NEW ORLEANS It’s Tom Brady.
The big question of Super Bowl week was answered last night when New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Brady will start at quarterback over Drew Bledsoe, choosing the former backup over the $103 million, three-time Pro Bowler.
So Brady, a second-year pro who hasn’t lost in two months, will start Sunday’s game against the St. Louis Rams instead of the nine-year veteran who sparked the latest victory.
“Tom Brady demonstrated in practice today that he is fit to play,” Belichick said. “He will be our starting quarterback on Sunday.”
He told Bledsoe and Brady during a meeting before making the announcement.
Brady sprained his left ankle in the first half of last Sunday’s 24-17 win in the AFC title game in Pittsburgh. Bledsoe replaced him with 1:40 left in the first half, threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to David Patten for a 14-3 halftime lead and was solid the rest of the way.
It was Bledsoe’s first appearance in 126 days since he sheared a blood vessel in his chest when he was hit in a loss to the New York Jets in game two.
Brady, the AFC’s third-rated passer, was 12-3 in his previous 15 starts after the Patriots lost the first two games of the season with Bledsoe at quarterback. So the 24-year-old player from Michigan, who has shown outstanding poise in big games, will start in the biggest game of his life Sunday after being a fourth-stringer as a rookie.
Belichick delayed naming his starter until he and his assistant coaches had a chance to watch tapes of the afternoon workout at Tulane University. He went so far as to ask a pool reporter not to identify who took the most snaps in practice; the starter usually takes almost all off the practice snaps with the offense.
Bledsoe was the Patriots’ starter until a crunching hit sheared a blood vessel in his chest in the second game of the season. Brady helped lead New England to the AFC East title and to a 16-13 overtime victory over Oakland in the playoffs.
Bledsoe’s relief performance against the Steelers sparked the big question of Super Bowl week: Would Brady or Bledsoe start Sunday?
Bledsoe, the first player drafted in 1993? Or Brady, the No. 199 pick two years ago who threw just three passes last year but jumped from fourth on the depth chart to bring New England back to New Orleans?
Belichick’s decision, though, may not settle the quarterback controversy for long.
There’s always next season.
Questions could linger long into the offseason as coaches and club officials consider their options: Dump Bledsoe’s big salary, explore a deal for the younger Brady, or keep both.
Earlier, Patriots owner Robert Kraft had some ideas about keeping the NFL’s deepest quarterback corps together.
“If I have a vote, I would not be against both of them playing for us next year unless someone comes with a blockbuster offer for either one,” Kraft said.
And what might that be?
“Oh, I don’t know, ask the coach,” he said.
The Patriots could fit Bledsoe’s and Brady’s salaries under next year’s cap, Kraft said. Bledsoe’s cap number next season is $7.5 million, a $5 million salary plus bonuses. Brady’s cap number will be $370,833, a base of $358,000 and a prorated signing bonus of $12,833.
But the 24-year-old Brady may get a new deal to keep him from becoming a restricted free agent after next season. And that could make it too costly to keep both, especially a backup with a 10-year, $103 million contract that began this season.
“That is irrelevant,” Patriots fullback Marc Edwards said. “Drew has earned every penny with how he helped keep the team together this year.”
Bledsoe, who made Pro Bowl three times before Brady turned pro, seemed to be the odd man out but kept helping his successor.
“He’s never done anything that hasn’t reflected well on the team,” Kraft said. “He’s the prototype of the kind of player anyone would want on their team.”
Asked how he would feel if he were told in the offseason that Brady would be the quarterback next year, Bledsoe said, “The future’s the future and, right now, we’re focused on this game, this week, and whatever happens after that happens. Right now, we’re not going to even address that.”
Bledsoe, who will turn 30 on Feb. 14, doesn’t want to remain a backup after being the Patriots’ signature player for most of his career. Chicago, Seattle and Washington all are possible destinations good teams who could use a better quarterback.