He knows the feeling of watching, at his own expense, a phenomenon develop and being unable to stop it. Even now, almost 12 years later, with Tom Brady pounding on the door of another Super Bowl, it's hard not to think of Drew Bledsoe.
And as Alex Smith deals with a similar hurricane that's swirling wildly and beyond his control in San Francisco, it's also hard not to think of Drew Bledsoe.
There's a bit of Bledsoe in both NFL conference championship games, someone who helped launch the iconic and enduring success of Brady and who can relate to the bitter numbness banging inside Smith's head while Colin Kaepernick becomes The Next Big Thing. Yes, we've seen this before, no? As the football Lord blesses some with opportunity, He cruelly steals from others. Bledsoe will testify and shout "Amen!" to that.
Imagine, being a respected Pro Bowl quarterback, finally pushing your team in the right direction, then getting hurt, then watching your backup become the toast of the league while you stand there and just … accept it. Helplessly so. You're suddenly stuck in solitary confinement and there's no movement from the masses to spring you free. Quite the opposite, actually. Your career, your future is thrown into question and meanwhile you're expected to cheer your own demise and find peace with your plight. Take one for the team by muzzling your dream.
"It's a time when everything stacks up on you at once," Bledsoe said the other day. And while he didn't specify those things as being bricks, they certainly felt like them in 2001 when he involuntarily played a supporting role in the creation of a three-time championship winner and perhaps the greatest quarterback of all time.
He's now 40, a family man coaching his boys and running the acclaimed Doubleback Winery in Washington state, located a few Hail Marys from where Kaepernick is nudging the 49ers toward the Super Bowl and Smith toward the door. He's amazed by what appears to be a Golden Age for quarterbacks. There's RG3 and Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson and Kaepernick and … Brady, still strong, after all these years. Bledsoe was once part of a similar group at the turn of the last decade. He should be remembered for jump-starting the Patriots' renaissance and making four Pro Bowls and throwing for over 44,000 yards and 250 touchdowns over 14 years. Not the guy who took a vicious hit and yet didn't feel as much pain until after he recovered and was ready to go.
Mo Lewis of the Jets sheared a blood vessel in Bledsoe's chest, causing Bledsoe to wait seven weeks before getting medical clearance. By then, too late. Bill Belichick and the Patriots were sold on Brady. Belichick went to Bledsoe and said, "I'm sticking with the kid. But stay ready, just in case." The team was winning and the coach followed his gut, much like Jim Harbaugh with Kaepernick.
There's a difference, though. Kaepernick was already taking snaps before Smith suffered a concussion. Brady was a backup in every sense, stuck inside a baseball cap, throwing only three passes the year before. And Bledsoe was more established than Smith, who only has one solid season of work. Wasn't San Francisco ready to run Smith out of town before Harbaugh arrived? That never happened with Bledsoe. Just six months before the injury that changed NFL history, the Patriots gave Bledsoe a record $103 million contract. Big contract, big arm, big anticipation for what was about to come next. The Patriots figured they were going places with Bledsoe, not some second-stringer who was the 199th pick two years earlier.
Well. As the wins piled up without him, 10 out of 12 to end the 2001 regular season, and as he felt the earth shift beneath his cleats, Bledsoe was overcome by severely mixed emotions, mostly torture that he kept publicly concealed.
"While the team was having great success, and I was a part of that to an extent, it was personally a very difficult time for me," he said. "It was tough to watch this team take off and run while I'm standing on the sidelines. I kind of bottled that all up and put the team first. It wasn't easy."
He was afforded one more chance at redemption in New England, when Brady twisted an ankle in the AFC title game against the Steelers. Bledsoe rallied the Patriots, threw for 102 yards and the winning TD, slightly opening the door for a debate that never came. Belichick stuck with the plan and the rest was an epic for the Patriots and a quarterback now married to a supermodel and worth millions.
But that game against the Steelers, it rejuvenated Bledsoe, breathed life into him, made him understand he was simply a victim of a freaky and yes, harsh fate. He left the field in tears.
"That moment stands out for me and makes that Super Bowl ring more satisfying," Bledsoe said. "At least I know I was on the field at a pivotal time of the season. When I had that chance to come back and play, it was an outlet for all that emotion I kept inside."
It's the second chance Smith may never get, at least not in a Niners uniform, unless someone goes Mo Lewis on Kaepernick. The team and the town no longer belong to Smith, and unless you've been there, that transition can be quite jarring.
"Alex is handling it the right way," said Bledsoe. "He's not causing trouble for the organization. He seems pretty supportive of Kaepernick. The benefit he'll see from this is, when other teams look to sign him, they'll know that not only are they getting a good player, they're getting a high character guy, a team guy. It's going to open up a lot of opportunities."
The end for Bledsoe in New England wasn't smooth. Because he felt he never had the chance to regain his job, there were harsh feelings initially toward the organization. His family resented the Patriots after Bledsoe was traded to the Bills, but that wound has long since healed and the organization warmly welcomed Bledsoe into the Patriots' Hall of Fame a year ago.
"When you see the success the organization had and continues to have, you realize you were a part of it and got the thing going," Bledsoe said.
His relationship with Brady during the takeover, by some accounts, was conflicted. If so, you can understand. Bledsoe wanted the job back. In the book "Patriot Reign," author Michael Holley quoted Belichick as saying "there was discomfort in the room," and Holley wrote this about Bledsoe: "The popular story was that the quarterback was the opposite of the modern athlete and that he didn't let his agenda interfere with the overall mission of the team. It wasn't quite that clean. Bledsoe wasn't reckless in the office, but it was known how angry he was. Brady said Bledsoe was professional with him and never focused on the situation at work. `But it was definitely hard on our personal relationship,' Brady said."
Ask Bledsoe now about Brady and you get the idea Bledsoe respected Brady before and after he took over for good.
"There were some unique things about Tom," said Bledsoe. "He was just a sponge. He was in my hip pocket all the time, asking questions, trying to understand what I was looking at, how I was approaching the game. He was a great student of everything going on around him. And he's that way today. When you watch him, you see someone who's continuously trying to improve and look for advantages.
"It led me to believe he was going to be around the game a long time, because of the way he approached the game. Certainly I was in the same boat with everyone else from the standpoint that nobody saw this coming, with what he's done in his career. But he was definitely going to be around a long time."
Then, Bledsoe adds, with a chuckle: "I taught him everything he knows."
On Sunday, Brady will aim for his sixth Super Bowl appearance. Meanwhile, something very 2001-like could be brewing with the 49ers. A running, throwing vortex called Kaepernick is blowing well beyond Alex Smith and in San Francisco this feels like a cruel breeze, not a cool one, for a former starter.
Outside his own family, if he looks hard enough, Smith will find at least one person who sympathizes.