Sunday, October 03, 2021

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. Trapped in my taupe-colored Camry for 35 minutes each way on a good day and three hours on one really, really bad day, 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 an amazing thing happened on Jan. 21, 1993: 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. And because the Patriots had a dreadful 2-14 record in 1992, Parcells was able to take quarterback Drew Bledsoe #1 in the 1993 draft. Parcells and Bledsoe coming to town forever transformed the radio buzz surrounding the Patriots. Parcells press conferences were highly entertaining and became appointment listening. More importantly, Bledsoe and 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. After that brief moment in the sun, the Patriots had slid back into mediocrity.

Parcells decided to move to the Jets front office after the 1999 season, which triggered the promotion of Belichick to head coach, per his contract. What followed was tremendously entertaining during my commutes listening to WEEI. As the story goes, Little Bill decided he didn't want Big Bill looking over his shoulder, he didn't like the Jets' ownership situation after the death of Leon Hess, he probably had a secret agreement with Kraft to finally take the head coaching job in New England. The bizarre events of January 2000 started with Belichick infamously scrawling his resignation as "HC of the NYJ" on a napkin, then stumbling through an explanation of his decision to a stunned audience at what was supposed to be his introductory press conference. Jets president Steve Gutman followed Belichick to the podium and said, "We should have some feelings of sorrow and regret for him and his family. He obviously has some inner turmoil." Big Bill wouldn't release Little Bill from his Jets contract to take the Patriots job, and a 23-day New York-Boston media circus ensued. Untimately, Commissioner Tagliabue got Parcells to settle for a draft pick from the Patriots, allowing Kraft to hire Belichick.

Completely unnoticed a few months later was the signing of the 199th selection in the 2000 NFL draft, Tom Brady, who managed to stick with the Patriots as the fourth-string quarterback. Never mind that NFL teams don't keep four quarterbacks. After Brady's first season in which he only dressed for two games and went 1-3 for six yards, Kraft gave Bledsoe the richest NFL contract to date, $10 million per year, despite an 5-11 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. WEEI obviously thought it was good for ratings to give Butch a platform as the New York a-hole that everyone in Boston could love to hate. It was rumored that Butch was a retired mobster, a rumor he no doubt reveled in. Although he certainly associated with lots of criminals in his shady life, it turned out that Butch was not a made man, just a small-time gambler and stool pigeon named Thomas Speers. Butch/Thomas actually was from Waterbury, Connecticut, but to the sports fans of Boston he was the prototypical arrogant New Yorker. His wicked laugh was one of WEEI's favorite sound bites. 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 against the Jets. When he went down, I expected Bishop to trot onto the field. The backup quarterback situation wasn't a topic the hosts and callers on WEEI bothered to talk about, so I didn't know that Bishop was no longer on the team and Brady had risen from #4 on the depth chart to #2 ahead of Damon Huard. Brady was unable to pull out that first game in relief, and there were rumblings that perhaps Belichick wasn't up to the job as his record was 6-14 to that point. As September turned to October and Boston sports fans were contemplating a lost football 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 October 17, 2001 at age 58, missing Brady's meteoric rise and the Red Sox breaking the Curse of the Bambino, not once but four times. With few exceptions since October 2001, sorrow, regret and inner turmoil has been the domain of hapless Jets fans.

Belichick's decision to stay with Brady after Bledsoe recovered was controversial at the time, even after Brady's storybook first Super Bowl win. I wanted Brady to be the quarterback because Bledsoe was an immobile sack machine. Not that Brady was fleet of foot, but he moved around the pocket well and got rid of the ball quickly. (Still does.) Belichick nipped the controversy in the bud and shipped Bledsoe off to Buffalo before the 2002 season. After three seasons with the Bills and two seasons with the Cowboys (and his old coach Duane Parcells), Bledsoe retired in April 2007. He's still only 49 years old, living the good life as a successful winemaker in his native state of Washington.

Twenty years and a few weeks after that initial 2001 relief appearance, 44-year-old Brady is returning to New England today with Tampa Bay as a 7-time Super Bowl champion and holder of every major career passing record except regular season passing yards. With just 69 yards today, he'll claim that record. Even though it will come as a visitor, I'm certain that 95% of the home crowd will cheer wildly when it happens. There is no dispute he has had the greatest career in NFL history, and most of that came as he lifted the Patriots to a level that could not have been imagined in September 2001. The two Bills, Bledsoe, Kraft, Adam "the Greatest Jackrabbit" Vinatieri and countless others played their roles in the rise of the Patriots. But if Brady had never happened, can anyone claim with a straight face that there still would be six Lombardis on display in Foxborough?

Brady is tall, he's got a strong (enough) arm, and he's the ultimate championship quarterback. Today, for (almost) certainly one last time, Brady leads a team out of the tunnel onto the New England turf. That the color of his uniform is different today than on 166 previous Foxborough gamedays will not matter to a still-adoring and grateful constituency. Decades of frustration with the Patriots ended when Belichick picked Brady over Bledsoe, symbolically coinciding with the death of the fake New York wise guy "Butch from the Cape," now so very long ago.