Archive for Thursday, January 31, 2002

s Belichick opts for Brady

January 31, 2002


— Tom Brady wins again.

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick picked Brady as the starting quarterback for Sunday's Super Bowl, choosing the former backup over three-time Pro Bowl player Drew Bledsoe.

Brady led New England to seven consecutive wins before spraining his left ankle Sunday in the AFC championship game. Bledsoe took over and led the Patriots into the Super Bowl against the St. Louis Rams.

That raised the question of who would start in the Patriots' most important game.

Brady was confident he'd be ready, and Belichick decided after viewing tapes of Wednesday's practice that the second-year pro was his choice.

"Tom Brady demonstrated in practice today that he is fit to play," Belichick said. "He will be our starting quarterback on Sunday."

Neither quarterback was available for comment after being informed of the decision by Belichick.

So Brady, who hasn't lost in two months, will start the NFL title game instead of the nine-year veteran, a $103 million player who sparked the latest victory.

Brady, the AFC's third-rated passer, was 12-3 in his previous 15 starts after the Patriots lost the first two games of the season with Bledsoe at quarterback. Now the 24-year-old player from Michigan, who has shown outstanding poise in big games, will start in the biggest game of his life after being a fourth-stringer as a rookie.

Belichick delayed naming his starter until he and his assistant coaches watched tapes of the afternoon workout at Tulane University. He went so far as to ask a pool reporter not to identify who took the most snaps in practice; the starter usually takes almost all off the practice snaps with the offense.

Bledsoe was the starter until a crunching hit sheared a blood vessel in his chest in the second game of the season. Brady helped lead New England to the AFC East title and to a 16-13 overtime victory over Oakland in the playoffs.

Bledsoe's relief performance in the 24-17 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers last Sunday sparked the big question of Super Bowl week: Who would start?

Bledsoe, the first player drafted in 1993? Or Brady, the No. 199 pick two years ago who threw just three passes last year but jumped from fourth on the depth chart to bring New England back to New Orleans, where the Patriots made their only other two Super Bowl appearances?

Belichick's decision, though, might not settle the quarterback controversy for long.

There's always next season.

Questions could linger long into the offseason as coaches and club officials consider their options: Dump Bledsoe's big salary, explore a deal for the younger Brady, or keep both.

Earlier, Patriots owner Robert Kraft had some ideas about keeping the NFL's deepest quarterback corps together.

"If I have a vote, I would not be against both of them playing for us next year unless someone comes with a blockbuster offer for either one," Kraft said.

And what might that be?

"Oh, I don't know, ask the coach," he said.

The Patriots could fit Bledsoe's and Brady's salaries under next year's cap, Kraft said. Bledsoe's cap number next season is $7.5 million, a $5 million salary plus bonuses. Brady's cap number will be $370,833, a base of $358,000 and a prorated signing bonus of $12,833.

But Brady might get a new deal to keep him from becoming a restricted free agent after next season. And that could make it too costly to keep both, especially a backup with a 10-year, $103 million contract that began this season.

"That is irrelevant," Patriots fullback Marc Edwards said. "Drew has earned every penny with how he helped keep the team together this year."

Bledsoe, who made Pro Bowl three times before Brady turned pro, seemed to be the odd man out but kept helping his successor.

"He's never done anything that hasn't reflected well on the team," Kraft said. "He's the prototype of the kind of player anyone would want on their team."

Asked how he would feel if he were told in the offseason that Brady would be the quarterback next year, Bledsoe said, "The future's the future and, right now, we're focused on this game, this week, and whatever happens after that happens. Right now, we're not going to even address that."

Bledsoe, who will turn 30 on Feb. 14, doesn't want to remain a backup after being the Patriots' signature player for most of his career. Chicago, Seattle and Washington all are possible destinations good teams who could use a better quarterback.

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