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IMPROVED BLEDSOE MAY BE PLAYING FOR HIS FUTURE TODAY

My feelings about Drew Bledsoe are no state secret. He is one of the most overrated players of his time, an average quarterback who has stood still while a rapidly changing sport passed him by. At the end of last season, I thought the Bills should have cut him and moved on. I still believe that.

Instead, Bills management kept Bledsoe around for another year. They brought in some top offensive coaches to help rehabilitate him. If they could raise Bledsoe's confidence while lowering expectations, they might find an acceptable middle ground. He wouldn't be asked to win games by himself, but to manage not to lose them.

All they required was that he be average.

Bledsoe has done that much. He has met the modest expectations created by his own dreadful play of a year ago. He has looked more confident and secure in the pocket. After going 15 games without completing a pass over 35 yards, he threw four in a three-game stretch. He has made better decisions and even demonstrated some mobility in the pocket.

The Bills are 1-4, but if the defense could have made a couple of key stops, they would be 3-2 right now and national experts would be gushing about Bledsoe's revival. Of course, if he had played better in a couple of Buffalo's narrow defeats, it wouldn't have come down to a late defensive stop.

Still, you have to give the coaching staff credit for restoring Bledsoe to a competent level. The Bills have scored 34 points in the last five quarters. Willis McGahee had a big part in that. Despite injuries, the offensive line has done a good job in pass protection. But Bledsoe has played some of his best football since early 2002.

"When our guys protect me like they did the last game, it makes my job much, much easier," Bledsoe said. "I'm able to work to a third and fourth receiver, so I don't have to make my best guess with the first one and hope that works out. I'm able to scan the field and find my guys, and it allows me to play more effectively and more efficiently."

Through five games, Bledsoe has completed 57.7 percent of his passes for 1,007 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions. He is averaging 7.35 yards per pass attempt, well above last year's feeble 6.07 and higher than his career rate. His quarterback rating is 86.2, ninth in the conference. Average.

Bledsoe has been sacked 20 times, more than any other quarterback in the AFC. But aside from the Oakland loss, he's done a better job of getting rid of the ball and eluding the rush.

"We honestly have been emphasizing that," said QB coach Sam Wyche. "Laying off the ball to another receiver, scrambling and buying time in the pocket. But I think sometimes that kind of grows on you. Two or three things happen. You keep hearing that you can't move, so you want to prove you can. Then you have some success moving in the pocket, so you push the envelope a little farther."

Now it's time to find out if the envelope extends to road games. Today's game at Baltimore will be a big test of the "new, improved" Bledsoe. The Ravens are ranked sixth in the NFL in total defense. They allow just 3.4 yards a rush, tops in the AFC. They allow only 3.68 yards on first downs, second in the league.

So the Bills could find themselves in a lot of long down-and-distance situations, which means Bledsoe could be running for his life in the pocket. If recent history is any guide, he could be in for a very long day.

The Bills have lost 12 of their last 14 road games. They have averaged a measly 9.8 points in the 12 losses. Bledsoe's chronicle of road woe dates back even further, to his days in New England. Since the start of the 1998 season, Bledsoe has started 22 games against teams that finished with winning records. His team is 2-20 in those games. That doesn't include this year's loss to the Jets.

That doesn't bode well for the Bills today. Things tend to get ugly on the road, when opposing defenses turn their pass rushers loose on Bledsoe in rowdy home stadiums. Generally, one offensive touchdown is an achievement.

"This is going to be a great challenge for us on the road," Bledsoe said, "to go into that environment against that defense and try to get it done. If we can go out and execute and eliminate the negative plays, I think we can do it, even against a good defense."

The Bills could put themselves back on the playoff radar with a second straight win. Confidence-wise, it would be a huge lift to win here against the vaunted Ravens defense. It would help validate them as a decent team that got off to a bad start."

Bledsoe might be playing for his future today. A victory will restore hope for this season and justifying keeping him as the starter in the short term. A loss would drop them to 1-5 and stifle any wild notions of a playoff run. Fans will begin counting the days until rookie J.P. Losman is fully recovered from his broken leg.

Losman is the future. Unless the Bills make a playoff run, they have to get him on the field as soon as possible. The kid needs to get a head start on next season if he's going to be effective in 2005. The standard will be sky high for Losman. Unlike Bledsoe, he needs to be a lot better than average.
e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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