Vintage Athlete Of The Month: Drew Bledsoe
NFL training camps are opening up this week and that means football will provide welcome sports relief for a New England area that’s endured a summer of discontent on the baseball field. In that spirit, BST&N looks to the gridiron for its July Vintage Athlete of the Month and honors former Patriots’ quarterback Drew Bledsoe.
Drew Bledsoe played his college football at Washington State. The Cougar program wasn’t particularly renowned when the native all-state quarterback arrived on campus for the 1990 season, but he soon changed that. By his junior year of 1992, Bledsoe had led WSU to an 8-3 record and a subsequent bowl victory over Utah, where he threw for 476 yards. With his tall frame, rifle arm and pedigree of winning at a place that wasn’t at all accustomed to it, the pro scouts were loving Bledsoe, and he opted to declare for the NFL draft and skip his senior season.
Bill Parcells had taken over the Patriots operation and had a huge rebuilding project on his hands, having inherited a 2-14. He also had the first pick in the draft to build around. While Notre Dame quarterback Rick Mirer had his admirers and would eventually go #2, informed football opinion mostly coalesced around Bledsoe as the clear-cut top choice. Parcells agreed—fortunately, as Mirer never got his NFL career untracked in Seattle—and Bledsoe became the building block for a new era of New England Patriots’ football.
So at the age of 21, Drew Bledsoe was tossed in the fire that is the NFL. The 1993 season was predictably difficult—he completed slightly less than half his passes, but for a rookie stepping into a disaster area it was a decent start. Bledsoe threw as many touchdown passes as interceptions and the team improved to 5-11. It set the stage for a breakout year in 1994.
The defining game of 1994 came in Week 10. With a 3-6 record it looked like more of the same in Foxboro and playing on the road against the Minnesota Vikings, a team led by future Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon and on its way to a division title, the Pats fell behind 20-3 in the third quarter. Bledsoe stepped in and started gunning. He threw a touchdown pass in the third quarter, another in the fourth quarter, eventually tied the game and tossed a final scoring pass in overtime. All told, the quarterback put the ball in the air seventy times, completing forty-five, producing 426 yards and throwing not a single interception. And the win proved to be more than just a pleasant November surprise. It was the start of a seven-game winning streak that propelled the Pats to a playoff berth. A road loss to the Cleveland Browns’ team coached by Bill Belichick couldn’t quell the good feeling as the Patriots and their quarterback went into the offseason.
But the comeback victory over the Vikings underscored a problem the New England offense had, and it’s too big of a dependence on the pass. In the four seasons from 1994-97, Bledsoe led the league in pass attempts three different times. His interceptions were also a concern. As a result he never had a high quarterback rating. This, in of itself, is somewhat overrated. QB rating is a stat that favors passers who run a low-risk, high-percentage offense and the rifle-armed Bledsoe was the exact opposite. Still, the 27 interceptions he threw in 1994 were too many and the team itself disappointed in 1995, winning just six games.
The ’95 disappointment proved to be the darkness before the dawn. With the improved running of Curtis Martin and the Parcells effect starting to take hold in the offensive line, Bledsoe may have still been throwing a lot, but now defenses couldn’t exclusively key on him. He posted a career-best TD/INT ratio of 27-15 in 1996. He completed a career-high 60 percent of his passes. The Pats won the AFC East, and while Bledsoe didn’t star in the playoffs, he was good enough to allow Martin’s running and a stingy defense deliver home wins over Pittsburgh and Jacksonville and earn the franchise’s second Super Bowl appearance. The title game itself was a letdown—four interceptions by Bledsoe were the biggest reason for the 35-21 loss to the Green Bay Packers, but the quarterback and the franchise had arrived.
While the quarterback and franchise were arriving though, the architect was departing. Parcells left for the New York Jets amidst acrimony, but Bledsoe proved to be a steady hand at the wheel. His numbers for 1997 approximated that of the previous year and another division title was the reward. New England beat Jimmy Johnson’s Miami Dolphins in a winner-take-all regular season finale for the AFC East, then beat the Dolphins again a week later in the playoffs. Nothing like a double-dip against your long-time rival.
The next three seasons saw Bledsoe continue to produce prolific numbers in total yardage and his completion percentage was at 55 percent over higher, but he never matched the high point of 1996-97. The team only made the playoffs once and the quarterback was injured for a 1998 first-round loss at Jacksonville. The interceptions went up and down, and then in early 2001 an ankle injury sent Bledsoe to the sidelines. It proved to be the injury that unveiled the legend that is Tom Brady to the world.
Bledsoe was never able to get his starting job back in what would be his final season in Foxboro, but it didn’t mean his finest hour couldn’t be ahead of him. The one thing missing on his resume was playoff success. He had the big numbers, he had three Pro Bowl appearances, his team even had playoff wins, but there was no game in the postseason where the quarterback’s numbers really stood out. Then Brady was injured in the AFC Championship Game against Pittsburgh. In arguably the greatest clutch relief effort in NFL playoff history, Bledsoe came in on the road against the NFL’s #1 defense and completed 10/21 passes for 102 yards and zero interceptions against a defense renowned for its ability to force turnovers. The Patriots won 24-17 and though Brady would return for the Super Bowl and establish his legend, Patriot Nation owes a big debt of gratitude to Bledsoe for his performance in Pittsburgh.
With Brady now entrenched, there was no room for Bledsoe in New England and he was dealt to Buffalo. Bledsoe responded to the trade with a Pro Bowl year in 2002, completing 61 percent of his passes and racking over 4,300 yards. The Bills went 8-8 and came within one game of the playoffs. Bledsoe’s Bills were also within a game of postseason play in 2004, the best two seasons they’ve enjoyed since 1999. The organization still opted to let him go and rebuild with youth and Bledsoe would go to Dallas and be re-united with Parcells. He had a pretty good year there in 2005, and Dallas improved from 6-10 to 9-7, but erratic play in early 2006 and the presence of Tony Romo on the bench eventually led Parcells to sit Bledsoe on the bench. The player apparently agreed, as he retired in the offseason.
Drew Bledsoe’s name won’t be among the great quarterbacks in NFL history—but he was a very good one, whose only misfortune was to be displaced by one of the greats. It’s a great credit to New England Patriots’ fans that they’ve never forgotten what Bledsoe gave to the franchise. He was warmly received on all future returns to Foxboro and was inducted into the Patriots’ Hall of Fame in 2011. A fitting tribute to the man the revival was first built on all the way back in the spring of 1993.