We could debate all day whether the Patriots would have won two Super Bowls since that day had Belichick decided to play Bledsoe over Brady in 2002 and beyond. But I'd argue till I'm blue that keeping Bledsoe and Brady, or picking Bledsoe and trading Brady, would have held the franchise down. I'll give you three reasons why New England unequivocally would not have had near the success it's had unless they foisted Bledsoe on the Bills:
1. Bledsoe was a privileged character. Brady is an employee. I'm exaggerating, but let's face it, when you make a guy the highest-paid player in history, and you build so much of your promotion around a great player rather than a great team, it's hard to have a team of 53 Musketeers. You know, one for all and all for one. There's going to be some grumbling that one guy is above the team, and there's going to be the salary-cap reality that one guy is simply making too much money. In allowing Bledsoe to be dealt, Kraft was implicitly handing the reins of his team to Belichick. Such delegation had to be hard for Kraft, who really liked the likeable Bledsoe. But he had to do it. Brady is a cog in the wheel. He's remained that way even after his enormous success. Some players around the league would laugh at Brady for not making a big stink that he's nowhere near the highest-paid quarterback in football. He's due to make a salary of $5.5 million in 2005, with a salary-cap number of $8.37 million. I asked him last week about his seeming reticence to tub-thump, even though no other marquee player has what he has right now -- three Super Bowl rings by age 27. "To be the highest-paid, or anything like that, is not going to make me feel any better," he said. "That's not what makes me happy. In this game, the more one player gets, the more he takes away from what others can get. Is it going to make me feel any better to make an extra million, which, after you take everything [taxes and other deductions] away, is about $500,000? That million might be more important to the team.'' Now, do not take what Brady said out of context -- he is not going to be relegated to 13th in the NFL quarterback salary standings when he does his new contract either this offseason or next. But he gets it. He gets that when Peyton Manning agrees to a contract that will call for one single player to eat up 20 percent of the Colts' cap space in 2006 ($17.8 million out of a projected $89-million NFL cap), it's probably going to hurt the Colts' ability to build a good enough defense to beat the best teams consistently. Eating up 12 or 13 percent of the cap is probably a fair figure for a great quarterback -- if you're playing to win and not just trying to collect the best players. Brady understands that.
2. The Patriots didn't always trust Bledsoe to follow the game plan. The Bills' new staff found out in 2004 what Belichick and the Patriots already knew: Bledsoe too often likes to look for the big play instead of the smarter dumpoff or throwaway. The Patriots scouted and game-planned and strategized to call plays the staff thought gave New England's offense the best chance to win. And too often they felt Bledsoe tried to make the big play when it wasn't there. The Bills wanted Bledsoe to think short, but often he wouldn't.
3. Brady has been a better player since the trade. Look at the numbers. Since the Patriots used Bledsoe to acquire Buffalo's first-round draft pick in 2003 (the Patriots, after trading up one spot in the 2003 first round, used it on defensive lineman Ty Warren), Brady, with less or equal talent around him, has been better in all ways.