ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Are things really as bad in Buffalo as the papers say they are?
Judging by today’s press conference to introduce Drew Bledsoe to greater Buffalo and all of western New York State, you’d think he was the Pope. When the Buffalo papers complain about a city whose major travails include “city schools in trouble, the health-care system falling apart, police and fire on the verge of layoffs”, you can imagine why the simple introduction of a new quarterback turned an entire region into a bunch of lost souls waiting to be saved.
What we’re getting at is the high profile of bringing in Pope Drew I for a mere introduction. There was a morning press conference, followed by a rally at Ralph Wilson Stadium. A rally? And we thought we were sports-crazed in New England. Boy, these Bills’ fans must really be starved for something to feel good about.
This is not to demean Bledsoe’s stature here or there. It is just an expose on a region that was in desperate need of a pick-me-up, and Bledsoe suddenly gave Erie County something to feel great about. Was there a rally when Manny Ramirez came here? Or Pedro Martinez? Bill Guerin? Paul Pierce? Drew Bledsoe?
The only rallies held around here resemble that big shebang back on February 5th, unless you’re a bunch of Bruin fans who are resigned that the closest you’ll ever see the Stanley Cup is if someone you know wins it elsewhere. But the good people of Buffalo really rolled out the red carpet for their new quarterback, and let it be perfectly clear that, if New England loved Bledsoe a lot, they will love him more.
It began with a private jet to whisk Drew and Maura to Buffalo. Waiting there to greet him was, who else, the last great Bills’ quarterback, Jim Kelly. Then came the physical, the press conference and the rally. About 1,000 fans showed up for the free affair. Bledsoe did not mince his words when he expressed his glee and gratitude about his new surroundings, as well as his new fan base who are totally in outer space that Drew is now their guy.
Bledsoe stated right away that he can’t wait to go out and prove his critics wrong about his best years being behind him. “As far as answering my critics, I just can’t wait to get back on the field and get that part of it going,” Bledsoe told the media horde. “That’s the only way that I’ve chosen to try to answer those questions.” He had gone out of his way earlier this week to proclaim the Bills as his team, using the word “we” often when mentioning his new team. He has made it clear that he intends to embrace the area as his own immediately, and has requested that Buffalo Bills jerseys be sent to Montana so that his children can wear them and not Patriot gear.
Bledsoe will grin and bear it no longer. He is all smiles, a proud starting quarterback once again. He is a definite Buffalo Bill.
And for those of you who think that the only rabid fans in America reside in New England (though NFL Films chief Steve Sabol was quoted recently as saying that Patriot fans are the most rabid in the NFL thanks to the demand of the original Super Bowl XXXVI video/DVD, and the fact that still another Patriot commemorative DVD is in the works), Bledsoe will tell you otherwise. And when his first season in Buffalo is over, Bledsoe may look at you and call you boring and uninspired.
To say that Bills Nation is excited is like calling the Pope catholic. When their ticket office opens on a Sunday afternoon and stays open into the night, you get the idea that the Bills are tied to a greater percentage of the region’s psyche and self-esteem than our teams are in these parts. New England fans care a great deal, but Buffalo gals and guys will tell you that they care more, and it would be hard, but not impossible, to disprove them.
So, are Bills fans justified in their elation?
And, should Patriot fans start to squirm in their seats as they watch greater Buffalo explode in celebration?
We’ll try to answer both queries at the same time. On the one hand, you as a Patriot fan would love nothing better than for these excited fans to be eating crow in December, all the while positioning their first round pick as high as possible since it’s the Patriots who’ll use it. But on the other hand, if you truly loved Bledsoe when he was here, how can you possibly wish him ill will?
First and foremost, the Patriots are insulated from anything that happens in Buffalo as long as Tom Brady stays the course and improves over time. If Brady keeps churning out Super Bowl wins, nobody in New England will give a hoot that Bledsoe perhaps broke a league record set by Dan Marino or Joe Montana along the way.
So let’s first assume that Bledsoe is fine and dandy, and all he needed was better blockers, rushers and an offensive game plan more suited to his style.
With targets such as Eric Moulds, Peerless Price and draftee Josh Reed to throw at, that could spell deep trouble for the rest of the league. The Bills have stated that they want to go more vertical with the passing game, and Bledsoe is their man. The vertical style plays right into Bledsoe’s strengths.
This prospect should cause a good deal of concern to Patriot fans. Even if Bill Belichick is able to figure out Bledsoe as well as he did when he was Jet defensive coordinator, that doesn’t mean that the rest of the league will be able to. What good is a 2-0 record against Buffalo if they go 12-2 against everyone else? If Buffalo, which was a tough defensive team last year that battled the Patriots tough in both meetings, was a Drew Bledsoe away from being a playoff team, close battles this year between New England and Buffalo may swing the Bills’ way if Charlie Weis’ offense still has trouble scoring against Buffalo.
And if you further assume that top draft pick Mike Williams comes right in and shores up the offensive line, Bledsoe will pick secondaries apart if given time to throw. Which side of the ball Williams will play is not known yet; he was a right tackle at Texas but some scouts think he can be converted to the left side, which is the side that will protect Bledsoe.
The Bills and their fans rest. Let the celebration continue. Bledsoe is Da New Man.
It is truly extraordinary when a team trades away its centerpiece player. In the case of the Patriots, it came down to banking on a young upstart player while casting aside a veteran with glittering numbers and a history of leadership and toughness. But summarizing the Patriots’ decision to go with Brady over Bledsoe cannot be stated in that one sentence. The qualifiers that go along with that statement are as numerous as every Super Bowl dream that permeates the minds of every living and breathing Bills fan.
Brady was selected over Bledsoe because, quite simply, he wins. Wins a lot of games. Wins a lot of trophies. Brady is a sixth round pick who had problems holding down a starting job at Michigan, and two years later is reigning Super Bowl MVP. This was either a fluke or the dawning of a very special NFL career. The Patriots are banking on the latter.
For the Patriots, the X-factor in this whole scenario is Brady. Nothing Bledsoe does really matters if Brady continues to prosper. Conversely, dealing Bledsoe will be the mother of all blunders if Brady flops for the rest of his career, regardless of what Bledsoe does in Buffalo.
In reality, what Bledsoe does in Buffalo really will matter. And it is not a given that Bledsoe will give the Bills fans all they think he will.
Bledsoe’s best days may indeed be behind him, as some experts believe to be the case. Getting pounded for all those sacks in 1999 and 2000 left Bledsoe a little shell-shocked, something that was quite obvious during the 2001 preseason. Some folks opined that Bledsoe may not have the composure he once had as a younger player because of the pounding he took.
And even if this is not the case, Bledsoe could be one massive hit away from retirement. It’s not that dissimilar to Steve Young and Troy Aikman and all their concussions. Bledsoe nearly died from Mo Lewis’ hit, and if that internal wound has not yet fully healed, or if Bledsoe is susceptible to similar bodily trauma with more hits, Bledsoe’s playing career will not be as long as Bills Nation would like.
Bledsoe is not guaranteed success on the field, either. There are reasons why Belichick not only gave up on Bledsoe, but dealt him away to a divisional rival, a move which under normal circumstances would fall into the “insane” category.
Against the Bills, defenses can, without much trepidation, play cover-two and overplay the pass, daring the Bills to beat them with the run. Antowain Smith was the answer at running back to replace Thurman Thomas, but the problem there is that Smith plays for the team that Bledsoe just left. The Bills are left with Shawn Bryson, Larry Centers (known more for pass receiving than rushing), Travis Henry and Sammy Morris. Bledsoe may be right back to where he was in Foxborough, and that is no stud running back to keep defenses honest.
And when you throw a cover-two at Bledsoe, bad things happen. That’s how Belichick used to beat Bledsoe all the time in Joisey and Cleveland. Belichick is 7-4 lifetime against Bledsoe going back to 1993. Like Peyton Manning, Belichick has Bledsoe’s number. Against Belichick, Bledsoe plays with total lack of confidence, and you get the feeling that Belichick got inside Bledsoe’s head.
Finally, it became clear in 2001 that Brady did some basic things better than Bledsoe. Brady read defenses better, has better footwork, and was less susceptible to bad impulsive decisions. Bledsoe often made rookie mistakes as a veteran, such as bad reads, throwing off of his back foot, and not paying attention to the play clock.
All in all, it remains a big crap shoot for both teams. Both Brady and Bledsoe provide an asset and a risk at the same time. The Bills are trusting their team to a man who may have seen his better days. And Belichick had better be right about Brady.
Today, no one in Buffalo cares about risk. For them, today is about hope.
What can be a very stark and bland region of the country became positive and vibrant today, thanks to the arrival of a great man named Bledsoe. He belongs to Buffalo now, and Patriot Nation must proceed with cutting the umbilical cord.
This is feel-good time for both sides. Enjoy it, because the day will be near when Patriot Nation will begin the task of rooting for their faves to kick the tar out of Bledsoe.
Perhaps a minority opinion here. Let that day not be near.
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