The Patriots had won just 14 of 64 games between 1989 and 1992. After a 2-14 season in 1992, New England had the No. 1 overall pick in the 1993 NFL draft and used it to select Drew Bledsoe, an All-American quarterback out of Washington State.
"It's one of the catch 22s, if you will, of being drafted with the first pick," Bledsoe said. "By definition, the team you're going to had not had much success in the previous year or years."
While New England had struggled in previous years, Bledsoe drew hope from the 1992-93 Dallas Cowboys that had won the Super Bowl just prior to the NFL draft. Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman had been the No. 1 pick three years earlier.
"I had confidence after watching a guy like Troy Aikman," Bledsoe said. "He went to the Cowboys, they had struggled, but in four years he was in the Super Bowl. I really felt like it was a possibility, but I did have my eyes fairly wide open that it wasn't going to happen immediately. We weren't going to be able to come into the team that had the first overall draft pick and make a route to the Super Bowl the first year."
In addition to joining a struggling franchise, Bledsoe was entering the league in an unfamiliar place. Born in Ellensburg, Washington, he had spent his whole life in the state, including a high school career in Walla Walla and a collegiate career with the Cougars.
"It was a pretty interesting time for me," said Bledsoe, who had turned 21 just prior to the NFL draft. "I was just a young kid. I had been born and raised and gone to school and played my college ball all in small towns in Eastern Washington. And to be transplanted from there out to Boston, it was pretty interesting times for me."
The Patriots showed confidence in their No. 1 pick from the outset. With Head Coach Bill Parcells in his first year with New England, the Patriots built their offense around the passing game.
"I loved it," Bledsoe said. "That's what I signed up for. I loved dropping back and throwing the ball. And the fact that we threw it as much as we did, it was also a vote of confidence in me from the coaching staff and the organization that they felt I could handle that much. And so we chucked the ball all over the field. Ultimately, especially the following years, we started having some decent success in operating that way."
The Patriots went 5-11 in Bledsoe's rookie year, but with a coach who had led the Giants to two Super Bowl victories and a franchise quarterback, there was hope for the future. More hope came through a change of ownership when Robert Kraft purchased the team in 1994.
Success comes from all places of an organization. For the Patriots, success came from a partnership between a coach who knew how to win, a quarterback with the talent to help the team produce wins, and a new owner who wanted nothing more than to deliver wins to Patriots' fans.
The tide started to turn. In 1994, New England finished the season by winning its last seven games to finish the year with a 10-6 record and secure second place in the AFC East and a wild card berth in the playoffs. Bledsoe experienced no sophomore slump as he threw for 25 touchdowns and 4,555 yards, more yards than any Patriots quarterback had ever thrown in a season to that point. His 691 pass attempts that year are still an NFL record. The 70 pass attempts and 45 completions in an overtime victory against the Vikings during that season also remain NFL records.
While the Patriots regressed the next season and fell back to a 6-10 record, New England entered 1996 with high hopes. Bledsoe put together then-career numbers while leading New England to an 11-5 record, an AFC East Division Championship, and a first round bye. The Patriots cruised to a 28-3 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Divisional round of the playoffs, and then rolled to a 20-6 victory against Jacksonville in the AFC Championship game to reach the Super Bowl. However, New England lost Super Bowl XXXI in New Orleans to Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers.
"It's kind of a rough deal making it to the Super Bowl and losing because it just leaves a very bitter taste in your mouth about the whole thing," said Bledsoe, who to this day has never watched footage of that Super Bowl game. "It means we had a great run, a great season, and made it all the way to the Super Bowl. To get that close to your ultimate goal and to then come up a little bit short was disappointing. Setting that aside, that season was pretty magical for us. We were able to put together a great run and get ourselves into the game. It was a big step forward for us and the organization."
The Patriots had only made the playoffs six times in franchise history prior to Bledsoe taking the reins at quarterback. In his first six seasons, New England made four playoff appearances.
The 2001 season was an up-and-down year for Bledsoe, and ultimately his last season with the franchise. After getting hurt in week two, Bledsoe watched as Tom Brady led the Patriots to an 11-5 record and a first round bye in the playoffs. Although Bledsoe was ready to return later in the season, Brady retained the starting job and rattled off seven straight wins to lead the team to the playoffs. New England defeated Oakland in the AFC Divisional round and traveled to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers in the AFC Championship game.
When Brady went down with a leg injury in the second quarter, it was up to Bledsoe to lead the Patriots to victory.
"There were some pretty dramatic ups and downs that season for me personally and also for the team," Bledsoe said. "Going into that AFC Championship game was pretty interesting. I remember telling Damon Huard (third quarterback) leading up to the game that I really felt like I was going to end up in that game. I really did, so I was prepared for it."
Bledsoe stepped up and led New England on a touchdown drive in his first series in the game as the Patriots completed an improbable 24-17 upset over the Steelers.
"I was excited about the opportunity," he said. "It was a pretty emotional feeling for me because to go that long without playing and then you get a chance to come back in that kind of setting, in an AFC Championship game and then to go to win the game, it was pretty emotional."
The next week, the Patriots played the Rams in the Super Bowl, and Brady was well enough to play. He retained his starting job and led the Patriots to a dramatic Super Bowl victory.
"As much as any of it, I'm just proud of the way I handled everything during the season to allow the team to have success and not be a distraction and not cause a problem," Bledsoe said.
Bledsoe finished out his career with the Bills and Cowboys before retiring in April of 2007. His career numbers rank him among the NFL's top ten all-time in passing yards (8), pass completions (6), and pass attempts (6). He ranks first all-time in pass attempts per game.
Now retired, Bledsoe founded Doubleback Winery in his hometown in Washington. He is also involved in Bledsoe Capital Group, which invests in green technologies, particularly those focused on cleaning industrial waste water. In addition, Bledsoe has a role in coaching his kids in football.
Next year, Bledsoe will be eligible for the Patriots Hall of Fame for the first time.
"It would certainly be a great honor to be included among the guys that have been voted in already," he said. "It was an amazing nine years in New England. When I got there, I was 21 and fresh out of college. When I left, I was married and had three children. Those were really formative years of my life, and I was able to go through that period of my life with a whole region taking the ride with me. Fans in New England were always tremendous to me. The Patriots organization and the Kraft family in particular really became like family to me. The relationship is one that I valued when I was playing and value even more now that I'm done."
Bledsoe is proud of what he hopes his NFL and Patriots legacy will be.
"I would hope that I'm perceived as a guy that showed up every week and gave everything he had on the field to try and win," he said. "I think that as I grew in the position, I became a leader for our team and the teams that I was on. I think probably as important to me as anything is not necessarily the yards and the statistics but that I was able to leave the team feeling that I had handled myself and conducted myself in a way that not only I, but also my family could be proud of."
In addition to what he perceives as his legacy, Bledsoe will also be known for being the man who helped turn the Patriots franchise around.