The current situation seems dire. The 2020 Patriots finished with a 7-9 record – their first sub-.500 season since 2000. They have a rookie quarterback in 15th overall pick Mac Jones, and they rebuilt the team over the offseason via a free agent spending spree rarely seen in New England over the past two decades.
Six Super Bowl titles over the past 20 years reset the organization’s expectations inside Gillette Stadium and outside. So 7-9 was a shock to the system.
But while it seems dire, it is hardly so when one compared it to the last time the Patriots marched a rookie passer out for a season opener. Let’s jump in Doc Brown’s DeLorean and set the date for Sept. 5, 1993.
That’s the day 1993 first overall draft pick Drew Bledsoe made his NFL regular season debut. The Patriots were coming off a 2-14 season that was preceded by records of 6-10, 1-15 and 5-11 over the previous three years. There were no Vince Lombardi trophies on the shelves at which to glance for a therapeutic pain reliever. The team was on the verge of a potential relocation to St. Louis. Dire might be putting it mildly.
Hope came in only two forms at that time – the hiring of two-time Super Bowl Champion head coach Bill Parcells and the drafting of a strong-armed quarterback from Washington State. Hope would need a side of patience to calm Patriots fans collective nerves.
The 1993 Patriots traveled to Rich Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., to take on the three-time defending AFC Champion Buffalo Bills in the season opener. The Bills were led by quarterback Jim Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas, wide receiver Andre Reed and household defensive stalwarts like Bruce Smith, Cornelius Bennett and Darryl Talley.
So the game went kind of how one would expect. The Patriots punted on their first four possessions and turned it over via a Leonard Russell fumble on the fifth. Trailing 10-0 late in the second quarter, Bledsoe threw a 6-yard pass to the sideline that tight end Ben Coates turned into a 54-yard touchdown as he out raced the secondary to the end zone. Buffalo quickly answered before the half to lead it 17-7 at the break.
Midway through the third, Bledsoe connected on his second career NFL touchdown pass, this one a 2-yarder to Greg McMurtry to make it 17-14. But it was all Buffalo from there. The Bills rolled to a 38-14 win.
Bledsoe finished 14-for-30 for 148 yards with two touchdowns and one interception while being sacked three times.
New England lost its next three to fall to 0-4 before beating the Cardinals in Phoenix, 23-21, but seven straight losses followed as New England struggled to a 1-11 record. A taste of hope swirled around to end the season, as New England managed to win its last four games.
A season later, the Patriots sat at 3-6 when Parcells decided to ride Bledsoe’s arm. His coming out party arguably came in a 26-20 overtime win over Minnesota on Nov. 13, 1994. The Patriots trailed, 20-0, before Bledsoe rallied the team to a 26-20 OT win by completing 45-of 70 passes (NFL records for completions and attempts). New England won its final seven games to finish 10-6 and earn a Wild Card berth.
Jones’ debut on September 12 vs. the Dolphins didn’t result in many more points than Bledsoe’s first start, but it did produce similar hope regarding the team’s future at what is the game’s most important position.
Jones completed 29-of-39 passes for 281 yards and a touchdown in his first NFL regular season appearance. Penalties, turnovers and an inability to finish off drives proved the Patriots undoing in a 17-16 loss to Miami at Gillette Stadium. So much like 1993, hope comes in the form of a rookie first round pick at quarterback. But patience may be a needed virtue.