Drew Bledsoe led the Patriots back into relevance and helped make them a Super Bowl contender at a time when the franchise’s very existence in New England was put in jeopardy. For his trouble, he got raked across the coals.
It may be an unpopular reality, but when Bledsoe makes appearances at Gillette Stadium nowadays, welcomed with applause and honored with the red carpet treatment, the predominant trait among those fans of a certain age is selective amnesia. They seem to forget the spittle they ejected from their mouths in rage at No. 11. They seem to forget that, as a player, Bledsoe was New England fandom’s personal whipping boy.
I stopped listening to sports talk radio during football season for a solid six years when it became too much to hear multiple callers complain about how many times Bledsoe patted the ball while throwing for 450 yards. Sure, he patted the ball a lot, but who did they want instead? Hugh Millen? Scott Secules? Rick Mirer?
The thing was, there was an age gap in fans’ sentiment toward Bledsoe. A sizable contingent of our dads’ generation pilloried him. He was no Steve Grogan or Tony Eason or even Scott Zolak to them. Bledsoe was indisputably the correct choice to go No. 1 in the 1993 NFL draft, but I once listened as a friend’s father explained that the Patriots would have been better off drafting Willie Roaf or Lincoln Kennedy because with protection like that, Zolak could be even better. (No disrespect to Zolak. We love him calling games on Sundays.)
Us kids? We knew better. Bledsoe was the reason we watched. His jersey was by far the most popular — I may or may not still have an authentic Bledsoe jersey that I may or may not wear on Sundays. Bledsoe wasn’t perfect, but until some guy named Tom Brady came along, Bledsoe was the greatest quarterback in franchise history. Even those of us whose understanding of the NFL didn’t precede 1992 knew enough of the team’s history to understand that.
Now to the matter at hand …
In Philadelphia during Donovan McNabb‘s prime, it was déjà vu. Few athletes have ever been as unfairly attacked or scrutinized by their own fans as McNabb who, to be fair, was an even better quarterback than Bledsoe. This Thursday, McNabb will have his number retired by the Eagles. He will walk onto the turf at Lincoln Financial Field and be showered in cheers, finally, unconditionally.
And it will be clear that the generation that disparaged his accomplishments, that called him soft and that spoke in thinly veiled code about him not being a “cerebral” quarterback is losing the argument.
The criticisms of McNabb can be divided into “fair” and “unfair” categories. The fair ones are that he never did win the “big ONE” — as in, a Super Bowl — and that he had a frustrating penchant for wording some comments in the worst possible way. The unfair criticisms are that he never won the “big games,” because at last check it takes winning quite a few “big games” to reach five NFC championship bouts. His tendency for verbal hiccups also created a self-fueled cycle: We expected him to slip up, so even when he didn’t slip up, it was portrayed as a slip up, therefore making it seem worse when he later made an actual slip up, and so on.
Here were some of the common complaints tossed at McNabb as an Eagle:
-He didn’t speak loudly enough to be a leader.
-He talked too much, rather than lead by example.
-He ran too much.
-He didn’t run enough.
-He checked down too often.
-He spent too much time looking for the big play.
-He’s black. (Thanks, Rush Limbaugh.)
-He’s not “black enough.” (Thanks, Bernard Hopkins.)
-He came from a good family, was a good father and never got into off-the-field trouble, therefore he was too laid-back and lacked a sense of urgency in the clutch. (Thanks, WIP sports radio.)
-He was too big and strong to throw an accurate short pass.
-He wasn’t as strong as his physique implied, so his long balls were inaccurate.
And so on.
Yet among younger or more self-aware fans who had endured Rodney Peete, Koy Detmer and Bobby Hoying, nobody cared. With McNabb at the helm, the Eagles were always, always, a title contender. Patriots fans love to whine about Brady’s receiving corps in 2006. McNabb had a group like that nearly every single year. He dragged Todd Pinkston, Freddie Mitchell and James Thrash to the conference title game in 2003. He took a rookie DeSean Jackson, Kevin Curtis and Kendra Wilkinson‘s husband just as far in 2008. When he did get a true No. 1 receiver to throw to in Terrell Owens, he took Philly to the Super Bowl, where they lost to the decade’s most dominant franchise. For that, McNabb wasn’t a failure — he was a gosh darn miracle worker.
As McNabb eases into his post-playing life, the looks back on his career are gradually becoming more flattering. The rise of blogs has given college students and 20-somethings a chance to speak their piece far earlier than they would have been able to in a previous era. The myth that McNabb puked in the Super Bowl has been thoroughly debunked. Reaching four straight NFC title games has been recognized as an accomplishment, not a shortcoming, now that 11 seasons of quarterback stability have been followed by utter dysfunction in two of the three full years since he left.
Here’s the bad news for the remaining McNabb haters out there: It’s only going to get worse.
The cheers for McNabb will drown out the boos on Thursday, and if not, eventually, they will. The more time passes, the louder and more prevalent these cheers will become. The folks who huffed and puffed when McNabb tried to save a broken play because his peewee receivers couldn’t get open are being drowned out. The time for McNabb to be fully appreciated has finally come. No. 5 will be officially retired on Thursday, but its legend will only continue to grow as time goes on.