Redesigned offense expected to benefit QB
The Bills have QB Drew Bledsoe working on quicker drops and releases in an effort to rediscover his touch.
PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- On the opening play of the "team" segment of Wednesday night's practice, Drew Bledsoe sneaked a peek to his right, read his pass progressions across the field, and then dropped a magnificently lobbed 50-yard bomb down the left sideline and over the shoulder of wide receiver Eric Moulds.
A play later, Bledsoe bootlegged to his right, and rifled a completion in the short hook zone to the tight end. Three snaps after that, following a couple of Travis Henry runs, he connected on a slant to rookie wideout and first-round draft pick Lee Evans.
The upshot of the practice sequence: Welcome, folks, to the redesigned offense of the Buffalo Bills, and, team officials hope, to the resuscitation of Bledsoe's career.
That may be true, given the Bills' offensive arsenal here, but the possible will only be probable if Bledsoe gets back to form with which he played before last year's disastrous performance. And to do that, Bledsoe, at age 32, is going to have to learn some of the new tricks plucked from rookie head coach Mike Mularkey's seemingly bottomless bag of offensive innovation.
No, the ever-creative and resourceful Mularkey isn't going to ask Bledsoe to line up at wide receiver, as he did Kordell Stewart. Heck, to this point, Mularkey has yet to unearth a "slash"-type player, such as Stewart or Hines Ward or Antwaan Randle El, to help add to the dazzling gimmickry he introduced to the game during his tenure as the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive coordinator. What the new staff has asked Bledsoe to do, however, is buy into a shorter passing game whose success is predicated on quick drops and getting the ball out of his hand sooner.
And so far? "I think all of us, Drew included, see how good this can be," Moulds said. "It's more in line with what teams all over the league are doing, plus you throw in all the new wrinkles that (Mularkey) has added. The design definitely is a good one, but it's up to us to make it work."
Left unspoken by most everyone in this camp, of course, is that it is imperative Bledsoe, more than anyone else, makes it work.
This is too good of a roster to struggle through another dismal 6-10 season. And Bledsoe, whose detractors were legion and loud in 2003, remains too talented a quarterback to go through another year like the last one, when he was beaten up physically and beaten down mentally. He was not only the poster boy, but also the lightning rod, for a blueprint from which previous offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride was too stubborn to divert. The results were catastrophic for the Bills in general and, more specifically, for a passer who had been one of the NFL's most prolific quarterbacks of the past decade.
The Bills, incredibly, played seven games in which they failed to score an offensive touchdown. Frankly, that is unheard of at the NFL level, and the drought reached its peak (or nadir), in a midseason stretch in which Buffalo went without an offensive score in four of five games, including three straight. It is hard to fathom how a franchise could average 34.5 points in winning its first two outings, then average 12.4 points in losing 10 of its final 14 games, but the Bills managed that dubious feat.
Bledsoe threw only 11 touchdown passes, the lowest total of his career, save for the '01 season when he played just two games because of a serious chest injury in which he lost nearly half his blood volume. For the first time since '99, his interceptions outnumbered his touchdown passes, and, again excluding 2001, Bledsoe's 2,860 passing yards were the fewest since his 1993 rookie season with the Patriots.
|“||We're never going to give up that quick-strike (dimension), up the field, but we are doing a lot of different things with the passing game. ”|
|—QB Drew Bledsoe|
One of the NFL's true class acts, a player who should be lauded as much for his work in improving parenting skills as much as for all of his physical accomplishments, Bledsoe brooded and withdrew. Even after the season, well into this spring, he was prone to fits of sleeplessness recalling the shortcomings of the dismal 2003 campaign.
"When your expectations are as high as ours were, and you get out of the box with two wins and everything clicking, to fall that much and that quickly yeah, you can beat yourself up looking for reasons," Bledsoe acknowledged. "You just keep looking for an explanation because, you're thinking, 'Hey, that wasn't supposed to happen.' But the thing is, sooner or later, you've got to move beyond it, and I think I have now."
Indeed, Bledsoe seems to have unburdened himself mentally, and physically, too. His hair is close-cropped now, creating a silhouette in which his features appear far more angular, almost hawkish. And while Bledsoe claimed to have dropped just four pounds -- to a weight that represents his lowest since his freshman year at Washington State -- the perception is that the dropoff is more pronounced.
Bledsoe isn't going to win many 40-yard dashes, and whatever quickness he gained is incremental, for sure. That said, he appears more nimble in and out of the pocket, likely because this offense is crisper, and emphasizes unloading the ball in under four seconds. The staff has installed a timer on the field, which blares an ear-splitting report at four seconds, if the Bills' quarterbacks haven't gotten rid of the ball by then. The horn did not sound a single time, at least during Bledsoe's snaps, on Wednesday night.
There was considerable rhetoric along the plains of Western New York this offseason, none of it substantiated, that Bledsoe was pondering retirement. Not true. What was the case was that the Bills might have found it difficult to retain their veteran quarterback had he not reworked his contract, which he did. Looking to the future, the club mortgaged its first-round pick in the 2005 draft to snatch former Tulane star J.P. Losman.
Exactly when the athletic and strong-armed Losman succeeds Bledsoe remains to be seen. The restructured contract certainly permits Buffalo to keep Bledsoe around through 2005 at least. But if the Bills are 6-10 again, and Bledsoe hasn't rediscovered his game, he could be gone after this season.
No one feels, though, that will be the case. Certainly not Bledsoe, who, like most around here, feels 2003 was a gross aberration and not the norm.
"I think, if you're really honest with yourself, you know when your skills are declining," he said. "You might not want to admit it, but you feel it, you sense it. I haven't had any of that, not at all."
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.