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Bishop backup plan may backfire

by Michael Gee

The Boston Herald - Tuesday, August 4, 2000


(Here is the reason why sportwriters are not coaches)

Sometime late in the first quarter or early in the second tonight in Detroit, Michael Bishop will come to the line of scrimmage, survey the Lions' defense, and drop back for his first pass of the game for the Patriots.

With any luck, he'll throw a horrendous interception.

Nothing against Bishop, mind you. We wish him well as he undergoes his personal preseason challenge: attempting to earn a promotion from third-string NFL quarterback to second-string.

But it would be best for all concerned, especially Pats coach Bill Belichick, if Bishop plays well. But not too well. A missed receiver here, a blown play there, Bishop should make just enough mistakes to keep from becoming a preseason issue.

Unfortunately, that's not likely to happen. Through no fault of his own, Bishop is one of those backup QBs who seems destined to always be an issue, a hope for tomorrow, an inspiration to every deranged fan who ever drew up plays on the back of a cocktail napkin.

That's why I can't believe Bishop isn't already some other team's issue at a training camp hundreds of miles from Smithfield, R.I. By giving the second-year man every opportunity to become Drew Bledsoe's backup, Belichick is showing more guts than discretion. The coach isn't playing with fire, he's kicking at a near-critical pile of plutonium.

The iron laws of quarterback selection go as follows: If your No. 2 is good enough to be a No. 1, either give him the job or get rid of him. If your No. 2 isn't good enough to be a No. 1, but many fans think he is, don't hesitate. Get rid of the guy. Get rid of him yesterday.

Bishop is one of those latter cases. He's an agile, running QB. Fans love those, and Patriots fans (who are more QBcentric than any others) love them more than most. Running quarterbacks make the spectacular plays crowds adore. Few fans notice how often running QBs become QBs with a permanent limp.

Every time Bishop does something right in the preseason, a certain subset of the Pats' faithful dream of a future MVP. Every time Bledsoe does something wrong, that subset will shout that Bishop should get a chance. People wanted Bishop to play last December when he couldn't beat out John Friesz as No. 2.

This is a formula for disaster, and Belichick is surely smart enough to know it. Coaches, however, like generals, tend to fight the last war. In Belichick's last war, the Jets' Super Bowl hopes went down the drain in 1999's first game when Vinny Testaverde got hurt and the club had no adequate backup in place. The coach is determined not to repeat that debacle.

That's not illogical. With a rebuilding offensive line and a QB as mobile as Drew Maytag, er, Bledsoe, Belichick is merely being prudent to give his potential No. 2 man as much preseason work as possible.

Making Bishop the man who gets that work is far from prudent. For every team that's fallen apart for lack of a sound backup quarterback, two dozen have been ripped apart in controversies over who should be the starter at the game's most important position.

There's only one real issue about the 2000 New England Patriots, and his name is Drew Bledsoe. If the starting quarterback shows the form he did in the first half of last season, the Pats will be a playoff team no matter what else happens. If Bledsoe reverts to his performance in 1999's second half, the Pats will be big losers no matter what.

Every single decision the Patriots make should be pointed toward helping Bledsoe regain All-Pro form. Letting some fan darling who's about two seasons away from an NFL start be Bledsoe's backup doesn't seem helpful.

Kurt Warner notwithstanding, the ideal backup QB is still a shopworn vet.

There's nothing wrong with Michael Bishop. It's not his fault he's one of those naturally appealing athletes. It's strictly business that if Bishop were on my team, he wouldn't be on it for long.

By choosing otherwise, Belichick has elected to ride a tiger. Ever notice how few retirement ceremonies there are for tiger jockeys?

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