Bledsoe left woozy after season-ending KO
FOXBOROUGH -- Where was Mills Lane when Drew Bledsoe needed him? Certainly the bewitched, bothered, and bewildered -- not to mention battered and beaten down -- quarterback of the Buffalo Bills needed a referee who would step in and take control of the situation yesterday at Gillette Stadium because clearly neither he nor his teammates could. He needed Lane to jump in and stop the fight because long before it was officially over it had become so one-sided there was no point in continuing.
Referee Ron Winter, the NFL's version of Lane, did no such thing, of course, but soon to be coach-no-more Gregg Williams finally did when he pulled Bledsoe from yesterday's 31-0 beating at the hands of the New England Patriots with 12:45 to play in a debacle.
It was at that moment that the Drew Bledsoe Era in Foxborough truly ended, stomped to death by a swarming Patriots defense that seemed to have him mystified all day and erased by the arm of his replacement, Tom Brady, who was as efficient and effervescent as Bledsoe was flawed and flat.
For Bledsoe, it was a sad end to what has become the sorriest season of his career, one marked by not only frustration and failure but, for the first time, a measure of self-doubt. He has admitted that his internal clock has gone awry, the one that tells him how much time he has to throw the ball and when to release it.
That was never more obvious than during the first quarter of a game in which he would finish with a ridiculous 34.7 quarterback efficiency rating. He opened the game by lobbing a desperation pass that was intercepted by linebacker Mike Vrabel as Bledsoe was getting drilled by a blitz and followed it up with five straight incompletions, all of which were significantly off target. That Bledsoe's timing seemed gone was obvious. He was 0 for 6 in the first quarter with an interception for a quarterback rating of 0.00 only because nothing lower is allowed. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Brady was 15 of 18 with two touchdowns. By halftime the spread was even wider. Brady had thrown for 99 more yards than his Buffalo counterpart and more importantly had delivered four touchdown passes and a crowning performance while Bledsoe had looked like what he has become -- a confused 31-year-old man in a profession that has become a foreign language to him.
"This season has been surreal," Bledsoe said after it mercifully concluded. "That's the best way I can describe it. I absolutely couldn't have imagined us being in this situation. It's been a very, very tough season."
It didn't appear that way when he and the Bills opened the year with a 31-0 win over a Patriots team fractured by the release of safety Lawyer Milloy five days before the season's first game. That afternoon in Buffalo the sun was out and the Bills were shining, none more than Bledsoe.
But a lot already had happened to the Bills' offense even before that game and a lot more would follow. During the offseason, deep threat Peerless Price was allowed to go to Atlanta rather than paying the king's ransom it would have taken to retain him. Soon after the most prolific pass catching running back in NFL history, Larry Centers, was let go and so was tight end Jay Riemersma, a net loss of 70 percent of Buffalo's passing offense.
Departures are part of the business of the NFL but if Bledsoe does not have a full quiver of arrows he is no William Tell and in Buffalo all three departures were replaced with less productive players (Josh Reed, Sam Gash, and Mark Campbell), at least in terms of what the Bills were trying to accomplish. When Buffalo's offensive line began to slip as well, taking on enough injuries and problems that yesterday only center Trey Teague was still at the same position he opened the season at, Bledsoe went with them.
The hesitancy that had creeped into his decision-making in the latter stages of his time in New England was back and the mistakes that had been overcome a year ago by the playmaking of Price and Eric Moulds were now glaring because Moulds had no one to take the heat off him. As the weeks turned into months, Bledsoe's production fell until yesterday he was left to ponder a day in which he threw for 83 yards. And a season in which the Bills scored the second-fewest points and the second-fewest yards in club history for a 16-game season.
It was the second time in a month he had thrown for fewer than 100 yards, and the seventh time this season he had led an offense that had failed to score a touchdown. Those failures have not totally shaken Bledsoe's faith in himself but they have caused him to wonder not only about what has gone on around him this season but what responsibility he bears.
"This will stay with you for a long time," Bledsoe said. "But it can serve as a great motivator to address the problems we've had. I know I can still play the game, but I'll search long and hard to see what I can do differently so we don't have the same problems we had this year. [Right now] I don't have those answers for you." The fear in Buffalo is that perhaps no one else does either unless it is president and general manager Tom Donahoe, who assembled an improved defense but disassembled an offense that a year ago scored the second-most points in the division, only 2 behind the Patriots. Although Bledsoe refused to get into the cause of the problems beyond sweeping generalizations, one of his offensive mates, who chose to remain anonymous, did not.
"He looks uncomfortable some times with the decisions he has to make," the player said of Bledsoe. "I don't know how comfortable he is in Kevin's [Gilbride, the team's offensive coordinator] offense. It's pretty complicated, especially some of the blocking, and we made a lot of mistakes that led to him getting hit. It looks like he's never sure how much time he has to throw the ball or when to let it go.
"That leads to throwing it too soon or not throwing soon enough and then he gets hit some more. I think he can still play but you get hit as much as he has and it affects you. I think he's unsure of everything right now."
While Brady was taking advantage of every opportunity he was given in the first half, Bledsoe took advantage of none, a trend not exclusive to yesterday's loss. In Bledsoe's last four seasons as a full-time starter he has been sacked 203 times, an average of slightly more than 50 times a year.
"I'm not as sure as I used to be how much time I have," Bledsoe admitted. "We were getting so much pressure we started throwing shorter, getting rid of it quicker. If that's what we're going to do, what the hell do they need me here for?"
With the changes that resulted from the loss of Price and the inability of Reed or Bobby Shaw to replace his downfield ability, the Bills would have been better served to abandon the Bledsoe-style offense and go to a ball-control running game with Travis Henry as the centerpiece and the rebuilt defense as the force that would decide games. But that is not Gilbride's style nor does it play to the strengths of their $6 million quarterback, so the Bills continued to throw the way they did a year ago, when Bledsoe returned to the Pro Bowl for the fourth time after passing for 4,359 yards and 24 touchdowns while completing a career-high 61.5 percent of his throws.
What resulted was a disastrous season that has many in Buffalo calling for Bledsoe's head and a fiscal crisis in which Donahoe must decide if he's ready to invest another $7 million in his quarterback next Nov. 1. That's when another one of those multimillion dollar options comes due, kicking in the 2005-2007 years of his contract.
After his experience in New England, Bledsoe understands that nothing is guaranteed in the NFL so he knows the potential consequences of both this sad season and a repeat of it next year."I've done everything I could to try to get the ship righted and look for the answers," Bledsoe said. "We need to be more precise in what we do on the field. Could there have been more help at times? We can all do better. "In the league right now, you can make a dramatic change with just a few little changes. A player here, a player there, a little tweak here and there with the system and you can make a dramatic change without having to overhaul everything."
Some of those changes will have to be made by Donahoe, who has to get his QB more weapons. But Bledsoe must change his game as well. If either fails, Bledsoe may not be the only guy in Buffalo whose option isn't being picked up a year from now.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.