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It was 28 years ago when the Patriots last had a rookie quarterback angling for the starting job — not unlike the situation brewing in Foxborough this summer.
In 1993, New England had four quarterbacks on the roster: a veteran with relatively little experience in the system (Scott Secules), a first-round pick looking to start his career (Drew Bledsoe), and a pair of veterans hoping for as many reps as they could manage (Scott Zolak and Tommy Hodson).
While there are varying degrees of similarity to 2021 — Secules is the first one to tell you Cam Newton’s resume is far more impressive than his was — the parallels between that quarterback room and the current one are certainly striking, and might offer a partial roadmap on how the Patriots might move forward in 2021.
The Patriots signed Secules, a former Miami backup who was a favorite of Bill Parcells when the coach was working in television, as a free agent on March 22. They followed that up by taking Bledsoe first overall. The pair joined holdovers Zolak and Hodson on the roster.
As always, the QBs went into the process looking to compete. But they knew the reality: You don’t use a No. 1 overall pick on a quarterback unless you’re going to give him the starting job.
But Parcells said it wouldn’t be a slam dunk, at least that season.
“I promise you I will not throw him to the wolves,” Parcells said of Bledsoe. “He will not play until he is ready to play.”
Parcells also wanted to see how Bledsoe would respond to his coaching.
“We kind of figured Drew was the No. 1 pick, so the coaches will give it to him,” fullback Sam Gash said recently. “But that wasn’t how Parcells did it. I don’t know where he started on the depth chart, but I remember Parcells just being on him every day, just needling at him all the time, trying to get him off his rocker and see how he would respond to tough situations. He was an even-keeled guy. I mean, he would get pissed, but he handled it all.
“If you could handle what Coach Parcells was dishing out, you could handle anything.”
Secules and Bledsoe went back and forth that summer, but it was the veteran who got the start in the preseason opener against the Chargers.
“He was trying to bring the rookie along at a slower pace,” Secules said. “You want to be guarded in that situation, and ultimately, that was the value of having someone like me in camp that year. The pressure doesn’t have to be on the rookie right away.
“... When you look at the talent levels that year, what Drew brought to the table was far greater than anything than what anybody else had in a red, white and blue uniform, myself included,” Secules added. “He had all the pieces. He just needed time to develop.”
Hodson was released in late August, leaving Bledsoe, Secules, and Zolak on the roster. And in early September, Parcells made his pronouncement: it was going to be the rookie.
“Quite frankly, I’m surprised this transpired the way it did,” the coach said days before the opener against Buffalo. “But as a coach, you have to give your team the best chance to win.”
The Patriots lost their first four games with Bledsoe at quarterback, and in the fifth game, he suffered a sprained left knee. Secules came off the bench against the Cardinals and rallied New England to a 23-21 win — the only victory the Patriots’ would enjoy in the first 12 games of the season — and stepped in as the starter for the next four weeks. There were four losses, but three were by three points or fewer.
After Secules sustained a shoulder injury during a 13-10 overtime loss to the Bills, Bledsoe returned to the starting lineup.
This time, for good.
The rookie and the team finished the year strong; the Patriots were 4-3 in their last seven games started by Bledsoe, with the three losses coming by a combined 13 points.
“That team, we had good guys, but we didn’t have a lot of great players,” Secules recalled. “We worked hard, we learned, and we got better as the season went on, and finished a lot stronger than when we started. That was really the prideful part. By the end of the year, we won four in a row, and laid a foundation for a team that continued to get better.”
So, what can we take away from that as we watch Mac Jones battle for the starting job?
There’s importance in keeping as much pressure off the rookie for as long as possible — especially considering the Patriots’ schedule this season.
“You don’t want that pressure on Jones,” Secules said. “All of that stuff of being a first-round pick and coming from Alabama, that’s one thing. But if you can lessen the pressure and allow him to play on his own timeline, that’s a big plus — not Week 4 against Tom (Brady) and the Bucs. If Cam struggles later in the season, maybe after the bye week (in mid-December)? There are a lot of options if they want to make a move.”
There is also Belichick’s willingness to needle rookies, which means Jones should expect to develop a thick skin this summer. And, of course, Belichick’s track record of not being cowed when it comes to making tough decisions at quarterback.
“They still have Cam, and I don’t think Cam will be intimidated by the competition,” said Gash. “At the same time, I don’t think there will be hesitation on Belichick’s part to make the switch if this kid is playing better than Cam.”
Which is exactly what happened when Brady took over for Bledsoe in 2001.
Secules says he’s confident that Belichick will be able to make the right decision in the end.
“I think the reality is that while New England hasn’t had this scenario in almost 30 years, this happens every single year around the league,” said Secules. “It’s just this position with this team that makes it different.
“We make a big deal out of the quarterback position, rightly or wrongly, but there are guys around the league who make this decision every single year. What New England has going for it in this case is that there’s a great coach in place and a former MVP quarterback who is healthy. That takes the onus off the Jones kid to come in and be a savior.”