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BLEDSOE FINALLY SHEDS SCAPEGOAT HORNS

Drew Bledsoe had tried to explain his predicament but found few willing listeners. He had hinted at the complexities of the matter but discovered the finger always pointed at him.

Bledsoe was a broken quarterback, went the simplistic and pervasive logic, a shell of the player once regarded as one of the league's best at the position. He couldn't handle the pressure anymore, couldn't function under duress. His sense of timing within the pocket had vanished. His instincts were shot. Rookie J.P. Losman, whose NFL credentials begin and end with his selection in the draft's first round, had become the popular choice of the restless frustrated.

Yet the circumstances surrounding Bledsoe's demise were always readily apparent, easily discerned. Since early last season, he had performed as if stricken by anxiety attacks because chaos awaited every snap of the ball. His blockers couldn't deter a standard pass rush and routinely were overwhelmed by the blitz. The situation was made worse by the absence of a dependable running game. No quarterback can thrive under those conditions, but nonetheless the blame was heaped on No. 11. Quarterbacks have always made the most convenient of offensive scapegoats.

Bledsoe accepted a huge share of the criticism until a couple of weeks back, when he tactfully responded by urging his legion of detractors to analyze the entire situation. He insinuated the mass breakdowns were too widespread to allow a quarterback to function at a competent level. And he made perfect sense.

Rarely over these last 13 months has Bledsoe been granted the protection to give him a comfort zone and permit him to develop a rhythm. He'd never say as much, but there had to be times when his last thought before taking the snap was, "I know I'm going to die."

If running backs require ample touches to feel ingrained in the game, then it stands to reason a quarterback must receive ample time in the pocket to achieve a similar sense of flow. There's no doubt Bledsoe had come to expect the worst. But all it proves is the man had a handle on reality.

It's no surprise Bledsoe has been a different quarterback these last two weeks, at ease and productive. Maybe infusing the running game with Willis McGahee has had something to do with it. Maybe the offensive line has finally started to meld. What's clear is that Bledsoe is receiving adequate time to make his reads, that his confidence in his line has been restored, that he's back to throwing passes with conviction. He was 18 for 30 for 184 yards in Sunday's 22-17 win over the Jets. He made key throws at the important times and appeared thoroughly rejuvenated.

"I don't think he's ever lost his confidence," said head coach Mike Mularkey. "I think we've done some things offensively to cut back, even being more vanilla. I don't know if that has something to do with it, but it certainly doesn't hurt. We've been trying to clean up protections and help out wherever we feel like there's a possibility of being vulnerable on protection."

Predictably, more time to pass has done wonders for Bledsoe's accuracy and rekindled his touch. His 4-yard touchdown pass to Lee Evans on an end zone fade route was thread through the needle's eye, like the Bledsoe of old.

"It was a perfect throw," Evans said. "It couldn't have been placed any better."

A 26-yard throw to Eric Moulds along the right sideline helped set up Rian Lindell's second-quarter field goal. A similar pass to Evans put away the Jets, going for 27 yards on third-and-8 with less than three minutes remaining. Sometimes the game's merely an extension of a week's worth of reps when a quarterback isn't fretting his survival.

"We run that play every day at practice, and we hook up almost every time we run it," Moulds said.

Bledsoe has been neither sacked nor intercepted in two consecutive games, the first time that's happened since 1995. His instincts have been heightened now that the sense of dread has been relieved. He even took off on a 17-yard scramble that preceded the touchdown pass to Evans. There's a world of opportunity at hand for a quarterback who isn't ducking trouble all the time, a quarterback feeling at home.

"No doubt," Bledsoe said. "Now I can see the field a little bit more and get back to a third and fourth read. And it really allows me to function at a much higher level. When we're running the ball like we are, when the pass protection is good, obviously it makes my job much, much easier and allows me to function much more efficiently."

He's getting a fair shake now, and his play has improved accordingly. His detractors, of course, will say that it's about time.

Exactly. That's what he's been trying to tell you.
e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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