espn mag Scenes from a Broken Marriage (Long)
- Top Dog/Underdog
By Curry Kirkpatrick
ESPN The Magazine
Scenes From a Broken Marriage
Take One: QB One enters AFC championship game in second quarter after QB
Two goes down with sprained ankle. He whips the New England Patriots
downfield and ends the drive with the decisive score and the Pats' only
offensive TD in a 24-17 upset of the Steelers. During 15 previous weeks
(seven inactive, eight DNPs), QB One has been Terrific Sideline Soldier
-- carrying clipboard, giving advice, mentoring QB Two as if they were
blood brothers. Okay, Pats head coach, who prefers QB Two to QB One,
hasn't seemed to care, characteristically displaying people skills of
orangutan. But now this? After clutch score paves way to title game;
after team erupts and joyfully mobs QB One; as once-and-present savior
stumbles to sideline; coach turns around and walks away.
Take Two: QB Two leads drive-of- the-age. With 1:30 remaining and no
timeouts left in Super Bowl XXXVI, he marches Pats downfield in nine
plays, setting up field goal that upsets the Rams, 20-17. Okay, Pats
head coach had kept both QBs in suspense all week leading up to the game
-- forcing them to sit outside his hotel room like schoolkids in the
principal's office before summoning them separately to reveal who would
start. But now this? As QB Two and QB One embrace in the afterglow of
improbable championship, QB Two is thrilled, fulfilled, wildly ecstatic.
He's going to Disneyland. QB One is blank, bitter, torn, emotionally
vacant. He is, of course, going to Buffalo.
The number of QCs (quarterback controversies) in the NFL is oh, say,
precisely half the number of QBs. But they provide twice the fun. Which
is why most of Maine and Vermont and all the other hardy folks from the
northeastern colonies -- now joined by Tonawanda, Lackawanna and the
entire Niagara Frontier -- are continually disappointed that Drew
Bledsoe doesn't come out and expose Tom Brady as a cutesy teacher's wimp
who was sheltered in a no-risk offense and never got blamed for
mistakes. A coward who always took a pass from Dr. Doom (that's Pats
coach Bill Belichick) in meetings. And why they're just as up in arms
that Brady doesn't come out and call Bledsoe an over-the-hill, burnt-out
victim of too many hellacious hits who'd misplaced his concentration,
lost his spirit, given up on winning and needed a change of scenery
But as they prepare to meet for the first time since that bittersweet
hug in the Superdome last February -- New England plays at Buffalo on
Nov. 3 -- wouldn't it be fabulous stuff if the B&B boys got really
brazen and bitchy and sound-chomped the livin' sheen off each other's
Bledsoe, of course, has been fairly busy with the Bills, a team that
last season managed the equivalent of going over nearby Niagara Falls in
a barrel full of chicken wings. In 2001, the Bills were 3?13. Through
eight weeks this season, the 30-year-old from Walla Walla, Wash., has
left Buffalo foes fairly wallowing. Through Week 7 he was the
third-rated QB in the NFL, led the league in passing yards, attempts and
completions and ranked second in touchdown passes and completion
He's already thrown for more than 400 yards twice and pulled out
victories against the Vikings and Bears with game-winning TD passes. The
result is a stunning, early-season turnaround that has the 5?3 Bills in
second place in the AFC East. He's positively resurrected a franchise
for the second time in his career: Remember the Bill Parcells Pats, for
whom Bledsoe became the youngest QB in history to throw for 10,000
Meanwhile, back in Beantown, Brady, 25, had just been getting
conditioned as America's newest It Prince. "We saw that naked bird chest
on some magazine cover, and we haven't let him forget it since," says NE
center Damien Woody. Then the Patriots started, uh, stinking up the
entire Eastern Seaboard. After escaping to a more isolated neighborhood
in suburban Quincy and ditching his old Qunnipiac-grad girlfriend to
date the likes of Tara Reid ("I wish half the stuff I read about
actually happened," a laughing Brady nonverifies), the infant star Pat
has turned into a grizzled, put-upon patsy. Nine interceptions for the
season leading up to New England's bye in Week 7. Who else to blame for
the Patriots' humiliating four-game losing streak? The same charming guy
who New England's fourth estate had designated in September as a "clutch
performer, teen idol, football hero, clean-cut icon and corporate
pitchman" was now being called "The Clueless Kid" whose "honeymoon was
"I went through this at Michigan, so it isn't all new," Brady says,
remembering his time in Ann Arbor between Brian Griese and Drew Henson.
"It's the other side and it isn't fun. I remember watching Drew
[Bledsoe] deal with all the negative stuff in the down times," Brady
says. "I often thought, 'Wow, I would've handled that differently.' Now,
I know why he had to handle things the way he did."
Brady and Bledsoe actually had a phone conversation earlier in the
season, and it was before the Pats' losing streak. "Just small talk,"
says Bledsoe. "I've got a lot of respect for the guy. He's worked very
hard to get where he is. But a lot of guys can do it for a while -- for
a season. What defines you is how you cope in the hard times. Montana,
Marino, Elway, Kelly. They all went through tough experiences. The ones
who ultimately survive and continue to play at a high level are the
Semi-ouch. But, c'mon, Drew. Brady's ballyhooed work ethic? How hard was
it to remain focused at the Pats' Foxboro training facility when his
option was a lonely apartment filled with orange crates? Who begs out of
a championship game with a sprained ankle? And with the O-line a mess,
nobody to run the ball and having to ditch that flat-pass finesse stuff
and fling it downfield with the boo birds in full song -- just like you
did, Drew -- hasn't Brady's weakness been unveiled? How cool does
Patriot Nation think he is now?
Or Tom, what about Drew's legacy? Let's talk about him losing 19 of the
last 26 games he started. A pair of last-place finishes in the AFC East.
And after a horrid 2001 preseason, that life-threatening sheared blood
vessel in his chest after a vicious hit from Jets linebacker Mo Lewis in
Week 2 not only cost Bledsoe his job, it also camouflaged some sorry
play, didn't it? In that same game, hadn't Mr. 30,000 Passing Yards gone
meltdown? A delay penalty near the Jets goal line, a pick in the end
zone, an intentional grounding that was so close to the line of
scrimmage it was almost called a fumble?
Alas, Brady and Bledsoe continue not to say those things publicly about
one another. They are simply two straight-arrow fellas dripping with
class and grace. Besides, they did combine efforts and submerge
personalities for the good of the team, which in the end brought greater
Boston its most cherished championship since the Tea Party. Where are
the trash-spewers and their Sharpies when you need one?
"The public has a misconception about these quarterback controversies,"
says ESPN analyst Sean Salisbury, who was a career backup quarterback
for five seasons. "Warren Moon, Wade Wilson, Jim McMahon, Rich Gannon --
they're still some of my closest friends." And that may explain why
Bledsoe and Brady have dished the dissing. Above everything, Bledsoe and
Brady are friends. They've golfed together. Shared a limo ride down I-95
to New York for a Yankees playoff game. The bachelor Brady has dined
with the Bledsoe family in the latter's $10 million mansion in Medfield.
"The Doug Flutie-Rob Johnson thing here was rare," says the Bills' sage
fullback, Larry Centers. "Guys usually don't hate each other and not get
along. Real pros deal with it. Drew has too much character to hold
anything against Tom. He could have torn New England's whole team apart.
Instead, he was the one guy who meant the most holding them together. In
Buffalo we especially could appreciate that. But every player in the NFL
recognized Drew's class in the way he handled that situation."
It wasn't easy. When Bledsoe got healthy, he was ready to play. Expected
to play. But Brady was in the middle of that fairy-tale run to New
Orleans. Belichick must have forgotten the unwritten rule about a player
not losing his job because of an injury. That's why the relationship
between B&B (Belichick was "unavailable" to characterize his own
relationship with the other two B's) suffered. "The hardest thing I've
ever been through," says Bledsoe. "Nine years in the same place, hardly
injured much, then to have my job yanked away and made to watch somebody
"Of course I tried to be sensitive to Drew," says Brady. "I kind of took
the lead from him, in the way we handled it. If he didn't say anything,
I didn't. If he made a statement, I could. He deserved the right to
choose. As the starter, it was much easier for me. Drew never had been a
backup. Never not played. How could he be comfortable in that role? We'd
both hear the same questions -- what about this, that? Then people would
ask, don't you hold stuff against each other? We never let it get to the
point where I would characterize it as bad. But it was a tough
The Charles became the river of no return for Bledsoe the week he
returned to the Pats before their 24-17 loss to the Rams last Nov. 18.
At some point he thought Belichick would give him back his starting job.
But postgame, Belichick -- whose techie, control-freak persona and
terrifying zoned-out stare when things aren't going peachy reflects the
best of Hannibal Lecter -- actually implied that Brady's inconsistent
play was caused by his sharing practice time with Bledsoe, who had taken
"too many" snaps. Too many turned out to be 20. Centers, an objective
observer from a distance, laughs: "That injury shouldn't cost you your
job rule? There's a bigger rule. It's called winning."
As Brady's Pats won and won, Bledsoe's bags were being packed and
repacked. His wife, Maura, and their three sons stopped going to games.
Brady became the toast of the Back Bay. But what really bothered Bledsoe
was Belichick's insistence that the kid was winning with the same
offense the veteran had struggled with for two years of 13?19 ball. In
truth, five offensive linemen Bledsoe had been shackled with were no
longer on the team. The Pats' O-coordinator, Charlie Weis, had installed
a confined scheme that relied mostly on the running of Antowain Smith
and was purposely designed to insulate Brady from mistakes. Even Brady
acknowledged it: "No QB likes to make his living handing off."
Ultimately, there was one QBs meeting in which the celebrity-sated Brady
expressed exasperation at his new-found lack of privacy. "That was it,"
says a friend of both. "Here was Tom on this great winning streak and he
was, like, moaning. Drew just looked over and said, 'You have no idea.
Just hope you never start losing again.'"
If chickens always come home to roost, Bledsoe couldn't have found a
safer place to land than the land of the original chicken wings. He's
cut from selfless familial cloth and tough-as-nails competitor stock,
with a father who oversees a family foundation on parenting skills and a
grandfather who was a Top Gun pilot and four-star Navy admiral.
At his signing day in Buffalo, a high school band played the Washington
State (Drew's alma mater) fight song. Three thousand fans showed up at
the Bills offices in Orchard Park. Hundreds more lined the street to the
doctor's office where Bledsoe had his physical. In one day, the season
ticket base grew by another 1,500. "I grew up watching Bills games on
TV, the great quarterback duels between Marino and Kelly," says Bledsoe.
"Playing here, Bills fans were always the loudest and the best. I never
thought the Patriots would trade me within the division. I can't believe
I could have wound up anywhere more perfect."
It didn't hurt that in Eric Moulds, rookie Josh Reed and Peerless Price,
Bledsoe had some exquisite playmates to receive his downfield rockets.
Or that the Bills drafted massive 370-pound OT Mike Williams out of
Texas to protect his back, not to mention front. Or that Kevin Gilbride
-- one of the founders of the old run 'n shoot -- was in place as
offensive coordinator. Or that Buffalo head coach Gregg Williams was an
unabashed admirer. "Just to watch Drew on the sideline is electric,"
says Williams. "You can feel this guy's confidence and charisma. But the
one part of his leadership that's overlooked is that he's such a great
listener. Drew takes input from everybody and fits it into the game
It was also significant that the huge spread of land (farmhouse and pond
included) Bledsoe purchased in rural East Aurora, N.Y., reminded his
whole family of out West, both their off-season ranch in Montana and
back home in Walla Walla. "Other than there's no snow-capped mountains,
I'd swear I was in the same county," says his dad, Mac, who visits
often. "Drew loves the look in western New York, the feel, just the way
the people are. You ride down the street and wave, and folks actually
wave back. And not with their middle finger."
Back in Boston ("You've got to get out of there," Bledsoe recently told
a nonfootball friend, "it's the most negative place in the world"), our
Other Hero has experienced additional changes. No more Brady sightings
at the local Chili's, whose customers used to ignore him rather than
contribute standing ovations. But plenty more camouflage caps,
sunglasses and tinted car windows. "I was naïve before," Brady says.
"Now, I'm a little hardened by all this." He also had to be chagrined
that his roommate and best friend on the team, defensive end David
Nugent, was unceremoniously cut by Belichick. So much for keeping your
Happy Guy happy.
The baby of the San Mateo, Calif., Brady bunch, Tom recently welcomed a
new tenant to his condo: his sister, Nancy 26, a Cal- Berkeley grad who
has moved cross-country to serve as his "assistant" after working in the
biotech industry. Another sister, Julie, 28, is soon to move in as well.
"Will they cramp his style?" says Tom Brady Sr. "I wouldn't be a bit
surprised. As Tommy says, 'Yeah. Nothing like having a pair of older
sisters checking out your every move.' But these down times are good for
him. He's always been on this high profile curve. Tommy's growing up and
he's always made good decisions."
"Sticking Tara Reid's head in your shirt after throwing nine picks won't
cut it in Boston," says a Patriot patriot. "I saw the Golden Boy out at
the movies a few weeks ago. You can bet he's lost that routine already.
This game coming up? New England will go nuts. Did they get rid of the
right guy or the wrong guy? If Bledsoe and Buffalo beat the Pats, Brady
will be sending out for his movies at Blockbuster until forever."
-philw (this is BETTER than the Tuner Bowls!!!)