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Thursday, November 22
Belichick made right and wrong call

By Mark Cannizzaro
Special to

It took a lot of nerve for New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick to announce backup quarterback and Cinderella story Tom Brady as his starter the rest of the season.

If only he'd handled the delicate situation with Drew Bledsoe a little bit better.

Drew Bledsoe
Drew Bledsoe, despite being healthy, will remain on the Pats' bench.
When Bledsoe became healthy enough to practice last week for the first time since suffering internal injuries from a hit by New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis on Sept. 23, Belichick told him he'd be able to "compete" for his starting job with Brady.

Then, early this week, Belichick told Bledsoe and Brady in a meeting that Brady would be the starter the rest of the season, leaving Bledsoe livid and feeling betrayed by his head coach.

The bottom line is that Belichick made the correct -- and bold -- decision to stay with Brady, who's 5-3 as a starter and has the rest of the team playing well around him.

"I can see why (Belichick) made that decision," Jets coach Herman Edwards said. "The team really likes (Brady) and they've got some chemistry going right now. You hate to mess with chemistry."

True, but Bledsoe, who before this season was signed by the Patriots to a 10-year, $103-million contract that we assume Belichick signed off on, deserved better communication from his head coach.

In light of this latest development, you have to wonder how much of a Bledsoe backer Belichick has been since being hired as the Patriots head coach at the start of the 2000 season. It makes you wonder if the Bledsoe signing was all owner Robert Kraft's doing.

Kraft, after all, has already paid Bledsoe more than $47 million, including $11.5 million this season ($8 million signing bonus and $3.5 million base salary). Now the situation is so sticky that whatever happens with Bledsoe will be an ongoing story of intrigue in New England, where controversy seems to be the norm.

If Bledsoe is traded or released, he'll cost $6.37 million against the 2002 salary cap. If he remains on the team, he counts $6.78 million against the cap. There, too, is speculation that he could be exposed in the expansion draft.

The problem here is this: With signs that the NFL might be catching up to the upstart Brady, Belichick may have made a mistake in alienating Bledsoe, his franchise quarterback.

In Brady's first four starts, the Patriots' offense averaged 26.7 points per game. In the last four games, the same offense under Brady is averaging 18.7 points and has not beaten a team with a winning record.

The 5-5 Patriots have a difficult game against the 5-4 Saints Sunday in Foxboro, Mass. Another loss with a Dec. 2 road game against the Jets upcoming and the shine on Brady's star could begin to wear off.

Perhaps Belichick should have told Bledsoe he was going to stick with Brady as long as he believes Brady is still the best quarterback to lead the team, and that should there come a time when a change needs to be made then Bledsoe would see the field again.

There isn't a player on the Patriots' roster who's more team-oriented than Bledsoe. And even Bledsoe would have a hard time arguing that Brady should be removed from the lineup right now.

But to be so definitive a week after telling Bledsoe he'd be able to compete for his job back? That was a mistake on that part of Belichick.

Too many people in New England forget that Bledsoe isn't that far removed from helping the Patriots to a Super Bowl.

Those same people forget that Bledsoe is a player who's been physically battered the last few years because of a lack of talent around him -- and yet no one has ever heard him say a negative thing about a teammate or the organization.

Young Browns grow up
Ten regular season games remain for the Cleveland Browns as they enter Sunday's matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals in Cleveland and they're talking playoffs.

This year.


So what if the Browns entered this season with an entirely new coaching staff following a 5-27 record the last two seasons? When you look at the fact that the 5-4 Browns are fresh off of a second win in a month over the reigning Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, why shouldn't they be flush with confidence?

Tim Couch
Tim Couch has thrown for 1,624 yards, 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
This is, indeed, a different Browns team from the Chris Palmer squads of the last two seasons -- even with this past week's transgressions involving defensive tackle Gerard Warren (Cleveland's No. 1 pick), H-back Mike Sellers and defensive back Lamar Chapman.

Warren, who was arrested for carrying an assault rifle in Pittsburgh, and Sellers and Chapman, who were arrested on drug charges in Cleveland, have all been suspended for this week's game and fined.

Despite these glitches, though, Butch Davis' Browns are serious about winning now -- a notion that seemed positively absurd only months ago.

There are a number of reasons why the Browns, in only their third year of existence following their expansion resurrection, are now contenders. The first is the overall aura of confidence that Davis has brought in. It's an intangible, but the results and the air about the team is very tangible. The Browns' defense has truly grown into a force, too, with an NFL-high 20 interceptions. Overall, the Browns trail only the red-hot Jets in turnover ratio with a plus-12.

Cleveland also is tied for second with the Philadelphia Eagles for allowing the least amount of touchdowns this season -- a mere 11 in its nine games. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have yielded 10 touchdowns, have fared better.

Though the Browns are ranked 20th in total defense (based on yards allowed) and 14th in the league in pass defense, the 54.8 quarterback efficiency rating against them is the lowest in the NFL. Rookie cornerback Anthony Henry has been a big part of the pass defense, having picked off seven passes, which has him tied for first in the AFC and one behind the NFL lead. Henry's picks have come in bursts, too, with two three-interception games.

Offensively, Browns quarterback Tim Couch is finally playing like a No. 1 pick.

His numbers aren't gaudy -- he's completed 58.1 percent of his passes for 1,624 yards, 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions for a 79.4 rating. But Couch has become a tough, admirable leader of the Cleveland offense. It's clearly his team.

An example of his proficiency when it's counted occurred in last Sunday's 27-17 win over Baltimore, when he threw three interceptions but was 14-of-15 for 112 yards on the Browns' four scoring drives (two touchdowns and two field goals).

A byproduct of the Browns becoming such a factor in the AFC Central is this: Sunday's game against the Bengals marks the first time since Cleveland reentered the NFL (a span of 41 games) that the Browns have been favored. They've been installed as a six-point favorite to defeat the Bengals.

Prior to this week, the closest the Browns had come to being favored to win a game was their Detroit game this year when they were a mere one-point underdog in a game they won, 24-14. Last season, after a 1-1 start, the Browns were two-point underdogs in their third game against Pittsburgh -- a game they won 23-20. Earlier this season, the Browns were three-point underdogs against the Bengals in Cincinnati and lost 18-17.

Entering the season, according to a story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, one sports book in Las Vegas had the Browns' over-under for wins this season at 4½ -- a number they've already surpassed.

While the Browns' sudden success has captured the attention of those around the NFL as at least a mild surprise, Davis and his players are hardly taken aback.

We're not the old Browns anymore.
Corey Fuller, Browns cornerback

"At the beginning of the season, that was a goal of this football team -- we wanted to put ourselves in a position to be competing and playing down the stretch in meaningful games, that if they went right, we'd have a chance," Davis said.

After the second win over the Ravens, there was even taunting coming from Cleveland players, a sure sign of confidence.

"Somebody get me a broom," Browns cornerback Corey Fuller said. "The Browns swept the Ravens. The Browns swept the Ravens."

Said Couch: "This is what we needed to get that swagger, that confidence back. Any time you can sweep the world champions that says a whole lot for your football team."

Even the arrogant Ravens had to credit their newest division rivals.

"My hat's off to the Cleveland Browns," Ravens defensive tackle Sam Adams said. "They're a good football team. They beat us twice this year."

"We're not the old Browns anymore," Fuller said.

Wannstedt's fear of the "C" word
In a developing story in Miami, Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt admitted this week that he didn't replace his turnover-prone starting quarterback Jay Fiedler with backup Ray Lucas during a 24-0 loss to the Jets last Sunday because he was fearful of starting a quarterback controversy.

"I knew I'd have enough articles to deal with coming in (Monday)," Wannstedt said, adding that quarterback controversies are "not healthy."

Nor, however, are turnovers, and the Dolphins are last in the NFL in turnover ratio at minus-14. Fiedler has 18 turnovers in the last eight games with 15 interceptions and three lost fumbles.

"Jay is the starter, and my only comment is we're going to get it squared away and play turnover-free football," Wannstedt said.

One of the underlying reasons for Wannstedt's sensitivity regarding the quarterback situation is the fact that he went through six quarterbacks and dealt with an acrimonious competition between Rick Mirer and Erik Kramer during his failed head coaching tenure in Chicago.

"Jay is capable, so this is a different situation than I have been involved in," Wannstedt said. "If I didn't believe Jay could learn from this, it would be an easy decision (to make a change). But I do have faith we will get this resolved."

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Billick
Brian Billick's arrogance in Baltimore has reached comedic proportions.

One day, when all is great, he's allowing ESPN cameras inside team meetings, on team buses and at team meals. And now, when the going has gotten a little rough for the Super Bowl champs, Billick is trying to shut the media out.

Brian Billick

One day after his quarterback, Elvis Grbac, threw four interceptions in a 27-17 loss to the Browns, Billick issued a gag order on his players, telling them not to talk about their teammates to reporters.

"We're not going to comment on another player's abilities or potentials," Billick said. "If the mentality wants to be us against them, then we're prepared for that. This team is not going to engage in any conversations, speculations and comments on another team member. They're simply going to dismiss themselves and assume the interview is over."

After the Ravens' loss to the Browns, during which home fans were chanting Trent Dilfer's name, their chatterbox tight end Shannon Sharpe was critical of Grbac.

"He was brought here to do a job, and the job is not getting done," Sharpe said after the game. "If Elvis is down, he can't get any lower. In all of my 12 years, I have never had someone cheer for my backup to come in the ballgame. I've always been positive. I don't know if he can be any lower."

In his eight starts, Grbac has a 4-4 record, throwing for 1,801 yards and nine touchdowns to go with 13 interceptions and four lost fumbles.

Mark Cannizzaro of the New York Post writes an AFC notebook every week for

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