Originally created 12/31/98

Bledsoe to stay on sidelines



FOXBORO, Mass. -- The frustration was evident in Drew Bledsoe's voice. The finger he fractured nearly six weeks ago still hasn't healed enough for him to play.

"It is extremely disappointing," he said Wednesday. "You go through a year's worth of hard work and games with the goal of getting a shot in the playoffs. When you are not on the field, it's tough to deal with."

He won't be on the field Sunday when the New England Patriots try to keep their championship hopes -- and Bledsoe's hopes for playing again this season -- alive when they visit the Jacksonville Jaguars in a wild-card game.

Scott Zolak will fill in at quarterback, making his first playoff start in eight NFL seasons after starting the final two regular-season games as Bledsoe's replacement -- logging a win and a loss.

Bledsoe, the AFC's sixth-rated quarterback and a three-time Pro Bowl player, hadn't been expected to play, but Zolak was glad to find out as early as possible. Coach Pete Carroll made the announcement Wednesday.

"We kind of knew what was going to happen," Zolak said, "but, as far as the mindset of the team, they know who it (the quarterback) is and that's what we're going to rally around."

Zolak played decently in a 24-21 victory over San Francisco, his first start in three seasons, that earned the Patriots a playoff berth. Last Sunday he struggled in a 31-10 loss to the New York Jets, going 14-for-31 for 127 yards.

Now he has another chance with Bledsoe sidelined.

"I don't wish that he was hurt," Zolak said. "On the other hand, you don't want to go out on a note like last week. You want another chance to redeem yourself and prove some people wrong."

Bledsoe fractured his right index finger Nov. 23 against Miami when his hand hit defensive lineman Shane Burton on a follow-through late in the fourth quarter. He led the Patriots to last-minute victories in that game and the following week against Buffalo and directed a 23-9 victory over Pittsburgh.

But the following week, two pins put in the finger for protection shifted and were replaced during the game by a single pin intended to promote healing. He was ineffective and the Patriots lost to St. Louis 32-18.

Now, nearly three weeks later, that pin is part of the reason he can't play.

If it stays in, "there's a high likelihood" it will break if he plays, doing further damage to the finger that might require major surgery to remove the pieces, he said. If it comes out so he could play, the healing process would be set back.

But he wouldn't rule himself out of a game the following Sunday at Denver if the Patriots beat Jacksonville.

"It'll be something we'll evaluate next week and, hopefully, with the added week the finger will be healed enough," Bledsoe said.

He still feels he can help Zolak in practice this week and in the game Sunday.

"I know Scott real well and I know what he likes to throw and doesn't like to throw," Bledsoe said. "I also have taken a more active role with our receiving corps during practice, pointing out little things that I can see."

On Sunday, it will be up to Zolak to get the ball to those receivers.

"As the weeks progress, I feel more and more comfortable," he said. "I'm excited about playing in the playoff. Let's get this thing going."