The story at quarterback has hardly changed since that April day in 1993 when Drew Bledsoe was tabbed with the draft's first overall selection. His play has peaked and bottomed out, but he has been as constant as a Red Sox autumn collapse in terms of his presence under center for the Patriots.
Early in his career, he simply showed off his young, explosive right arm by winging the ball all over the field making more plays for his team than he did for the other.
His inflated interception totals were outweighed by his impressive touchdown figures. But that scenario only works for young quarterbacks. As they increase in age and experience, the touchdown totals are to remain high while the interceptions come down significantly. That's the progression of a young star passer into a budding champion.
One essential ingredient lacking over the last two years has been pass protection, as Bledsoe has been punched around like a sparring partner. That kind of physical assault was new to Bledsoe, but may benefit him in the long run.
Two years ago, the Patriots three-time Pro Bowl passer was on the way toward MVP contention through eight games before suffering a collapse of Napoleonic proportions. The cumulative effect of the first real beatings he had taken in his career wore him down and frustrated him as he finished the second half of that year with 17 interceptions and six touchdowns after a first half with 13 scores against only four picks.
But ultimately, it sent Bledsoe a message that he could no longer rely on just his arm to succeed. When the new coaching staff took over last year, quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein went to work with Bledsoe on his footwork, helping the veteran avoid pressure within the pocket by simply sliding his feet.
While it may seem difficult to believe because of the 45 sacks he endured, the work paid off and helped Bledsoe avoid several other takedowns.
But beyond his improved footwork in the pocket, Bledsoe maintained his composure as well as anyone could expect in the face of constant pressure. Right out of the gate, it was clear that he was not going to suffer the same fate he did over the second half of '99. He took the hits while also taking care of the football to the tune of a career low 13 interceptions — a big factor in why the overmatched Patriots stayed close in so many games.
His touchdown total (17) suffered in the process, but he took less chances with the ball and showed the maturity necessary in a veteran. Only twice all season did he throw more interceptions than touchdowns in a game while passing for a mediocre 3,291 yards in an offense devoid of enough weapons. His 77.3 passer rating was the fourth best of his career in what would hardly be considered an excellent season for the quarterback.
Now is where the transition comes in and the possibility to go from good to great enters the picture. Bledsoe will never be one of the quarterbacks scrambling around, buying time with his mobility and making plays on the run. Although he did rush for a career high 158 yards last year with the first two rushing touchdowns of his career, he'd rather beat teams from the pocket and all of New England would prefer that as well since he doesn't often take the free feet-first slide when he is on the run, leaving himself susceptible to some tough hits in the open field.
But as Bill Belichick re-builds the offensive line and adds to the weapons around Bledsoe, perhaps the last two seasons will have a carry-over effect.
If Bledsoe gets the protection he was accustomed to early in his career and combines that with his newfound patience and improved pocket footwork, then he truly could get over the hump as a quarterback. Entering his ninth year, he has seen just about everything a defense has to offer while throwing for 29,257 career yards and 164 touchdowns.
One of the biggest compliments Bledsoe received last year came from Tampa Bay defensive lineman Warren Sapp, who said following the Bucs opening game win over New England, "Drew Bledsoe has the heart of a warrior — no doubt about that. We've changed our whole perception of him. We thought he was a happy-feet quarterback that would go down if we got around him. But he stood in there and took the hits, got right back up and kept moving his ball club."
It's almost as if Bledsoe has developed a callous on what was previously white collar hands. Learning to deal with the pressure while still making plays and taking care of the football may very well have been a necessary step for Bledsoe. If the process continues as the team improves, Bledsoe may take the club to championship heights.
But for Bledsoe to actually reach those heights, he has to develop confidence in receivers beyond Terry Glenn and Troy Brown. The additions of veterans like Charles Johnson, Torrance Small, Bert Emanuel and David Patten should speed up that process and allow the quarterback to better utilize his golden arm while also making mature decisions.
The best thing about having a quarterback like Bledsoe is that a team can ride his arm to the postseason. The alternative is a quarterback that is only capable of trying not to lose games by avoiding key mistakes rather than make the plays to win. Bledsoe can be both of those quarterbacks.
If he goes down, however, his backups will surely be asked to take the ultra-conservative approach (call it the Trent Dilfer approach if you will). Damon Huard has replaced John Friesz as the No. 2 quarterback after four seasons as a solid backup in Miami, first for Dan Marino and last year for Jay Fiedler. In that time, he started six games and went 5-1 as the starter. Patriots fans may remember the day at Foxboro Stadium where he replaced Marino and led the Dolphins from a 14-0 deficit to a 31-30 win in the final two minutes. In the last three years, he completed 170-of-288 passes (59 percent) for 1,691 yards with nine touchdowns and eight interceptions with a passer rating of 74.6.
Huard provides a little more starting experience (six games) than either of the other two prospects — third-year passer Michael Bishop or second-year man Tom Brady.
Belichick has raved about Brady's progress over the last year indicating that this might be the end of the line for Bishop, who makes no secret that he believes he can start in this league. Bishop has done little to prove that other than make some plays on the run in the last two preseasons. He had an average year in Europe this spring completing less than 50 percent of his passes while hurling 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions — mediocre numbers for that league.
Still, his athleticism offers a change of pace unavailable elsewhere on the roster, but does he become a distraction with his mouth? Brady will likely unseat him as the No. 3 quarterback.
(1) Drew Bledsoe
(2) Michael Bishop, Tom Brady
(1) Damon Huard (UFA-Miami)
(1) John Friesz
Key 2000 Stat:
Bledsoe threw a career low 13 interceptions, but also had one of his lowest touchdown outputs with only 17.
Can Bledsoe sling it as he did earlier in his career while still keeping the interceptions down?
Protection. Protection. Protection.
It took more than four seasons for Bledsoe to endure his 100th sack. He has been sacked 100 times in the last two seasons.
Predicted Starter: Drew Bledsoe - QB