New England coach Bill Parcells didn't move Chris Palmer from
wide receivers coach to quarterbacks coach in February so that
Palmer could spin-doctor or sugarcoat any problems that Patriots
prodigy Drew Bledsoe might have this year. Nor is Palmer there
to babysit Bledsoe, befriend him or give him a shoulder to cry
on if and when the 24-year-old finds himself strangled by the
Boston media corps. Palmer's job is simple: Transform Bledsoe
from phenom into Hall of Famer.
"Last year [Drew] had some mechanical problems, choice problems,
read problems and accuracy problems," Parcells says of his
quarterback, who played most of the season with a separated left
shoulder. "We have to have better performance from that
position. Whatever it takes to get it, I'm willing to try. We
both feel that way."
Last season was an excruciating step backward for Bledsoe, who
played like a poised vet two years ago. In 1994 he set a league
record for pass attempts in a season (691), threw for 4,555
yards and made the Pro Bowl. That success prompted team owner
Bob Kraft to sign Bledsoe to a seven-year, $42 million contract
extension. Last year, however, the bonus baby played like a bust
within 20 yards of the end zone. He bickered with Parcells on
the sideline and didn't throw a TD pass until the fifth game of
the season (by comparison, he threw 11 touchdowns in the same
span in '94). The offense flopped inside the red zone, scoring
touchdowns on only 24 of 62 chances. The Patriots, who began the
season being touted as Super Bowl contenders, ended it as a team
in need of some serious rebuilding.
Kraft recognized that his investment was more in need of
direction than a tourist trying to navigate the streets of
Boston's North End. For three years he had given Parcells free
rein to pick whatever players he wanted in the draft and to sign
whichever free agents he needed. In 1994 New England shelled out
more than $10 million for free-agent defensive backs Myron
Guyton and Ricky Reynolds. Last year the Patriots signed
scatback Dave Meggett to a five-year, $10 million deal. Guyton
was released in March, Reynolds is on his last legs with the
team, and Meggett scored just two touchdowns in '95. Tired of
having his money wasted, Kraft reduced Parcells's authority in
personnel decisions last January and made player personnel
director Bobby Grier the team's de facto general manager.
By April it was obvious that the balance of power had shifted.
Despite Parcells's wish to draft a defensive player, New
England selected Ohio State wideout Terry Glenn in the first
round. When Grier talked to the local media, it marked the first
time during Parcells's tenure that anyone other than the coach
had spoken publicly about the team's draft.
Despite Parcells's protests, Glenn is the ideal pick for the
Patriots. The offense was already loaded with Bledsoe, All-Pro
tight end Ben Coates and tailback Curtis Martin, the NFL's '95
rookie of the year, but receivers Vincent Brisby and Will Moore
drop too many passes and don't have the speed to stretch
opposing defenses. With Glenn and former Charger Shawn Jefferson
at wideouts, the middle of the field will open up for Coates, as
will the sidelines for Martin and Meggett.
It was hardly unreasonable of Parcells to want to stock the
defense, however. New England gave up 360.3 yards a game (28th
in the league) and allowed opposing QBs to complete 62.3% of
their passes. Former Cleveland coach Bill Belichick was hired in
February to revamp the team's defensive scheme. Parcells's
defensive coordinator with the Giants for eight seasons,
Belichick has scrapped the 3-4 defense--with which the duo won
two Super Bowls in New York--and installed a 4-3 alignment.
Third-year linebacker Willie McGinest (11 sacks in '95) will
move up to defensive end.
The key player in the defensive transition will be middle
linebacker Ted Johnson. When times were lean last year, the
Pats' defense looked up to inside linebacker Vincent Brown, who
acted as spokesman and protected his teammates like a mama bear
watching over her cubs. In March, New England cut its team
captain--who underwent surgery on both knees during the
off-season--and his $2 million salary. Now Johnson, in just his
second NFL season, is responsible not only for heading up a
revamped defense but also for acting as the unit's emotional
leader and mouthpiece. Which is no small task on a team that
will doubtless have its share of explaining to do.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID WALBERG COVER [REGIONAL] Judgment Day Drew Bledsoe and the Patriots face a critical season
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID WALBERG Newly installed at end, McGinest will have no end of sack opportunities. [Willie McGinest]
BY THE NUMBERS
1995 Yards per Game (NFL rank in parentheses)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 116.6 (10) 224.4 (15) 341.1 (12)
DEFENSE 117.4 (22) 242.9 (25) 360.3 (28)
Remember When ...
New England kicker Matt Bahr has joked that he was a high school
classmate of Socrates'. That's a stretch, but Bahr is the only
active NFL player who participated in a postseason game in the
1970s. He played his rookie season for the Pittsburgh team that
won Super Bowl XIV; the Steelers' first playoff victory en route
to that title was a 34-14 win over Miami on Dec. 30, 1979.
Active Players in the Four Major Sports Who Appeared in
Postseason Games in the 1970s
Matt Bahr, Pittsburgh Steelers 1979
Dennis Martinez, Baltimore Orioles 1979
Eddie Murray, Baltimore Orioles . 1979
Robert Parish, Golden State Warriors 1977
Player to Watch
Cornerback Ty Law knows what it's like to be taken advantage of.
On Thursday nights last season, the Patriots' secondary dined
out at a ritzy eatery, courtesy of Law, the team's first-round
pick. The purpose of the weekly get-togethers--other than to
haze the rookie--was to open the lines of communication in the
group, which knew plenty about being abused: New England allowed
more than 20 completions a game last year, 22nd in the league.
In seven starts at right corner during the second half of the
season, Law picked off as many passes (three) as his counterpart
on the left side, Ricky Reynolds, did all year. This season Law
hopes to prove that both he and the Pats won't be taken
advantage of again.
Head coach: Bill Parcells
QB Drew Bledsoe 636 att. 323 comp. 50.8%
3,507 yds. 13 TDs 16 int. 63.7 rtg.
RB Curtis Martin 368 att. 1,487 yds. 14 TDs
FB Sam Gash 8 att. 24 yds. 0 TDs
TE Ben Coates 84 rec. 915 yds. 6 TDs
WR Vincent Brisby 66 rec. 974 yds. 3 TDs
WR Shawn Jefferson[*] 48 rec. 621 yds. 2 TDs
WR Terry Glenn (R)[*] 57 rec. 1,316 yds. 17 TDs
LT Bruce Armstrong 6'4" 284 lbs.
LG William Roberts 6'5" 292 lbs.
C Dave Wohlabaugh 6'3" 304 lbs.
RG Bob Kratch 6'3" 288 lbs.
RT Max Lane 6'6" 295 lbs.
PK Matt Bahr 27/27 XPs 23/33 FGs
LE Willie McGinest 11 sacks 0 fum. rec.
LT Mark Wheeler[*] 1 sack 0 fum. rec.
RT Pio Sagapolutele[*] 1/2 sack 0 fum. rec.
RE Troy Barnett 2 sacks 1 fum. rec.
OLB Dwayne Sabb 0 sacks 0 int.
MLB Ted Johnson 1/2 sack 0 int.
OLB Chris Slade 4 sacks 0 int.
CB Ricky Reynolds 3 int. 2 1/2 sacks
SS Lawyer Milloy (R)[*] 1 int. 0 sacks
FS Willie Clay[*] 8 int. 0 sacks
CB Ty Law 3 int. 1 sack
P Tom Tupa 65 punts 43.6 avg.
PR Dave Meggett 45 ret. 8.5 avg.
KR Dave Meggett 38 ret. 25.4 avg.
[*] New acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)