2003 NFL Preview

Bill past due

Bledsoe feels good, thinks Buffalo will be better

Posted: Friday August 01, 2003 4:59 PM

 First Person   Drew Bledsoe 
Photo Credits: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images, Rick Stewart/Getty Images, Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

OK, so his house in New England still hasn't sold. But in every other way, Drew Bledsoe is feeling quite at home in Buffalo these days. In his first season as a Bill, Bledsoe in 2002 set 10 franchise passing records, including single-season marks for yards (4,359), attempts (610), completions (375) and 300-yard games (seven). He also made his fourth career Pro Bowl trip, and first in five years. Not bad for a guy who was deemed expendable by the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots.

Though Bledsoe didn't maintain his torrid first-half pace of last year, when a 5,000-yard season looked in reach, that probably had as much to do with Buffalo's defensive shortcomings and the onset of cold weather in upstate New York as it did the quarterback's performance. With an improved defense on hand, the Bills are optimistic that they can take some of the pressure off Bledsoe's shoulders this year. NFL writer Don Banks talked with Bledsoe this week, as he and the Bills continued their 2003 training camp in Pittsford, N.Y.: What do you have going for you as a second-year Bill that you couldn't possibly have had last year walking in new at this time?

DB: Mainly I've got a year under my belt in the offense, which allows us to move beyond just the basics more so than we did last year. Especially this time last year. You just become more fluent in the offense and you get a chance to really work on the nuances and the subtleties that really allow you to be successful. There's just a number of plays where we're able to take the next step in the progression of the play. So now if a team is taking away something that's a five-yard gain, you don't have to just force it in there and try to pick up five yards. You can move beyond that and make the big play. And that's a good feeling. So do you feel at home yet as a Buffalo Bill?

DB: I do, I really do. But that happened very, very quickly for me here. Both with the organization and the community. This organization and the players here did a great job. I felt right at home when I stepped in the door. This community embraced me and really embraces this team as they have for a long time. So that transition happened very quickly. I was in New England for a long time and appreciated the time there, but I also feel like I've been here for a lot longer than just a year. Is it a relief that the first-year, new-guy fanfare is over and now you can focus even more singularly on what you do on the field?

DB: Yeah, there was a lot of stuff going on last year. But even when it's a circus atmosphere like that, the football field is your refuge. That's where you can really control what's going on. But yeah, this year I'm settled in enough that I don't have to worry about trying to find a house and getting moved in and all the peripheral stuff that can be a distraction when you move. Unfortunately, we hear that your old house in New England hasn't sold yet. Is that what they mean by achieving closure?

DB: Yeah, it hasn't moved yet. It just hasn't. We need to get that thing sold. Do you know somebody who wants to pick up a nice house? Give me a call. Josh Reed is replacing Peerless Price at No. 2 receiver. Everyone wants to know if he's going to be able to cut it. What's your gut tell you?

DB: You know what, Josh is going to do a great job for us. He really is. The only advantage that Peerless had over him, and it's certainly a real advantage, is just the pure downfield speed. Peerless was a little faster than Josh. But Josh has tremendous quickness. He's got good instincts. He's very strong. He's got excellent hands, and he's a smart football player for being a guy who's only been in the league for a year. He's a very smart football player.

Yeah, it hurts losing Peerless and it'd be nice to have Josh and Peerless on the field with Eric (Moulds). But I think Josh will do an exceptionally there, and then with addition of Bobby Shaw and James Jett, we've got guys that in combinations can accomplish what Peerless did. The conventional wisdom is that in the second half of the season, this team asked you to carry too much of the burden. Is that the way it felt to you?

DB: Part of what happened is we failed to make the big plays later in the season that we made early in the season. That's what we have to get away from. We were so reliant on the big play last year, to dig us out of holes. When we had our scoring drives, we almost always had a big play somewhere in there. Very rarely did we just take the ball and march it methodically down the field.

And when you get late in the season, especially up here, you're playing in some inclement weather, and that's when the big plays are harder to hit. They're just harder to get accomplished. So that's where I see big room for improvement with this team. To have more balance in the running game and also to be more precise in the passing game, in our short and medium range passing game, where if the weather or the defense dictates that we have to be patient and march the ball down the field, that we can be more efficient in doing that.

As much as anything that's what happened last year. We played in some tough weather. We played against some defenses that were really set up to try and take away the big play, and when we didn't have those big strikes, those 20- and 30- and 40-yard plays, we weren't successful in march the ball down the field the way we needed to be. But personally last year was a success, as reports of your demise turned out to be greatly exaggerated. How vindicating was 2002?

DB: It felt good. I've never gotten too tired up in trying to answer critics or whatever. I've had great confidence in my ability as long as I've played the game and I still do. But the big thing is this year and everything we have going for us. We've made enough moves in the offseason, both with players and with the coaching staff, and we've got another year in the offense to build on. Now the bottom line is we've got to go on the field and prove we're better. On paper and the practice field we look very, very good, but now it's almost time to go out and prove we are. Most of Buffalo's moves were made on defense. You face it every day in practice, is the Bills' defense better?

DB: They look a lot better. There's more speed with the addition of Takeo Spikes in particular. There's a lot of speed with the linebacking corps. Our defensive line is tough, with big Sam Adams and Pat Williams in the middle. Those guys are so big, but they also have great quickness. (Left end) Marcus Jones could end up being a tremendous addition for us if he comes all the way and allows us to get some pressure off the edge.

But the big thing I expect out of our defense this year is I expect them to see them take the ball away more. To see them put teams in long-yardage situations on third downs and come up with some interceptions. That didn't happen last year. We didn't take the ball away as much as we would have liked to. And they're doing a better job of that already this year. When they get their hands on the ball, they're catching it. The front office's thinking in regards to drafting Willis McGahee has been thoroughly explained and discussed at this point, but on draft day what was your first, honest reaction when they took a first-round running back?

DB: My first reaction, yeah, was that it seemed a little crazy to draft a running back because Travis (Henry) is such a tremendous player. But when you look at it, and you have a chance to take a guy who was going to be either the No. 1 or No. 2 pick in the draft before he got hurt -- and we've got a guy who allows McGahee to spend a year getting healthy -- I think you have to do it.

If he comes all the way back, great, then we've got two quality backs. And if he doesn't, then we've still got Travis. I think it was a situation where had it been even a little bit less talented player at that slot, you don't take that chance. But because Willis is such a tremendous athlete, I felt like they had to take him. Everybody in the AFC East is making the case that they got better, even the Jets. Do you expect another one-game gap between first and last place in the NFL's tightest division?

DB: I do expect it to be the same way this year. It's going to be an extremely tough division again. The Dolphins are always going to be tough. The Patriots, they took a little bit of a step back last year but I expect them to return to form very quickly. And the Jets, it took them a little while to kind of find their way early in the season last year, but they really hung in there and ended up playing great ball at the end.

I think it's going to pretty tight. In the AFC East, those division games are everything. Everyone of them counts double and then some, because we know it's going to be so close. We've got to defend our home field for sure. When teams come into Ralph Wilson Stadium, that's a tough place to play. I had to do it for a long time. We didn't do as well at home last year as we expected to (5-3), but we've got to be able to win those games. That's critical. You're 31 and you're already starting your 11th NFL season. It seems like you've been around forever, but do you still think of yourself as being in the prime of your career?

DB: Physically, I feel great. I really do. My shoulder feels as good right now as it has in a long time. I haven't felt my body start to break down yet. I feel like I can still put as much zip on the ball as I need to. So I haven't seen the drop-off yet in my physical abilities, and that's really where you start to notice it. Because as a quarterback you'd like to think you keep getting better mentally, with your anticipation and reads and all that stuff throughout the course of your career.

But I haven't felt or seen the physical part of it start to slip yet. Then again that'll probably be one of those things where someone else has to point it out to me, that I'm not making the throws. But right now I feel as good as I felt when I was younger. It takes me a little longer to warm up, but that's all.

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