats while Tom Brady was just a kid from Michigan. Sure, I was wrong. But I wasn't alone. I do love that Drew got a curtain call in New England, helping to win the AFC Championship game and earning a Super Bowl ring in his final Patriots game.

Bledsoe played some more for Buffalo and Dallas, retiring in 2006 to go home and grow grapes. He put up a 98-95 career record under center, 63-60 in New England. The modern orgy of passing in the NFL takes the shine off his numbers, but for a guy who grew up in an NFL that still could hit the quarterback and manhandle receivers, his stats were historic. His 44,611 career passing yards are 16th in NFL history, and only four on the top 15 retired earlier than he did. Put differently, when he hung it up in 2006, he was fifth all-time. Similarly, his 251 touchdowns place him 22nd all-time, though he was 13th when he retired.

This is what I mean when I saw he has a case for the Hall of Fame. Drew Bledsoe was a historically prolific quarterback, at the leading edge of the game's evolution into a passing bonanza. I don't expect it to happen, especially now that the NFL is flag football. But as much as I adore Tom Brady, Drew Bledsoe will always be my guy.

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