There is good reason to expect a resolution—but it won't come easy. Leigh Steinberg, Bledsoe's agent, was disturbed by Parcells's decision to leave Bledsoe in the game against the 49ers even after the team doctor had diagnosed the separated shoulder. With his left arm dangling helplessly at his side, Bledsoe took a brutal second-half beating that day. Moreover, Steinberg has grown angry at the Patriots for allowing Bledsoe to absorb criticism, especially when he's playing hurt. Pointing out that a third-degree separation often requires three to six weeks to heal, Steinberg says, "It would be nice if someone in a position of authority there acknowledged publicly that Drew is selflessly playing, against medical advice."
If Bledsoe shares his agent's anger, he's hiding it well. Last Friday he pooh-poohed the fact that his contract wasn't finalized—"I'm very confident it's going to get done," he said—and he remained optimistic that the Patriots could turn their season around.
For that to happen Bledsoe will have to be able to throw to a healthy Coates, who caught 96 passes last season but has been hobbled this season by a sprained left ankle sustained in a game against the Atlanta Falcons on Oct. 1. Although he caught three balls for 34 yards on Sunday, Coates was clearly in pain and largely ineffective. "He was tiptoeing the whole time," said Chief linebacker Anthony Davis. "He'd catch the ball and then start looking around to see who was going to hit him. He's banged up, and they don't really have anyone else to go to."
Of the Patriots' top six pass catchers from '94, Coates and Vincent Brisby are the only ones New England retained. Cut or lost to free agency were wideouts Ray Crittenden and Michael Timpson and running backs Leroy Thompson and Kevin Turner, a quartet that caught 219 passes a season ago.
For all the threat he presents as a receiver, this season's starting fullback, Sam Gash, might as well be an offensive guard. Starting wideouts Brisby and Will Moore—the latter a CFL import—have yet to be confused with John Stallworth and Lynn Swann, or even Ray Crittenden and Timpson.
The absence of a marquee wide receiver should not be unexpected in New England: Neither of the New York Giant teams Parcells coached to Super Bowl victories had a dominating wideout. What is surprising is that Parcells, a grizzled advocate of smash-mouth football, has assembled an offensive line that has serious shortcomings when it comes to blocking for the run. The Patriots went into Sunday's game with the league's third-worst rushing offense. They ran for 108 yards against the Chiefs but couldn't get into the end zone in either the second or third quarter after reaching the three-yard line with a first down. A week earlier, against a Bronco defense ranked 27th against the run, the Pats lost the battle of the Resistible Force versus the Movable Object, gaining a scant 11 yards on the ground in the first half.
Another mystery is how a team coached by Parcells, one of the NFLs top motivators, could keep coming out so flat. (Besides having been stale against the Broncos and the Chiefs, New England somnambulated through all or parts of its losses to the Falcons, the 49ers and the Miami Dolphins.) One theory holds that, unlike Parcells's New York teams, the Patriots lack a Lawrence Taylor—a screaming s.o.b. willing to confront teammates when things aren't going well. Bledsoe, 23, is too easygoing and too solicitous of his elders to bark at them. Vincent Brown, the ferocious and ferocious-looking linebacker, is as mild as a deacon off the field. "Somebody's got to step up and be a leader on a team," says the Chiefs' Smith. "If you don't have one that's an older guy, then one of the young guys has to step up and make a challenge."
No such candidate emerged during the game against Denver. "Everything was so quiet out there," recalls Bronco defensive end Harald Hasselbach. "There was no encouragement from each other. It was like individuals out there on their own."
After the shellacking by Denver, Parcells shook things up by making five lineup changes for Sunday's game. And although the Patriots played better than they had in six weeks, they still made enough mistakes to drop their fifth straight.
"Do you think it came easily to the Dallas Cowboys in the years before they won the Super Bowl?" said Patriot guard Bob Kratch, one of seven former Giants whom Parcells has summoned to New England. "Of course not. They had their trials and tribulations too."