BILLS DIARY:THE ROAD TO SAN DIEGO 2002 Drew Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman
I felt a need to write this column because I have something important to share with sports fans in this city. That is this: aside from Drew Bledsoe himself, I probably know Drew Bledsoe better than anyone in this city.
Why? I’m from Boston and for the past ten years or so was one of the most pathologically desperate New England Patriots fans on the planet. In that time I have followed Bledsoe’s career with the kind of insane attention to detail normally reserved for stalkers or organized crime investigators.
I moved to Buffalo in April. Less than two weeks later, Bledsoe was traded to the Bills. It was the purest demonstration of fate I have encountered in my life. From that moment, it was obvious that I would need to switch my allegiances.
The recurring theme of Bledsoe’s career in New England was that he was never able to catch up to his critics. After his Pro Bowl sophomore season, there was a lot of hand-wringing in Boston about Bledsoe’s interceptions. That year he threw 25 touchdown passes, but 27 picks. It didn’t seem to matter at the time, since he was putting so many points up on the board, but Bledsoe’s tendency to try to score touchdowns on every single play and throw the ball through defenders—not through their coverage, but physically through their bodies—really had New England fans nervous.
So what does he do? The next year he throws just 16 picks, but only 13 TD passes. A year later, he breaks out with a great season, throwing 27 TDs and only 15 interceptions. The following year, he was even better, with 28 TDs and 15 interceptions. By then, no one is talking about his field judgement. Instead, they have a new criticism: that he “has no heart” and doesn’t win big games (a gruesome 7-6 playoff loss against the Steelers is the chief evidence against).
So what does he do then? In his next season, he wins two spectacular games with a broken finger on his throwing hand, one against the Dolphins and one against the Bills (in the notorious Hail-Mary interference games). Bledsoe in these games can’t even grip the ball with his index finger: he has it in a splint. Suddenly no one is questioning his heart and his leadership.
But soon after, a new set of criticisms has hit him. Critics suddenly notice after all those years that Bledsoe is not mobile and can’t get himself out of trouble. What has really happened is that Pro Bowl left tackle Bruce Armstrong has torn his ACL (and kept playing) and is no longer able to keep people from hitting Bledsoe’s blindside.
Worse, Bledsoe in 1999 has the very worst starting running back in the league, the miniature Kevin Faulk, handling his every-down back duties. His receivers that year are the clearly insane Terry Glenn and the aging Shawn Jefferson. Pro Bowl tight end Ben Coates that year also suddenly decides to stop blocking.
In a crucial game against the Dolphins that season, an uncovered Coates drops a perfectly thrown pass on the final drive, ending the game and beginning a long losing streak. Soon after, Bledsoe begins to be accused of “not being able to win games on his own,” like a Brett Farve or a Steve Young. The following year, Coates, Armstrong, and Jefferson are all gone, and Bledsoe is left basically alone to shoulder the blame for a miserable season in which the Patriots field 20 rookies on their roster.
Bills fans probably think the Buffalo media is tough, but no sportswriters in the country are as mean and exacting as the Boston contingent. Spoiled by the experience of sports gods like Larry Bird and Bobby Orr, writers continually hounded Bledsoe for not being able to take his team to the promised land all by himself. He entered the 2000 season hounded by press criticism, and was even booed after the Patriots were pounded in the season opener against Tampa Bay—despite the fact that the Pats’ starting offensive line in that game featured two guards (Joe Andruzzi and Sale Isaia) who had not even been on the team two weeks before.
Enter Bill Belichick. He’s a great coach, but his offensive strategy clashes violently with Bledsoe’s skill package. Belichick favors ball control, smashmouth football. Bledsoe likes to air it out and look for the big play, risking the occasional mistake. At times under Belichick, it was clear Bledsoe simply refused his orders and looked down the field when there was nobody there. He took a lot of sacks and looked very bad at times during the 2000 season. Belichick refused to deflect criticism from his quarterback. He had another kind of guy in mind, as was dramatically demonstrated last season.
All of which brings us to this season with the Bills. I went to the game against the Bengals last week and can report: Buffalo has Drew Bledsoe at his best.
Bledsoe has always seemed to throw better to big receivers. Maybe it’s because he’s big himself, but when there’s a big target to hit, he always seems to ram it in there, while he sometimes can’t seem to find the little guys. Even a great receiver like Terry Glenn never caught more than 6 touchdowns in a season from Bledsoe. On the other hand, Bledsoe threw 45 touchdowns to Ben Coates in his career. When Coates went down, Bledsoe had nobody over six feet to throw to for years.
That said, he clearly already has a thing going with Eric Moulds. He was looking at Moulds first on almost every play. He hit him on a slant, on a nice blitz read, and on a strike down the sideline. In three possessions, Moulds had 4 catches for 64 yards. I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t catch a hundred balls this year.
Another Bledsoe feature: he likes fullbacks who can run deep routes. Keith Byars and Kevin Turner had huge seasons playing with Bledsoe. Here again, he clearly has a thing going with Larry Centers. The 25-yard fade route to Centers in the Bengals game was classic Bledsoe: looking out over the pocket and flicking a deep route to a secondary receiver over coverage.
Bledsoe is an odd character. His press conferences sound like introductory speeches at political fund-raisers. They’re filled with cast-iron cliches lobbed out in an obligatory manner one after the other, and steeped in a sort of neutral, military tone. He can be amusing, but never funny. He is smart and aware, but hard to warm up to. In Boston, that mattered for some reason. Here, who cares. The guy can throw the hell out of the football. I’m through with the Pats. Go Bills!