This is number five on my list of the top episodes in the Boston sports media this decade.
When Drew Bledsoe was hit in the chest by the Jets Mo Lewis late in the second game of the 2001 season, and a second-year QB named Tom Brady trotted out on the field, who of us knew that the decade had then really begun for Boston sports?
Three Super Bowl championships later for the Patriots, and two Super Bowl MVPs and a regular season MVP, along with a record-setting 50 touchdown undefeated season in 2007 later for Brady, the decision to stick with Brady over Bledsoe even after the latter was healthy enough to return that season seems inarguable.
It was anything but at the time.
Drew Bledsoe, while at times maddening on the field, had developed a strong relationship with the press. Bledsoe was always there after the game, win or lose, whether he had played well or poorly, answering the questions from the press, and taking responsibility for losses (Even though he didn’t make changes in his game to improve what caused those losses). It was said he talked to the media quite a bit off the record as well, becoming a primary source of information “behind the scenes,” “back channel” communication for writers like Ron Borges, Kevin Mannix and Nick Cafardo.
When Bledsoe was hurt, the Patriots then fell to 0-2 on the season, and there was speculation that coach Bill Belichick, in his second year with the team, could be in jeopardy of losing his job. With Tom Brady under center the next week, the Patriots routed Indianapolis 44-13, but then lost in Miami 30-10 the following week, to put the Patriots at 1-3. Things seemed grim. The San Diego Chargers, led by Doug Flutie came to town the following week, and after trailing by 10 in the fourth quarter, Brady led his first fourth quarter comeback in the leading New England to a 29-26 OT victory.
During this time, the airwaves and newspapers were filled with debate as to whether the Patriots should stick with Brady, or give Drew Bledsoe his job back when he was ready to play again. Bledsoe himself talked about getting “my job” back. Media members took sides. Pete Sheppard was an early Brady adopter, while Glenn Ordway was a Bledsoe guy. In general, it seemed that the younger media set were with Brady, while the older set, who had been around the team longer, and perhaps benefited from Bledsoe’s “back channel” information, sided with Bledsoe.
In mid November, the Patriots sat at 5-5 following a home loss to the St. Louis Rams. The next day, on Monday, November 19, Bill Belichick announced that Tom Brady would be his starter for the “foreseeable future.” Bledsoe had been cleared to return to action, but would not be getting “his job” back.
The Bledsoe backers in the media immediately went on the offensive, blasting Belichick, with Borges claiming that the coach had outright lied to Bledsoe. Borges later bragged on the radio that he himself had counseled Bledsoe during this time.
While the sports radio hosts and newspapers columnists were talking non-stop about Brady-Bledsoe, the real shows came on the Sunday night TV sports shows, specifically Sports Final on WBZ, which often had Borges, Cafardo and a young Herald reporter named Michael Felger on. These segments had a WWE-feel to them, as the three of them pulled no punches in debating this topic. Borges and Felger would shout at each other during these segments, while Cafardo’s role was mostly to roll his eyes while Felger was talking, throw up his hands periodically and mutter “Bledsoe” over and over.
Even after the Patriots had won the Super Bowl behind Brady, this episode continued on. It actually continued on for at least two more seasons.
When the Patriots traded Bledsoe to the division rival Buffalo, it started all over again. Borges and Cafardo would denigrate Brady while saying how huge a mistake it was, not just to get rid of Bledsoe, but to trade him within the division.
During the 2002 preseason, Borges was heard on Sports Final declaring that Damon Huard should be the Patriots starting QB, based on the performances in the preseason. The Patriots struggled in defending their Super Bowl championship, finishing 9-7 and out of the playoffs. Brady threw for 3764 yards that season with a league leading 28 touchdowns.
Meanwhile, the Bills jumped from 3-13 in 2001 to 8-8 in 2002, with Bledsoe throwing for 4359 yards with 24 touchdowns. His performance was lauded by his media supporters, while Brady was dismissed as a “system quarterback” who didn’t have the arm to make a deep throw.
The 2003 season began with the Bills routing the Patriots 31-0, days after New England had released Lawyer Milloy and he had signed with the Bills. In that opening game, Brady struggled, throwing for only 123 yards with four interceptions. Bledsoe meanwhile, threw for 230 yards and a touchdown.
Feeling his oats, Cafardo wrote that week about not hearing from the Bledsoe bashers, who “tend to hide when he plays well” and how he’s never “seen a team do so much to help a competing team within the division get so good so fast.” He said felt a long way from the 10-6 he predicted for the Patriots prior to that season. The Patriots finished 14-2 while the Bills fell to 6-10.
It wasn’t really until Brady won his second Super Bowl MVP following the 2003 season that this argument began to die down somewhat. But not completely. Borges continued for years to stick up for Bledsoe, and insisting that he was wronged by Belichick. Ron would make quite a stir whenever he could get a radio station (usually Eddie Andelman’s show on 1510am) to give him an outlet for his madness.
It’s easy to forget now, with all that Brady has accomplished in his career, and how huge of an icon he has become, on and off the field, but Bill Belichick’s decision to stick with him as his starter was one of the most intensely debated incidents of the decade.