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Buffalo Wing Man

Bledsoe, cast off by Patriots, has made Bills better and made himself a part of tight-knit community

November 03, 2002|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Just a simple piece of advice. That's what Jim Kelly had for Drew Bledsoe when Bledsoe arrived in April, replacing Rob Johnson as quarterback of the Buffalo Bills. Seeing as how Kelly is not only a Hall of Fame quarterback but is permanently entrenched as the city's golden boy, Bledsoe would have been a fool to ignore these three simple words:

Location, location, location.

Not location of Bledsoe's throws, mind you; he's one of the game's most accurate passers. Kelly advised him to get comfortable in Buffalo. Don't be aloof, he urged. Don't give people the impression you're a high-priced mercenary. This town is about Buffalo wings, fried baloney sandwiches and "beef on weck" -- roast beef on a salty kaiser roll. It's about rolling countryside and bitter-cold winters. Mostly, though, it's about football.

"Western New York is a different place," Kelly explained this week. "This is a blue-collar area and people expect you to become part of the community. Move everything here. That's what I did when I came. Rob came here and lived in hotel rooms during the course of his career. He didn't listen to me. You've got to show people you want to be here."

Bledsoe was more than happy to get out of New England, where his services were no longer required. The Patriots, who play at Buffalo today, had cast their lot with Tom Brady, who took over last season when Bledsoe went down with a serious chest injury, and helped lead the franchise to its first championship. Suddenly, Bledsoe, the first overall pick in the 1993 draft and a three-time Pro Bowl selection, became the NFL's most overpaid clipboard holder.

Bledsoe bought a house in East Aurora, an upscale Buffalo suburb where lots are large and there's a snow blower in just about every garage.

"I'm a small-town kid," said Bledsoe, who grew up in Walla Walla, Wash.

"Living in a small town like this is a natural fit for me."

Likewise, he's in an ideal system, one that's built around his drop-back style. The Patriots traded him within the division -- pure insanity, in the estimation of a lot of people -- for a first-round pick in the 2003 draft. And now, for a number of reasons, the tables have turned. Brady and the 3-4 Patriots suddenly look very vulnerable, and Bledsoe is off to the best statistical start of any quarterback in Bill history.

Through eight games, he leads the league with 2,500 yards passing and has more than three times as many touchdowns, 16, as interceptions, five.

At 5-3, the Bills are half a game behind Miami in the AFC East.

Bledsoe's No. 1 target is Eric Moulds, who leads the NFL in yards receiving with 785, and has 57 receptions, one fewer than league leader Marvin Harrison of Indianapolis. Moulds and Peerless Price form the NFL's top receiving tandem, and fullback Larry Centers is the NFL's all-time leader in receptions and yards receiving by a running back. Throw in running back Travis Henry, tight end Jay Riemersma and rookie receiver Josh Reed, and the Bills have one of the most potent, versatile offenses in football.

It's quite a change from last season, when the Bills finished 3-13 and, players say, there was constant bickering in the huddle. Bledsoe, criticized by fans in New England for being too easygoing, has been much more demonstrative in Buffalo. Not as fiery as Kelly was, but close.

"I knew coming in there was some talent here, there were a lot of good players on this team," Bledsoe said. "I also came in with confidence that we could turn it around very quickly."

He was also encouraged by the league's recent history. The last three champions -- New England, Baltimore and St. Louis -- failed to make the playoffs the season before their Super Bowl victories.

As the yards passing and touchdowns pile up in Buffalo, more and more people are wondering how the Patriots could be so brazen as to trade Bledsoe within the division.

"I was like, 'Go to Cincinnati, man. Do not stay in the division,' " Miami linebacker Zach Thomas said. "That was ridiculous, you know? But hopefully it comes back and bites New England."

Kelly was just as incredulous. He quietly wondered if Bledsoe might be damaged goods, if the Patriots knew something the rest of the NFL didn't.

"When I heard it was going to happen, I said, 'There ain't no way,' " Kelly said. "[The Patriots] ain't that stupid. I thought, 'Do they know something we don't?' But they just had so much confidence in Tom Brady."

That's not to say that confidence was misplaced. Quarterback isn't really the problem for the Patriots, whose most glaring weaknesses are a battered offensive line and a horrible red-zone defense.

New England Coach Bill Belichick this week defended the decision to keep Brady over Bledsoe, and said there were no other options but to trade Bledsoe within the division.

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