Bledsoe retires, ends 14-year career

Rather than spend a 15th season standing on a sideline as a backup, quarterback Drew Bledsoe has decided to walk away from pro football.

Bledsoe, 35, retires fifth in NFL history in pass attempts (6,717) and completions (3,839), seventh in passing yards (44,611), and 13th in touchdown passes (251).

The No. 1 overall selection in 1993 by the New England Patriots out of Washington State, Bledsoe spent his first nine seasons with the Patriots, the next three with the Buffalo Bills, and his last two with the Dallas Cowboys.

"I feel so fortunate, so honored, to have played this game that I love for so long, with so many great players, and in front of so many wonderful fans," Bledsoe said in a statement released through his representatives at Athletes First. "I fulfilled a childhood dream the first time I stepped on an NFL field, and the league did not let me down one time. I retire with a smile on my face, in good health, and ready to spend autumns at my kids' games instead of my own. I'm excited to start the next chapter of my life."

A four-time Pro Bowler, Bledsoe backed up Tony Romo for the Cowboys' final 11½ games last season and had no interest in continuing his career in that role. Cincinnati and Seattle are said to have had interest in Bledsoe as a backup to Carson Palmer and Matt Hasselbeck, respectively.

"This is something I've been thinking about for quite a while," Bledsoe said last night from his home in Bend, Ore. "I felt like this was the way I was going to go late in the season. I wanted to spend some time with it and not make a rash decision."

Being benched at halftime of Dallas' sixth game -- the third time Bledsoe lost his starting job though the first time he'd been outright replaced during the season -- did not rob Bledsoe of his confidence. He says he isn't leaving the game because he feels he's finished. As a matter of fact, he says, he feels as good as he did a decade ago.

"The reason for the decision is not because I don't want to play anymore," he said. "The reason is there's a lot of other stuff I'm excited about doing. The positives of retiring outweighed the positives of returning and my desire to still play."

Bledsoe, who led New England to an appearance in Super Bowl XXXI and earned his lone championship ring with the Patriots in 2001, listed among his proudest accomplishments the respectable manner in which he carried himself on and off the field and the fact that he never literally had to be carried off the playing field.

"Looking back, I wish some things had gone differently," Bledsoe said, "but throughout 14 years in a very high-profile position in some high-profile places that I represented myself and my family well in terms of how I conducted myself on the field and off."

Though he took plenty of hits and sacks, Bledsoe, a prototypical pocket passer, almost always got up. He started all 16 games nine times.

"Nobody ever had to come and get me off the field," he said. "Even in New England [in '01 after Mo Lewis of the Jets leveled him with a hit that sheered a blood vessel] I went back out there and they had to tell me to stay out. I never once stayed down."

Bledsoe was unable to regain his starting job from Tom Brady -- he did, however, get a relief win in the AFC title game -- and the following offseason the Patriots dealt him to Buffalo. Three years later his run with the Bills ended when the team decided to hand the starting job over to first-round pick J.P. Losman.

His signing with the Cowboys prior to 2005 reunited him with Bill Parcells, the coach who drafted him in New England. With Dallas headed toward a disappointing 3-3 start, Parcells benched Bledsoe in favor of Romo at halftime of a nationally-televised game against the Giants. The Cowboys released Bledsoe in March.

Bledsoe, however, says he harbors no ill will toward Parcells, Belichick, the Bills, anyone.

"I'm not leaving the game with any hard feelings," he said. "I had a great career and I enjoyed all of it, with the exception of losing. I enjoyed the time I had with all the teams I played for. I played with a ton of great players and a ton of great people.

"[Last season] was hard, very hard. Nobody said life was fair but that was a tough pill to swallow. I'm happy for Tony, who's a good guy and a good player. It was sad for him the way the season ended. It's just that I felt like that team had a chance to do some things and I wanted to be on the field with those guys. It didn't work out. But there's no bitterness toward anyone over anything that happened."

A Bledsoe comeback later in '07 or in '08? Not happening, he says. Money certainly is not a source of motivation -- from 1993 through 2003 Bledsoe received more than $62 million in compensation, most in the league. Bledsoe is leaving the game not because the right opportunity isn't available but to take the opportunity to spend more time with his wife, Maura, and their four children while pursuing business endeavors and continuing his charitable work through his foundation, Parenting with Dignity.

"That's why I waited this long to make an announcement," he said. "I wanted to be very sure. I needed to get some emotional separation from last season to make sure I wasn't making a decision I would regret. I wanted to make sure it was the right thing and it is. I would say this is a definite."

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.