New England gave Drew Bledsoe the largest contract in NFL history and the chance to play his entire career with the Patriots. The Dallas Cowboys didn't afford Troy Aikman the same opportunity.
Bledsoe agreed to a 10-year, $103 million deal that surpasses the reported 10-year, $100 million contract signed by Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre last Friday. It also gives Bledsoe a chance to do something Favre and most other athletes never could: stay with one team for their careers.
The Cowboys, convinced Aikman is not healthy enough to be their starter, released the quarterback after 12 seasons, 10 concussions and three Super Bowls.
In other news, the Cowboys signed linebacker Dexter Coakley to a $25 million, six-year deal; free agent kicker Joe Nedney agreed to contract terms with the Tennessee Titans, and restricted free agent offensive lineman Waverly Jackson agreed to a three-year, $1.5 million contract with the Indianapolis Colts.
Bledsoe and the Patriots had been talking about a deal for almost a year. But the talks accelerated when New England decided the deal had to get signed soon if the Patriots were to take advantage of the salary cap savings in this year's free agent market.
''I've expressed over and over again my desire to play my entire career with the New England Patriots,'' Bledsoe said. ''It looks like that is a very real possibility.''
Bledsoe was one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL early in his career. In his second season in 1994, he threw an NFL-record 691 passes. He completed 400 for 4,555 yards. In 1995, he was the youngest quarterback to reach 10,000 yards.
He signed a seven-year, $42 million contract in 1995 and led the Patriots to the 1997 Super Bowl.
Last season he threw for 3,291 yards with 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. In his career, he has thrown for 29,257 yards and 164 touchdowns, with 136 interceptions and a completion percentage of 56.2 percent.
Bledsoe's deal, which runs through the 2010 season, saves only about $1.5 million under this year's cap. But, unlike some other high-profile signings, the money is spread relatively evenly over the contract -- without a balloon payment that could require another restructuring in a few years.
In Dallas, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had to make a decision whether or not to keep Aikman by Thursday or pay the quarterback a $7 million bonus and extend his contract through 2007. He will still take up $10 million of Dallas' $67.4 million salary cap this season.
''He'll be missed on the field at Texas Stadium. He'll always be a Dallas Cowboy and always be a very important part of this organization,'' Jones said.
''We always shared a mutual respect for what was in the best interest of Troy and the Dallas Cowboys. In the end, it was in the best interest for him to have a timely opportunity to entertain all of his options.''
Aikman, a six-time Pro Bowler, had no problem with the decision.
''As far as what's in the best interest of this club long-term, the right thing was done,'' he said.
Aikman, Emmitt Smith and receiver Michael Irvin propelled Dallas to the top of the NFL three seasons after it was on the bottom. The Cowboys won an unprecedented three Super Bowls in four years, including consecutive titles in 1992-93.
Aikman became one of the best quarterbacks in playoff history. He won his first seven starts and 10 of 11, finishing with a career postseason record of 11-4.
Aikman was the MVP of his first Super Bowl, a 52-17 victory over Buffalo. He later joined Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks with at least three Super Bowl victories.
Aikman's numbers are impressive: 2,898-of-4,715 (61.5 percent) for 32,942 yards, 165 touchdowns and 141 interceptions. He was 320-of-502 (63.7 percent) for 3,849 yards, 23 TDs and 17 INTs.
In Indianapolis, the Colts decided to match an offer Jackson received last week from the Cleveland Browns.
Indianapolis had seven days to match the offer. Had the Colts not agreed to match, they would have lost their only experienced backup offensive lineman without compensation.
The 28-year-old Jackson joined the Colts in 1998 . He played in all 16 games last season as a reserve offensive tackle after starting every game for the Colts in 1999 at right guard.
Tennessee signed the 28-year-old Nedney to take the place of longtime Titans kicker Al Del Greco, who was released last week.
Nedney, a five-year NFL veteran, made 34-of-38 field goal attempts for Denver and Carolina last season. His 34 field goals ranked second in the NFL.
''We feel like Joe is entering the prime of his career,'' said Titans general manager Floyd Reese, who did not release terms of the contract.
Dallas' decision to bring back Coakley, who received a $5.5 million signing bonus, ended an exodus that included popular, solid players such as Jack Del Rio, Ken Norton Jr., Dixon Edwards, Robert Jones, Godfrey Myles, Darrin Smith and Randall Godfrey. Since free agency began in 1989, Dallas has lost 13 linebackers, its most at any position.
Coakley was a third-round pick in 1997 who became a starter on the weak side as a rookie and made the Pro Bowl in 1999.
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