The mind games began early. In his first season Bledsoe was treated like the last guy on the roster. Parcells made the rookie fetch cups of Gatorade for him. He rode him for the smallest things.
"It was great for Drew," says Mac of the hazing. "By Parcells being all over him, it allowed Drew to be one of the guys, to fit into the chemistry of the team and to be accepted by guys who might have resented him because of his salary."
Early on, the other players might not have resented him as much for his salary as for his play. With four games left in his first season, he was a sub-.500 passer with only seven touchdown passes and 13 interceptions. Parcells was all over him. The young man didn't work hard enough, Parcells thought. He was not acting like a leader. He didn't come through in the clutch. And he chafed under Parcells's wrath, particularly during practice.
Parcells has always used Friday practices to fine-tune his game plan, and he is at his most obnoxious on those days, standing behind the huddle and badgering his players—especially the quarterback. His criticisms are no more sophisticated than telling a player, "You stink." Simms called these Parcells's pressure practices.
"It's not mysterious," says Parcells. "I'm trying to create an environment. I'm creating a distraction the players have to deal with."
"So many days," Bledsoe says, "I wanted to turn around and say, 'Screw you!' Then I'd realize he was turning up the stress level in practice, just as it would happen in games."
There was no practicing for what happened against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Dec. 5, 1993. Bledsoe fumbled four center snaps. He threw five interceptions. On the last play of the game, the Patriots were on the Steeler one-foot line with a chance to win, but Bledsoe was turned back on a quarterback sneak.
Afterward, Parcells railed at Bledsoe. "You're the fair-haired boy in the NFL right now," Parcells told him. "But next year there will be another fair-haired boy coming out of college. His name is Heath Shuler. And the year after that, there will be another one. And you'll be the guy who's forgotten, unless you wake up and turn yourself around."
"That game in Pittsburgh was one of the best things that could have happened to me," Bledsoe says. "From my junior year in college on, there was this love affair with me. No negatives. Suddenly, I realized I might be a bust. That's pretty humbling."
Almost immediately, he showed progress. The Patriots won their last four games, including an overtime shootout in the season finale that kept the Miami Dolphins out of the playoffs. The road would not be entirely smooth, however. In November the Patriots were 3-6 and trailing the Minnesota Vikings 20-3 at halftime. Parcells was distraught, with his quarterback and his team. He and offensive coordinator Ray Perkins had been giving Bledsoe more freedom to change plays. But in the first 29 minutes of the game, Bledsoe had piloted New England to one first down, and he had 24 yards passing.