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The end is here for once-great Bledsoe

FOXBOROUGH -- The end came, for all intents and purposes, at 11:20 last night.

It was at that moment, in another losing effort against the Patriots, that Drew Bledsoe was yanked from the game in favor of rookie J.P. Losman, who is still recovering from a broken leg. Bills coach Mike Mularkey's decision to risk his still-healing No. 1 pick in a game the Bills already were trailing, 29-6, made clear how far Bledsoe has tumbled from the days when he ruled the same piece of real estate where his career crumbled last night.

Last night Bledsoe had trudged onto the turf at Razor Blade Field with a team that had won three of its last four games. He and the Bills came to Foxborough with hope in their hearts and high expectations, but before the game was even half over all those hopes had been shattered and so was Bledsoe, who at that point had a ridiculous quarterback rating of 10.

To produce such a number is not easy, but he did it by throwing half as many interceptions (2) as he had completions (4). He did it by throwing for only 34 yards in the half, an average of 3.4 yards per attempt. He did it by leading an offense that was outgained, 273 yards to 77, and outscored, 20-0, in the game's first 30 minutes.

It was not all Bledsoe's fault the way things went, but the Bills had good field position much of the half and couldn't run the ball nor pass it, so the blame will fall on his broad shoulders, as it should, for the praise once came the same way.

Bledsoe, like the great old heavyweight Evander Holyfield, has become a sad imitation of what he once was in the six straight years he threw for 3,500 yards a season or more and produced the majority of his 22 fourth-quarter comebacks.

Some were memorable games, like the one over the Minnesota Vikings Nov. 13, 1994 when he completed 45 of 70 passes for 426 yards and three touchdowns in a 26-20 overtime victory. Then consider last night, when he was eight for 19 for 76 yards with three interceptions and two sacks and there is little more that needs to be said.

Once he was a force to be reckoned with, an arm to be feared. But after being sacked 233 times over the last five years, and 228 over the past 4 1/2 as a starting quarterback, he has become a punch-drunk fighter with no idea when to pull the trigger or when to duck. His timing is so far off that one of his interceptions, the first ever by his former teammate, Troy Brown, was the result of Bledsoe throwing the ball half a body length behind Eric Moulds. Had the Patriots not dropped two other possible interceptions, it could have been a real nightmare for him.

Bledsoe can stand up, as he already has this season and may soon again, and say he is the quarterback of the Bills today, tomorrow, and for the foreseeable future, but that is simply no longer the case. Time is running out on him after 12 years as a brave and often brilliant soldier, but there is little left anymore but the shadows of the past.

They are long shadows and should not be forgotten here. He led the resurrection of the Patriots, who were a pathetic excuse for an NFL franchise when he arrived in 1993 as the league's No. 1 draft pick. Within two years he had them in the playoffs and within four years had led them to the Super Bowl in a season in which he threw for 4,086 yards and 27 touchdowns. He was sacked only 30 times that year despite passing 623 times. In these last years 30 sacks was barely a half season of abuse, but back then things were different. He was young and cocky and brave. Now he is only brave.

It cannot be easy to be the lion in winter. It cannot be easy to realize for whatever reason that you cannot do anymore what you once did so easily. Less than 24 hours before the 32-year-old Bledsoe was destroyed by the Patriots' defense once again, losing for the fifth time in six tries against his old team, another old lion, the 42-year-old Holyfield, sat befuddled in his locker room after losing nearly every round to a journeyman named Larry Donald.

He turned to an old friend at one point after losing all but one round in a sad, painful effort, and said, "I believe I was the better guy. Realistically, in my mind, I can't think it's over, but I've got to look at the possibility that this is a permanent problem."

An old champion, in whatever sport, cannot often see the reality of his situation. Holyfield can lose every round to a man he easily would have mastered a few years earlier and still argue with himself that he was superior. Bledsoe, for his part, can have a night like last night, in which he would finish with a 14.3 quarterback rating, and still believe in his heart that the Bills are his team.

But the Bills are no longer his team. Not of the future and not really even in the present. They are only on loan until such time as Mularkey believes Losman is fully healthy. That could be next Sunday or two Sundays from now, or three. However many Sundays Bledsoe has left, they are few, and where he goes after that will be up to him.

He can go back to Montana and Oregon, where he has lovely homes, and live the rest of his life content in knowing what he always has known -- that success or failure on the football field does not determine who he is or what kind of man he is. The kind of man he is has remained the same, from his first big game to this last, losing one.

The kind who learned six weeks ago that long-time Providence radio reporter Marge Petrocelli would not be coming to Buffalo to cover the Bills-Patriots game because the passing of her mother a few months earlier had left her less than anxious to chase football games around America anymore.

He heard about it from a member of the Bills' public relations staff after Petrocelli politely called to cancel her media credential so her seat could be used for someone else. That Saturday morning, barely 24 hours before he would face the Patriots, Petrocelli's phone rang at home at 8:30 a.m. On the line was a fading quarterback offering a word of condolence to an old friend.

He didn't agree to an interview and called for no other reason than to say, "Sorry about your Mom. Hope you're OK."

That doesn't make Bledsoe a great quarterback. It says nothing about whether he has lived up to all the promise of his first six or seven years in New England. But it says everything about who he is.

He is a good man who was once a great quarterback. The latter is no longer the case for an assortment of reasons, but the chest injury he sustained four years ago that nearly killed him while giving life to a new era of Patriot football led by his former backup, Tom Brady, probably has had something to do with his slide.

So, too, have the 128 sacks he's suffered with the Bills, many of his own making as he struggles to pull the trigger with reflexes slowed by age, indecision, and injury.

Regardless of what the reasons are, the end came last night where it should have. In the same town where Bledsoe had so many now-forgotten moments when for all the world he looked like he would be a player they never would forget in New England.

As things have developed, Brady became that quarterback, not Bledsoe, but there is no shame in that. He was, for a few years at least, a great quarterback and a better man and the fading of the one has not tarnished or changed the other.

In sports, as in life, it is always sad to see the end come. To watch Evander Holyfield being pummeled by someone who would not have lasted three rounds with him when he was really Holyfield is difficult to endure if you have respect for who he was and what he accomplished. The same was true last night for Drew Bledsoe, a great quarterback no more but to his credit still the same man he's always been. A good man struggling now in a hard business. 

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