The confetti flew down the Louisiana Superdome, the painter on AstroTurf field plastered with green and white pieces of shredded up paper. Bret Farve and the tight ship ran Green Bay Packers achieved football immortality while the bonkers New England Patriots walked into uncertainty. Their head coach, their guarding spirit and protector Bill Parcells did not mince words about his displeasure working for owner Robert Kraft.
It’s been talked to death that Kraft did not let Parcells “buy the grocers” while people don’t know much about the situation beyond him not wanting to draft Terry Glenn. A talented wide receiver “Big Tuna” casually derided by referring to him as “She.”
Parcells original plan for the 1996 draft was to select defensive back Tony Brackens with the seventh pick and receiver Mushin Muhammad 36th. Instead the Patriots got Glenn and strong safety Lawyer Milloy.
Glenn had four seasons catching passes for over a thousand yards and made the Patriots All-Decade Team for the 1990s. Milloy made four Pro Bowls and of course was a gigantic reason they won the Super Bowl on 2001.
The year before despite a strong rushing game and featuring the pre-cursor to Gronkowski in Ben Coates, and Shawn Jefferson the Patriots couldn’t score in the red zone. Bledsoe ranked in the bottom tier of QBs in completion percentage in the red zone (34.65) and touchdowns (8). All timers Stan Humphries and Gus Freotte were superior than the QB taken no. 1 overall.
The implementation of Glenn opened up avenues for the stagnant offense. Bledsoe went from one of the worse QBs in the red zone to one of the best. His mark of 20 touchdowns only paled to Farve’s 24. His 54 completion percentage was a gigantic step forward.
Glenn’s 4.29 speed and huge hands no doubt played a role in alternating the complexion of the offense. Kraft picked some mighty fine groceries even if Parcells thought otherwise.
Of course, Parcells grips about not bolstering the defense is understandable. The 1995 season was mired by ineptitude on both sides of the ball. Defensively the Patriots gave up 360.3 yards a game, a mark worthy of bottom of the league status. Bill Belichick was brought aboard after the Cleveland Browns franchise moved to Baltimore and did not retain him as head coach to fix these holes.
In a year’s span the Patriots defense improved from allowing 23.6 points a game to 19.6 winning one more game to cultivate a record of 11-5. A big reason for this was Belichick scrapping the 3-4 defensive scheme which one him two championships while serving as the defensive coordinator for Parcell’s Giants. The 4-3 alignment was to compliment third-year linebacker Willie McGinest by moving him up to defensive end. Linebacker Ted Johnson succeeded team caption Vincent Brown when he had to undergo double knee surgery. The second year player stepped up in a major way.
Regardless of the behind the scenes dysfunction ultimately made public by a scorned coach plotting his departure, the Patriots made it to the Super Bowl. By no means a small accomplishment. Drew Bledsoe was a lot Jimmy Garoppolo. A high volume passer prone to throwing interceptions mixed with beautiful bombs to the end zone. If you’re asking him to bail you out you have the wrong quarterback. Saddle him with a fantastic running game and you’re on to something.
Enter Curtis Martin. The New York Jet great cut his teeth as a Patriot. In his first two seasons the Pittsburgh product rushed for 2,639 yards and 28 touchdowns. Making two All-Pro teams and utterly dominated the elite rushing defense of the Steelers in the playoffs scoring 3 touchdowns and 166 yards.
Entering Super Bowl XXXI the league’s second best offense were fourteen point underdogs to the leagues best defense.
The contest opened up in style. Farve got the Patriots on the canvas early with a 54-yard bomb to Andre Rison in the Packers second offensive snap. The ensuing Patriots drive ended abruptly when Packers defensive back Doug Evans intercepted a Bledsoe pass. But the Patriots D stood firm (PHRASING) and held the Pack to a field goal. 10-0 and the fans barley had a chance to get drunk.
Perhaps the outside noise was too much?
But wait. The Patriots did no go quietly into the night. Back-to-back touchdown drives led by the shaky Bledsoe. Catches by fullback Keith Byers and tight end Coates roared the Patriots into the lead 14-10. In the previous 30 Super Bowls no team scored 14 points in the opening quarter and loss the game. Surely fate would not be cruel in making the once lowly Patriots be the first sacrificial lamb?
Well shit. The mad bomber known as Farve connected on an 81-yard bomb to Antonio Freeman, and the next Packers drive Chris Jackie hit his second field goal of the night. Pack back in the lead. But only by six. With little under eight-minutes remaining in the half the Patriots appeared to be driving down to at least get three points before the first half expires.
Bledsoe hit Coates for 19-yards to get the Patriots to the 44-yard line. So far, Bledsoe has done himself fair. 10-19, 150 yards and 2 touchdowns. What follows is his utter implosion. A long pass intended for Jefferson landed in the arms of Packers d-back Mike Prior. Bledsoe would finish the game not throwing another touchdown, and throwing 4 interceptions, getting sacked 5 times.
The Packers went down and scored again. Now up 13 as the gun sounded signifying the end of first half play. Not only did New England squander an opportunity to retake control, they dug themselves a bigger hole.
Ah, but the Football Gods would have one last tease for the Patriots. Taking advantage of excellent field position, the Patriots began their drive at their own 47-yard line. It took a meager seven plays to drive the rest of the way culminating in an 18-yard rush by the aforementioned Martin. Holy shit! They aren’t dead. Reggie White is gasping for air on the sidelines. The Packers offense won’t score again on us. The Patriots are going to win…
Wait… why is Adam Vinatieri kicking it to Desmond Howard. No. Wait! Don’t do that.
Welp. He scored. We lost. We’re done for. Ever stopped and pondered if the Packers retained their returning ace Farve would have won that Super Bowl vs Denver the following year?
Anyways, New England lost. Closing the door on the four seasons of the Parcell’s era where he brought the team back to respectability after a dismissal period between 1987 and ‘92.
Lost in the defeat was the fact the defense cleaned up Bledsoe’s messes. If he could have thrown just one fewer interception and if future hero Vinatieri did not kick it to Howard the Patriots probably win that contest 27-21 with the former being the MVP.
Could you imagine Super Bowl champion and MVP Drew Bledsoe? It’s more unbelievable than a Donald Trump presidency. That’s not a joke. In hindsight Bledsoe wasn’t a hard working QB despite his skills.
But this article is about what-if the improbable happened? What if the Patriots pulled off a similar feat of that the 1977 New York Yankees? What-if Foxboro Was Burning?
For starters, it’s likely Kraft hires Belichick as Parcell’s replacement from the jump as opposed to taking that detour with Pete Carroll.
I don’t know how Belichick drafts or molds the roster. But the Carroll and Bobby Grier era was defined by a mismanagement of the salary cap sending the Patriots to cap jail. Coates and center Bruce Armstrong saw the chopping block the first year Belichick assumed general manager duties in 2000. Coates had a cap hit of $3.46 million entering 2000 and his 1999 campaign was mired by injures and a sharp decline in productivity. Armstrong had been a Patriot since 1987 and while also at the end of his rope Belichick did try to keep him aboard as a veteran presence. Asking him to shave off $1.5 million off his $3.5 figure. Armstrong refused and his career was called.
The money saved in these cost cutting measures allowed the Patriots to retain Milloy on what was the highest paid contract for a safety. Seven-years, $35 million.
Carroll and Grier were guilty of getting complacent and being antipodal to hard-liners like Parcells. You get what you’re worth and not a penny more. It sucks being a curmudgeon is what it takes to win championships in football, but it is what it is. The players assumed control and ran roughshod over management. In a short span of time the overachieving Patriots of 1996 became underachievers in 1997 and 1998 until falling back into obscurity in 1999.
If the Patriots changed Super Bowl’s 31 L into a W the dynasty probably dates back five-years sooner than it does in our timeline. Maybe they make it to an extra Super Bowl in the Bledsoe era? Does the additional success make Belichick reconsider scrapping Bledsoe for Brady? While Bledsoe did sign a 10-year contract prior to the 2001 season the move translates to more of a Kraft decision than a Belichick one. He never seemed that eager to give the reigns back to the quarterback or more pedigree than the 199th overall pick.