AFC East: Drew Bledsoe

The Buffalo Bills are usually a place where quarterback careers go to die.

Kolb
It happened to Drew Bledsoe, who went from a Super Bowl participant with the New England Patriots to a 23-25 record in three seasons as Buffalo’s starter. It happened to Rob Johnson, Kelly Holcomb, Ryan Fitzpatrick and several other quarterbacks who failed at their chance to start and lead Buffalo during its league-high 13-year playoff drought.

Can new Bills quarterback Kevin Kolb end the streak of bad quarterbacking in Buffalo?

Conventional wisdom says no. Kolb is on his third team in seven seasons. There are various reasons things didn't work out for Kolb with the Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals, and the Bills have issues of their own. They are a team in transition with a new head coach, new offensive and defensive coordinators and a new attitude.

But the good news is Kolb has decent weapons around him. He has dynamic tailback C.J. Spiller in the backfield. Kolb also has a 1,000-yard receiver in Steve Johnson, although he's nowhere close to Kolb’s favorite target (Larry Fitzgerald) in Arizona. More importantly, Kolb has a solid offensive line in Buffalo that is light-years ahead of what the Cardinals had last season.

Kolb likely will never develop into the franchise quarterback the Eagles and Cardinals hoped he would be. But if Kolb is solid for a year or two in Buffalo and provides a bridge to the future for a 2013 draft pick (Ryan Nassib? Landry Jones? Tyler Bray?), that's all the Bills can ask for.

Name top five QBs for each AFC East team

June, 10, 2011
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Football Outsiders senior writer Mike Tanier has been charting the top five quarterbacks of every NFL team. In his latest column, he broke down the AFC East's best. You should click on the links to read Tanier's reasoning and interesting stats on each selection.

A first-round pick from the famed 1983 draft class appears on every list.

Buffalo Bills
  1. Jim Kelly
  2. Joe Ferguson
  3. Jack Kemp
  4. Drew Bledsoe
  5. Doug Flutie

Quick take: It's strange to see Flutie on the Bills' all-time list. When I arrived in Western New York 11 years ago, the area was hotly divided over him and Rob Johnson. Some fans wanted Flutie to just go away. But I agree with the list and, as Tanier, points out in his piece, this goes to show how few great quarterbacks there've been over the years.

Miami Dolphins
  1. Dan Marino
  2. Bob Griese
  3. Jay Fiedler
  4. Don Strock
  5. Earl Morrall

Quick take: The Dolphins have a two Hall of Famers in their history, but you can see how much trouble they've had finding a replacement for Marino when you consider their fourth- and fifth-best quarterbacks are known for being quality backups. Granted, Morrall came off the sideline to help maintain the undefeated 1972 season. But he started 14 times over five seasons with Miami and just 40 percent of his career games.

New England Patriots
  1. Tom Brady
  2. Drew Bledsoe
  3. Babe Parilli
  4. Steve Grogan
  5. Tony Eason

Quick take: This is the only AFC East team with an active quarterback on the list. The rundown couldn't be more straightforward to me. Maybe you could flip Grogan and Parilli because of longevity and the neck roll.

New York Jets (from a previous Football Outsiders column)
  1. Joe Namath
  2. Chad Pennington
  3. Ken O'Brien
  4. Vinny Testaverde
  5. Richard Todd

Quick take: Tanier notes that if you wanted to rank Sanchez fourth right now, then he wouldn't argue. Neither would I, although I'd be more comfortable with Sanchez replacing Todd on this list. Tanier also claims if Pennington had avoided one of his lost seasons, he might be the greatest quarterback in Jets history -- from a statistical standpoint.

Flash Points: Franchise-turning events

May, 26, 2011
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Examining the most crucial event in the history of every team in the division.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Elsa/Getty ImagesIn 11 seasons with the Patriots Tom Brady has thrown 261 touchdowns and amassed close to 35,000 passing yards with a 95.2 passer rating.
Who made who?

That was the question readers had to answer to determine the key event that shaped the New England Patriots. Is Bill Belichick the reason for their success, or was it Tom Brady who turned his head coach into a genius, or was it Robert Kraft's decision to hire Belichick in the first place that made all of the above possible?

Among the AFC East clubs in ESPN.com's "Flash Points" series, the Patriots' poll generated the most votes and the closest race.

Readers went with Brady, claiming the Patriots' decision to select him 199th in the 2000 draft was the moment that most impacted the franchise's fortunes.

But Brady was the only AFC East winner not to collect a majority of the votes. He received 46 percent of the nearly 60,000 cast. The decision to hire Belichick was second at 34 percent.

Kraft's purchase of the team received 10 percent, and the 1993 combo of hiring Bill Parcells as head coach and drafting Drew Bledsoe first overall got 8 percent.

Sportsguy1236 reasoned: "Whats more important to a team? Best QB in the league or best coach in the league? I think Kraft and Belichick make a close tie for second behind Brady. Reason being, I think Brady would have been successful anywhere, but Belichick and Kraft rely on each other. Belichick wants full control and Kraft gives it to him."

InStint733 disagreed: "OK, Brady being drafted is not a flash point. Drew getting hurt and Tom coming in to take over is a flash point. Tom Brady's story is a great one, but I have to give Belichick more of the success pie than Brady. I'm a big believer that defense wins championships and Belichick always has a good top 10 D no matter who plays."

JETS: Namath chooses AFL over NFL

We go from the AFC East's closest poll to the most lopsided. Of all the candidates for the most seminal New York Jets moment, readers overwhelmingly went with Joe Namath's decision to spurn the NFL monolith and join the upstart AFL.

[+] EnlargeJoe Namath
AP PhotoJoe Namath changed the course of Jets history when he chose to play in the AFL. Here Namath signs his contract with coach Weeb Ewbank (left) and owner Sonny Werblin in 1965.
That received 69 percent of the vote, and rightfully so. The St. Louis Cardinals drafted Namath 12th overall in 1964. But the Jets made him the top choice and gave him a mammoth contract he couldn't refuse.

It was the first flutter of a remarkable butterfly effect. Without that moment, Namath doesn't make the guarantee, the Jets don't win their only Super Bowl and Namath probably doesn't become a cultural icon. Nothing else in Jets history can compare to what Namath did for the organization.

A distant second was the 2008 hiring of Rex Ryan as head coach at 19 percent, followed by the 1997 hiring of Parcells at 7 percent and the formation of the New York Sack Exchange at 2 percent.

Bbarkz took exception with the choices in the poll: "I'm a big Jet fan, but if you were going to say defining moment for the franchise, the only possible option is the guarantee. It's not only the Jets defining moment, but you could argue it was the defining moment for the NFL as we know it."

That's true, but if Namath goes to the NFL, then the guarantee doesn't happen.

Eric5741 summed up the Ryan hire finishing second in the poll: "The team has been so bad for so long that Jets fans can't help but brag about two AFC Championship losses. ... So just give them a break. It's not their fault that their team has done nothing since most of them have been alive."

DOLPHINS: Undefeated in 1972

The Miami Dolphins generated the fewest votes among the AFC East polls, but readers were generally convinced their undefeated 1972 campaign was the most influential moment in franchise history.

[+] EnlargeDon Shula
AP PhotoIt's hard to imagine Miami going undefeated during the 1972 season had the team not hired Don Shula.
I disagree with that verdict, but let's break down the percentages first.

The 1972 season collected 56 percent of the votes. The team's decision to hire head coach Don Shula away from the Baltimore Colts in 1970 came in second at 21 percent. Drafting quarterback Dan Marino in 1983 was third at 20 percent. The dramatic turnaround from a one-win team to division champs in 2008 took the other 3 percent.

The 1972 season is symbolic and keeps the Dolphins a topic of conversation every season a team can get off to a hot start. The comparisons will not go away until another team manages to win every game, including the Super Bowl.

The unbeaten feat makes Miami special. So I understand why readers chose it.

But my pick would be Shula's hiring. Without him as head coach two years earlier, can we assume the Dolphins would have run the table in 1972 and won back-to-back championships? No, we could not.

The initial exchange in the comments section under the poll ...

Gofins7933 wrote: "Everybody knows us for our perfect season in '72. That has to be the most defining moment for us."

Marek13brave replied: "Without the signing of Shula there is no perfect season in '72."

Gofins7933 countered: "Even my mom knows about the Fins perfect season. She doesn't know who Shula is."

BILLS: Norwood's kick sails wide

The Buffalo Bills went to four consecutive Super Bowls. Their best chance to win one and avoid the misery of being a perennial bridesmaid came at the end of their first appearance.

[+] EnlargeScott Norwood
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaScott Norwood's missed field goal in the closing seconds of the 1991 Super Bowl would have brought joy to one Giants fan in particular.
With eight seconds left in Super Bowl XXV and the Bills trailing by a point, Norwood lined up for a 47-yard field goal. We all know what happened next. The Bills still are looking for that first NFL championship.

In the "Flash Points" poll, 59 percent of readers voted for Norwood's miss. Then came Jim Kelly finally being forced to sign with the Bills after the USFL collapsed, followed by the 1985 promotion of Bill Polian to general manager at 8 percent, and linebacker Mike Stratton's "hit heard 'round the world" on San Diego Chargers running back Keith Lincoln in the 1964 AFL Championship Game at 6 percent.

Reader mdavila07 wrote: "It's definitely the Norwood miss. The Bills' legacy would be completely different if they won a Super Bowl. Not to mention, if you tell anyone you're a Bills fan, what do they bring up? Wide right and four straight Super Bowl losses. That is what the Bills are known for, their defining moment."

Dan_Daoust suggested another option: "Doesn't it have to be the Music City Miracle? The Bills had a Super Bowl-caliber team (or at least defense) that year, they got knocked out, and they've been a league doormat ever since. Wide right is an obvious choice, but it wasn't really a fortune-defining moment. The Bills made three more Super Bowls right after that, after all. The MCM, on the other hand almost seems to have had the effect of kicking the team in the groin and then standing on its neck."

I agreed with MattRichWarren's take: "It's going to be Wide Right, but that team doesn't exist without Polian's vision and drafting skill. I went with Polian because it's the right answer."

Bledsoe calls decision to draft Mallett 'wise'

May, 17, 2011
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Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett surely has a strong arm and can make all the throws. Still, the biggest criticism of his football skills is that draft analysts believe he will be a statue in the pocket.

The New England Patriots drafted Mallett in the third round, and you know who liked the pick?

A rifle-armed former Patriots quarterback who was a statue in the pocket.

"He's a big, strong-armed guy," Drew Bledsoe said Monday. "I've never met him, don't know much about him, but it sounds like he throws it pretty good. I've watched him play a little bit. We'll see how that plays out for them. But he seems to check the boxes, at least physically."

Bledsoe held a conference call to talk about his selection for the Patriots' Hall of Fame. He beat out former head coach Bill Parcells and AFL star defensive lineman Houston Antwine in an online fan vote. Bledsoe and AFL center Jon Morris, a senior committee selection, will comprise this year's induction class.

On the conference call, Bledsoe was asked for his thoughts on Mallett, who likely slid in the draft because of questions about his mobility and character. But few dispute Mallett's arm and preparedness for the NFL game.

Mallett will compete with Brian Hoyer to be Brady's top understudy. Brady became a star after a valuable developmental period under Bledsoe. When Brady went down with a knee injury in the 2008 season opener, the Patriots won 11 games with backup Matt Cassel.

"I think everybody recognizes that having a good backup quarterback is essential in this day and age," Bledsoe said. "Guys are still getting bigger, faster and stronger, and to rely on one guy to fill that very important position is a risky proposition.

"I think that was probably a wise move on their part. They saw value there in a talented guy who can come in and learn behind Tommy for years to come. ... That backup quarterback position is never important until it becomes the most important thing. That was probably a wise selection on their part to have a quality talent behind Tommy if he ever does get injured."

Fans vote Bledsoe into Pats Hall of Fame

May, 16, 2011
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New England Patriots fans have chosen Drew Bledsoe as their next inductee into the team's Hall of Fame.

The Patriots didn't announce the actual vote totals, but announced Bledsoe won by the largest percentage of votes since they opened the process up to fans. Also on this year's ballot were former head coach Bill Parcells and star AFL defensive lineman Houston Antwine.

"Drew Bledsoe played such an integral role in our efforts to rebuild the Patriots brand," Patriots owner Robert Kraft said in a statement. "He gave fans hope for the future and provided many memorable moments during his record-breaking career.

"I will never forget Drew's record-setting performance in that come-from-behind victory against Minnesota the year I bought the team. It sparked a seven-game win streak and put the Patriots back in the playoffs for the first time in a decade. For a franchise that had only hosted one playoff game in its first 35 years, winning the AFC Championship Game at home in Foxboro and taking the Patriots to the playoffs for three consecutive years were unimaginable goals prior to his arrival."

The Patriots made Bledsoe the No. 1 pick in 1993. He spent nine seasons with the Patriots, throwing for 44,611 yards and 251 touchdowns. He went to three Pro Bowls for the Patriots and, after Tom Brady took over the job, one more for the Buffalo Bills.

In March, a newly formed senior committee selected AFL center Jon Morris for induction this year.

Flash Points: Patriots' defining moment

May, 11, 2011
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What key event significantly changed the fortunes of the Patriots -- for better or worse? Give us your take and we'll give you our definitive moment on May 26.

Unlike the other AFC East clubs, the New England Patriots' heaviest moments have been recent. Their early years were mostly nondescript, a long span of mediocrity (at best) interrupted occasionally by a triumphant interlude or two.

The team's culture changed in 1993, when Bill Parcells was named head coach and the Patriots drafted quarterback Drew Bledsoe first overall. Bledsoe started as a rookie, and the combination -- plus Robert Kraft's purchase of the team a year later -- awakened a slumbering fan base and raised expectations.

Kraft hired Bill Belichick in 2000. That year, the Patriots drafted quarterback Tom Brady with a sixth-round compensatory pick. Belichick-Brady didn't carry the same immediate punch as Parcells-Bledsoe did. Belichick wasn't as much of a known coaching quantity, having failed with the Cleveland Browns, and nobody had any idea Brady would overtake Bledsoe and blossom into a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

But Belichick and Brady propelled the Patriots to four Super Bowls, winning three in a four-year stretch.

One of the great debates is whether Belichick made Brady or vice versa. That's for you to decide in this poll.

Submit your vote with the SportsNation poll. If you vote Other, please give us your suggestion in the comments area below this article.

Worst officiating call in AFC East history?

April, 19, 2011
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The NBA admitted it made a mistake by not penalizing Oklahoma City Thunder center Kendrick Perkins for goaltending on the pivotal, go-ahead basket with 65 seconds to play in Sunday's postseason victory over the Denver Nuggets.

That's one of the hotter topics in sports lately.

So what's the most controversial call in AFC East history?

There are a number of candidates to choose from. The Tuck Rule comes to mind. While technically not a blown call, it sure didn't look right.

The Patriots had a magical bicentennial season in 1976, but it came to a screeching stop. Defensive lineman Ray Hamilton was called for a highly questionable late hit on Ken Stabler, allowing the Oakland Raiders to turn a fourth-and-18 into a touchdown five plays later and eventually eliminate the Patriots from the playoffs.

The Music City Miracle still resonates with Buffalo Bills fans certain Frank Wycheck made a forward lateral across the field to Kevin Dyson. The Bills haven't been to the playoffs in the 11 years since.

In 1998, Bills receiver Andre Reed claimed he overheard an official say "Just give it to them" after Patriots receiver Shawn Jefferson made a controversial sideline catch with six seconds left, setting up Drew Bledsoe's winning touchdown pass to Ben Coates.

New York Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde scored a phantom touchdown against the Seattle Seahawks in 1998 on a fourth-down plunge that didn't cross the goal line. The Jets went on to win the AFC East.

Last year, the Miami Dolphins lost a potentially season-changing game against the Pittsburgh Steelers when officials ruled the video replay couldn't determine Ikaika Alama-Francis recovered in the end zone. The Steelers kicked a field goal to win by a point.

Those are just a few that come to mind.

What call do you think is the AFC East's worst of all-time?

Bill Parcells insists he's done with the NFL

April, 18, 2011
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Bill Parcells, who left a large footprint on three-quarters of the AFC East, claimed Monday morning he won't make it a clean sweep and work for the Buffalo Bills -- or any other NFL team.

So he said.

[+] EnlargeBill Parcells
US Presswire file photoFormer head coach Bill Parcells regrets his departure from the Patriots, who have nominated him into their Hall of Fame.
"I'm done," Parcells flatly declared on a conference call to discuss his nomination for the Patriots Hall of Fame along with quarterback Drew Bledsoe and defensive lineman Houston Antwine.

Parcells has made statements like that before. He was supposed to be retired before he joined the Patriots and the New York Jets as a head coach and then the Miami Dolphins as vice president of football operations in 2007.

"I know I've said that before, so you better put it down in pencil," Parcells continued by phone from his home in Jupiter, Fla. "But my full intention is ... Now, you know I'm going to be 70 years old in August.

"I'm enjoying my time now. I really left Miami about Oct. 1 last year, and this is the first time I've had any extended period of time to myself and to get to do some things that I've enjoyed doing. ... It's a good time for me.

"I still have a lot of things I'd like to try to do, but I think I'm going to leave the NFL to someone else now."

Parcells also revisited his time with the Patriots. He was their head coach for only four seasons, but he made an impact. The Patriots went 14-50 the previous four years before his arrival. Parcells went 32-32 and guided the Patriots to a Super Bowl.

"In all honesty, the franchise was ... I don't want to use the word 'disarray,' but it certainly was 'unsettled,' would be the best way to put it," Parcells said. "The ownership was unsettled. There were not a lot of people going to the games. The management of the franchise was unsettled. It was a big undertaking."

That said, Parcells wouldn't take much credit for turning the Patriots into the franchise it's known as today. Parcells called it "one of the premier franchises in the league" because of Bill Belichick and the investments owner Robert Kraft made into Gillette Stadium and the practice facilities for polishing the Patriots' brand.

"Bill Belichick has done a tremendous job there, a remarkable job," Parcells said. "It's a model for the teams in the league that are aspiring to do what the Patriots have already done. I don't really think I had a whole lot to do with that."

Parcells also regretted his "domestic misunderstandings" with the Patriots' front office before his bitter departure. Parcells said he didn't really want to leave a young team that had just been to the Super Bowl, but felt he had little choice at the time because of philosophical differences that have since been settled.

"Hey, that's life," Parcells said. "You learn from things as you go on, and certainly I probably, retrospectively would have approached them a little differently than I did."

Parcells, Bledsoe up for Pats Hall of Fame

April, 15, 2011
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The New England Patriots announced Friday morning their two most pivotal figures from the 1990s are finalists for 2011 induction into the team's Hall of Fame.

[+] EnlargeBill Parcells and Drew Bledsoe
AP Photo/Ed ZurgaBill Parcells and Drew Bledsoe are in the running for induction into the Patriots' Hall of Fame.
Fans will have one month to choose one honoree from a ballot that includes head coach Bill Parcells, quarterback Drew Bledsoe and star AFL defensive lineman Houston Antwine. The winner will be revealed the week of May 16.

Antwine will have no shot in this popularity contest. Not only is the competition too stacked against him, but I doubt his fans' demographic will be as likely to click on Patriots.com to cast votes.

Parcells eventually should get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was head coach of the Patriots for only four seasons, but had a major impact. The Patriots were 14-50 the four years before he arrived. Parcells went 32-32 and guided the Patriots to a Super Bowl.

But he's not fondly remembered by all New Englanders because of the distasteful way he departed. Parcells went on to work for the hated New York Jets and Miami Dolphins. Bill Belichick's success also has made Parcells' accomplishments look trivial -- although they weren't at the time.

Unless a slew of New Yorkers invade Patriots.com to vote for Parcells, my prediction is a runaway victory for Bledsoe.

Bledsoe was the first overall selection in 1993 and lived up to the responsibility. He went to three Pro Bowls and was Parcells' quarterback in the Super Bowl. He was a bombs-away passer who led the NFL in attempts three times. He made Patriots football fun again.

Bledsoe also deserves credit for helping the Patriots win their first Super Bowl title after the 2001 season. He stepped in for an injured Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game and beat the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Bledsoe did become an AFC East enemy with the Buffalo Bills, but he didn't leave as a free agent. The Patriots traded him for a first-round draft choice.

Kevin Turner's rugged road

March, 16, 2011
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Kevin TurnerMike Cellucci/ESPN.comKevin Turner, who played fullback in the NFL for eight seasons, was diagnosed with an incurable neuromuscular disorder 10 months ago.
Kevin Turner couldn't sit still on that April afternoon in 1992. The Alabama fullback tried to watch the NFL draft for as long as he could, but a combination of tension and monotony increased with each pick. Every 15 minutes another name that wasn't Kevin Turner was announced.

Turner stepped into the backyard of his parents' Prattville, Ala., home for some fresh air and hopefully a diversion. He still laughs at the memory of what happened next. His father bolted out the door and blurted the big announcement: "The Boston Patriots!"

Turner gently corrected him. Actually, it was the New England Patriots. They selected him 71st overall, the second fullback off the board.

The moment was exhilarating for a father and his only child. Raymond Turner coached Kevin from 5 years old until junior high and nearly wept the first time he saw his son enter Bryant-Denny Stadium decked in crimson and white.

Now his son was headed to the National Football League. He loaded up his maroon 1991 Ford Bronco and, with Guns N' Roses blaring, headed off to Massachusetts, where he began an eight-year, $8 million NFL career, met his future wife and scored some touchdowns.

Yet if he knew then what he knows today, he'd be torn about pulling out of Prattville.

"If they would have come to me and said, 'I've seen the future. This is what happens.' Of course, I would stop playing immediately," Turner said. "But, as we all know, nobody can see the future. For me, it just falls into a long line of bad decisions."

Turner is divorced. He went bankrupt on bum real estate investments. He was addicted to painkillers for a couple of years. None of those problems are the worst of it.

Ten months ago, the 41-year-old father of three was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the incurable neuromuscular disorder commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Turner's arms don't work well, his hands even less. His pinch strength, a measurement of the strength generated by the thumb and forefinger, is one pound. That's comparable to an infant. He doesn't have enough might to squeeze toothpaste out of a tube.

Forget about buttoning a shirt. It can take him half an hour to wiggle into his blue jeans with nobody there to help, but he said, "socks are the worst."

Kevin Turner
Todd Warshaw/Allsport The Eagles made Kevin Turner the NFL's second-highest-paid fullback in 1995.
The body that produced 30-plus receptions five times for the Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles, made him the second-richest fullback in the NFL and impressed then-Patriots coach Bill Parcells as a prototypical West Coast fullback is failing.

"It's quite a different way of life," Turner said. "It's pretty embarrassing, but cleaning yourself after going to the bathroom becomes very difficult when you can't use your hands. These are just things you don't think about.

"You have to be very creative. I can't pull down my zipper. I got what I call zipper-getters. It's a little hook with some fishing wire that goes around the zipper of my pants so you can go to the bathroom."

Doctors have told him his speech probably will be the next to go. His throat and jaw muscles cramp, reminding him ALS is as relentless as he was on the football field.

Eventually, it will kill him. Maybe within another year or two. ALS is undefeated.

Recent scientific data strongly suggests repeated head trauma can cause a condition that mimics ALS. The neuromuscular disorders are virtually identical -- so alike the difference is detectable only by autopsy.

"Football had something to do with it," said Turner, who has no family history of ALS. "I don't know to what extent, and I may not ever know. But there are too many people I know that have ALS and played football in similar positions. They seem to be linebackers, fullbacks, strong safeties. Those are big collision guys."

To raise research funds and awareness about sports-related head injuries and ALS, he formed the Kevin Turner Foundation.

Dr. Ann McKee said Tuesday the latest information shows NFL players have eight to 10 times the likelihood of being diagnosed with ALS than the average citizen. McKee was the lead neuropathologist for the study that linked head trauma in collision sports to the ALS variant.

The effects of head trauma are a hot-button NFL issue. The league has included ALS as an automatically qualified condition under the 88 Plan, which assists former players with medical expenses related to head injuries.

Cases continue to emerge about retired players experiencing early dementia, memory loss, depression, aggression or erratic behavior. Last month, four-time Pro Bowl safety Dave Duerson committed suicide after complaining of severe headaches, vision impairment and an increasing inability to form coherent sentences.

Parcells said he was "sick" to hear about Duerson's death. Duerson played for Parcells on the New York Giants' 1990 championship team. Parcells coached Turner for two years in New England.

"Look, we all know that this is hazardous to your health," Parcells said in a somber tone last weekend. "We do know that. And fullback is a very high-collision position. It's not like playing wide receiver or corner. He's either running the ball and getting tackled, catching the ball and getting tackled or blocking somebody.

"I've seen a lot of big collisions in football. We all know when we sign up for this that there's an element of risk involved."

'A special kid'

Turner wasn't a superstar in terms of decorations. He didn't go to Pro Bowls. But he was far from an NFL commoner.

"He had a heart that just wouldn't stop," Raymond Turner said of his son. "From the time he put the gear on to the time he took it off, he was a competitor. Never once in my lifetime did I have to tell him to hustle. It was there. It was built in. He knew what he wanted to do."

The Eagles loved Turner enough that they signed him to a three-year, $4.125 million offer sheet with a $1.5 million signing bonus when he became a restricted free agent in 1995 after two seasons with the Pats. They outbid the Washington Redskins. Daryl Johnston of the Dallas Cowboys was the only fullback with a bigger contract.

The bemused Patriots couldn't match the Eagles and settled for a third-round draft choice as compensation. New England fared well with the transaction. The draft pick turned out to be running back Curtis Martin.

[+] EnlargeKevin Turner
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images"There's nobody out there who wouldn't like [Turner] as a person, player, practice habits, versatility," former Patriots coach Bill Parcells said.
But at the time, Parcells didn't want to lose Turner.

"There's nobody out there who wouldn't like [Turner] as a person, player, practice habits, versatility," Parcells said. "This kid had everything. He was a special kid.

"He was a first-down player and was capable of playing on third down because he had such great hands. He really was an all-purpose back. And you don't see those fullbacks anymore. Kevin was a traditional, old-time, versatile, run-block-and-catch fullback."

Turner's best season was 1994 with the Patriots. When not blocking for Marion Butts, Turner made 52 receptions, gained 582 yards from scrimmage and scored three touchdowns -- all career highs. Turner scored an overtime touchdown in Week 11 to beat the Minnesota Vikings. His catch in the left corner of the end zone was Drew Bledsoe's 45th completion on his 70th attempt, a record that stands by one throw.

Whatever glory Turner experienced came with a price. He absorbed punishment. That's how players often win their team's Ed Block Courage Award, as Turner did with Philadelphia in 1996. They're admired for their perseverance.

Turner knows of only two concussions he suffered in the pros. One came with the Patriots in 1994 against the Cincinnati Bengals. He twisted awkwardly while trying to catch a pass near the goal line, and his head struck Riverfront Stadium's hard artificial turf.

The other known concussion happened with the Eagles in 1997, while Turner was running the wedge on a kickoff return against the Green Bay Packers at Veterans Stadium.

"The next thing I remember," Turner said, "I was asking our backup quarterback, Bobby Hoying, 'You're going to think I'm crazy, but are we in Green Bay or are we in Philly?' I was looking around that stadium and could not figure it out.

"I stayed out for two, maybe three series of downs, got my senses back and finished the game. It was a fairly significant injury to my brain, and I just kept pounding on it."

Turner's father is aware football probably contributed to the ALS diagnosis. He often wonders what hit wrecked his son's brain.

Was it the wedge? Was it the time Turner collided with Atlanta Falcons linebacker Jessie Tuggle so violently at the goal line he knocked Tuggle out? Was it his final NFL play in 1999, when he barely got a piece of Indianapolis Colts linebacker Cornelius Bennett but both arms went numb for 15 seconds?

The probable answer is all of them contributed amid an accumulation of other hits that didn't register.

"I never thought about my head, the way I was abusing my head, the pounding my head was taking and the long-term consequences," Turner said. "Playing the position I did, I leveled my head every time I was on a lead block. It was part of the three points: my two hands and my head. That's how I was taught to do it."

A wicked game

McKee is director of the VA Brain Bank at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine. The center has studied 46 brains of athletes who sustained repeated, sports-related head trauma. Research indicates concussions aren't necessary to induce frightening symptoms.

Many retired NFL players, such as Turner, Miami Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas, Buffalo Bills guard Conrad Dobler and Patriots cornerback Mike Haynes, have pledged to donate their brains for research.

[+] EnlargeDuerson
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesDave Duerson, who committed suicide, reportedly asked that his brain be examined.
"It's very tough now to look at the sport and not listen to the voices inside your head that are very, very much aware this game is associated with significant risks," McKee said. "And we may not fully understand the depths of those risks.

"Every month, we've been getting more cases into the brain bank and seeing more cases of [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] and some with this [ALS] variant. It's more and more difficult to embrace this sport as it's currently being played. With each month of this work, it just seems worse."

McKee isn't some fuddy-duddy intellectual, trying to undermine football's place in society. She was raised in a football household just outside Green Bay. Her father played for Grinnell College. She attended every game her brothers played.

"Football is a way of life there," McKee said. "It's huge. It's how we define ourselves. I'm sure I would have played if I'd have been born a boy. Football is an enormous part of my heritage. I do understand that football is so much more than a sport to people. It's what we do."

But is football evolving into a culture of regret?

Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, who has a long history of concussions, recently told HBO's "Real Sports" that if he had a son, the boy wouldn't be allowed to play football. Four-time Pro Bowl safety Blaine Bishop didn't make an edict but showed off his scars until his son decided not to play, which suits dad just fine.

Turner's jovial patter quickly switched to an agonized sputter when asked whether his two sons should play football. Nolan, 13, has been playing for a while. Cole, who will turn 8 next month, started last year.

Turner doesn't let his kids (10-year-old Natalie is a cheerleader) drink sodas because he doesn't think it's good for them, yet football maintains a powerful influence in their family. Turner hinted he won't let Cole play this year because he's perhaps too young. Nolan's situation sounded more complicated.

"It's something I struggle with every day, whether to just lay the law down and say, 'No, we're not playing,'" Turner said. "Or do I let him live his life and take a chance? But, God, I can't tell you how hard a question that is, especially in Alabama. I'm still not sure that I'm going to let him."

Turner was 5 years old when his dad began coaching him. In many ways, it turned out well.

Colleges began recruiting him as a high school sophomore. Florida State coach Bobby Bowden came to their house, but Alabama won out. The Crimson Tide chose Turner for their commitment to excellence award his junior season. He was a captain his senior season. He left with a finance degree and lived a fantasy some folks would give a limb to experience.

"If they'd have told me when I was 23 years old, in the best shape of my life and just got the dream chance of my life to play in the NFL -- first week of practice in New England, I'm in awe of Andre Tippett, Irving Fryar -- but in 17 years, you're not going to be able to pull up your pants ... you could not imagine it,” Turner said.

"Most people would say, 'If there's a 10 percent chance of that happening, I'll take my chances.'"

'You know it's coming'

Chances are, Turner doesn't have long to live. One of his doctors gave him two years. That was almost a year ago.

ALS has no cure. There are no treatments to stop or reverse it. Fifty percent of ALS patients do not live three years beyond their first symptoms. Only 20 percent reach five years.

One by one, motor neurons steadily shut down. As they do, muscles wither. Although Turner's brain will remain sharp, he will lose his ability to walk, speak and swallow.

ALS eventually reaches the muscles of the chest wall and diaphragm. Suffocation and pneumonia are the most common causes of death.

"There are still times, and let me say it's not very often, in the past year where I'll sit there and become completely overwhelmed and break down and cry," Turner said. "Every now and then I'll let myself think about it. I'll see something or hear something that reminds me of the inevitable. You know it's coming."

Turner said he intends to immerse himself in his children's lives and his foundation's cause. He travels the country for speaking engagements to raise funds. Country-gospel singer Ty Herndon dedicated the title track of his Grammy-nominated album, "Journey On," to the Kevin Turner Foundation. Turner and his children appear in the poignant video.

Turner’s father, meanwhile, can't help but worry. He admitted he and his wife, Myra, feel helpless -- a disconcerting sentiment when it comes to any child, let alone an only child. Raymond is 67 years old, and he's dealing with the likelihood he'll outlive his once-vigorous son. The unavoidability hit home the day a packet arrived in the mail, detailing the process of donating his son's organs.

Turner's mom and dad are considering moving from Prattville closer to Birmingham, Ala., where their grandchildren live, about 85 miles away. Raymond wants to make sure they have a father figure nearby.

"The fact that I'm healthy lets me think I'll be around to see the kids through," Raymond said. "This is not supposed to be this way. Just things you've got to think about and don't want to think about, but you've got to be realistic."

So much has transpired in the 19 years since Turner drove that Ford Bronco from Prattville to the NFL. He made it a point to swing through Manhattan on the way, getting a slice of New York-style pizza and some cheesecake from Carnegie Deli just in case his ride didn't last very long.

The possibilities were infinite. Today, they're decidedly limited. But Turner insists he will make the most of the time he has left and maybe -- just maybe -- be the first person who beats ALS.

On Tuesday night, Turner’s father pondered how amazed he was the first time he glimpsed at his son in an Alabama uniform and saw "Kevin Turner" scroll across the bottom of his television screen on draft day.

And then, he considered how pleased he is with Turner today. The feeling doesn't pertain to football at all anymore.

"I swell up and tell him so often about how proud I am of him, most part for being a man of good character," Raymond said. "That's meant more to me than anything."

AFC East wire: Bills wary of Cam Newton?

March, 7, 2011
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Buffalo Bills
Miami Dolphins
New England Patriots
New York Jets

Farrelly brothers talk athletes as actors

February, 23, 2011
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Did you know Drew Bledsoe, not Brett Favre, was the original choice to break Cameron Diaz's heart in "There's Something About Mary"?

Prolific comedy writers Peter and Bobby Farrelly sat down with Michael Smith on the "First Take" set to discuss their affinity for using athletes in their films. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, former Patriots safety Lawyer Milloy (then with the Buffalo Bills) and Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams had walk-on roles in "Stuck on You."

They've also used Roger Clemens ("Kingpin"), Anna Kournikova ("Me, Myself & Irene") and the 2004 Boston Red Sox ("Fever Pitch").

Here's a true story that demonstrates the power of a Farrelly brothers cameo (although not the hockey shrewdness of Columbus, Ohio): While covering the NHL draft there in 2007, I was seated 12 feet away from Boston Bruins legend Cam Neely. A busboy leaned over to another co-worker and said "You see that guy over there? 'Dumb and Dumber!' Sea Bass!"

Parcells, Bledsoe and the Hall of Fame

February, 9, 2011
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I once heard Tom Donahoe, the former Buffalo Bills president and general manager, call quarterback Drew Bledsoe a future Pro Football Hall of Famer.

Then again, Donahoe used to say a lot of things.

I was reminded of this when taking a glance at players who will make their first appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot for 2012.

Buffalo News reporter Mark Gaughan, who's on the Hall of Fame selection committee and last weekend was elected president of the Pro Football Writers Association, blogged the top newcomers to consider the next few years.

[+] EnlargeBill Parcells and Drew Bledsoe
AP Photo/Ed ZurgaBill Parcells and his former quarterback Drew Bledsoe will be on the Hall of Fame ballot next year.
The lists are helpful in speculating when fan favorites such as Andre Reed and Curtis Martin will get their Canton calls. They both were finalists this year -- Reed for the fifth time, Martin for the first -- but weren't added to the 2011 induction class Saturday.

Perhaps that development was fitting for Martin because his coach with the New England Patriots and New York Jets will be on the ballot again. They could get in together in 2012.

Bill Parcells has been a finalist twice, but not since 2002 because rules for coaches changed. They now must wait five years from their last game to be eligible for induction, and Parcells returned to the sidelines with the Dallas Cowboys in 2003.

Is Parcells a Hall of Famer? I know Miami Dolphins fans aren't too thrilled with him these days, but he did add to an already remarkable legacy -- two championships, different teams to the Super Bowl, a few organizational turnarounds -- by guiding the Dolphins from 1-15 to the AFC East title as their football operations boss.

Also on the ballot next year will be Bledsoe, running backs Corey Dillon and Tiki Barber, fullback Mike Alstott, guard Will Shields and coaches Bill Cowher and Marty Schottenheimer.

Bledsoe had a fine career with the Patriots, Bills and Cowboys and ranks eighth all-time in passing yards. But he was a Pro Bowler only four times and never was first-team All-Pro. Bledsoe was helpful in getting the Patriots their first championship, so he does have a ring. But that was Tom Brady's team.

Dillon also was a four-time Pro Bowler and won a Super Bowl with the Patriots. He ranks 17th in rushing yards and never led the league in a major rushing category.

Schottenheimer played for the Bills and Patriots before winning 61 percent of his regular-season games as head coach of the Cleveland Browns, Kansas City Chiefs, Washington Redskins and San Diego Chargers. His 200 victories rank sixth all-time, but his 5-23 playoff record will hurt.

That group of first-time candidates -- plus the newcomers for 2013 -- bodes well for Reed. There won't be any new receivers for him to box out. He already has jockeyed ahead of contemporaries Cris Carter and Tim Brown by making the cut from 15 to 10 in the selection process the past two years. Carter and Brown haven't.

Gaughan highlighted first-year players for next few classes.

2013: Quarterback Vinny Testaverde, offensive linemen Larry Allen and Jonathan Ogden, defensive tackle Warren Sapp, defensive end Michael Strahan.

2014: Running back Shaun Alexander, receiver Marvin Harrison, linebacker Derrick Brooks, safety Rodney Harrison and coaches Tony Dungy, Jon Gruden and Mike Holmgren -- if they don't return to sideline work.

2015: Quarterback Kurt Warner, receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, tackles Orlando Pace and Walter Jones and linebacker Junior Seau.

Dolphins on 15th starting QB since Marino

November, 18, 2010
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Buffalo Bills fans thought they had it rough, trying to find a semblance of quarterback stability since their Hall of Fame quarterback retired in 1996.

With Tyler Thigpen about to become the Miami Dolphins' third starting quarterback of the season, it's time to dust off that long list of quarterbacks to have started since Dan Marino hung up that weird boxing-boot cleat after the 1999 season.

Thigpen will be the 15th quarterback to start a game for Miami since Marino retired.

Only twice in those 11 seasons has a quarterback started all 16 games. Those "perfect seasons" came seven years and 11 new starting quarterbacks apart. The Bills at least had Drew Bledsoe starting 48 straight games from 2002 through 2004.

This will be the fourth season in which at least three quarterbacks started for the Dolphins since Marino retired.

2000: Jay Fiedler (15), Damon Huard (one)

2001: Fiedler (16)

2002: Fielder (10), Ray Lucas (six)

2003: Fiedler (11), Brian Griese (five)

2004: A.J. Feeley (eight), Fiedler (seven), Sage Rosenfels (one)

2005: Gus Frerotte (15), Rosenfels (one)

2006: Joey Harrington (11), Daunte Culpepper (four), Cleo Lemon (one)

2007: Lemon (seven), Trent Green (five), John Beck (four)

2008: Chad Pennington (16)

2009: Chad Henne (13), Pennington (three)

2010: Henne (eight), Pennington (one)

A look back at the Bills' big breakthrough

November, 15, 2010
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Every AFC East game was significant in its way.

The New England Patriots thumped the Pittsburgh Steelers to reassert their presence.

The New York Jets found a way to win in overtime a second straight week and stay atop the division.

The Miami Dolphins lost two quarterbacks and maybe a couple other players while scrapping to stay in the playoff hunt.

Those were the big ones.

But in the AFC East's other game, the Buffalo Bills finally notched The Big One.

While the rest of the division generated national headlines, what transpired Sunday in Ralph Wilson Stadium might not have mattered to the casual sports fan in Des Moines, but it certainly was meaningful to the Bills, as I foreshadowed.

In a game that won't impact the standings in any way other than the draft order, the Bills held on to defeat the Detroit Lions 14-12.

Let's take a moment to salute the Bills for removing the adjective "winless" from their name.

Some notes from the game:
  • Buffalo has been the last team to win a game three times: 1984, 1971 and in the AFL in 1963.
  • Bills running back Fred Jackson scored both touchdowns. It was just his second multi-TD game of his career. He had one rushing and one receiving, the first Bills player to do that since Travis Henry in 20003.
  • Here’s a neat stat. For a franchise that has had a slew of great running backs, Jackson's career average of 4.66 yards a carry is third only to O.J. Simpson and Cookie Gilchrist.
  • Jackson became just the fifth Bills running back to gain at least 150 yards from scrimmage and score a rushing and receiving TD.
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick has thrown as least one touchdown pass in 10 straight games, the most since Drew Bledsoe in had 10 consecutive in 2002. He needs to throw only two more TD passes to match Trent Edwards' career total for Buffalo. Ahem.
  • Steve Johnson needs six receptions to become the 18th Bills player with a 50-catch season.
  • Quote that sums it up, from cornerback Leodis McKelvin: "Relief! We won. We're not going to be talking about being an 0-16 team or nothing like that. It feels great to get a win and get that off our chests."

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