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NFL PREVIEW: WEEK 1

Comfort Zone

At age 31, a more mature Bledsoe finds happiness as he begins his second season in Buffalo

September 07, 2003|John Wawrow | From Associated Press

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — When the new neighbors presented him with their own autographed football and two apple pies, Drew Bledsoe felt welcome.

Bledsoe and wife Maura enjoy quiet dinners in busy restaurants without fear of autograph hounds. And living on a 30-acre spread in a small town outside Buffalo reminds him of growing up in Walla Walla, Wash.

He spent nine seasons playing for the New England Patriots, and just 18 months with the Buffalo Bills. For him, it seems like the other way around.

"I'll tell you what, I became so comfortable with the whole situation here so quickly, I feel like I've been here a lot longer than I have," Bledsoe said. "I feel young again and excited about playing."

At 31, Bledsoe is rejuvenated, still riding the momentum of the fresh start he got when the Bills acquired him in a 2002 draft-weekend trade.

As the Bills open their regular season against New England today, long forgotten is Bledsoe's final year with the Patriots. That's when a chest injury led him to lose his starting job to Tom Brady, and relegated Bledsoe to the sideline as New England won the Super Bowl.

In Buffalo, Bledsoe's playing for a team that's counting on his arm and leadership to continue building on what he began last year -- an 8-8 finish, which marked a five-win turnaround -- and give the Bills a shot at their first playoff berth since 1999.

The change of scenery has been good for Bledsoe, who spent last season impressing all of Buffalo while answering those that questioned whether he still had it in him.

In establishing 10 franchise passing records, Bledsoe finished second in the league with 4,359 yards passing and 375 completions. He also engineered two fourth-quarter comebacks and earned his fourth Pro Bowl selection, his first since 1997.

Just as important, Bledsoe brought with him leadership and stability, qualities that were lacking from Bills quarterbacks since Jim Kelly retired after the 1996 season.

That's somewhat different than how Bledsoe was perceived in New England.

Despite enjoying two seasons with 4,000-plus yards passing, engineering 19 fourth-quarter comebacks and leading the Patriots to win the AFC championship in 1996, Bledsoe was considered to have lost an edge, and didn't live up to the expectations of being a No. 1 draft pick.

No one in Buffalo questions him.

"He's the general. He's got nothing to prove," tackle Jonas Jennings said. "He knows how to win."

Coach Gregg Williams all but gushes at the mention of Bledsoe.

"To be quite honest, he might be the best leader I've personally been around," Williams said. "It's more than just taking the snap, dropping back and passing. There's so many other expectations on that position in leadership. And he does a great job with that."

Fullback Sam Gash, Bledsoe's former teammate in New England during the 1990s, can see a change in the quarterback's demeanor.

"Drew has matured," Gash said, referring to Bledsoe's presence on and off the field. "He's comfortable. And that's the one thing that I don't know if he ever really was in New England."

Without drawing comparisons between New England and Buffalo, Bledsoe acknowledges a sense of satisfaction from last season's performance.

That doesn't mean there's nothing left for him to prove.

"It's not about proving myself," Bledsoe said. "It's about winning

Mac Bledsoe sees a difference in his son too. It's a result of Bledsoe's fresh start and how comfortable he is living in Buffalo.

"You can take that town he lives in and put the streets at right angles to Walla Walla and it would be seamless," Mac Bledsoe said. "It's the same kind of town. You walk down the street and they say, 'Hey, you're not from here, how are you doing?"'

The friendly atmosphere was evident when Drew Bledsoe first moved in. On his doorstep, he found two fresh-baked apple pies and a football signed by all the new neighbors, who included their phone numbers.

Attached was a note that read: "If you ever need anything, call one of the numbers on the ball."

While the two haven't talked in detail about the difference between New England and Buffalo, the father can see the effects.

"His enthusiasm for football has changed since he's been here," Bledsoe said of his son. "And I don't need to ask him to see that. I can watch him play, and he has a bounce in his step and a smile on his face that had sort of disappeared."

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