What Price Mediocrity?
Drew Bledsoe isn't the player he once was, leaving New England to ponder his worth
When he watches the highlight shows, Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe sees a lot of his counterparts making plays with their feet. Strong-armed Daunte Culpepper runs as well as he throws. Cade McNown, Donovan McNabb and Shaun King are carrying the ball for a new breed of quarterback. Recently Bledsoe turned to his backup, John Friesz, a fellow member of the Feet of Stone Quarterback Club, and said, "They're phasing us slow guys out of the game."
That observation comes at a time when the Patriots are trying to decide what to do with Bledsoe, who is eligible to become a free agent after the 2001 season. First-year coach Bill Belichick, who has the final say on all roster decisions, hardly seems sold on him. Then again, if Belichick ever let Bledsoe walk, he would probably have to do it over owner Bob Kraft's dead body. "Drew's one of those rare guys in sports you're proud of on and off the field," Kraft said last week, just after showing off a video of the Patriots' new stadium that he wants Bledsoe to help christen two years from now. "I hope and believe he'll retire a New England Patriot."
But at what price? By salary-cap numbers, Bledsoe is the game's highest-paid player this year and next, at $8.66 million and $9.83 million, respectively. By any measure, he's overpaid. Unless, of course, you still see him as the precocious lad who twice threw for 4,000 yards in a season by the time he was 24 and, aided by the gruff leadership of Bill Parcells, took the Patriots to the Super Bowl at the end of the 1996 season.
If, on the other hand, you look at his play since the start of the '98 season, you see the leader of a 17-19 team with the 20th-best passer rating among quarterbacks who have made at least 15 starts in that span. You see the man who has had the chance to drive his team to a win or a tie in the final two minutes of all four games this year and is 0 for 4. You may even see Bledsoe the way one AFC personnel man who watched the first three Patriots games on tape does: "He reminds me of Bernie Kosar," the scout says. "Tremendously tough, but is he one of the best quarterbacks in football? No way."
Down 10-3 to the Dolphins on Sunday and facing a fourth-and-two at the Miami five with 1:08 left, Bledsoe overthrew tight end Eric Bjornson in the end zone. For the day he completed 16 of 33 passes for a pedestrian 161 yards, though to be fair he was facing one of the league's best defenses. Trailing the Vikings 21-13 in the final minute on Sept. 17, Bledsoe, on fourth down at the Minnesota 14, had at least one receiver open near the first-down stick, but he inexplicably held the ball too long and was sacked.
"I look back at the first three games," Bledsoe said last week, "and I know there are plays I should have made. That last play against Minnesota, I should have turned it loose. Even if it's picked off, I've got to take a chance at making a play." You might not take Chris Chandler or Rich Gannon ahead of Bledsoe in your fantasy draft, but both have played significantly better than he has over the past three years.
A story last week in the suburban Metro West Daily News quoted a team source saying Kraft had "long-standing doubts" about whether New England wanted Bledsoe to be its quarterback of the near future. Kraft said there was no truth to the report. The Pats want Bledsoe, but at the right price. They don't want to pay him a salary commensurate with one of the premier players at his position. They want to pay him like, say, The eighth-best and load the contract with incentives that would put him in the top three if he played great. To protect themselves against a potential precipitous decline in his skills, they also don't want to sign him to a six- or seven-year deal.
"They have gone from thinking long-term to the idea of short- or medium-term," says Bledsoe's agent, Leigh Steinberg.
Fact is, New England shouldn't even consider life without Bledsoe—scars and all. He is only 28. He is healthy. He is a team guy who never gripes. His teammates respect and admire him. He is glacially slow, but so was Dan Marino and so is Kurt Warner. Bledsoe wants to get better. Last Thursday at lunch, he hurried through an interview so he could be on the practice field early. "I'm working on my agility," he said. ''Trying to improve my footwork."