Drew Bledsoe isn't the player he once was, leaving New England
to ponder his worth

When he watches the highlight shows, Patriots quarterback Drew
Bledsoe sees a lot of his counterparts making plays with their
feet. Strong-armed Daunte Culpepper runs as well as he throws.
Cade McNown, Donovan McNabb and Shaun King are carrying the ball
for a new breed of quarterback. Recently Bledsoe turned to his
backup, John Friesz, a fellow member of the Feet of Stone
Quarterback Club, and said, "They're phasing us slow guys out of
the game."

That observation comes at a time when the Patriots are trying to
decide what to do with Bledsoe, who is eligible to become a free
agent after the 2001 season. First-year coach Bill Belichick, who
has the final say on all roster decisions, hardly seems sold on
him. Then again, if Belichick ever let Bledsoe walk, he would
probably have to do it over owner Bob Kraft's dead body. "Drew's
one of those rare guys in sports you're proud of on and off the
field," Kraft said last week, just after showing off a video of
the Patriots' new stadium that he wants Bledsoe to help christen
two years from now. "I hope and believe he'll retire a New
England Patriot."

But at what price? By salary-cap numbers, Bledsoe is the game's
highest-paid player this year and next, at $8.66 million and
$9.83 million, respectively. By any measure, he's overpaid.
Unless, of course, you still see him as the precocious lad who
twice threw for 4,000 yards in a season by the time he was 24
and, aided by the gruff leadership of Bill Parcells, took the
Patriots to the Super Bowl at the end of the 1996 season.

If, on the other hand, you look at his play since the start of
the '98 season, you see the leader of a 17-19 team with the
20th-best passer rating among quarterbacks who have made at
least 15 starts in that span. You see the man who has had the
chance to drive his team to a win or a tie in the final two
minutes of all four games this year and is 0 for 4. You may even
see Bledsoe the way one AFC personnel man who watched the first
three Patriots games on tape does: "He reminds me of Bernie
Kosar," the scout says. "Tremendously tough, but is he one of
the best quarterbacks in football? No way."

Down 10-3 to the Dolphins on Sunday and facing a fourth-and-two
at the Miami five with 1:08 left, Bledsoe overthrew tight end
Eric Bjornson in the end zone. For the day he completed 16 of 33
passes for a pedestrian 161 yards, though to be fair he was
facing one of the league's best defenses. Trailing the Vikings
21-13 in the final minute on Sept. 17, Bledsoe, on fourth down at
the Minnesota 14, had at least one receiver open near the
first-down stick, but he inexplicably held the ball too long and
was sacked.

"I look back at the first three games," Bledsoe said last week,
"and I know there are plays I should have made. That last play
against Minnesota, I should have turned it loose. Even if it's
picked off, I've got to take a chance at making a play." You
might not take Chris Chandler or Rich Gannon ahead of Bledsoe in
your fantasy draft, but both have played significantly better
than he has over the past three years.

A story last week in the suburban MetroWest Daily News quoted a
team source saying Kraft had "long-standing doubts" about whether
New England wanted Bledsoe to be its quarterback of the near
future. Kraft said there was no truth to the report. The Pats
want Bledsoe, but at the right price. They don't want to pay him
a salary commensurate with one of the premier players at his
position. They want to pay him like, say, the eighth-best and
load the contract with incentives that would put him in the top
three if he played great. To protect themselves against a
potential precipitous decline in his skills, they also don't want
to sign him to a six- or seven-year deal.

"They have gone from thinking long-term to the idea of short- or
medium-term," says Bledsoe's agent, Leigh Steinberg.

Fact is, New England shouldn't even consider life without
Bledsoe--scars and all. He is only 28. He is healthy. He is a team
guy who never gripes. His teammates respect and admire him. He is
glacially slow, but so was Dan Marino and so is Kurt Warner.
Bledsoe wants to get better. Last Thursday at lunch, he hurried
through an interview so he could be on the practice field early.
"I'm working on my agility," he said. "Trying to improve my

He needs to. Bledsoe's offensive line and running game are among
the league's worst. He was sacked six times in each of New
England's first two games and is on pace to be sacked 68 times
this season. "My neck's a little sore," Bledsoe says. "But other
than that, I feel fine."

He refuses to get dragged into a discussion about his future. "As
football players, we are under evaluation every day," he says.
"Until I'm told I'm not the quarterback, I'm going to work every
day to get us a championship. I believe I can win a championship
with this franchise."

Johnson, Connell Go Long

Last Saturday night, 24 hours before the struggling Redskins
would try again to live up to their great expectations, this time
on the road against the undefeated and NFC East-leading Giants,
wideout Irving Fryar looked worried. "We're pressing," Fryar, a
17-year veteran, said at the team hotel. "The fact that we
haven't made big plays in the passing game is a reflection of how
off we are offensively. Now we've got a chance to redeem
ourselves. I'd say it's do-or-die."

On the other hand, the Washington player who had the most at
stake in Week 4 seemed awfully calm. "I guess it seems hard for
people to realize this isn't killing me," said quarterback Brad
Johnson, who was one lousy game from being benched for
strong-armed backup Jeff George. "But they're not in my shoes. I
feel good about myself. I feel good about our offense. I'm going
to play the way I always play--loose and relaxed." Then he talked
about coaching a youth basketball team and the traffic around the
Meadowlands and how well he'd slept during the week.

In Washington's 1-2 start, Johnson didn't complete a pass of more
than 26 yards; three games into last season he had connected on
11 such throws. The prospect of turning things around didn't look
good. The Redskins' top wideout, Michael Westbrook, is out for
the year with a left knee injury, and the Giants hadn't allowed a
pass play longer than 31 yards in their first three games.

Early in the second quarter on Sunday, however, Johnson saw
single coverage on third wideout James Thrash and connected for
46 yards. On the next play Johnson threw a 23-yard touchdown
strike to Fryar. On the next series Johnson rainbowed a bomb to
wideout Albert Connell for 48 yards, setting up a field goal. On
the third play of the third quarter Johnson found Connell again,
this time down the left sideline for a 53-yard completion. On the
next play Johnson hooked up with receiver Andre Reed for a
21-yard touchdown. Washington won 16-6 as Johnson completed 14 of
20 passes for 289 yards.

"We finally found our rhythm," he said in the tunnel under Giants
Stadium after the game. "We took advantage of single coverage and
completed 70 percent of our passes. But we completed at least 60
percent of the throws in the first three games too. We haven't
been missing everything."

Connell, who had four catches for 122 yards, was vital to the air
attack on Sunday. Give passing game coordinator Terry Robiskie an
assist. Shaken by two big drops in the first three weeks, Connell
was summoned to a special film session last week by Robiskie, who
had spliced tape of Connell receptions between highlights taken
from the 15-catch performance by the Jaguars' Jimmy Smith on
Sept. 10 at Baltimore. Robiskie considers Connell and Smith to be
similar players. "Watch him put the fear of God into the DBs,"
Robiskie told Connell. "You can do that. Just watch."

Coslet Quits, Not That It'll Help

Bengals coach Bruce Coslet became the first coaching casualty of
the season when he resigned on Monday in frustration over the
team's toothless 0-3 start. Coslet, who took over midway through
the 1996 season, was 7-28 in his last 35 games. Defensive
coordinator Dick LeBeau takes over. "Can it make a difference?"
owner Mike Brown said on Monday. "I've seen it happen. But I can
tell you it won't be easy."

In fact, there's no reason to believe that LeBeau will fare any
better than Coslet did. The talent gap between the Bengals and
the other 30 teams is pronounced. Of the 134 players that
Cincinnati drafted from 1987 through 1999, only a pair of 1992
picks, wideout Carl Pickens and safety Darryl Williams, have
started in the Pro Bowl. And Williams, who re-signed with the
Bengals as a free agent during the off-season, did it as a member
of the Seahawks.

Because many free agents think of Cincinnati as Siberia,
rebuilding is difficult. Until the team imports a strong general
manager who can take personnel decisions from Brown and enhance
the club's image among players and agents, the gap between the
Bengals and the rest of the NFL will only widen.

COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE Bledsoe had a pair of 4,000-yard seasons early in his career, but his game has been declining since.


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