Thursday, April 19, 2007

Sparkle and Fade

Last week, Drew Bledsoe retired from the NFL after 14 seasons. Drew came to the Boston area a year after I did, and left a year before; more than any other pro athlete, I identify my time in New England with Bledsoe's career.
Five years ago, I had a brief discussion with a fantasy football leaguemate over whether Bledsoe was a potential Hall-of-Famer. Here's part of what I said:
[Bledsoe] presumably has several more seasons as a starter, and other than this year, has been quite durable (only three games missed since he became a starter)... Bledsoe has a pretty good shot at 50,000 passing yards, which by itself would make him a pretty good Hall case. Plus, he has three Pro Bowls and counting, and a Super Bowl (or two). Certainly, if his career ended today, he's not in, and he'll never be considered better than Aikman/Elway/Favre/Young. But ten years from now, who knows? He's certainly a lot better than he's given
credit for around here. ('Can't win the Big One,' they say. What Big One? The Super Bowl where they were two-touchdown underdogs? The other playoff game in Pittsburgh? How many Big Ones could there have been?)
I should point out the context: This was the week after the AFC Championship, where Bledsoe had come in for an injured Tom Brady, completed four straight passes (the last a touchdown), and played a mistake-free second half to hold off the Steelers for the upset. As we waited for medical reports on Brady, Bledsoe was absolutely savaged by New England Fandom on talk radio and in chat rooms. One thing I've never missed about the Boston area was the relentless negativity of its sports fans; I am told that three Super Bowls and one World Series title have done wonders in that regard.
But I digress. At the time of this discussion, I figured five more seasons as a starter would put Bledsoe into the Hall. He got four; is that enough?
The Keltner Test has become a tired device for Hall standards, but it does have the advantage of being more readable than a standard hammer-out-the-numbers paragraph. Plus, I can't find an example of anyone doing it for Bledsoe, so here goes:

1. Was he ever regarded as the best player in football? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in football?
Put simply, no. See #3.

2. Was he the best player on his team?
Bledsoe was probably the best player on the Patriots in 1994, from 1997-2000, and on the 2002 Bills.

3. Was he the best player in football at his position? Was he the best player in the conference at his position?
To suggest Bledsoe was even the best quarterback in the AFC would be unkind to John Elway until 1998, and to Peyton Manning afterwards. We don't even have to mention Brett Favre.

4. Did he have an impact on a number of playoff races?
Absolutely. In particular, his play in late 1999 (with a finger so badly broken there were pins sticking through the skin) was key to the Patriots making the playoffs that year.

5. Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?
Unless you think he passed his prime the day Parcells benched him for Tony Romo, yes. Frankly, Bledsoe could still play regularly for a number of NFL teams, though these are not teams that should be interested in signing him as a starter.

6. Is he the very best player in football history who is not in the Hall of Fame?
Probably not, but if you check out the list of 2007 eligibles, there are only about a half-dozen guys I would objectively say are better, and a few of those (Derrick Thomas, for example) will likely be inducted soon.

7. Are most players who have comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame?
Among eligible players with comparable passing statistics to Bledsoe (completions, yardage, TDs), only Dave Kreig and Boomer Esiason are not in the Hall.

8. Do the player's numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?
Bledsoe is in the top ten of all time in completions, passing yards, and touchdown passes. Favre is ahead of him on all three lists, likely-retiree Vinny Testaverde is ahead of him on two, and Manning will pass him in completions and yardage, probably in 2010 (he's already ahead in TDs). Other than that, we've got a while before those marks are challenged. His quarterback rating isn't spectacular, and neither is his TD/INT ratio, but those don't make or break a candidacy (see Namath, Joe). The answer here is yes.

9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
The main knock on Bledsoe has always been his immobility. That isn't by itself a bad thing, but the secondary knock has been that he's easily taken out of his game by a strong pass rush. His playoff statistics (6 TDs, 12 INTs, and a 54.9 rating in 7 games), against teams which were certainly blitzing more, and more capable of putting pressure on the quarterback, appear to back up this theory. Maybe he really can't win the Big One.

10. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in?
I'd put him ahead of everyone currently eligible; that includes Randall Cunningham, though it's close, and Cunningham will probably be inducted before Bledsoe is eligible. When Bledsoe actually is eligible, the answer will be the same, but if Drew isn't elected his first year, he won't get in the next year (when Favre will likely be eligible).

11. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?
Bledsoe's best seasons (1996, 1997, and 2003) were not MVP-caliber. As I've said, he wasn't even the best quarterback in the AFC any of those seasons.

12. How many Pro-Bowl-type seasons did he have? How many Pro Bowl games did he play in? Did most of the other players who played in this many go to the Hall of Fame?
Bledsoe had four Pro Bowl appearances (after the 1994, 1996, 1997, and 2002 seasons) and had the numbers to back it up every time (though for 1994, one could point out that anyone who put up 691 passes was going to have Pro-Bowl numbers). Four Pro Bowls would be the second-smallest total for a Hall-of-Fame QB since the AFL-NFL merger (Terry Bradshaw, inexplicably, has only three).

13. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the conference?
Curtis Martin was the best player on the Super Bowl team, but not by much. They'd need a lot of players almost as good as Bledsoe, but the answer to this is yes.

14. What impact did the player have on football history? Was he responsible for any rule changes? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?
Other than Bledsoe and Rick Mirer being the forerunners to Manning/Leaf in the great "which quarterback should (crappy team) take with the #1 pick?" controversies of the early 90s, there's not much to say here.

15. Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?
I don't know if the Football Hall of Fame has these guidelines, but we'll examine it. Other than one prominent incident, Bledsoe has had a quiet and upstanding off-field life. His full-page farewell ad in the Boston papers the week after being traded to Buffalo was a model for the genre. Most of Patriot Nation didn't deserve such a classy good-bye.

The verdict? By this list, Drew Bledsoe has a reasonable, though not strong, shot at the Hall of Fame. But I'm going to say he's out. The thing that really works against Bledsoe is his contemporaries. The first half of his career was dominated by Aikman, Elway, and Young; the second half, by Manning, Brady, and McNabb; and that guy in Green Bay has been around the entire time. There are only 30 quarterbacks in the Hall; Bledsoe is certainly one of the best who isn't in, but he'd also be one of the weakest who is. On top of that, Vinny Testaverde is going to be eligible at the same time, and has similar numbers (admittedly, over six more seasons and thirty more games). It's tough to induct one and not the other, so neither will be inducted. Hey, someone has to be the best guy not in the Hall.

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