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Bledsoe: A Bill believes he's due

Bill Parcells tried to prepare him some years ago for the hell he is going through right now, just as he tried to prepare him for so many other moments he would face as a quarterback in the National Football League. But how do you prepare a man for a time when people will call for his banishment? What can ready him for that?

Not a newspaper story.

"Bill called me into his office one day, I think it was in '95, and goes, `Hey, who's been the best quarterbacks over the last decade?' " recalled Drew Bledsoe. "I said, `Probably Marino, Montana, and Elway.' Parcells slides an article across his desk. They were calling for Danny's head in Miami.

"That's the nature of this business. It's the nature of the position I play. When we win, I'm going to get more credit than I deserve. When we lose, the quarterback takes a lot of the blame. They're hollering for my job and all that right now but this isn't my first time going through this. If I couldn't handle it, I wouldn't still be in the NFL.

"I really don't care what they're saying on the outside. When we start to win some games, it will all turn around again. I understand that. The thing is, I still love the game. It's no fun to have people screaming for your job, but I get the same excitement at 32 that I felt in high school on a Friday night. But when you don't win, it absolutely [stinks]."

As Bledsoe prepares for Sunday's showdown with the Super Bowl champion Patriots and his personal nemesis, Bill Belichick, he is like long-suffering Red Sox fans. While others doubt, he still believes. He still believes in himself and he still believes in the talent first-year Bills coach Mike Mularkey has put around him.

What he can't quite believe is that they are 0-2 and have scored only two touchdowns. Worse, the Bills under Bledsoe's leadership have scored only 18 offensive touchdowns in the last 16 games and have lost 18 of his last 26 starts. Those numbers, many now insist, can mean only one thing: Bledsoe is finished.

"He's just not the same player," an NFL general manager said last week. "You can only take so many hits. It's not a question of courage. He's proven that. But your body can only take so much and then you start to react different. I doubt he even senses it. It's not a conscious thing, but you can't pull the trigger when you need to anymore."

Bledsoe knows these things -- and worse -- are being said. He knows Terry Bradshaw recently made a list of his top 10 quarterbacks in the NFL and Bledsoe wasn't on it. When you have pride, such things hurt, but he cannot deny the obvious. He cannot deny the numbers, because he always has been a quarterback defined by his numbers, and now those numbers that once resembled Dan Marino's have disappeared.

In Buffalo, they wonder what happened to the quarterback who arrived just over two years ago with such promise and rang up 17 touchdown passes and 2,802 yards in his first nine games. Where did he go? More important, will he ever be back?

Bledsoe insists he will be, saying it is merely a matter of correcting small but costly mistakes. The self-doubt that dogged him late last season after a miserable year ended in a 31-0 blowout at Foxborough (a day when he threw for only 83 yards), is gone, he says, replaced by a faith few seem to share.

"I'm [upset] we lost two games we should have won," Bledsoe said of identical 13-10 losses to Jacksonville and Oakland that opened this season. "In the Jacksonville game, we had six or eight opportunities to end that game by early in the fourth quarter but we kept making mistakes. Last week we just had one of those games where a bunch of guys each made a mistake at the wrong time, myself included."

"I really feel we've got the talent to be a good team. Our defense is playing well. The offense just hasn't produced the points. It really is that simple."

A year ago, Buffalo didn't produce the points, so changes were made. Coach Gregg Williams was replaced by Mularkey, who brought in a ball-control offense that doesn't take as many shots downfield as the Bills did when Kevin Gilbride was running the offense. They also imported Sam Wyche as quarterback coach to tutor Bledsoe, getting him to throw the ball quicker and be a little less willing to wait in the pocket for deeper routes to come open.

As yet, the results have been dismal. Despite two great defensive games, the Bills are 0-2, and the reason is clear. Their offense can't score. It was 30th in the league a year ago and is 29th today. When that's the case, the blame falls on one man.

"It would be one thing if we didn't have the players, but I know we're a better offense than we've put on the field," Bledsoe said. "I know our running backs are better than they've played. I know our offensive line is better than it's played. I know our receivers can make plays. I got my head beat in last week [seven sacks by the Raiders] but I know I can throw it better than I did in that game. That's where the frustration is for me."

It is not lost on some that the Raiders defense is run by Rob Ryan, who a year ago was the Patriots' linebackers coach. He got to Bledsoe with many of the same middle blitzes that New England used last season because the belief is that Bledsoe is so immobile you can destroy his timing and eventually his psyche by taking away his first read and pressuring him into mistakes or sacks.

He and Wyche twice watched the film of the Oakland game during the bye week and saw on several occasions Bledsoe failing to get his feet set and hence throwing off his back foot, slinging it more than passing it, a reaction to the defensive pressure. The result was throws coming up short, as did his offense.

"It's a result of being hit a number of times," he said. "When you get hit a few times, you have to come back and make the next throw. Sam and I worked on it and I made better throws late in the game."

Still, for many, including more than a few fans in Buffalo, the belief is that Bledsoe is antsy after being hit more times than Bernard Hopkins's sparring partners. They believe all those sacks over the last few years (about 50 a season in his last three years as a starter) have taken a toll and taken away his game. Teams no longer fear him, so they go after him, and he fails to react well to the pressure.

Bledsoe buys none of that, although he conceded at the end of last season that he did suffer from a loss of both confidence and the internal clock that most top-flight quarterbacks have that tells them when to get rid of the ball and when to hold it. That is one reason Wyche was brought in, to work with Bledsoe on his fundamentals.

"I was bummed at my play personally after last season," Bledsoe said. "I looked at some fundamentals and Sam is helping me stay on top of that stuff. I really feel I'm practicing well. Our first game, I hit the things I was supposed to and made the right reads. Against the Raiders, I didn't throw as well."

Now come the Patriots, the team that let him go and the one that has given him so much trouble the past two years. It is not the ideal scenario in which to get your feet back on the ground. But the only thing Bledsoe can do about his problems and those of his team is to play better.

If he does, he understands, the calls for Shane Matthews (are you kidding?) to replace him will quiet down and the talk of No. 1 pick J.P. Losman taking his job next season become more background noise than front-page debate. If he doesn't, the calls for his dismissal will grow louder. Either way, Bledsoe will try to focus on the only thing he can control. Himself and his effort.

"My attitude is positive," Bledsoe said. "I believe we can win. Losing is hard to deal with, but I believe when we get more consistent, we have the talent to win." 

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