What would the rest of Drew Bledsoe’s career have looked like if he never took the brutal hit that brought us Tom Brady?
The ascendancy of Tom Brady to a cartoonish figure of athletic success — no to strawberries and split ends, yes to canoodling with models and winning Super Bowls — has turned Drew Bledsoe into an easy punchline.
It’s an unfair designation.
Bledsoe was the golden boy, a strapping, cannon-armed quarterback who was the first pick overall in the 1993 NFL Draft. Bledsoe’s big arm helped make the Patriots relevant after years of struggle. Before the 1995 season, the team signed Bledsoe to a new contract that gave him the highest average salary in NFL history.
For good measure, owner Robert Kraft included the highest signing bonus in league history: $11.5 million.
“This is one of the best investments of any kind that I have ever made,” Kraft said. “This solidifies the future of the organization for many years to come with one of the best young talents in the game.”
For a while, Kraft’s confidence was justified. Bledsoe led the Patriots to the Super Bowl in the 1996 season. At 24 years old, he was the youngest quarterback ever to start the NFL’s biggest game. He made three Pro Bowls by the time he turned 25.
The future curdled. After 1997, the Patriots became mediocre. In 2000, they were flat-out bad: 5-11. The next season, they started 0-2. Late in the fourth quarter of that second game against the New York Jets in Foxboro, Bledsoe, never to be confused with Steve Young, fled the pocket. He needed a first down. Instead, Jets linebacker Mo Lewis leveled him. The hit propelled Bledsoe out of bounds, where he landed near Patriots punter Lee Johnson.
“I had been in the league for 18 years and that was the worst hit I ever saw,” Johnson told Jeff Benedict in his best-selling book, The Dynasty. “I’ll never forget the noise it made. It was like a truck hit him. I literally felt it. I thought It killed Drew.”
Amazingly, Bledsoe returned for the next series. He couldn’t remember plays. That drew the concern of his backup quarterbacks. One of them, Damon Huard, spoke to offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, who called for assistance.
A scrawny, sixth-round pick from Michigan took Bledsoe’s place and redefined the NFL’s history. The Patriots became a dynasty of the bottom-line and cold efficiency. Bill Belichick, until then an average NFL head coach best known as Parcells’ defensive mastermind assistant, became Vince Lombardi. Jets fans acquired another way to be tortured. Mark Wahlberg made another athlete friend to ignore his texts.
That Tom Brady is widely considered the GOAT and Belichick’s path to genius has been profiled by David Halberstam doesn’t diminish the preposterous origin story. So it is not odd to consider the alternative.
What stats would Drew Bledsoe have put up for the New England Patriots if he had never been injured?
What if Bledsoe, 29, had remained the starting quarterback of the New England Patriots? Thanks to simulations built by Strat-O-Matic, the Market Leader in Sports Simulation, we can find out.
The Boston sports columnists and hot take artists would have based their farewells on these (simulated) numbers from 2001 to 2006:
Interceptions aside, these are solid stats but would they translate into the stunning success of 2001 to 2006, where the Patriots won three Super Bowls and Brady hosted Saturday Night Live and acted in his underwear?
Under the simulation, the Patriots don’t sniff the Super Bowl in five full seasons with Bledsoe under center. In fact, the team misses the playoffs twice, finishing 8-8 in 2002 and 2005. The Patriots do make it to the AFC divisional playoffs twice, first in 2003 as the AFC’s No. 2 seed before losing to the Tennessee Titans, 25-10. A year later, the Pats finish 11-5 and shut out the Jets on the road. Their postseason run ends in Indianapolis a week later.
Four games into the 2006 season, the Bledsoe era is over. He’s sent to the bench in favor of Matt Cassell or Vinny Testaverde or whomever best admired Kraft’s fleet of Air Force 1s. The move came after a second-straight loss, a 32-3 drubbing at the hands of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Back to reality. After the Jets game, Bledsoe’s pulse was faint; his breathing shallow. He was rushed to Mass General, where a frightening picture emerged. The veteran quarterback had a lacerated artery and a punctured lung. Blood was pooling in his chest. Bledsoe recently told Dan Patrick that if he had gone home to rest, he would have died.
“If Bledsoe’s injury had taken place in another city, the outcome could have been very different,” Benedict writes. “By the time he woke up in the ICU to find Kraft, Belichick, and Brady standing over his bed, he realized he was lucky to be alive.”
A new era had also begun.
Brady, of course, is still playing and trying to outwit Father Time. Bledsoe retired after the 2006 season when he was replaced by another high-profile QB, Tony Romo. Bledsoe told Patrick that he has no animosity toward Lewis and considers Brady a good friend. He has enjoyed success as a winemaker in Walla Walla, WA, his hometown. He’s a husband and father of four. It’s a satisfying and rewarding life.
“There’s nothing that could ever match the thrill of playing quarterback in the NFL,” he told ESPN in 2020. “Seventy thousand people screaming. Or even more fun, 70,000 opposing fans going quiet. But there is an equal feeling of accomplishment in wine.
“And it feels a lot better on a Monday morning.”