Time to pass muster Drew Bledsoe: Young and talented but inconsistent, the Patriots' quarterback could use the title game as a springboard to greatness.; SUPER BOWL XXXI

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW ORLEANS -- Drew Bledsoe: super quarterback or super hyped?

Super Bowl XXXI may provide the answer.

"He is just a young guy coming into the league," New England Patriots coach Bill Parcells said of his starting quarterback. "We all are products of our experiences and he knows a lot more about what's on his shoulders and what he has to do now than ever before."

It has been a tumultuous four-year NFL career for Bledsoe, 24, much more than he could have imagined coming out of Washington State as the No. 1 pick in the 1993 NFL draft.

He has risen quickly, becoming the youngest quarterback to play in a Pro Bowl and the youngest to throw for 14,000 yards in his career.

But he is also the same Bledsoe who can look great one half, then play poorly the next. The same Bledsoe who critics say has mechanical deficiencies when he throws, panics under pressure and has no heart, the cardinal sin for any football player.

"Sooner or later, he is going to be a great quarterback," Patriots fullback Keith Byars said. "When? The time is getting close."

This may be Bledsoe's moment to step up or step back. The Super Bowl is pro football's grandest stage, and there is no greater proving ground for a quarterback. In the 30 previous Super Bowls, a quarterback has won the Most Valuable Player Award 16 times.

Bledsoe understands the significance of Sunday's game against the Green Bay Packers. He can become a Boston legend like the Celtics' Larry Bird or Bruins' Bobby Orr. Or he can become Roger Clemens, who won Cy Young Awards with the Red Sox but never a world title.

"There is a development period for every player in this league, and then there is a period for consistency," Bledsoe said "I'm in the middle of that, and at each stage you have to prove yourself again.

"I go into every game thinking I have to play my best. This game is going to be magnified. I know that."

Bledsoe was virtually immune to criticism during his first two seasons in 1993 and '94.

Even when Bledsoe played poorly and threw three interceptions in the Patriots' 20-13 wild-card playoff loss to the Cleveland Browns in January 1995, he was excused because it was only his second season.

And, after all, it was Bledsoe who got New England into the playoffs, completing 400 of 691 passes for 4,555 yards during the regular season

But during the third game of the 1995 season, Bledsoe separated his shoulder after a hit by San Francisco 49ers linebacker Ken Norton. He was never the same for the rest of the year despite missing only one game.

Bledsoe completed only 50.8 percent of his passes and the Patriots failed to make the playoffs at 6-10, well short of Parcells' and the fans' expectations.

"That's when the criticism started coming in," Patriots tight end Ben Coates said. "Drew was getting blasted on the radio talk shows. People questioned his confidence, his mobility and toughness. Drew took some of it kind of hard."

This season didn't start off well, either. Bledsoe was only 19 of 38 for 221 yards and a touchdown in the opener against the Miami Dolphins, and 21 of 46 for 210 yards and one touchdown against the Buffalo Bills a week later.

The Patriots lost both games.

Then came Game 3 against the Arizona Cardinals. On fourth-and-one at the Arizona 10, Bledsoe rolled to the right and was upended. He somersaulted through the air and landed with a thud and a first down. He then slammed the ball into the turf.

The players and fans went wild.

"I think from that point on we found our leader," Patriots wide receiver Shawn Jefferson said. "We didn't expect that kind of response. But anytime you see your quarterback take a hit like that and then get emotional, it excites you."

Bledsoe has put up impressive numbers this season, completing 373 of 623 passes for 4,086 yards and 27 touchdowns.

At times, he has looked like a young Dan Marino with the quick release and high, dart-like passes. But Bledsoe's major problem is consistency.

"He doesn't seem comfortable in a ball-controlled offense like Neil O'Donnell was with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Phil Simms with the New York Giants," said former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski, now an ESPN commentator. "The kid has to throw a lot or he can't find or loses his rhythm. I'm not quite sold on him yet."

Bledsoe has another critic.

"He is at his best when he doesn't have to move from the pocket," said Packers safety Eugene Robinson. "But around the league, people know that Bledsoe can get jittery with pressure. We have the No. 1 defense in the league, so we've been successful getting to quarterbacks."

Bledsoe has buckled under the pressure in the past two playoff games, throwing three interceptions, and the Patriots haven't scored a touchdown in the last six quarters.

He remains calm, though.

"I've watched those games and I know what is happening," Bledsoe said. "There are a couple of them that were just poor decisions. There are things that I have no problems correcting. The Packers are going to be like every team that plays us. They're going to try to take away our running game, then pressure the passer and look for some turnovers. It's par for the league."

Bledsoe can't run from the spotlight, and though he seems embarrassed sometimes by all the attention, but he know his time is at hand.

The stage is set for him to possibly join the likes of Marino, John Elway and Brett Favre as the NFL's elite quarterbacks.

Or...

"I'll be focused," Bledsoe said, "I promise you that."

Game data

New England Patriots (13-5) vs. Green Bay Packers (15-3)

When: Sunday, 6: 18 p.m.

Site: Superdome, New Orleans

TV: Chs. 45, 5

Line: Packers by 14

Drew Bledsoe file

Position: Quarterback

Height: 6-5

Weight: 233

College: Washington State

Age: 24

How acquired: Draft (first round, 1993)

Highlights: The youngest quarterback in NFL history to pass for 14,000 yards in his career, accomplishing that feat this season. One of four quarterbacks to pass for more than 4,000 yards in a season twice. Chosen to Pro Bowl in two of his four seasons. Ranks third in attempts, second in completions, third in yards passing and third in career touchdowns in Patriots history.

Statistics:

Year, G, Att., Com., Yds., Pct., TD, Int., LG, Rat.

1993, 13, 429, 214, 2,494, 49.9, 15, 15, 54, 65.0

1994, 16, 691, 400, 4,555, 57.9, 25, 27, 62, 73.6

1995, 15, 636, 323, 3,507, 50.8, 13, 16, 47, 63.7

1996, 16, 623, 373, 4,086, 59.9, 27, 15, 84, 83.7

Tot., 60, 2,379, 1,310, 14,642, 55.1, 80, 73, 84, 72.9

Pub Date: 1/23/97

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