Canton Cowboy

Let the quarterback controversy begin.

No, not that one. Sure, Dallas Cowboys backup Tony Romo looked decent in last Saturday's preseason opener. But c'mon, Romo wasn't built in a day. And Drew Bledsoe didn't start tiptoeing toward Canton overnight.

The only hot debate surrounding America's premier sports position this season reads like this: If Bledsoe gets the Cowboys into the Super Bowl, does he get himself into the Hall of Fame?

"I'm honestly not thinking about that," Bledsoe says of his Canton creds while adjusting his sweat-drenched blue visor after a training camp practice in Oxnard, California. "I mean, that's the greatest honor you can get in our game. But I'm not ready to start thinking about my pros and cons. I'm still out here playing, focusing on winning a championship."

Roger Staubach...Troy Aikman...Drew Bledsoe?

As blasphemous as that legendary lineage may sound to spoiled America's Team blue bloods, Bledsoe's statistics have him closer to becoming a bust in Canton than a bust in Dallas. Somehow, the quarterback with the Botox mobility has sneaked up on all of us.

Aikman was recently enshrined with numbers that pale in comparison with Bledsoe--at least in volume. The Cowboys' starting quarterback in 2006 has thrown 1,800 more passes and 900 more completions for 10,000 more yards and 80 more touchdowns than the starter in '96. Troy, of course, earned six Pro Bowl honors to Drew's four. And then there's that little thing about Super Bowl rings--Aikman won three as a starter; Bledsoe just one, as a reserve.

"I've got some numbers," Bledsoe says, "but it's time for me to win that final game of the season. That's the only thing that matters to me at this point."

Drafted No. 1 overall by New England in '93, Bledsoe led the Patriots to Super Bowl XXXI but threw four interceptions in a blowout loss to the Green Bay Packers. In '01 his injury opened the door for a backup named Tom Brady, who earned MVP of Super Bowl XXXVI while Bledsoe held a clipboard. In Buffalo, where he was unceremoniously discarded, and in Dallas, where he went 9-7 last year, he hasn't sniffed the playoffs.

"I'm going into training camp thinking this is my year," Bledsoe says. "I've had a long career, and I'm not foolish enough to think I have a lot of chances left."

While a Super Bowl in Dallas would confirm Canton, Bledsoe's numbers already make him a legit candidate. With an average Bledsoe season, he'll finish '06 fourth all-time in completions and attempts, sixth in total yards and ninth in touchdowns. The few folks ahead of him--Dan Marino, Brett Favre, John Elway--are football immortals. Fortifying Bledsoe's case, Marino and Warren Moon were welcomed to Canton with records but no rings.

"Just to be mentioned with those guys is really cool," Bledsoe says. "I grew up trying to emulate them at recess."

And now, the easy part. Win a championship as a Cowboys quarterback. Only two humans on the planet have done it, but with this year's Super-Bowl-or-bust philosophy the table is set.

Bledsoe's role? Simple. Keep his 34-year-old body upright and healthy despite playing behind an offensive line that last year gave up 50 sacks and released future Hall-of-Famer Larry Allen. And keep his psyche upright and healthy despite having to throw to a receiver who's devoured his last two quarterbacks and having to depend on a kicker who got crossways with milquetoast Peyton Manning.

Bledsoe, a morphing of old-school gunslinger who still wears eye black with New Age dad who spends downtime at camp editing home movies of his three sons on his PC, comes equipped with two traits vital in handling Mike Vanderjagt and Terrell Owens. Honesty. And humor.

"Yeah," Drew jokes in a disguised, deep voice, "I've got my eye on our new kicker."

While Vanderjagt merely prompted Manning to label him "our idiot kicker" after he questioned the cojones of the Colts quarterback, T.O. has a history of sending quarterbacks such as the 49ers' Jeff "gay" Garcia and the Eagles' Donovan "quitter" McNabb through the wood chipper. Befriending Vanderjagt was as easy as a couple rounds of golf. But deciphering Owens is as tricky as calculating the speed of dark.

Owens' fallout with McNabb, remember, started when the quarterback told the receiver to "shut the fuck up." Considering Bledsoe's tendency to bark at former receivers (he swapped steamed spittle with Keyshawn Johnson last year against, ironically, Owens' Eagles) and his promise to scold current ones ("If they need to be told, then yeah."), the relationship seems combustible.

Says Bledsoe, "I'm not concerned with getting along with T.O. in the least."

At 6-foot-5, 235 pounds and one of the league's strongest arms, Bledsoe proved last year he's physically capable. Except for the brain-fart interception in Seattle, he was better than anyone--including coach Bill Parcells--expected.

"He's in good condition," Parcells says of Bledsoe early in training camp. "Still has a strong arm. And it seems like he still enjoys playing. Put those together and I think he's a viable quarterback."

Adds owner Jerry Jones, "We've got a solid, veteran quarterback to go along with a great defense. That gives us a chance."

Throwing to Owens, Terry Glenn and Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten, Bledsoe has the potential to balance Parcells' "bus driver" shackles with his own fighter-pilot ambitions.

"If we don't turn it over, we should have a chance to win," Bledsoe says. "With our weapons we're going to make our share of big plays. We've just got to protect the ball. That starts with me."

Depending on whom you quiz, Bledsoe in the pocket is either skittish or courageous. He either stubbornly holds the ball too long or has unprecedented patience waiting for receivers to break open. The combination leads to alternating heroic throws and mind-boggling gaffes.

Says Parcells, "Once in a while he goes off the reservation."

Bledsoe has been sacked 451 times (fourth-most all-time) and hasn't been the leading passer on a 10-win team since '97. But considering the Cowboys' crappy cast-offs since Aikman retired in '00, his mediocre consistency instantly anointed him as savior.

You get the feeling Stevie Wonder will spot Waldo before the Cowboys find their next franchise quarterback. Before Bledsoe signed a three-year, $14 million contract in '05, the Cowboys trotted out embarrassments named Anthony Wright, Tony Banks, Ryan Leaf, Quincy Carter, Clint Stoerner, Chad Hutchison, Drew Henson...

With Bledsoe, the Cowboys still don't know the quarterback to lead them to Arlington. But they might know their next quarterback to wind up in Canton.

Cue the controversy.