- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 30, 2002

NEW ORLEANS Drew Bledsoe has every right to be bitter. The New England Patriots are supposed to be his team. Three-time Pro Bowl passers aren't supposed to lose their jobs because of an injury and especially not to a kid who had three NFL passes on his resume before Sept. 23, when Bledsoe suffered a collapsed lung, life-threatening internal bleeding and a concussion on a vicious hit by New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis.
But with Tom Brady walking without apparent difficulty yesterday on the left ankle he sprained in the AFC Championship game and saying it's constantly improving, Patriots coach Bill Belichick is expected to bypass Bledsoe again and name Brady the starter for Sunday's Super Bowl XXXVI against St. Louis after today's first practice of the week.
"It has been a very difficult and challenging year," Bledsoe said. "To lose my quarterback coach [Dick Rehbein died of heart failure] in training camp was very difficult. We all had to go through the September 11 tragedies. And then to be injured and not be able to get back on the field [he missed seven weeks of practice] … it has been a very trying year, but it has made me realize how much I appreciate this game, how much I love playing this game. I want to play [against the Rams] as badly as I've ever wanted anything. I mean, it's the Super Bowl. It's what you play for, but ultimately it's Bill's decision."
The Bledsoe-Brady story is similar to that of Trent Green and Kurt Warner in St. Louis in 1999 when Green went down in preseason and unknown backup Warner led the Rams to the Super Bowl. The difference is that Green was out for the year while Bledsoe has been cleared to play for the past two months and is coming off a solid relief performance in the final 31:40 of the 24-17 upset of Pittsburgh last Sunday.
"Being able to get back out there felt good, but that doesn't make it any harder or easier this week," Bledsoe said. "It's always hard when you don't get to play."
Still, Bledsoe has taken the high road even though he disagreed with Belichick's decision to make him the second banana once he was cleared to play in November. The defensive-minded Belichick prefers the conservative Brady, who's 13-3 as a starter, to Bledsoe, who has won just seven of his last 26 starts and holds the NFL record for passes in a season (691) and a game (70). In Washington terms, it's like George Allen picking Billy Kilmer over Sonny Jurgensen, except that Brady's so inexperienced.
"You can be selfish or you can subjugate yourself to the team," Bledsoe said. "For our team, the right thing to do was for me to step back and try and be supportive of Tom and do what I could to help us win. It wasn't easy. It wasn't my first inclination, but it was the right thing to do. [Belichicks decision] was something I didn't like and I didn't agree with, but I spent a lot of time talking with my wife, my parents and some close friends and was fairly quickly able to find some perspective."
When Bledsoe brought the Patriots to New Orleans for the Super Bowl here five years ago, he was their shining symbol and he remained so until four months ago. Tomorrow, he'll likely return to being an afterthought with a 10-year, $103 million contract that could well spell his exit from New England. Baltimore, Chicago, Seattle and Washington are all believed to be interested in making a deal for Bledsoe. But with Brady playing for a near-minimum salary, Bledsoe could also return if the Patriots don't receive a tempting enough offer.
"In 1996, I was 24 and had my whole career in front of me," Bledsoe said. "As much as you try and resist it, when you're young and you have some success in this league, you think that's the way it's going to be. Coming back here with the perspective of having gone through some real ups and downs, it means a little bit more."
Bledsoe, who won't be 30 until next month, deflected questions about his future, but he's unshaken in his belief that he remains among the NFL's top passers and not just because he played well when he finally got back out there against the Steelers last week, even bouncing back up immediately after being rudely shoved out of bounds by Chad Scott.
"I know I can play at a very high level," Bledsoe said. "Whether that proves something to somebody else doesn't matter to me that much."

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