Regular readers of my columns realize that I consider Bledsoe's play to be the biggest single issue surrounding the poor play of the offense notwithstanding the notion that other issues also exist. I would also like to make it unmistakably clear that my criticisms of Bledsoe are limited to his play as a quarterback in the NFL and by no means at all any indictment of him beyond that. His involvement through his foundation Parenting with Dignity and efforts therein are nothing short of commendable.
However, as a Bills fan and as someone that has avidly tracked Bledsoe's performance for over 8 seasons now, several things are clear to me the least of which is not that for as long as Bledsoe is the quarterback of this or any other team, that team will never win a Super Bowl with him under center. His play is such that he consistently is unable to play well vs. better teams. Yes, there have been exceptions. However, his play is such that he will make costly mistakes in those games costing either his team points or directly setting opponents up for points. The best that can be hoped for in those games is an "error-free" game. It is sad indeed when all that you hope for as a fan is for your QB to make no critical errors. I do not imagine that Niner fans ever had that in mind when Montana took the field as the general of his offense!
While he may make it through a single playoff game without doing so, the odds of him making it through a string of three or four such games to bring the crown back to Buffalo is slim to none, closer to none. It would be a shame for the team not to recognize this and then get so close and fail for this reason. The rest of the team is only going to carry a quarterback so far. It will not carry a quarterback through a championship game.
I also realize that this is not the only issue that the team has. But because I am a fan of the Bills, it is my desire that this team be in a position to be ultimately competitive with the goal of having a team possessive of all the elements thereby making it fully capable of beating any and all possible playoff teams in any given season such that it is in a position to win a Super Bowl. This is simply not possible with Bledsoe under center.
Based on comments made at the beginning of the season by Quarterback Coach Sam Wyche placing Drew Bledsoe in the same category as Joe Montana and Boomer Esiason, short of falling out of my chair from laughter, I thought it would be intriguing to track Bledsoe's play this season with those statements as the backdrop. It will be a running piece throughout the season so fans following it should keep up weekly lest it become to extensive to peruse in one sitting.
I will also digress directly with Coach Wyche and state the exact opposite. While Bledsoe was in New England I was forced to listen to my Patriot friend's rantings as to how marvelous Drew was. I came to the conclusion then, back in 1997, that as long as Bledsoe was with the Pats they would never win a Super Bowl. Lo and behold, the moment Tom Brady, "Mr. Sixth Round" stepped in, the Pats passing production doubled instantaneously, the number of unforced errors and mistakes dropped substantially, and the Pats won their first Super Bowl. He now speaks as highly of Tom Brady as he did about Drew Bledsoe, more highly in fact. I find myself in complete agreement with him today however.
Simply because Bledsoe came to Buffalo did not alter my stance on Bledsoe at all. In fact, I was the only media member openly and publicly stating that that signing Bledsoe was a mistake before he ever even inked the contract and long before the idea was conceived; and that hiring Gilbride was an equal mistake; but that the combination of the two was a disaster waiting to unfold. There is no need to discuss the results. My past works more than adequately justify this position.
Now, here we are, we as Bills fans, again. Same old, same old!
Mike Mularkey has made it unequivocally clear that he does not think that Bledsoe has any issues that he and his staff cannot correct and in short enough order such that there are no significant issues with Bledsoe's play starting from week one. Frankly, I believe that these notions are more force-fed by GM Donahoe who is now grasping at straws to salvage any of his credibility as a GM in this league. Nevertheless, these are extremely bold and confident statements considering that Bledsoe has possessed the same issues throughout his career including his time in college and has been led by coaches such as Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, two of the best coaches to ever coach in the NFL along with their staffs of outstanding assistants.
Sam Wyche has added regarding Bledsoe, "He's unusually good, and I've been around some unusually good ones with Boomer and Montana," Wyche said. "But he's right there with them. He has not lost anything with his arm strength. He has not lost any of his accuracy. But the most impressive part for me right now two days into it is his recognition and his decision-making. He recognizes the defense. Eight snaps out of 10, he's throwing it to the right guy. And one of those other two, if it's not there he's laying it off to the right guy."
What has caused Coach Wyche to come to such conclusions is beyond many a fan. As well, many of those statements were made based on what was occurring on a practice field that does not come anywhere close to representing a game situation. A simple glance at Bledsoe's career statistics season by season should raise an eyebrow as to what Wyche considers to be "unusually good." If Bledsoe wants to be as good as Montana then a good start would be figuring out how to throw an effective timing pattern, the likes of which Montana and Rice hooked up on with regular frequency.
Other than the ridiculous comparisons to performance and offensive production, the soft and intangible aspects of the play between the two not only speak, but scream volumes about the differences.
Joe Montana played 15 seasons and started for all but one of them losing about as much time to injury as Bledsoe has to date proportionally in 12 seasons now.
Montana has a career 1.96-to-1 TD to INT ratio. Bledsoe: 1.22-to-1. This is less than two-thirds (62%) that of Montana.
Montana had 14 of 15 seasons whereby he threw more TDs than INTs. Bledsoe: 5 of 11.
Montana had a career 7.5 yards-per-attempt. Bledsoe: 6.6. Nearly a full yard less.
Montana had a career 63.2% completion percentage. Bledsoe: 57.0%.
Montana had 20 rushing touchdowns. Bledsoe: 6.
Montana produced one TD for each 148 yards thrown for. Bledsoe: 183.
Montana was among the league's top-10 TD producers 8 times: 1st twice, 2nd once, 3rd twice, 4th twice, and 8th once. Bledsoe: 6 times: 3rd twice, 4th once, 7th once, and 10th twice.
Montana was among the top-10 in the league in adjusted yards-per-pass 11 times, ranging from 1st to 10th. Bledsoe: thrice; 8th, 9th, and 10th.
Montana had a very effective rollout. Bledsoe is fortunate if he can move three or four steps and still throw effectively.
Montana had a timing pattern with Rice which he executed with the grace and comfort that most of us get dressed with. Bledsoe has never had a consistent, effective timing pattern with any one of his receivers. Certainly nothing approaching the Montana-Rice timing pattern that graced the NFL for over a decade.
Montana was capable of scanning the entire field usually finding the most optimal receiver for the play. Bledsoe locks on to one target often and is rarely effective when forced to look beyond his primary target and almost always ineffective if he has to go to a third or fourth option on a consistent basis.
Montana was a master under pressure sliding or rolling out and often making incredible plays while evading defenders. Bledsoe looks more like the moose that I almost hit in Canada years ago standing there staring at my headlights as I slammed on the breaks in the station wagon we were in. The difference between the moose and Bledsoe, I stopped, defenders don't.
Montana had a career 92.3-passer rating. Bledsoe: 76.8, a full 15.5 rating points below Montana.
Where the differences really distinguish themselves are in the playoffs.
In 23 playoff games, Montana is 460 for 734, 5,772 yards, 45 TDs, 21 INTs, (2.14-to-1), 62.7% complete, 7.9 yards-per-attempt, and a passer rating of 95.3. The per game averages are 20 of 32, 251 yards, 2 TDs, 0.9 INTs. That's over twice as many touchdowns that interceptions in the playoffs.
In 6 and ½ playoff games, Bledsoe is 129 for 252, 1,335 yards, 6 TDs, 12 INTs, (1-to-2) 51.2% complete, 5.2 yards-per-attempt. Playoff passer rating unknown, but clearly very low. The per game averages are 20 of 39, 205 yards, 1 TD, 1.8 INTs. That's almost half as many touchdowns than interceptions in the playoffs and a fourfold difference from what Montana put up in the playoffs.
Furthermore, Bledsoe has only had a single full playoff game whereby he threw more touchdowns than interceptions. That was a wild card game vs. Miami whereby the defense once again set the Patriot offense up at the Dolphin 29-yard line. Bledsoe's game otherwise was poor yielding barely over 100 yards passing on 4.3 yards-per-attempt and 50% completions. Certainly not "Montana-like!"
Many fans seem to have the mistaken notion that Bledsoe played well in relief of Brady in the 2001 divisional playoff game vs. the Steelers. Nothing could be further from the truth however.
In the Steeler playoff game in 2001 he finished the second 40 yards of an 80-yard drive begun by Brady and scored while the Steeler D was running around clearly attempting to adjust on the fly. That touchdown came at the end of the first half. In the second half Bledsoe was completely and utterly ineffective going 7 of 18 for 66 yards on 38.9% completions and 3.7 yards-per-attempt. The contrasts even beyond that are stunning leaving any football fan wondering what on earth has prompted the aforementioned remarks by the coaching staff.
Nevertheless, we decided to follow Bledsoe's progress this season to see if his production and play comes close to matching that of Joe Montana. Each week following Bledsoe's the Bills games, we will track Bledsoe's performances via analysis and commentary.
Week 4 (Game 3):
Opponent: New England
Performance: 18 of 30 for 247 yards, 199 net yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, 7 sacks for –48 yards.
On the surface, this would appear to have been a solid performance. But nothing could be further from the truth. His play could not have been any more characteristically unlike that of Joe Montana's. The Patriot defense rarely blitzed during the first three quarters but when the poured it on late in the 4th quarter, they netted five sacks on 18 dropbacks adding to the two sacks that they had accumulated prior to that in the first three quarters.
The problem was not Bledsoe's numbers, which again, if looked at apart from any other indicators, are probably average or so. Rather, it was his play throughout the game as a whole which once again comes into question. Between the Bills first play from scrimmage, a 55-yard toss to Lee Evans on a drive which failed in the red zone, one of Drew's primary issues, and prior to the last 8-minutes of the game, Bledsoe was completely ineffective.
During that 46-and-a-half minutes of play, Bledsoe went 8-of-16 for 80 net yards passing which included the 41-yard toss to Eric Moulds on a drive continuation set up by Moorman (special teams) and yanking momentum from the Pats while handing it to Bledsoe.
Bledsoe however was useless in providing on-field performance leadership in putting together any sustained consistent drives of any length whatsoever going 7-of-15 for 39 net yards in drives between the first and "last" drives otherwise. In fact, the first drive following the long pass to Evans and resulting in a field goal ended as such due to a Bledsoe overthrow to Reed at the goal line.
Yes, Henry did slip on 3rd-and-2 on the last drive forcing the unfortunate 4th-and-3. However, on that 4th-and-3, Bledsoe could not have appeared any more worthless as a QB in this league. Any person in their right mind could have guessed that the Pats would have blitzed. With the line in there at the time due to injuries during the game, and given that this team has been abysmal vs. blitzes all season long when they have come, and given that Villarrial pulled leaving 5-on-5 without a Bruschi blitz, 6-on-5 with it, why Bledsoe would even consider that he would have a reasonable amount of time behind this line is beyond the pale. To consider that he could drop back eight yards or so, set, and make a play under such circumstances and given his performances in recent seasons only further hammers home notions that the coaching staff has no clue what they have in Bledsoe.
At the most critical time, on this last drive, Bledsoe was awful! Fine, Henry slipped on the turf. Is he the only RB in this league to slip on the turf! Clearly not, even in key situations. But it is what did happen that fans and media seem to have failed to notice regarding Henry, and what did not happen regarding Bledsoe that seems to once again have gone overlooked.
On that last drive, Bledsoe dropped back to pass 18 times. The Pats rarely blitzed until the 4th Q in this game, puzzling indeed given their successes blitzing against the Bledsoe-led Bills. Nevertheless, they did blitz in the 4th and on that last drive, Bledsoe was sacked 5 times in 18 dropbacks. For those of you into numbers, that is 28% sacks on pass plays. Had the Pats blitzed all game, how many sacks would Bledsoe have added to the seven he sustained? Had Bledsoe done anything throughout the rest of the game following the first throw to Evans for 55 resulting in only 3 points, then the Bills would never have been in this situation to begin with.
Drive two was halted on a Bledsoe sack on 3rd-and-6.
Drive three was halted on 1st-and-10 on an extremely poorly thrown Bledsoe interception.
Drive 4/5 were the Moorman/Moulds TD set.
Drive 6 was ended on a Bledsoe overthrow to Shaw on 3rd-and-7 just prior to the half.
Drive 7 was halted due to a string of 20 yards worth of penalties changing a 3rd-and-1 to a 3rd-and-21.
Drive 8 was halted due to a Bledsoe sack on 3rd-and-6, prior to that on 2nd down, another overthrow.
Drive 9 was halted on a Bledsoe wide throw to Moulds on a 3rd-and-4.
Bledsoe did nothing other than a single big play pass with plenty of time in the pocket to a primary on a designed play, that quite frankly any other QB could have thrown given the circumstances.
Henry was the one that provided the vast majority of the offense throughout that stretch of the game. He rushed 18 times for 83 yards and 4.6 yards-per-carry with little support from Bledsoe and the passing game during that same stretch of sheer and utter non-productivity by Bledsoe. That is a pace of well over 100 yards on the game! If the Bills knew how to play consistent offense and had a quarterback capable of providing a decent short game and effective 3rd-down play, then it would be much better than it currently is the offensive line notwithstanding, although that same OL remains a problem nonetheless.
So summed up, Bledsoe had two deep tosses not particularly of the variety that "only he can throw" to say the least. The deepest one of the two resulted in only a field goal. The second one only came as the result of an anomaly causing a momentum shift and a single big-play touchdown. During that last stretch in the 4th quarter is when Bledsoe put up a good chunk of his consistent stats, but it was also where he put up his typical game altering sacks and key errors resulting from his inability to properly read a defense while coming to the line.
No other touchdowns resultant from good, solid, sustained offensive drives, or the vacant power running game were realized. Teams simply cannot rely almost exclusively on big plays if they are to be considered top offensive units.
With the game squarely on the line in the fourth quarter and the Bills able to tie up the ball game, Bledsoe's inabilities and shortcomings resulted in the ability of the defense to pressure the offense into making multiple errors including Bledsoe's completely egregious mismanagement and mishandling of a key 4th-and-3 which absolutely needed to be attempted for something, yet resulting in a sack, fumble, and defensive TD for the Patriots thereby icing the game.
This game was the antithesis of how Joe Montana played in the NFL! As well, Bledsoe is on pace for a very un-Montana-like 80 sacks on the season which may very well come very close to materializing to that extent should he play through the entire season.
Performance: 17 of 26 for 153 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs, 1 sack for –6 yards.
It would appear that my original prediction about Bledsoe getting booed right out of Buffalo in week 4, game 3 vs. the Patriots is right on schedule.
Prior to this game Bledsoe was quoted in the Sacramento Bee online in an article by Gregg Bell as saying, "I do feel like we have enough (talented) skill position guys that the big plays are going to happen for us."
Now, I wouldn't dare suggest that I know what Drew is thinking. However, based on what I do know about him this statement paints a good part of the story surrounding the issues that have plagued his career. Bledsoe seems to have a penchant for the big play over simply sound, slow-moving football of the grind-it-out variety. This explains a good many things.
One of those things is that he seems to believe that big plays are necessary for winning games. In fact however, the opposite is true in his case. The reasons for this are simple. Big plays in addition to good, solid, fundamental football are fine. Big plays in the absence of that type of play will cost you more games than they will win you. His history suggests this viewed against the backdrop of playoff caliber opponents.
The terminal issue with big plays in this sense is that when relied upon for winning the toughest of games, they do more harm than good. The longer any drive of Bledsoe's goes, the greater the odds are that he will make a critical mistake or error. Opponents know this well. Deep down Drew may realize this too thereby putting a desire in his methodology to end the drive as soon as possible. This is achieved via the big play.
The reason why this has gone on so long is similar to what happened with Doug Flutie. Flutie would run around like a madman in a very impressive scramble, ultimately resulting in a four yard gain. While tremendously impressive, and while those types of plays often, in fact almost always, make the highlights and highlight reels, a four yard gain is a four yard gain. The "Flutie four yarder" generates excitement. The up-the-middle four yarder does not.
Throughout Bledsoe's career, it's been the deep tosses, the big plays that have made the highlight reels. I would even wager than Tom Brady has nowhere near the deep success that Bledsoe has, although I have no proof, but the fact of the matter is that Tom Brady knows how to drive a team down the field, consume eight minutes in a drive, hit the high percentage passes, and generate a nice, time-consuming scoring drive.
This is also exactly why Bledsoe struggles in the red zone. Because those deep plays, the plays he looks for and favors, are unavailable to him to use. He has to resort to good solid, red zone football that involves few big plays requiring a deep arm.
Considering Bledsoe's pregame quote however, it would appear that Bledsoe believes that big plays are required to win games. I will reiterate, in last season's Super Bowl, Tom Brady of the Patriots completed only one pass in 32 completions and 48 attempts that was caught beyond 17 yards from the line of scrimmage. Good solid execution is what got the Pats to the dance and won it for them. Nothing else.
Conspicuously absent from any of the comments of Bledsoe's that I ran across before the game, and I was looking, were any mentions of solid execution on route running, blocking, and his own play.
Big plays are exciting to watch, energize the fans, look good, but they are not a good thing to base an offense around. Unfortunately, with Bledsoe, good, solid, consistent play is not an option vs. teams with better defenses. Therefore Bledsoe led teams are forced to rely on big plays, usually of the deep pass variety. This is and has been the issue with the Bills during Bledsoe's tenure in Buffalo.
Either way, the focus by your quarterback should never be on big plays. It should be on steady, consistent, and reliable movement of the football down the field resulting in points on the board and solid clock management.
Performance: 17 of 26 for 153 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs, 1 sack for –6 yards.
Analysis: On the surface, this might appear to be a good game. But the facts surrounding this game make it less than impressive. As well, the expectations for Bledsoe are so low on the parts of many that a simple game of his without giving the other team a score, setting up one, or making unforced errors is considered by many to be a "good game" when "good" by any other measure is average at best. In fact, these same stats transcribed to any other QB in the league vs. such a lax pass D would be considered very average indeed. They were in fact on the low end of that weekend's performance lines for QBs league wide.
The Jags' defense rarely blitzed and when they did they used blatant linebacker blitzes easily identifiable by anyone let alone the QB under assault. Few "looks" other than simple line stacks were used and throughout the game the standard pressure package was a simple four-man pass rush. It can be counted on one hand the number of times the Jags' blitzed a defensive back.
The run defense was stringent, but the pass defense was weak, disorganized, and easily penetrable. Envisioning Montana in this game, I have a very difficult time believing that he would not have thrown 2 or 3 touchdowns with little difficulty against a below average pass defense and secondary. Bledsoe put up one on a drive set up by the defense at the Jaguar 18 hitting Moulds on a blown coverage and missed coverage assignment leaving Moulds wide open in the left corner of the end zone. He also missed an open Damian Shelton for an easy TD on 3rd-and-1 forcing a field goal. Montana makes that play.
Montana was an on-field general. Bledsoe showed little leadership and even less heart exclaiming that he was "shocked" following the game. Shocked? The only reason to have been "shocked" quite frankly is at the ineptitude of the Bills passing game to not completely take advantage of a Jags' pass D begging to be abused!
Lastly, what Bills fans saw in the Jacksonville game is the outcome of a coaching staff's approach to attempt to make things so simple for a QB that it reduces the offense's options to exactly what the play calls for and never anything beyond it. This is fine, but this reduces the effectiveness of the offense by not having a quarterback that is capable of scanning the field for the best option out of numerous ones and then executing to that option to the benefit of the offense and team overall. Thus the issues with such an approach. Bledsoe's lack of quickness, agility, and overall ability to evade would be tacklers is yet another component of his play screaming out that this experiment can only end in yet another failed season for the 12-year vet.
Bledsoe does not have the field sense and vision that the more gifted quarterbacks have and never will. This explains why he missed a wide open Damian Shelton on a 3rd-and-goal at the one yard line instead taking a sack for a loss of six yards and forcing a field goal costing the Bills four points. It is not something that can be coached into him. It is an innate ability that allows QBs to do this and Bledsoe has simply never had it. This is what this coaching staff will realize sometime soon this season.
Twenty-five of thirty-two starters could have played this game and frankly, most of them would have outperformed Bledsoe. Certainly imagining a worse performance really, really stretches the imagination given the utter lack of effective pass rushing by the Jag defense.
Bledsoe: "I came into this game with a very strong belief this is a good football team, and I come out of this game with that same belief," Bledsoe said. "But no matter how good we are, we make those mistakes at those key times, it's going to be very hard to win. We have to put these games away."
It is a halfway decent team Drew. It only needs some offensive linemen and a new quarterback! Besides, when is the broken record gonna end.
"Honestly, I'm a little bit in shock," Bledsoe said after watching the Jaguars convert that fourth-down situation with a 45-yard pass to Jimmy Smith, then win the game - spoiling Mularkey's debut as an NFL head coach - on the final play when Ernest Wilford made a leaping catch of a Byron Leftwich pass in the back of the end zone, despite the presence of three Bills defenders.
You're in shock Drew? Let me ask you a question; how many games do you think we'll win this year by putting up 10 points? The only people who are in "shock" are those that bought into Mularkey and Donahoe's bill-of-goods. I wasn't shocked. I expected somewhat better, but "shocked", no. If you want to be shocked, then how come failing to convert a 3rd-and-goal at the one with a quick dump to the fullback does not shock you?
Here's another; Can you lead the offense to putting up 20-some points at any time over the next five games?
Heck, let me ask you another; why can't your offense seem to put up any points on drives of your own without Travis Henry rushing for 130 yards? Would you have been able to score if the coverage had not been botched on that play?
No Drew, the one's who are in shock are the fans who just watched an all-star laden Bills offense underperform the Arizona Cardinal's woeful offense on the road with barely a marquee name among them and in St. Louis with a performance that outperformed yours, both the QB and the team.
Next up, the Raiders in Oakland and a team with three times the defensive backs that the Jags had. It is difficult to imagine that the Raider pass rush can possibly be as weak as that of the Jags this past game. So fans expecting a great game from Bledsoe may be let down. Again, any game without interceptions, fumbles, and sacks setting the opponent up for points is a good game for the Bills with Bledsoe under center.