By Rick Anderson
The Buffalo Bills finally have their quarterback they have been seeking since Jim Kelly retired. After years of having a quarterback controversy, they know for sure that their new leader will not have any part in what plagued the Bills when they suffered through the infamous Flutie-Johnson ego battles.
Bills new No. 1 quarterback Drew Bledsoe signs autographs at pep rally given in his honor.|
[AP Photo] |
The Patriots won their first Super Bowl and even if he didn't play too much a role on the field, Bledsoe low key acceptance of his role last season and his locker room leadership were crucial in the Pats successful season.
Sunday, the Bills made their biggest blockbuster trade since they acquired Cornelius Bennett from the Indianapolis Colts in the late 80s. Bledsoe was the quarterback they wanted all along. It was a dream come true for Bills fans and even Bills GM Tom Donahoe.
When the Pats won the Super Bowl with Tom Brady as the No. 1 QB, most fans and experts wondered about what they would do with Bledsoe. Donahoe probably dreamt of having Bledsoe in a Bills uniform, but he knew with the Bills salary cap problems, that it probably was not feasible. About a month ago, rumors started flying that the Bills were interested in Bledsoe. Those rumors intensified until the week before the college draft. The Pats wanted the Bills #1 pick, which was the 4th overall. Donahoe would have nothing of that, but offered the Pats the Bills 3rd round selection next year. Last Friday, the Patriots outright rejected that bid and it appeared as if the deal was dead in the water. On Sunday, the Bills and Pats finally had their deal, a #1 pick in next year's draft.
"I have spoken with Mr. Wilson, Tom Donahoe, and Coach Williams and I am thrilled with their energy and with the direction of the franchise," Bledsoe said when he made his first statement about the trade. "Although I will certainly miss all of the Patriots fans who supported me over the years, I know from the other side of the field how loyal Bills fans are, and it will be wonderful to receive their support.
"I am eager to get to Buffalo over the next few days to meet my new teammates and to look for a place to live. And, on the field, I could not be more enthusiastic about jumping into the next phase of my career and contributing to the success of the Buffalo Bills."
When Bledsoe was brought to Buffalo Tuesday for the press conference and a rally in his honor afterwards, it was like a Super Bowl rally.
Bills owner Ralph Wilson was beaming over his new starting quarterback.
"You've given the area a spark and I know you have certainly given me a spark because I am looking forward to the start of the season," said an enthused Wilson. "This is a big day for Buffalo and particularly the Buffalo Bills. When I saw all the people outside, I thought this was the first day of the season."
Bledsoe, wooed the crowd with his poise and composure.
"Through the years they have always been a high caliber organization, especially early in my career when they were making a run to four straight championships," said Bledsoe. "It means a lot to me to follow in the steps of one of my heroes Jim Kelly, who is a guy that I admired greatly as I was playing high school ball, college ball and in the NFL when I got to compete against him directly."
Bledsoe reflected on how his NFL career started in Buffalo.
"It's really interesting, my career actually started in Buffalo. My first regular season game was right here. I remember I was standing out there warming up for that first game and I see Bruce Smith come walking out of the tunnel and I'm 21 years old playing quarterback and I was absolutely shaking in my shoes standing out here on this turf and Jim Kelly came over and kind of patted me on the shoulder and said 'hey kid, good luck, you're going to be a good one.' I will always remember that. Now we have come full circle and I hope that I conclude my career as a Buffalo Bill."
Drew Bledsoe against the Bills Novemeber 1999. Here Bledsoe is getting tackled by Phil Hansen.|
[AP Photo] |
"That was one of my first comments when I was visiting with some of these guys today," reflected Bledsoe. "Some of those emotions are very similar. I'm very excited by the opportunity, there's a great newness and there's a great anticipation to this situation. The big difference between being a draft pick in 1993, really two big differences… I've got a lot more experience now, I feel like I know more and I'm a better player that I was at that time and have a better grasp of how things will go and what I need to do.
"The second thing is that I am stepping into a much better situation that I was stepping into then. At that point I was stepping into an organization that obviously was making a turn on the way up but I really feel strong that after playing against the Bills and seeing what they have done, particularly with the draft and this offseason, that we can be extremely competitive right away whereas when I went to New England we were just hoping we could be competitive in three to four years, but with this organization and the ways things are shaping up I feel we can be very successful right away."
With the Bills letting go Rob Johnson in the offseason, the Bills were desperate to fill the void in leadership they had at the quarterback position. The Bills were scouting Bledsoe all last season. "Our feeling was if we can acquire not just a starting quarterback in the NFL but one we feel is definitely one of the top three or four quarterbacks in the league, we felt it was a deal worth doing," said Donahoe.
Just last year, Bledsoe signed a $103 million, 10-year pack with the Pats. There are 3 phases of the contract. Bledsoe gets $5 million this season, $5.5 million in 2003 and $6 million in 2004. After that season, Bledsoe's contract calls for $26 million for the next three years. The Bills have the choice whether to go with those numbers, rework the contract or set him free.
With Bledsoe's contract this year, the Bills are just over $1 million under the salary cap. If they cut offensive tackle John Fina, it will free up another $3 million for signing of the rookies they drafted.
Bledsoe is just coming into the prime age of NFL quarterbacks. At 30, he should be peaking right at this time of his career. He shares the same birthday as Jim Kelly, St. Valentine's day. He also is not too superstitious, as he gladly accepted his No. 11 jersey. The last two players to wear that uniform were Rob Johnson and Scott Norwood.
Bledsoe is used to cold conditions and is usually his best late in the season.
"He can make every throw in the field," said Bills coach Gregg Williams. "He's one of the few quarterbacks in the NFL who can put points on the board from wherever he is in the pocket or outside the pocket, no matter what yard line he's on.
"He has shown the ability to handle tough situations. He's played in all types of weather. He knows this division inside and out, and that's a huge plus."
The Bills acquired huge offensive tackle Mike Williams with their first round draft choice the day before the big trade. Williams goes 6-5, 375 pounds and fills a glaring need the Bills have had since their Super Bowl days. All-Pro offensive guard Ruben Brown was ecstatic over the acquisitions of both Williams and Bledsoe.
"Thank God that a guy like him is coming so we can put all of the past behind us, because we're truly starting over right now," Brown said about Bledsoe. "You can honestly say that this is a new era. You can't pay enough for experience. It gives us a lot of leadership, especially at the quarterback position, which we needed for a long time."
Brown thinks this will really improve the Bills record next season.
"I said all of last year I thought Buffalo was a good team, a lot better than their record," reflected Brown. "You add Drew Bledsoe to that team, and our rival is that much stronger. For Buffalo it's unbelievable to add a guy like that in that locker room. He's still a top quarterback."
Now with the recent free agent signings, the draft and the acquisition of Bledsoe, the main job will be meshing the new pieces together with the core of the existing team. Now it is up to Bills coach Williams. Williams wants to get the ground game going to compensate Bledsoe's arm.
"We're going to have a strong running game to be able to assist any quarterback, and with our plans of being pretty much a vertical passing team, I think he should be excited," stated Williams.
"Any quarterback obviously excels better when he knows he doesn't have to put the whole game on his shoulders, that you do have an effective running game and you are able to pound the football."
Copyright © 2002 Bills Thunder & Rick Anderson, all rights reserved.
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