I have always said that I have never been more nervous as a sports fan than the moments leading up to the 1993 draft. My beloved—and at the time woefully inept—New England patriots had the No. 1 pick, thanks to their 2-14 record the previous season.
The Patriots needed everything, but like a lot of terrible NFL teams, they needed a QB. There were two Q's thought to be head and shoulders above the rest. There was Drew Bledsoe, the strong armed, 6'5" gunslinger from Washington State, and Rick Mirer, the heady, and more polished, more recognized QB from Notre Dame.
I wanted Bledsoe. I hated Notre Dame (I still do), and was no fan of Mirer. I thought he was overrated and was way worse then Bledsoe, who had an amazing arm. I had seen Bledsoe at Washington State lead his team to victory in snow games, and I knew he could do the same here.
I was so glad that the Patriots, after years of terrible management, were now led by Bill Parcells, who came out of his first retirement to lead the Patriots. Parcells was one of the most respected figures in football, and Pats fans were lucky that, after turning down other opportunities, Parcells decided to come back and run the pathetic Pats.
Leading up to the draft, Parcells would not reveal his hand. I cannot find the quote anywhere online, but Parcells said something like 65% of the league would take Bledsoe at No. 1, 35% would go with Mirer.
When the No. 1 pick rolled around, and the Pats took Drew Bledsoe, I was thrilled beyond belief. I was in college and had no money, but somehow, I scraped together $180, as did my roommate, and we had season tickets (yes, season tickets in the end zone were once $18 per game; I was livid that I was forced to buy two pre-season games, making the total $180). We had the best coach, we had the best young QB, and we were on our way.
I went to the pre-season games, and everyone, and I mean everyone, was wearing a No. 11 jersey (including me and my roomate). There was some debate in training camp and throughout pre-season that year as to who would start at QB, but eventually Parcells, never scared to take a gamble, started Bledsoe over the more experienced Scott Secules.
The Patriots had a rough 1993, but fans did not care. There was now hope, in the form of the mastermind coach and the young QB. The Pats were 1-11, and like a lot of young teams, seemed to lose every week because of one play. Then, something amazing happened.
The Pats beat the equally woeful Bengals, 7-2 (yes, 7-2). Pats fans celebrated like they had made the playoffs. Then they went into Cleveland and beat a decent Browns team. A road win! Then back home and a spanking of the Colts and Jeff George, 38-0. Then the ultimate test. A showdown with AFC East rival, the Miami Dolphins. A win got the Dolphins into the playoffs. A win would only hurt the Patriots draft position, but no one cared.
Pats fans wanted this game to prove that their team was for real, despite the 4-11 record. (The No. 1 pick turned out to be Dan Wilkinson; the Pats “settled” for Willie McGinnest at No. 4). The game had a lot of back and forth, but the Patriots ended up winning 33-27 in overtime on a Bledsoe to Michael Timpson bomb. The place went nuts, Timspon ran right by me and blew off my high-five attempt, and Bledsoe was the hero.
Patriot’s fans, worried that owner James Orthwein might move the team in the off-season, did not want to leave the stadium. Strangers hugged, replays were watched, and fans high-fived jubilant players as they left the field.
The next year, the Pats, under new ownership, made the playoffs (winning their last seven regular season games), and lost in the Wild Card round. Bledsoe threw the ball 691 times (43 times per game), including an amazing 70 times in a comeback win against the Vikings. The young QB was so good that he made Parcels, who had the reputation of being a run-first coach (some of that is true, some is not), bypass the running game and throw it non-stop. Their leading rusher, Marion Butts, had an anemic 703 yards (44 yards per game).
At the age of 22, Bledsoe became the youngest quarterback in NFL history to play in the Pro Bowl. After a curious 6-10 in 1995, the Pats rebounded big time in 1996, and rode an 11-5 record through the playoffs and right into the Super Bowl. The Pats lost to the Packers, contributing largely to me breaking up with my girlfriend at the time (long story), but the future was bright.
Our young QB was a bona-fide, record breaking stud, we had a great coach, we had the best tight end in the un-guardable Ben Coates, we now had a running game with Curtis Martin, and the AFC was going to be ours for a long, long time.
It did not work out that way. Parcells, in a feud with owner Bob Kraft, left the Patriots to join the rival Jets, and Bledsoe’s career was never the same.
Patriots’ players loved Pete Carroll when he replaced Bill Parcells in 1997. He was more laid-back and they could enjoy themselves. They liked him more, but they won fewer games. Sure there were some good years, AFC East crowns, riveting comebacks, and great moments, but Carroll never truly got out of Parcells' shadow, and whispers started to become louder concerning the QB.
He could not move, he does not feel the pressure, he holds the ball too long, we need a guy who can scramble like Michael Bishop (yes, lots of brilliant Patriot fans wanted Michael Bishop to play over Bledsoe), we need someone else.
Carroll left, and Bill Belichick came in, but things got worse for the Patriots. The Pats went 5-11 in 2000, and now Patriots fans, who had become used to winning, were livid. As with a lot of NFL teams, the spotlight fell, fairly or not, on the QB. Then, in week two of the 2001 season, Bledsoe got hurt, and in comes Tom Brady. The rest is history.
Bledsoe was shipped off to Buffalo for a first round pick following the 2001 season. He had a great season in 2002, passing for 4,359 yards and 24 touchdowns and making his fourth trip to the Pro Bowl. 2003 was tough because of many injuries to key Bills offensive players, but the Bills improved in 2004, winning nine of their last 12, and six of the last seven (finishing 9-7), but there were no playoff appearances in Drew’s three seasons with the Bills.
He was let go following the 2004 season to make room for a younger, more mobile JP Losman. The Bills were happy with Bledsoe’s play for the most part, but felt he was not the guy who could beat the new kings of the AFC East, Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots.
In 2005, Bledsoe reunited with old friend Bill Parcells and put up a very good season (3600 yards, 23 touchdowns, 17 picks) with the Dallas Cowboys. Like 2004, Drew’s squad went a respectable 9-7, but like 2004, his team was home for the playoffs.
In 2006, a young hot-shot named Tony Romo impressed in training camp, and when Drew got off to a slow start, Bledsoe was again benched for a younger, more agile option. His last throw as a pro was a terrible interception on Monday night in the red zone against the Giants. He was replaced by Romo at halftime, and that, in effect, the career of Drew Bledsoe ended.
It is safe to say that the Patriots and Cowboys made the right call in cutting ties with Bledsoe in favor of Brady and Romo respectively, but in retrospect, I firmly believe his career should have ended in Buffalo.
J.P. Losman has not panned out, and the Bills, in my opinion, took for granted their stellar play at the end of 2004 for granted. The Bills had carved out a tough, conservative offense behind Bledsoe and power back Willis McGahee. But the Bills had invested a first round pick in J.P. Losman in the 2004 draft, and they felt he was the better option. It has not worked out for the Bills or Losman yet, but when Losman was drafted, the writing was on the wall for Bledsoe.
A few aspects of Drew’s career absolutely amaze me. The first is the lack of respect he is given in the New England area. He helped turn the Patriots franchise, one of the biggest jokes in sports in the early 90’s, around. He took a ton of hits (some the fault of poor line play, some his own), never complained, never asked for a trade when the Pats could not run the ball, and never pointed any fingers.
In this regard, I equate Drew Bledsoe to former Red Sox relief pitcher Keith Foulke. The former Red Sox closer had a great 2004, and an even better 2004 post-season. There is no 2004 World Series without Foulke, yet because of poor performance and injuries in 2005 and 2006, Foulke is disliked by a lot of fans in this area (to be fair, Foulke also made some comments that did not endear him to fans).
Bledsoe did not win a title like Foulke did, but he made the Patriots relevant again, and he deserves a lot of the credit for turning this team around. Not only that, he played a key role in the AFC Title Game in 2001, coming in to relieve a hobbled Brady and helping get the Pats into Super Bowl 36.
I truly believe Boston fans are among the best fans in the world, but sometimes, fans, including yours truly, can have short memories. Bledsoe brought the Pats several playoff appearances and a trip to the Super Bowl, yet because of the brilliance of Brady, he is viewed by many Boston fans as a cross between Heath Shuler and Ryan Leaf. It is not fair, but I guess that is life as a QB, arguably the most scrutinized position in all of sports.
The second is how fast it happens, and how so much of what happens to you is out of your control. Drew still looks like the young kid out of Walla Walla, Washington with the weight of a franchise on his shoulders. Bledsoe was never going to be a speed demon, and his pocket presence did leave something to be desired, but I think so many things happened to him that started the downward spiral.
If Parcells had stayed. If the Patriots, knowing they had an immobile QB, built a better offensive line. If Tom Brady did not turn out to be one of the best QBs of all time. If the Bills decided to stick with him after 2004. But some things happen, you have a few bad years, and soon enough, this former No. 1 pick, once destined to end up in Canton, left the NFL this past season with such a whimper.