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If this backfires, don't blame team

This week, Tedy Bruschi will exercise his right to risk his personal future for football glory. As a clear-thinking adult, he's entitled to do so. Just don't blame Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick, or the Patriots if something goes sadly wrong.

Bruschi has carefully orchestrated a media assault on Kraft and the Patriots, skillfully backing them into a corner by leaking just enough about his improving physical condition and desire to return to the field to leave Kraft with few options but to go along.

To protect themselves as best they could, the team issued a carefully crafted and oddly timed press release midway through Sunday's debacle in Denver stating that ''Tedy Bruschi and his family will make the final decision as to whether he returns." It went on to put considerable distance between that decision and the Patriots, who have never asked Bruschi to return to the playing field.

The release stated (with italics added):

''The New England Patriots have been advised that Tedy Bruschi has received unanimous medical clearance from outside specialists in the field of stroke neurology. He has also passed multiple physical examinations by team doctors and has been cleared to resume practicing as early as this week . . . With the necessary unanimous medical clearances to return, Tedy Bruschi and his family will make the final decision as to whether he returns to the field and begins practicing once again with the team. The Kraft family and the entire Patriots organization want only what is best for Tedy Bruschi and his family and will continue to support his decision.

About the only thing it didn't say was, ''It wasn't our idea." Other than that, Kraft and his legal team did what had to be done. They used that statement, and the carefully chosen words of the past, to make it clear this was the decision of Bruschi and his family. That doesn't mean Kraft and the Patriots don't understand that if something terrible happens, they won't end up in court having to defend themselves for having done nothing but provide him with as much medical information and support as possible.

''They understand how these things can go," a source close to Kraft said. ''But there's only so much they can do."

Although the statement was handed out by the public relations department, it was written by a team of lawyers to protect Kraft and the organization from the kind of problems the Celtics faced after the death of Reggie Lewis and the Minnesota Vikings endured after the death of Korey Stringer.

Lewis and Bruschi are vastly different cases, of course. Lewis had a team of renowned cardiologists warning him of grave dangers if he tried to play, and one other doctor, Gilbert Mudge, with a different opinion. Bruschi has by all accounts received multiple assurances that he is at no more risk of suffering a stroke than anyone else. So what are the Patriots to do?

Kraft has said little publicly on the issue except to express his personal support for Bruschi. He also offered him a handsome deal that included not only the bulk of his present contract but also a well-paying job with the organization if he chose to retire. Bruschi chose a different route.

Head coach Bill Belichick, too, has been careful to parse his words. Belichick has made it clear that Bruschi's future is entirely in his own hands. Sunday he said only, ''Organizationally, I am 100 percent behind it and I do not have anything else to add."

Exactly what that meant is hard to decipher, as is often the case with Belichick, but what is known is that earlier he regularly refused to comment on Bruschi's health, often pointing out that Bruschi was capable of speaking for himself and would be in charge of whatever information was released. In other words, he has had nothing to do with the issue.

The same is now true of Bruschi's decision to play. It was not a Patriot decision. It was not Belichick's decision. It was not a decision born from even subtle prodding from his employer or his coach. Still, within minutes of Bruschi's announcement, the assault on the team's culpability began with ESPN analysts Tom Jackson, Steve Young, and Michael Irvin.

Young, a Hall of Fame quarterback with a law degree, said, ''I think a player cannot make the right decision, especially in a life-threatening situation. I know I would want to get back on the field so badly that I wouldn't be able to make that decision correctly. I pray for the doctors and the ownership to take that away from him and make the best decision."

Young's words were as heartfelt as Bruschi's, but he put the onus where it does not belong. It's not the team's decision to make. Bruschi is an adult with a sound mind and, he says, a sound body. It is his decision to make, and he's made it.

The Patriots have comforted him, supported him, and aided his search for medical information but they have not asked him to do anything but take a handsome payout to retire.

Jackson spoke about the fears many fans and observers have about what Bruschi is trying to do, yet he too tried to shift responsibility. ''Think about the alternative [to a happy ending]," Jackson said. ''We're watching some Sunday afternoon and something happens to Tedy Bruschi on the field. You tell me how the league and the Patriots are going to feel the moment that happens."

They would feel awful, but they would not be responsible for what happened.

Finally, Irvin chimed in with the kind of statement that is often heard after the fact, when there is blame to deflect.

''I'm surprised the New England Patriots did not take the decision out of his hands," Irvin said. ''As soon as this thing happened, they should have put him on IR."

''They should have . . ." is the refuge of rapscallions. It was the first quiet effort to expose the organization to liability for someone else's decision. Somehow, in retrospect, it won't have been the fault of the man making the decision.

Bruschi made it clear yesterday that it was he who asked to be put on the physically unable to perform list rather than injured reserve. Now he has told the team, after many hours of medical consultations, that he is coming back to work with the approval of his doctors. Legally, the Patriots can do little but accept his decision, unless they want to release him, which they don't.

Bruschi is an intelligent guy who along with his wife has put eight months into not only rehabilitation but learning as much as he could about strokes and neurology. Together they arrived at the decision he made public yesterday when he said at a press conference in Foxborough, ''There's a man upstairs [Kraft] who says measure nine times and cut once. He's told me this throughout this process. We've measured a lot of times. We've made sure. I'm not going to jump into something without being absolutely 100 percent positive, and I am."

So be it. The world that is watching and hoping for a fairy-tale ending needs to understand that, and not include Kraft or Belichick in the process.

Let us all hope things go as well in the future for Tedy Bruschi as they have in the past, but understand one thing: This was his choice, not his obligation. Nothing was forced on him. Nothing but a comfortable retirement he opted not to take.

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