Boston Sports Forum Commentary
Del N. Jones
This is the year we will all find out. Get the answer to the worn out question that still hovers around New England barstools and haunts fantasy football maniacs, who still dare to take a chance on him.
Can Drew Bledsoe get it done for the Buffalo Bills? Or will the trading of an All-Pro quarterback to a division rival go down as one of the shrewdest moves in NFL history?
What happens in upstate New York this season will put this endless AFC East debate to rest and also let us know whether Bledsoe’s best days were spent in Foxboro as the rifleman for the Patriots.
An entire championship-starved organization hopes for the contrary.
With Bledsoe the leading man, the Bills will field one of the most talented NFL rosters in 2004. An explosive tandem at running back will support him in the backfield, while wide receiver Eric Moulds still demands double teams in the secondary.
Couple that with a veteran defense that finished second in the NFL in total defense, and the Bills should be in most games this season.
Whether they win their share will depend on an aging star quarterback.
For all of the talent that Buffalo enjoys it underachieved dramatically last season at 6-10 and finally cost Greg Williams his head-coaching job. In comes Mike Mularkey from Pittsburgh with his own innovative ideas of using the offensive tools that have yet to match the potency on the other side of the football.
Mularkey, who turned Kordell Stewart into a multi-faceted weapon and later Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El as Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator, likely won’t go that far with the 6-5, 240-pound Bledsoe. The immediate plan will be to install a short passing game to prevent the 12-year veteran from being harassed to the same 11-touchdown and 12-interception output in 2003, where he finished the season with only 2,860 passing yards and a below average 73.0 quarterback rating (21st in the league).
This is from a guy, who passed for over 3,000 yards eight times in his career, going over 4,000 yards in three of those years. Bledsoe even made the Pro Bowl in his first season with the Bills in 2002, but the team finished a very disappointing 8-8.
To help Bledsoe return to those prolific ways Mularkey brought in quarterback guru Sam Wyche to work specifically with him. And to drill the get-rid-of-the-football mantra, Buffalo has been using a four-second alarm clock behind the passing pocket to quicken Bledsoe’s delivery and decision-making. If the football is not delivered to a wide receiver, tight end or running back within the allotted time the alarm goes off.
To his credit Bledsoe has been receptive to all the added coaching and training. Just three years ago he was considered an elite NFL quarterback. But after losing his starting job to Tom Brady in New England and failing to elevate his new team after being traded to Buffalo, Bledsoe is trying to improve in any way he can.
"I actually asked about (the alarm clock) the other day and I think so far through camp there have only been two or three plays where I've been beyond those four seconds," Bledsoe told reporters after a recent practice. "…I’ve done it before - I had it in New England one of the years there. I don’t hear it. Even when I’m standing back there next to it, I don't hear it go off. It’s more a standard. So when coach Mularkey comes and asks (strength and conditioning coach) Brad Roll how we're doing he can just let him know we haven't been over the four seconds."
Bledsoe’s dedication has extended to the front office as well. He reworked his contract this offseason to provide salary cap space for rookie quarterback J.P. Losman (Tulane), taken with the 22nd overall pick in April’s draft. Both Bledsoe and Losman have looked sharp in camp so far and represent the now and the future of Buffalo’s QB position.
Running backs Travis Henry (consecutive 1,300-yard seasons) and Willis McGahee have been doing the same this summer and controversy has followed. McGahee, selected with the 23rd overall pick last year out of Miami, made his pro debut this month after spending the entire 2003 season recovering from reconstructive surgery on his left knee. Naturally, the organization is excited about having Henry and McGahee together in the backfield but each player has expressed the want to be the featured back and "trade me" rumblings have been reported.
Bills team president Tom Donahue sees it as a good problem to have, and saw that notion confirmed last weekend when Henry was knocked out of the preseason game against the Titans with bruised ribs.
"They understand that there’s going to be plenty of carries for both of them," Donahue said. "We have no intentions of making the trade, and that’s not going to change."
Buffalo hopes that one thing changes in regards to its physical defense: causing turnovers. Despite ranking second overall in 2003, the Bills’ defense finished last in turnovers with only 18 takeaways (10 interceptions, eight fumble recoveries). An aggressive and speedy group will try to improve on those numbers this year with more game-changing plays.
Jumbo defensive tackles Pat Williams and Sam Adams return to plug up the middle, while the linebacking corps of Takeo Spikes, London Fletcher and Jeff Posey will be the second wave on defense along with newly acquired blitzing linebacker Jason Gildon from Pittsburgh.
Strong safety Lawyer Milloy and new All-Pro cornerback Troy Vincent (Philadelphia) will be the beacons in a secondary that will be without Antoine Winfield, who left via free agency in the offseason.
But clearly Bledsoe will determine the winning barometer in Buffalo. This may be his last chance to get it done for his new team.
"When your expectations are as high as ours were, and you get out of the box with two wins and everything clicking, to fall that much and that quickly … yeah, you can beat yourself up looking for reasons," Bledsoe said of last year’s disappointments. "You just keep looking for an explanation because, you’re thinking, ‘Hey, that wasn't supposed to happen.’ But the thing is, sooner or later, you've got to move beyond it, and I think I have now."
We will soon find out.
*Last Year's record: 6-10
*2002 record: 8-8
*Key Players: DREW BLEDSOE, TRAVIS HENRY, ERIC MOULDS, TAKEO SPIKES, LAWYER MILLOY, TROY VINCENT
*Toughest games: New England (Oct. 3), at New York Jets (Oct. 10), at Baltimore (Oct. 24) at New England (Nov. 14), at Seattle (Nov. 28).
*Prediction: 10-6 WILDCARD TEAM
This is Part Two of a four-part Preview of the AFC East for 2004. Next Monday BSF will preview Miami (Aug. 30) followed by the Patriots (Sept. 6)
Commentaries by Del N. Jones are posted on Boston Sports Forum every Monday. His weekend columns can also be read in the Saturday/Sunday edition of The Patriot Ledger or at patriotledger.com.