Someone made a funny on the radio the day after the Associated Press broke the news that Drew Bledsoe was retiring. The joke was that Bledsoe intended to deliver an exclusive to ESPN about his retirement, but the AP intercepted it.

Certainly worth a chuckle, that one. There was another one I heard somewhere about how if the Patriots decide to erect a statue to him, they don’t need a bronze likeness of Bledsoe. They can just use the real thing.

I like a good Bledsoe joke as much as the next guy, but wouldn’t you think New England sports fans can show a little class for once and give the guy the credit he deserves as he rides off into the sunset?

Drew Bledsoe may be the most important person ever to put on a New England Patriots uniform. Not the best, certainly. The guy that’s playing quarterback now has already surpassed him and pretty much everyone else in that department (make a case for John Hannah, merely the greatest to ever play his position, and you’ll have my ear).

Without Drew Bledsoe, though, Tom Brady might be wining and dining Giselle Bundchen in some of St. Louis’ finest restaurants now instead of giving the Boston gossip columns fodder with every appearance at Legal Seafood.

Without Drew Bledsoe, Bill Belichick might be living next door to his buddy Tony LaRussa.

Without Drew Bledsoe, you might be living and dying with the New York Giants right now.

Think about that for a second.

Ever since Drew Bledsoe left New England in 2002, his body of work in Foxborough has been judged in the incorrect context. Patriot fans have been comparing him to Brady, and, for that matter, so has everybody else who follows football. It’s not necessarily an unfair comparison. Bledsoe and Brady were embroiled in a quarterback controversy in 2001, but let’s not overlook what Bledsoe had done before that, either.

The first Patriot game I ever attended was the final game of Bledsoe’s rookie year. He threw for over 400 yards in that game and hooked up with Michael Timpson on a bomb in overtime for the win and, as an added bonus, knocked the visiting Miami Dolphins after the playoffs.

Many of the fans stuck around Foxborough Stadium for a good half hour after the game. The threat of then owner James Busch Orthwein moving the team to St. Louis still hung like a cloud over the team, and some of the fans were chanting “Don’t go! Don’t go!” At the same time, many of us were contemplating the possibilities of Bledsoe and Bill Parcells teaming up to lead the Patriots away from their familiar position as the joke of the NFL and into, dare we think it, Super Bowl contention. If it’s possible for a throng of people to be overcome with conflicting emotions of optimism and dread at the same time, that’s how it felt that day.

We all know the rest of the story. Bledsoe and the Tuna did indeed lead the Pats to the Super Bowl. But by the time that happened, there was already the belief that Bledsoe was an underachiever. The 21-year-old gunslinger whose potential we were all drooling over on that unseasonably warm afternoon in January, 1994 didn’t get that much better.

He stood in the pocket, yes, like a statue, patting the ball, and too often ended up trying to thread the needle into a double- or triple-teamed Ben Coates. He made inexplicably bad throws or fumbled in big games. I can think of at least one interception, in a big regular season game against Pittsburgh, and then, later that same year, a critical fumble that cost them a playoff game against the Steelers.

Even when he beat the Steelers, Bledsoe made some jaw-droppingly dumb decisions. The worst throw of his career may have come in his last game with the Pats, the AFC Championship game where he relieved an injured Brady. He was under a heavy rush, and rather than take a relatively harmless sack, he just threw the ball up for grabs over his shoulder. It wasn’t intercepted, fortunately, otherwise the Patriots might have lost and it would have gone down as the single worst throw in football history.

Bledsoe made a lot of bad throws with the Bills and Cowboys, too. He also played behind some porous offensive lines in Buffalo, Dallas and New England, and took more hits than the crowd at Woodstock.

But he took the punishment and never complained. In fact, the Patriots have had some tough quarterbacks in their history – Jim Plunkett, Steve Grogan, Brady – but Bledsoe belongs at the top of that list. In 1998, he played with a broken finger and pulled off a comeback win against the Dolphins, then played with a pin in that same finger six days late and delivered another comeback against the Bills. Three years later, Mo Lewis leveled him and sheered a blood vessel in his chest, and Bledsoe stayed in the game.

The guy could play a little when he was healthy, too, even if he never lived up to his potential. He practically carried the offense in 1994, the first year he made the playoffs. The top running back on that team was Marion Butts, whose idea of a big run was to trip over a lineman and fall forward at the line of scrimmage. And besides Coates, a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate, his leading receivers were Vincent Brisby, Michael Timpson and Ray Crittenden, none of whom would be in the league in four years.

There was the comeback game against Minnesota that year, when he led the Pats back from a 20-0 halftime deficit. There was an equally stunning comeback against the Giants that clinched the division on the final day of the 1996 season and propelled New England to the Super Bowl. Then there was the Fog Bowl playoff game against the Steelers two weeks later, where he threw a bomb to Terry Glenn on the first play that essentially knocked the wind out of the Steelers.

This is the Bledsoe I and many other Patriot fans will remember. It doesn’t mean I’ll lobby for him for the Hall of Fame. He just wasn’t good enough, long enough. But I will be disappointed if there isn’t a ceremony to retire his No. 11 at Gillette Stadium this fall.

There wouldn’t even be a Gillette Stadium without Drew Bledsoe. And that’s no joke.

Randy Whitehouse is a staff writer. He may be reached via email at [email protected]

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