Forget fourth and 2 in Indianapolis. The boldest and bravest coaching decision of Bill Belichick’s career was choosing Tom Brady over Drew Bledsoe.
Eight years, four Super Bowls, three Super Bowl titles, and one NFL MVP award later it seems like the biggest no-brainer in the history of earth. However, no one was really sure Belichick had picked the right passer until Brady marched the Patriots from their 17 to the St. Louis 30 to set up Adam Vinatieri’s field goal for the ages to win Super Bowl XXXVI. Only then did we know that Brady, a Cinderella signal-caller that season, wasn’t going to turn back into a pigskin pumpkin.
Before tonight’s Big Game in the Big Easy against the 10-0 New Orleans Saints, that was the last time the Patriots played in the Superdome. It was also the last time Bledsoe wore a Patriots uniform. It’s been so long since Bledsoe was back in the pocket patting the ball for the Patriots that Brady has now spent more seasons in a Patriots uniform (10) than Bledsoe (nine) did. How in the name of Mo Lewis is that possible?
Yet, once again Brady is poised to overtake Bledsoe in the Superdome. No. 12 is just 163 yards away from passing old No. 11 as the franchise’s all-time leading passer. Barring injury or catastrophe, Brady, who has thrown for 300 yards in his last five contests and can tie the NFL record for consecutive 300-yard passing efforts, will surpass Bledsoe and his mark of 29,657 yards tonight in the same building where he ended the Brady-Bledsoe debate once and for all.
The two quarterbacks who awkwardly shared in the accomplishments of the 2001 Patriots also shared surprise at the fact that Brady is about to pass Bledsoe’s franchise record for passing yards.
“No, I didn’t know that. I figured that was coming at some point. Maybe, he’ll sprain an ankle and I’ll get to hold it longer,” said the 37-year-old Bledsoe with a baritone chuckle. “I think it’s inevitable that all my records are going to go down at some point. If somebody is going to do that I’d love to have it be Tom Brady as opposed to anybody else.”
“Well, I didn’t know that until you told [me],” said Brady last week. “When I got here, Drew was a great player, and he’s always been a great friend of mine. I have a lot of respect for him, and he was one of the guys that taught me how to play this game.”
Brady and Bledsoe. The two quarterbacks forever will be linked in football lore. Their paths have diverged. While Brady has become an American icon, a Joe Cool quarterback who is as comfortable posing for the cover of GQ as he is picking apart a Cover-2 defense, Bledsoe, who last played in the NFL for the Cowboys in 2006, has retired to a simpler life, living in Bend, Ore., with his wife, Maura, and four children — sons Stu, 12; John, 10; and Henry, 9, and daughter Healy, 6.
Far from resentful about Brady, the only wining that Bledsoe engages in these days has to do with producing the vino from the Doubleback Winery in his hometown of Walla Walla, Wash. Bledsoe proudly mentions that the winery will release its first vintage, a cabernet sauvignon, this spring. Bledsoe also is occupied by the Bledsoe Capital Group, which is funding a new technology to purify water with no chemicals and clean it.
While it’s unlikely Bledsoe and Belichick will be exchanging Christmas cards any time soon, Brady and Bledsoe remain in touch. They’ve traded e-mails and text messages and even the occasional phone call.
That speaks volumes to the quality of Bledsoe as a person. It should be remembered that Bledsoe’s last hurrah in a Patriots’ uniform came in victorious relief of an injured Brady during the 2001 AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh. He desperately wanted to start Super Bowl XXXVI, but when Brady, who had sprained his ankle, proved healthy enough to play during practice leading up to the game, he was Belichick’s choice. The rest is history. It would be easy for Bledsoe to be bitter about missing that chance, about Brady’s success, about being the Walla Walla Wally Pipp to Brady’s Lou Gehrig. Instead, faced with a choice of his own, Bledsoe has chosen to take the high road.
“When that whole deal went down I was obviously hurt by the whole situation and the way that it went,” said Bledsoe. “It would be pretty stupid for me to blame that on Tom. The guy worked his butt off, and when he got his chance he seized it and ran with it. I didn’t like the way the situation went down. Tom was a friend of mine before that happened, and while it took a while for me to come back around, he is a friend of mine now. He is a great guy that earned what he got. If he was a guy that was a jerk then I absolutely wouldn’t be talking to the guy. It’s the opposite. He is a classy guy. I don’t begrudge him anything.”
Including the Patriots’ career franchise passing record. Bledsoe could be watching tonight when Brady’s breaks his record. Right after he plays with his brother in their local rec basketball league, Bledsoe said he planned to watch the game at a viewing party being held at Stu’s school.
Brady’s breaking of Bledsoe’s record hopefully will be a reminder of the quality of Bledsoe the quarterback. Tonight will be the 124th regular-season game that Brady has played in as a Patriot, the exact number of games that Bledsoe played in during his nine seasons with the team.
Time has a way of distorting our perception and perspective.
The revisionist version of the improbable Brady fairy tale paints Bledsoe as a scatterbrained and scatter-armed quarterback whom the Patriots tossed away like a losing lottery ticket once they hit the Megabucks with Brady. The reality is Bledsoe, who ranks eighth on the NFL’s all-time passing yardage list (44,611) and was selected to four Pro Bowls, three in New England, is one of the best pure passers of his generation and was the best quarterback in franchise history before Brady.
Bledsoe was an essential part of the franchise’s rise to relevancy under the Kraft family. In 1994, just his second season, Bledsoe put the Patriots in the playoffs for the first time since the 1986 season. Two seasons later he led them to the Super Bowl, a game they lost to Green Bay at where else but the Superdome.
There would be no Gillette Stadium without Bledsoe, who graced the cover of the 2001 media guide in a hardhat only to watch the edifice open without him in 2002.
Bledsoe was asked if he thinks his place in Patriots’ lore is appreciated.
“I don’t know. I don’t have a sense,” said Bledsoe. “I take personal pride in the fact that I was able to be a part of that. You look back at all of those guys that played on those teams, particularly guys that had lived through the horrible years, Bruce Armstrong, Andre Tippett, Ben Coates. We were able to really turn the tide on the organization and get it started in the right direction.”
That’s why no matter what records of his Brady renders as obsolete tonight or in the future, nothing can erase Bledsoe’s class or his impact on the Patriots’ franchise.