|Sunday, April 21
Updated: April 22, 2:34 PM ET
Bledsoe heads to Buffalo for 2003 pick
ESPN.com news services
The New England Patriots traded Drew Bledsoe to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday after a nine-year career in which he rewrote the record books but watched from the sideline while his former backup led the franchise to its first Super Bowl championship.
The Patriots will get Buffalo's first-round pick in 2003. ESPN.com's Len Pasquarelli reports that the trade is conditional upon Bledsoe passing a physical, possibly as early as this week, and reporting to training camp in July. Failure to fulfill either of those conditions would void the trade.
"He's a big (acquisition) for us," a Bills source told Pasquarelli. "We're getting better."
The announcement of the trade was initially delayed because Patriots owner Bob Kraft, who is very fond of Bledsoe, was attempting to reach him by phone to apprise him of the deal.
New England had been trying to trade Bledsoe since Tom Brady, a former fourth-stringer who inherited the starting job when Bledsoe was injured, led the team to an improbable 20-17 victory over the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl on Feb. 3.
"We all knew what the situation was: A football team can have only one starting quarterback," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "In the end, it can only be one guy. ... When you put it all together, this is probably best."
The 30-year-old three-time Pro Bowl selection leaves as the franchise's top quarterback in completions, attempts and yards for a game, season and career. But he also showed his worth by keeping quiet last season even though he was obviously irritated that he wasn't given a chance to fight for his job after recovering from a life-threatening injury.
Buffalo spent the past month pursuing Bledsoe, but surprisingly few other teams expressed interest. For the Bills, Bledsoe suddenly and significantly raises expectations after a 3-13 season -- their worst since 1985 -- and solidifies a position that had been unsettled since Hall of Famer Jim Kelly retired following the 1996 season.
ESPN.com's John Clayton reported that talks between the two teams broke down Friday when the Bills offered the Patriots a second-round choice in 2003 that had tough upgrades to be a No. 1. For the Patriots to get the Bills' No. 1 choice, Bledsoe would have had to start 12 games and the Bills would have had to make the playoffs.
The Patriots rejected that offer out of hand.
On Saturday, the Bills hoped to select quarterback Patrick Ramsey of Tulane with the fourth pick in the second round, but those plans fell through when the Redskins traded down twice in the first round to take Ramsey as the 32nd choice.
On Sunday morning, Bills management decided to upgrade their offer. Conversations didn't take long. Within the first hour of the draft, the Bills and Patriots agreed on the draft-choice compensation and awaited the decision by Bledsoe.
Bledsoe is scheduled for base salaries of $5 million in 2002, $5.5 million in 2003 and $6 million in 2004. On Nov. 1, 2004, any team that assumes his contract will have to decide whether to make a $7 million option payment to trigger the 2005-2010 portion of the contract. In essence, the Bills get Bledsoe for nearly three full seasons, at $16.5 in base salary, before determining whether to keep him beyond 2004.
"If we're flabbergasted, we're flabbergasted that there weren't more teams that got involved in it," Bills general manager Tom Donahoe said. "Everybody talks about the need for quarterbacks. ... All we know is, we're happy to know that we were in that position and had a chance to do this."
The Bills' previous two starters -- Doug Flutie and Rob Johnson -- spent three seasons in a bitter feud over who deserved the No. 1 job, eventually proving neither could hold it. Alex Van Pelt signed a five-year deal in January after a solid, half-season performance filling in for Johnson when he was injured.
"As a player I'm disappointed, for selfish reasons. But as a team player, I'm excited by him. You add a Drew Bledsoe to your team, it's huge," said Van Pelt, who was bumped to backup. "He's already done a ton in this league."
Even before the deal was announced, the Bills opened their box office to accommodate fans who heard the trade was imminent. Buffalo, which failed to sell out four of its eight home games last season, drew 504,709 fans last year, the lowest since 1987.
"Just the hint of Drew Bledsoe would get anybody down here," said Patrick Cimicato, after purchasing a pair of season tickets at the stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y.
The first overall pick in the 1993 draft, Bledsoe was the cornerstone of the Patriots' efforts to rebuild from a 2-14 record and a decade of irrelevance after their loss in the 1986 Super Bowl. In the 2001 media guide, in which Brady shares a page with a fullback who was cut in training camp, Bledsoe's career is chronicled in the most minute detail.
It tells how he was the youngest quarterback in NFL history to play in the Pro Bowl and reach the 10,000 yard plateau; how he had seven consecutive 3,000 yard seasons -- two of them for more than 4,000 yards; how he missed just six of his first 128 games in his first eight years; and how he led the Patriots to the Super Bowl in 1997.
Just last summer, the Patriots signed Bledsoe to a contract that, if all the options had been picked up, would have paid him an NFL record $103 million over 10 years; at the time, there was no doubt that the strong-armed passer who had turned the franchise around would finish his career in New England.
But in Week 2, New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis knocked Bledsoe out with a crushing hit that put him in the hospital with a sheared blood vessel in his chest. Eight weeks later, after Bledsoe was ready to return, Belichick decided to stay with Brady rather than tamper with the chemistry that had enabled the team to rebound from 0-2 to 5-5.
In a tense locker room session with reporters, Bledsoe said he was anxious for the chance to compete again for "my job." But he held back any criticism of Brady or Belichick, who had promised that Bledsoe would get that chance when he was healthy but apparently changed his mind when he decided that a mid-season competition would keep the team from preparing for the week's opponent.
The job was Brady's, and the Patriots never looked back.
They won their last six games of the regular season, and then a snowbound playoff game against Oakland after Brady's late drop was ruled an incompletion because, according to NFL rules, he hadn't fully "tucked" the ball in after faking a pass. The next week, in the AFC championship against Pittsburgh, Brady injured his left ankle late in the first half and Bledsoe came off the bench to lead the Patriots to the victory.
The question for Super Bowl week became, "Brady or Bledsoe?" But once Belichick determined that Brady was healthy, the job was his.
As he did all season, Bledsoe took the decision with grace, continuing to support Brady as a friend and mentor; when Brady took a nap on the locker room floor before the game, Bledsoe was right beside him. The two also attended a World Series game together in the fall.
"I look forward to my future," Bledsoe said on the Superdome field after the game. "I still want to play, and I feel like I can play this game at a very high level."
The Associated Press, along with ESPN.com's Len Pasquarelli and John Clayton, contributed to this report.