5 New England Patriots
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If Drew Bledsoe ever needed to play like a $103 million man, it's
By Paul Zimmerman
When the readers of Patriots Football Weekly were asked to select the franchise's team of the century two years ago, the quarterback they picked is the one who will lead New England this fall, Drew Bledsoe. It seemed kind of strange, picking a guy who has certainly been respected during his career but has never captured the hearts of the Patriots faithful.
Doug Flutie and Butch Songin, Boston College guys, were the kind of quarterbacks the fans live and die with; the mere mention of Vito (Babe) Parilli's name drew cheers; Steve Grogan was beloved because he liked to go galloping through linebackers and defensive backs. The statuesque and rather laid-back Bledsoe, who surveys the field calmly from his 6'5", 240-pound eminence and then whips his tight spirals downfield, has been a notable, if not fully appreciated, addition to the honor roll.
For a while there was grumbling about his interceptions. So last year, behind a mishmash of a line, Bledsoe held the ball longer and cut his interceptions to a career-low 13. But he also kissed the canvas 45 times, giving him a two-season sack total of 100, second most in the league over that period. So then there was grumbling about the sacks.
Once upon a time his toughness was in doubt: He was out of Washington State, one of those West Coast bonus babies. Then he displayed remarkable courage late in 1998, playing despite the fact that he'd fractured his right index finger in two places during a game against Miami and rallying the Patriots on a last-second touchdown drive. He did it again the following week against Buffalo, providing the cushion New England needed to get into the playoffs. "It showed a lot of character," says Troy Brown, the leading wideout and the most serious downfield threat the Patriots have, now that Terry Glenn has been suspended for the year for failing to return to camp. "You see someone play in that much pain and win the game for you, and it rallies everyone else. It makes everyone play tougher."
Though Bledsoe seems to have been around forever -- only Brett Favre has thrown more passes since 1993, the year Bledsoe was taken with the first pick in the draft -- he is just 29.
New England owner Bob Kraft has never been accused of being stingy, and in March he gave Bledsoe a 10-year, $103 million extension, the richest contract in NFL history. Football people scratched their heads. Why spend so much money on one diamond when you could use it to buy lower-priced jewels, such as offensive and defensive linemen and maybe a big-name runner? "Because he's 29 and at the top of his game," Kraft says, "and quarterbacks like this come around once in a lifetime."
In the meantime coach Bill Belichick has been trying to upgrade the talent around his quarterback. During the off-season the Patriots brought in 22 free agents, among the highest number in the league and the most in franchise history. Last year New England suffered from below-average talent (running backs, offensive line), nagging injuries to some of its best players (middle linebacker Ted Johnson, defensive end Willie McGinest) and a drop-off in focus and production by a former Pro Bowler (cornerback Ty Law).
Belichick's top draft choice went for a defensive tackle, Richard Seymour. That wasn't a big surprise since defense, after all, is his baby. The Patriots hope that their two gifted rookie tackles, Matt Light and Kenyatta Jones, will be able to step into the starting lineup sometime soon. To keep Bledsoe happy, four free-agent wideouts, all of whom have started at some point, were signed. A running game? The Patriots haven't been in the top half of the league in that department for five years, and there isn't much hope on the horizon.
"At least most of the pieces are in place," Bledsoe says. "Last year, going into the first game, we signed a guard, Sale Isaia, on Wednesday, and he wound up playing on Sunday. Then we signed right guard Joe Andruzzi on that Saturday, and he played the following week against the Vikings. We had four young guys competing at the tackles, bouncing in and out of the lineup.
"We have continuity now. I've had a chance to work with our new wideouts, and if one or two of them busts loose, well, we could be in good shape."
Issue date: September 3, 2001