Trading places

12-24-02, 10:40 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

In the end, Tom Donahoe gave up a first-round draft pick in 2003 for Drew Bledsoe and in his mind it has made all the difference.

"He's changed our city and he's changed our team," said Donahoe from Buffalo, where the Bills president spent Monday coping with getting knocked out of the playoffs by the Packers.

"Our owner just said the other day that this has been one of the most exciting stretches ever here," Donahoe said. "We've been in almost every game right to the end and Drew has been a big reason for that."

The Bengals find out first-hand this Sunday what might have been when they take on the elusive quarter back in a what-goes-around-comes-around season finale in Buffalo. If Bengals President Mike Brown knew Bledsoe would eventually only cost him a No. 1, would he have beaten Donahoe to the punch before last April's Draft Day trade with the Patriots?

"We'll never know," Brown said. "We were told not once, but three times through his representative and other sources that he didn't want to play here. And we had other things we had to get done once we knew that. It's very hard to deal for someone who doesn't want to be here."

Actually, Brown got to the Patriots sooner than the Bills did, back when the trading deadline opened the first week of March and he was allowed to talk to New England. He sought permission to speak to Bledsoe so the club could bring him to town, sell him on the idea of

playing in Cincinnati, and about re-working a deal that pays him about $10 million over '02 and '03.

But the Patriots denied permission, and the Bengals were also faced with trying to sign two cornerbacks and were trying to keep their leading sacker in Reinard Wilson.

The Trade, of course, looks so bad in hindsight for the Bengals because of how their own quarterback situation panned out so miserably in the opening weeks of the season. After getting stoned on Bledsoe, Trent Dilfer, and Elvis Grbac, they settled for Gus Frerotte hours before minicamp opened and head coach Dick LeBeau has admitted his ensuing training camp derby didn't go the way it was planned.

Never mind that Wilson heads to Buffalo with no sacks.

In the weeks after the deal, Brown often said the timeline didn't fit after he made his runs at Bledsoe.

"By the time they had traded for him," he said then, "we didn't have any flexibility because we had to get other things done."

The rest may be history. If Bledsoe beats Cincinnati, the Bengals finish with their worst record ever with three different starting quarterbacks, and the Bills complete a thrilling ride from last year's 3-13 to 8-8 on the wings of Bledsoe's 4,1278 passing yards.

Bledsoe has never said publicly he didn't want to play in Cincinnati, but he didn't warm to the idea when he talked to Ron Borges of "The Boston Globe," last month.

Still, he told Borges, "If they had traded me to Cincinnati, I'd be playing in Cincinnati."

Bledsoe's play has dropped off the past month, but his production in the first half of the season was so amazing that it has done nothing to dampen the move. The Bills got shut out Sunday in Green Bay, but Bledsoe got sacked six times and had a touchdown pass dropped.

"People are nitpicking at him now," Donahoe said. "You hear them say he's too slow, or he holds the ball too long. He's a pure pocket passer. That's what pocket passers do. They hold the ball. Yeah, he hasn't played great lately, but it hasn't been just him."

Word is that there were also signals being sent he didn't want to play in Buffalo, either. But Donahoe, who had traded for Jerome Bettis when he was the Steelers director of football operations, apparently didn't listen to the outside buzz.

Yet, like Brown, he also didn't want to give the Patriots what they wanted at first, which was two first-round picks. Brown reportedly made an offer, but it's unclear if the Pats ever gave Brown a set price and he was then put in the awkward position of bidding against himself. Brown was protective of the first-rounder and he recalled how he got a third-rounder for Boomer Esiason in 1993.

"We didn't know what competition was out there or who was involved," Donahoe said. "Given the the way the quarterback situation is in the league, many teams could have got involved at any point.

"We wanted the guy because we thought with our situation, as far as having to cut so much payroll and having so many young players, we thought he would make the most impact," Donahoe said. "We first talked to the Patriots back in (mid) March at the league meetings, so it took a while to get it done."

Donahoe and the Patriots both got worn down Draft Weekend. New England coach Bill Belichick knew he had problems if Bledsoe returned backing up Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady and the price was coming down. After the first day of the draft, Donahoe went to Bills owner Ralph Wilson and told him how much they needed him. So they took off the elements of a conditional draft pick and offered the Pats an unvarnished No. 1. It also helped that Buffalo accepted Bledsoe's salary without re-structuring.

Donahoe didn't hesitate giving up the No. 1.

"You figure the failure rate on No. 1 picks is 50 percent," he said. "But here you were getting a proven commodity, a guy who had been to Pro Bowls and Super Bowls. That's something I felt comfortable that it wasn't that big of a gamble. And he's still a young guy. He's only 30 and it looks like he'll be around a long time."

The irony is that the Bengals ended up going with their quarterback of last season in the fifth game of the year in Jon Kitna and he has played well. Not well enough to exorcise the ghost of Bledsoe, but what if they had kept Kitna the starting quarterback in the hours after Bledsoe went to Buffalo instead of signing Frerotte?

They most likely wouldn't be 2-13 and wouldn't their stat comparisons be interesting? Kitna's passer rating is 81.9 with 16 touchdowns and 14 interceptions and Bledsoe is at 84.9 with 23 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. But give Kitna the four games he missed, a full training camp. . . he may not have been Bledsoe, but the Bengals wonder what their record would be.

"You have to take the whole picture of a season and not just snippets," Donahoe said. "You do it like that, and Drew has been terrific for us. There are things we have to do to get better. We need to be more balanced. We're probably more tilted to the pass right now."

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