From the practiced way Drew Bledsoe went about trying to break into the apartment, it was clear that he had done this before. He loosened a screen from its moorings and peered in through the window, surveying the debris scattered about the floor. It was his apartment, all right, an apartment that Bledsoe had evidently not picked up since he was a sophomore. The keys had to be in there somewhere amid the Dorito shards, the gym shoes and the discarded underwear. Bledsoe, the 6'5", 235-pound Washington State junior, is likely to be the first quarterback—perhaps the first player—taken in this month's NFL draft, if Notre Dame signal-caller Rick Mirer is not. Two NFL teams would soon be knocking down these quarterbacks' doors to sign them, but last Friday the NFL was nowhere in sight, so Bledsoe, encountering a locked window behind the screen, trudged off dejectedly in search of his roommate's key.
Though the New England Patriots, who hold the first pick in the draft, had not revealed their plans last week, both they and the Seattle Seahawks, who have the second selection, are in desperate need of a quarterback around whom they can quickly rebuild their offenses. "There used to be that mythical five-year period that it took for young quarterbacks to develop," says one AFC general manager. "But you can't wait that long anymore. It only took Troy Aikman four years, and he's as good as anybody." The Dallas Cowboys went from 1-15 in Aikman's rookie season to the Super Bowl championship this year, a progression that will now become the learning curve for Mirer and Bledsoe.
They are both coaches' sons who grew up in small towns—Mirer in Goshen, Ind., and Bledsoe in Walla Walla, Wash.—and stayed close to home when they went away to college. Notre Dame is some 30 miles from Goshen, and Washington State's campus in Pullman is just 2½ hours from Walla Walla. "We're basically living the same story," Mirer says, "and we'll probably go on for years and years just like this. People think we're supposed to be mortal enemies, but there's plenty of room in that league for both of us."
For months Bledsoe and Mirer have been enmeshed in the intricately plotted courtship that goes on each year between the top quarterback prospects and NFL teams. The flirtation grows serious at the college all-star games in January amid cocktails with little umbrellas in them, turns into a low-end peep show at the February NFL scouting combine held in Indianapolis and culminates on April 25 with the ritual dance of codependent scorpions that is the NFL draft. The players rightly despise this process, but few inveigh against it until long after they have stopped inhabiting the dreams of ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.
"They all start with the assumption that you're a pretty good quarterback," Bledsoe says. "What the scouting process is all about is trying to find something wrong with you." The prospects of players such as Mirer and Bledsoe are gauged by the collection of skills that constitute their "stock," which alternately rises and falls like the Dow Jones. Mirer's stock fell sharply in October following a dismal 13-for-38 afternoon in the Irish's 33-16 loss to Stanford, then rallied as he finished his career with more total offense yardage and touchdown passes (41) than any of the quarterbacks in the legendary Notre Dame pantheon, which includes Terry Hanratty, Joe Theismann and Joe Montana.
Yet another dip in Mirer's stock occurred when he decided not to throw the ball in Indianapolis. "I don't think I deserve special treatment just because I played every week on NBC for two years," Mirer notes wryly. "But the combine is really sort of degrading." Mirer performed in a private workout for NFL scouts, coaches and front-office people two weeks ago in South Bend and raised his stock once more.
Bledsoe did throw for the assembled clipboards in Indianapolis, but afterward he felt used and tossed aside. "You go in [dressed] in a pair of shorts, and they just look at you like a piece of meat," he says. "Then they tug at every part of your body."
Bledsoe drew the line at taking the New York Giants' three-hour battery of psychological tests, which he suspects the Giants of administering to players whom they don't plan to draft for the sinister purpose of "having stuff they can use to rattle you for the rest of your career." In the end all of these final exams still can't produce a consensus of opinion among NFL coaches and general managers. Mirer is the better athlete, but Bledsoe has the stronger arm. Mirer is the more charismatic natural leader, but Bledsoe is more polished in a pro-style offense. "I think Mirer will develop faster, but Bledsoe will go further," says one head coach, who actually demanded anonymity before loosing this now-I've-said-it-and-let-the-consequences-be-damned prediction.
Mirer averaged only 19 pass attempts per game in his three seasons as a starter, while in each of his two full seasons starting for Washington State, Bledsoe averaged 34. "When you've got the running backs we had, it's stupid not to give them the ball," says Mirer, who in 1991 and '92 quarterbacked the two teams that scored more points than any in Notre Dame history. Still, the school's subway alumni often howled that he was inconsistent, and he received dozens of hate letters after the loss to Stanford.
Says one AFC general manager, "The guy who easily stands out this year is Bledsoe, among these two quarterbacks and in the whole draft. I can't imagine that people wouldn't take Bledsoe if they had the choice. Mirer has not been as impressive in games, and he doesn't always make the plays a good quarterback makes. But the kid is loaded with ability, and sometime in the near future he will be the guy."