By Tom E. Curran
Who was more important to the New England Patriots, quarterback Drew Bledsoe or the man who drafted him, Bill Parcells? Is it the guy who wrote the script or the guy who read the lines? There's a good chance that this is the choice that will face Patriots fans when the 2011 Patriots Hall of Fame nominees are announced by the team on April 15. And it's up to you to make the ultimate votes. On Friday, a committee of media, staff and alumni met to discuss Patriots players who are eligible and deserving of Hall of Fame induction. This reporter ... no, no this one...no, right HERE. Ok, I was in the room. Our job was to hear the discussion then nominate three players in descending order. When the ballots are counted, the top three vote-getters will be announced to the public and the public will vote on the 2011 inductee. There's always a lot of discussion about players from different eras. Getting insight into guys I'd only watched play (as opposed to covering or not seeing at all) was a big part of the session. Asking guys like Andre Tippett or Steve Grogan or Ernie Adams to explain the merits of Raymond Clayborn vs. Leon Gray vs. Houston Antwine was an education. But now we're getting into the "modern" eraof the Patriots. The conversation now becomes even more fascinating because the "saving" of the franchise and the current "flourishment" somewhat trump the great players from the star-crossed seasons past. I've been a stalwart supporter of Leon Gray, the late Patriots' left tackle who was with the Patriots from 1973-'78. John Hannah played next to Gray and the two were one of the most potent guard-tackle combos in league history. Gray went to two Pro Bowls (1976 and '78) and was an All Pro ('78) while with the Patriots. But he was foolishly dealt to Houston in 1979 where he kept on being awesome. He's been on my nomination list before. So has Clayborn, Antwine and another old-timer Houston Antwine. But with Bledsoe and Parcells both coming up, all the other guys were fighting for that third nomination spot on my ballot. And to me, the first spot was kind of easy. Bledsoe. Even though the word "underachiever" appears on his Patriots' epitaph, From 1993 to 1998, he was the best young quarterback in the NFL. I remember writing in 1998 that there wasn't a quarterback in the league you'rd rather start a franchise with. The talent was there. The production was there. The wins, the playoff appearances and the toughness were there. But the combination of Parcells being a pain in his ass, Pete Carroll being too soft, Bledsoe not being a maniacal worker and an ever-changing parade of offensive coordinators and systems caused Bledsoe's development to flat-line. And then he got worse. Still, he was the franchise hood ornament, the most important player the franchise ever had until the third week of September, 2001 rolled around. Parcells? His impact on the franchise was nearly equal to Bledsoe's. On the day he was hired - four months before he drafted Bledsoe - nearly 1,000 season tickets were sold. In four seasons, Parcells made the Patriots compelling. He made them relevant. He ended their years of being a punch line. But he was here for half as long as Bledsoe. His divorce from the team was messy (a Twitter poll I threw out there on Friday had Bledsoe as the pick by a 4 to 1 count) and he was as reviled as he was beloved by the time he fled to the Jets. Bledsoe? At least outwardly, he never did anything to sully his "class act" image, though he oozed disdain for Belichick and a tolerant condescension toward Brady at times during that period from September through January. Last up? I went with Leon Gray, narrowly, over Raymond Clayborn. So I did my part. And so did the rest of the panel. Come April 15, you'll get the chance to finish the job. I'll keep you posted.
By Tom E. Curran