|Kraft: Both Brady and Bledsoe could return
By Len Pasquarelli
NEW ORLEANS -- Just one day after he suggested the New England Patriots might resolve what figures to escalate into a full-blown quarterback controversy in 2002, likely by trading either Tom Brady or Drew Bledsoe this spring, owner Bob Kraft backtracked from his published remarks. Kraft said here Wednesday it will "definitely be possible" to retain both the players and noted that the final decision on the quarterback situation will rest with coach Bill Belichick. "It's going to take a blockbuster offer to get one of them from us, the kind of offer that was so big you would have no choice but to listen to it, and (other) teams need to know that," Kraft said. "As far as we're concerned right now, we can keep them both, and as we've seen recently you need to have two quarterbacks in this league anyway." The New England owner said his team has no intention of placing either of the quarterbacks on the market and that any club interested in Bledsoe or Brady will have to initiate discussions. "And even then," he said, "there's no guarantee we would listen." He quickly downplayed a published report that strongly hinted one of the quarterbacks would be gone by next season, emphasized the need for his team to concentrate on Super Bowl XXXVI on Sunday and avoid distractions, and cited similar circumstances that simply resolved themselves. Kraft, who is particularly fond of Bledsoe, said the organization will discuss the situation during the offseason as part of its annual roster evaluation. "People will have input," Kraft said, "but in the end, it's more a coaching decision than anything else." In his second NFL season, and after throwing just three passes as a rookie in 2000, Brady posted a 12-3 record after supplanting the injured Bledsoe, who suffered internal chest injuries during the second game of the year. There has been much speculation that Belichick would prefer to go to camp with Brady as the starter, but the coach reiterated this week he has not looked ahead to all of the options. From a salary cap standpoint, Bledsoe is the Patriots' biggest-ticket item. His cap charge for 2002 is $7.53 million, the highest on the team, but the contract is structured in a way that the club will not absorb a crippling hit if it trades him. Dealing the nine-year veteran would cost the Patriots $1 million, the $6 million signing bonus "acceleration" it would absorb, less his $5 million salary. Brady will be entering the final year of his contract in 2002 and his base salary is set at $387,000 the new minimum base for a third-year veteran. His cap number would be $399,833, a very small number for a potential starting quarterback. Agent Don Yee told ESPN.com months ago that the team approached him about an extension for Brady early in the season, even before he took over as the starter, but that his client will wait until after the Super Bowl to see how things proceed. Any team trading for Bledsoe would get nearly three full seasons from him before the really big salaries in his contract become a factor. He is due an option bonus, one that triggers the 2005-2010 seasons of his contract, on Nov. 1, 2004, according to documents obtained by ESPN.com. The conventional wisdom is that, even if the Patriots decide to try to keep both players, Bledsoe is likely to force some kind of move if he does not regain his starting job. Bledsoe has remained a consummate team player throughout a difficult year for him, but hinted this week that he will not be so accommodating in 2002 if he's still No. 2 on the depth chart. And while New England can theoretically make the salary numbers work under its cap, it is hardly practical to have a backup quarterback possibly earning so much more than the starter. "I would be lying if I said the relationship between Tom and me hasn't changed some this year," Bledsoe said. "I've supported him and vice versa, but this has been a unique situation, and I'm not sure it could work again. I think, in both our hearts, we know that." Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.