Every Thanksgiving, it happens -- the season really takes off. Every game is magnified. Jim Fassel makes a guarantee. The coaching hot seats start flaming a little bigger. Oh, and we have the traditional quarterback controversies in peak season.
There's Drew Bledsoe and Tom Brady. Elvis Grbac and Randall Cunningham. Doug Flutie and Drew Brees. Jay Fiedler and Ray Lucas. Peyton Manning and Mark Rypien ... just seeing if you were paying attention. There are others, but let's just look at four for now:
Patriots -- Brady vs. Bledsoe
|Drew Bledsoe may never start another game for the New England Patriots.|
You can't say it any better than Ron Borges of the Boston Globe: "Bill Belichick walked the plank this week. Now Tom Brady will decide if he goes off the end of it or not."
Belichick has done one of the best coaching jobs in the NFL this year. It's one of the best jobs because the Patriots are 5-3 with Brady at quarterback after starting 0-2 with Bledsoe, who suffered a brutal internal injury that sidelined him until last week. Only now, Belichick has sidelined Bledsoe, possibly for good.
By all accounts, Belichick either lied, misled or miscommunicated his intentions to Bledsoe. The veteran QB believes he was told that when he came back from his lung injury he would have a fair opportunity to compete for his (former) job. Bledsoe came back last week, and health was not an issue because he was listed as the Pats' No. 2 quarterback against the Rams. If you're healthy enough to be the backup, you're healthy enough to play.
Belichick must have calculated that such logic would not escape fans or the media. He went on the offensive this week by first telling the quarterbacks that Brady was the starter for the rest of the 2001 season, and then he shared his decision publicly via his radio show. Bledsoe was and is furious, according to several sources.
Now understand something about Belichick. He is not a coach with good people skills. That's why the New York Giants never saw him as a successor to Bill Parcells. Or, let me steal again from Borges, who described Belichick as "personality-challenged."
Belichick is basically running Bledsoe off. This is a sure setup for a postseason trade unless Brady falls flat on his face.
Yet for Belichick, his treatment of this situation is not out of character. Call it courage, call it balls or call it arrogance. He is not afraid of the consequences.
Remember Bernie Kosar? The most beloved quarterback of the Cleveland Browns was run out of town by Belichick.
The parallels are slightly different. Bledsoe is not as wildly popular in New England as Kosar was in Cleveland. But Kosar was physically down-sliding fast and in no way possessed the skills that Bledsoe has to this day.
Brady looks like the real deal. Most everyone who scouts or plays the Pats say he processes the game like a seasoned pro. He makes good decisions. He's accurate. He's cool. We now assume that Belichick agrees with all those assessments. We also now assume that Belichick does not see Bledsoe as having some of those Brady traits we described. I'm wondering -- which is it? Decisions? Accuracy? Poise?
If Belichick really believes Bledsoe is lacking in one or more of those areas -- he must, otherwise Brady would be back on the bench -- then how could he have given his stamp of approval on a $103 million contract that owner Bob Kraft awarded the quarterback in the offseason?
Bledsoe still has a big-time arm, considerably stronger than Brady's and most QBs around the NFL. He has stood tall in the midst of a shrinking offense that lacked a cohesive line or a bona-fide running back and no home-run threat at receiver with Terry Glenn. When Bledsoe has those elements, he has shown he can take a team to the Super Bowl. He's also a former first pick of the draft and a high character guy.
Belichick clearly has a comfort zone with Brady. He believes he can win with the former Michigan quarterback because he is winning with him now. What happens Sunday if the Patriots lose to the Saints? Based on Belichick's prognosis this week, it doesn't matter.
Likely ending: Bledsoe is traded shortly after the season before one of the options kick in on his contract.
Ravens -- Grbac vs. Cunningham
Grbac has accounted for 17 of the Ravens' 25 turnovers. That's amazing. That will get you fired as an NFL quarterback.
However, coach Brian Billick chose not to walk that plank in Baltimore. The day after Grbac's four-interception performance in a 27-17 defeat to Cleveland, Billick gathered his team together for a little talk.
As only Billick can do, he started off by saying something like, "Here's why Elvis is going to be our starting quarterback, and not Randall Cunningham. He can make more plays than Randall. We pay Elvis more money than Randall for a reason."
Then, in a stone silent room, Billick turned Grbac's way and said, "Now Elvis, you cannot do what you did yesterday."
Grbac must consider reading Trent Dilfer's manual or diary from a year ago. Then again, Dilfer might not have been in the same predicament as Grbac because the supporting cast is so different, the defense is not as dominating, and injuries mount each week.
What is the same is that the Ravens are 6-4 after 10 games, just as they were a year ago.
Likely ending: Grbac has six games to prove he belongs. Otherwise, the Ravens will terminate him after the season to avoid exercising a three-year option.
Chargers -- Flutie vs. Brees
Chargers coach Mike Riley was as forceful as he can be this week: Flutie is the man. Well, Flutie needs to play like the man. If he doesn't light up the Arizona Cardinals this week, then it's open to discussion again.
Flutie has performed miserably in three consecutive defeats. He's completed just 40.5 percent of his passes for 324 yards, two touchdowns and six interceptions -- a QB rating of 29.9. Now, you could just shrug it off as a slump except for two reasons -- one, all three games were inside the AFC West; and two, Flutie's detractors in Buffalo and elsewhere around the league say he wears down around mid-to-late season.
It doesn't mean Flutie is a flunky. His story is still amazing. He has still brought leadership and dignity to a position that has been degraded by the Ryan Leaf saga. He helped turn a 1-15 team into a .500 team (5-5). And while he clearly is not as nimble as he once was (a 2.0-yard average per rush), he also has been sacked just 14 times in 10 games.
However, Brees might be much closer to being ready than even his supporters believed. The Chargers think he is a natural and that his four seasons as a starter at Purdue have him well prepared for success. When Flutie suffered a concussion against the Chiefs, Brees stepped in and completed 15 of 27 passes for 221 yards, one TD and no picks. He almost rallied the Chargers from 19 points down.
Likely ending: Riley is not about to rock the boat with general manager John Butler by benching Flutie. But at the end of the season, look for Riley to be fired, Norv Turner to be promoted and Brees to open the 2002 season at quarterback.
Dolphins -- Fiedler vs. Lucas
True, Fiedler is 17-8 as a starter. True, coach Dave Wannstedt gave him a public vote of confidence.
Fiedler knows different. Privately, Wannstedt has told him that the 18 turnovers Fiedler has made are unacceptable.
Likely ending: Fiedler is a smart guy, and he'll probably be a little more careful with the ball. But he was a smart guy during the first 18 turnovers, too. His problem is the Dolphins' running game is so stagnant that it's putting a little too much pressure on the QB. Lucas will get a shot to play at some point.