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A month ago New England rookie quarterback Drew Bledsoe felt certain that his injured left knee was healthy enough to allow him to play. But coach Bill Parcells kept him on the bench, and Bledsoe's tender knee was not the only issue. The young man from Walla Walla, Wash., had been pouting about not seeing action, and Parcells felt that he wasn't preparing as aggressively as an NFL quarterback should. So Parcells did what a coach who has won two Super Bowls should do to a 21-year-old kid. He read him the riot act. He told him, at a high decibel level, that no lackadaisical millionaire kid was going to tell him when he was ready to play.
"With Coach Parcells," Bledsoe said on Sunday night after another Patriot disaster, a 6-0 loss to the Jets, "you listen to the message, not the delivery. I looked him right in the eye and listened. The message worked."
"Drew used to be an 8:30, 8:45 a.m. sleepyhead kid," Parcells said. "Now he's in at 7:15, 7:30 every day, the way a young kid who needs to learn the game has to be. I like that."
Don't misunderstand. Bledsoe's a great kid, polite and accommodating to his growing legion of young New England fans. But he has to learn. He's young. He bites his nails. He doesn't need to shave much. He dresses like he's on his way to see Pearl Jam. He's so stunned by his sudden wealth that he gave his 15-year-old brother, Adam, the toll-free number and the password for his bank account and had Adam call it just to hear the incredible balance amount intoned by the computer voice.
Yes, he's a kid, and he sometimes needs to be reminded that this is a merciless, smack-you-in-the-mouth business. Rookies need that extra 90 minutes of film study each weekday morning to review things like Jet safety Ronnie Lott's blitz tendencies. And that was what Bledsoe was studying early each morning last week.
In Sunday's loss, which was in no way Bledsoe's fault, we witnessed the fruits of that education and a healthy measure of the ability that will make Bledsoe an NFL star. Midway through the third quarter, with a 35-mile-per-hour wind gusting to 68, with the rain driving horizontally into Bledsoe's face mask, the rookie brought his team to the line on second-and-seven at the Patriot 23. Bledsoe fired a dart through the monsoon to wideout Michael Timpson for 24 yards. Two plays later Bledsoe play-actioned right, sprinted out left and threw across his body on the run, a 23-yard line drive into the chest of wideout Vincent Brisby.
Then, on third-and-four from the Jet 24, New York blitzed the house at Bledsoe. Up the middle, untouched, came middle linebacker Glenn Cadrez. Two months ago Bledsoe would have thrown the ball away. On Sunday he waited until the last possible moment, and just as he was about to get plowed under by Cadrez, he dumped a pass to running back Leonard Russell. The play lost four yards, and the Patriots had to punt because of the wind, but the point is this: Bledsoe got his clock cleaned, yet he made a professional play, the way the Simmses and the Aikmans make professional plays in the face of an imminent smack in the mouth.
Toiling anonymously in pro football's Siberia, the NFL's top draft pick of 1993 is making quiet progress. "I haven't done anything too bad or anything too good so far, but I know I can be a good quarterback at this level," said the wind-chapped Bledsoe after his 10-of-18, 134-yard day spent throwing into the teeth of a nor' easter. "People have to remember I'm the foundation. I'm not everything."
"I think he could be special," said Lott, who has now faced Bledsoe twice. "He's a lot further along than the young quarterbacks I've seen come into the league in recent years." In the midst of the annual disaster that is Patriot football, there's finally reason to hope for something other than a high draft choice.