During the 1990s, Quarterback Drew Bledsoe was the face of the New England Patriots franchise. The first pick in the 1993 NFL draft, a class that featured future hall of famers Michael Strahan and Jerome Bettis, Bledsoe helped revive the hapless Patriots and brought them to their 2nd SuperBowl appearance in 1996. Today, the NFL shop still sells a New England throwback jersey of Bledsoe’s and when he retired in 2007 he was fifth all time in pass attempts and completions and seventh in passing yards.
Unfortunately for Drew, his most famous game occurred on the night of 23rd September 2001. With 4’48’’ remaining on the 4th quarter game clock and trailing 10-3 to the Jets, he was replaced under centre by the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL Draft, Tom Brady. He had suffered internal bleeding from a gruesome collision with Jets linebacker Mo Lewis. He would never recover the starting job in New England.
What does this have to do with Tom Brady and who will replace him in New England? Well, firstly, Bledsoe deserves to be more than just a footnote in the Tom Brady story. But secondly, and more to the point at hand, the quality of Brady as a backup to Bledsoe may have given us false expectations as to the gems that Bill Belichick might uncover in his search for continuity when the Brady era inevitably ends in Foxboro.
In the last ten years, the question of who will inherit the position of signal-caller in New England has been asked many times. By my count, there have been 13 backups to Brady since the 2002 season. There have been draft picks, established veterans and undrafted free agents.
Damon Huard (2001-03) was famed for his impersonation of Peyton Manning in preparation for crucial games against the Indianapolis Colts. Rohan Davey (2002-04) won a “WorldBowl” with the Berlin Thunder (the title game for the short lived development league, NFL Europe) during his 4 years behind Brady. Veteran Doug Flutie (2005) memorably scored a drop goal in a cameo appearance in 2005. It is Matt Cassel’s (2005-08) term that stands apart as the only backup to have any reasonable amount of playing time throughout Brady’s 17 years in the league. Filling in for virtually the entirety of the 2008 campaign after Brady’s season ending ACL injury, Cassel has gone on to see action in every NFL season since, albeit not wearing Patriot blue.
As time passes the question has become more pressing, and, meticulously healthy lifestyle or no, at 39 years old, Brady’s time at the top will inevitably end sooner rather than later. And so the spotlight has fallen on the backup class of 2016, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett. An accomplished road win in Arizona for Garoppolo and a run heavy, yet error free, second half performance against Miami for Brissett haven’t provided the evidence for New England fans to be confident that their post-Brady success is assured. However, while drafting Garoppolo 62nd overall in 2014 and Brissett 91st overall in 2015 doesn’t compare to the 1st round picks expended by the Rams (Jared Goff), the Eagles (Carson Wentz), Colts (Andrew Luck) or countless others in recent years, for the Patriots, Bill Belichick and the 199th pick they spent on Brady, it might just signal that the future is already here.