Belichick not afraid of sticking neck out

ON THE NFL

November 25, 2001|By KEN MURRAY | KEN MURRAY,SUN STAFF

Stroke of genius or act of defiance?

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick straddled that fence last week when he made Drew Bledsoe the highest-paid backup quarterback in the NFL behind Tom Brady, a promising but unproven second-year player.

Belichick surveyed Brady's eight NFL starts and Bledsoe's previous eight seasons and determined the Patriots' best chance to reach the playoffs this year was with the former sixth-round draft choice.

Never mind that Belichick had assured Bledsoe of the opportunity to compete with Brady for the job once he had recovered from a severe chest injury in Week 2. In the win-now world of the NFL, Belichick took the hot hand and ran smack into a controversy that most likely will render him either a genius or man under fire in the coming weeks.

Implications being what they are, this appears to be history repeating itself.

Belichick is the coach who ran Bernie Kosar out of Cleveland in midseason of 1993, replacing him short-term with Todd Philcox and long-term with Vinny Testaverde.

Kosar was king in Cleveland at the time. He had virtually arranged his arrival from the University of Miami, then took the Browns to three AFC championship games.

But when Belichick took over in 1991, the two men couldn't get along. By 1993, with Kosar's skills on the wane, Belichick told team owner Art Modell that Kosar was dividing the team and got Browns Hall of Famer Jim Brown to back him on that point.

Modell reluctantly agreed to let Belichick cut Kosar. The next day, as Modell was walking into the news conference to announce the decision, he said to public relations executive Kevin Byrne, "A lot of owners would be in the south of France today."

Said Byrne, who holds a similar job with the Ravens: "It was like cutting Cal Ripken."

Under Philcox and Testaverde, the Browns lost six of their last eight and finished out of the playoffs at 7-9. But a year later, in 1994, Testaverde led them to an 11-5 record and the divisional round of the postseason.

Now, Belichick is gambling that Brady, 24, is ready for a similar playoff run.

Since the middle of the 1999 season, Bledsoe's career has been in decline. In the 26 games before his Sept. 23 injury, the Patriots were 7-19 under Bledsoe and averaged fewer than 16 points. Since Brady took over, the Patriots are 5-3 and averaging slightly more than 25 points.

In the wake of a loss to St. Louis, Belichick intimated that Brady's subpar performance was caused by the loss of practice snaps taken by Bledsoe. Then he called off the competition and pronounced Brady the starter, barring injury, for the rest of the season.

Bledsoe, who just signed a 10-year, $103 million contract extension last winter, was upset, but took the high road. Should his career in New England be over, the Patriots will have to absorb a $6.37 million salary cap hit next season.

Should a team like the Ravens be in the quarterback market, Bledsoe, only 29, would seem an attractive trade option.

And should the 5-5 Patriots falter down the stretch with Brady, all bets are off. That covers Belichick, too.

In defense of Fiedler

There's a different quarterback dilemma brewing in Miami, where Jay Fiedler continues to have the support of coach Dave Wannstedt despite throwing 26 interceptions in his past 14 games, including 15 this season.

Fiedler is 17-8 as a starter for the Dolphins, the second-best record after 25 starts among active quarterbacks behind St. Louis' Kurt Warner (20-5).

Wannstedt decided not to play backup quarterback Ray Lucas in a 24-0 loss to the New York Jets to avoid a controversy after Fiedler threw three interceptions and lost a fumble. Two of the interceptions were returned for touchdowns. Wannstedt also wants to avoid his experience in Chicago, where he started six different quarterbacks in six years.

"My past experience, guys have gotten hurt," Wannstedt said. "With [Erik] Kramer, it was always an injury that kept him out. A couple of the others weren't capable of doing it. Jay is capable. ... If I didn't believe Jay could learn from this, then it would be an easy decision. But I have faith in him. I do believe that we'll get it resolved."

Breaking down defenses

Aaron Brooks is making progress as New Orleans' second-year starting quarterback -- he's thrown 83 passes without an interception -- but it's the Saints' power running game that wears opponents down. It gets better the longer the game goes.

Running back Ricky Williams averages 3.5 yards a carry in the first quarter, 4.1 in the second, 4.2 in the third and 5.0 in the fourth.

"We're a beat-you-up, run-it-in-your-face team," fullback Terrelle Smith said. "I'm a tone setter. Ricky is doing a [great] job running strong and punishing people. ... Week in and week out, I want people to know they're going to play the toughest backfield in the league. Nobody is more physical. Nobody is more punishing."

Scattershooting

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