Thursday, January 17, 2019

Tall, Strong Arm

For more than 15 years, 1992-2007, I was a daily commuter in the Boston area, driving up I-95 to my office near Route 128, Boston's version of the Beltway. I loved the day after Thanksgiving before it was known as Black Friday because there was always light traffic and I could make the drive in 30 minutes. On normal days it was 40 minutes; on one really bad day it was three hours. Radio was my entertainment.

The first few years of that drive I listened to Imus until he turned his show into a constant telethon for his children's ranch scam, so in the mid-90's I turned to WEEI sports radio. At that time the Red Sox were still tagged as lovable losers and dominated the sports talk. The Patriots were largely ignored because they were utterly inept, but their 2-14 record in 1992 allowed them to take quarterback Drew Bledsoe #1 in the 1993 draft. An amazing thing happened just before that draft: Owner James Orthwein, who was not considered a football genius, somehow convinced two-time Super Bowl champ Duane "Bill" Parcells to take the head coaching job. Bledsoe and Parcells coming to town forever transformed the radio buzz surrounding the Patriots. Parcells press conferences were highly entertaining and became appointment listening. More importantly, the Patriots began to win and they made the Super Bowl after the 1996 season. But just as they neared the pinnacle, it seemed as though they couldn't stand success.

There was chaos leading up to Super Bowl XXXI against the Packers. It was rumored that Parcells was on his way out because he didn't get along with Robert Kraft, who had bought the team from Orthwein in 1994. Indeed, mere seconds (it seemed) after the Packers finished off the Patriots 35-21, Parcells bolted to the hated New York Jets. Despite the tensions between the owner and the now-former HC, Kraft considered promoting Parcells' right-hand man Bill Belichick to be the new HC. Kraft eventually decided to make a clean break with the Parcells era, but he respected Belichick enough that he felt it was necessary explain his decision over dinner with their spouses. Instead of taking over the Patriots in 1997, Belichick went to the Jets to resume his recurring role as Parcells' defensive coordinator, with a deal in place to eventually become HC. Pete Carroll took over as Patriots HC for three downward-trending seasons, then was fired. (Whatever happened to Pete?) By all accounts Bledsoe is a wonderful person, but I grew increasingly frustrated with his play. He could put up huge passing numbers but was a statue in the pocket, holding the ball too long and taking a lot of sacks.

Parcells decided to move to the Jets front office after the 1999 season, which triggered the promotion of Belichick to head coach, per the agreement. But Little Bill decided he didn't want Big Bill looking over his shoulder, and he also didn't like the Jets' ownership situation. In a bizarre scene in January 2000, Belichick infamously resigned as HC of the NYJ at his introductory press conference and (eventually) became HC of the Patriots. After that 23-day New York-Boston media circus which required the intervention of Commissioner Tagliabue, completely unnoticed was the selection of Tom Brady with the 199th pick in the April 2000 NFL draft. After the 2000 season, Kraft gave Bledsoe the richest NFL contract to date, $10 million per year, despite an 8-8 team record, a 59% completion percentage (low by today's standards), 45 sacks, and only 17 TDs to 13 interceptions. Sometimes I wished they would put in Michael Bishop, the scrambler from K-State, just to cut down on the sacks. One of WEEI's frequent callers gave voice to my frustrations with Bledsoe: "He's tall, he's got a strong arm, he's tall, he's got a strong arm. And he's tall."

That damning faint praise was delivered by "Butch from the Cape," a mysterious Yankees fan who took joy in blistering the Boston teams on sports talk radio. Butch was the New York a-hole Boston loved to hate, and no doubt he was good for ratings. It was rumored that Butch was a retired wise guy, a rumor he no doubt reveled in. Although he certainly associated with mobsters, it turned out that Butch was a small-time gambler and stool pigeon named Thomas Speers. It matters not that Butch technically was from Connecticut, he represented the arrogance of New York. Even a pacifist like me wanted to punch him in the face, even though I largely agreed with him on Bledsoe.

September 2001 is forever defined by national tragedy, but it also was the month that Bledsoe suffered a serious injury. When he went down, I expected Bishop to trot onto the field. Instead it was the afterthought low-round draft pick, the guy we thought was the third- or fourth-stringer, Brady. About the same time Boston sports fans were contemplating a lost season with an inexperienced backup QB, the story spread that the notorious "Butch from the Cape" had cancer. Many WEEI listeners figured it was some weird scam being perpetrated by the degenerate gambler. No, he really was sick and he died in October 2001 at age 58, missing Brady's development into a legend and the Red Sox breaking the Curse of the Bambino, not once but four times.

Belichick's decision to stay with Brady after Bledsoe recovered was controversial at the time, but of course it was proven to be correct. Seventeen years, four months after that initial 2001 relief appearance, Brady is getting ready for his 13th AFC Championship game, trying to reach his 9th Super Bowl, adding yet another chapter to the greatest career in NFL history. Brady is tall, he's got a strong (enough) arm, and he's the ultimate championship quarterback. Decades of frustration with the Patriots ended when Belichick picked Brady over Bledsoe, symbolically coinciding with the death of the loud-mouthed New Yorker "Butch from the Cape," now so very long ago.

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