2 Buffalo Bills Their tried-and-true strategy--choosing inexpensive youth over costly experience--will be put to the supreme test

August 27, 2000

The numbers read: 69 years of NFL experience lost at seven
positions. Bills general manager John Butler hates the word
rebuilding, but how do you get away from it? Where will the new
leaders come from? So many youngsters are going to have to step
up that you start checking the practice field for ladders.

The big three of Bruce Smith, Andre Reed and Thurman Thomas, the
last holdovers from all four of Buffalo's Super Bowl teams, are
gone, taking 42 years of experience with them. They're being
replaced by Marcellus Wiley, Peerless Price and Shawn Bryson,
respectively, who have a combined total of four years'
experience. Sheldon Jackson, a tight end/H-back type (one year),
steps in for blocking fullback Sam Gash (eight). Keith Newman
(one) replaces Gabe Northern (four) at an outside linebacker
spot; and in the secondary, cornerback Tom Smith (seven) and free
safety Kurt Schulz (eight) have given way to Antoine Winfield
(one) and Keion Carpenter (one).

Smith, Reed and Thomas were all on the downside, granted, and
heartless as it might sound, it's not good business to devote a
big chunk of salary cap to players who might have one or two
years left, at best. But how about Gash, whose vicious blocking
over the past two seasons launched the running game that has
defined the Bills' offense? And how about Smith, a solid corner,
or Schulz, the guy who called all the coverages for the defensive
backfield?

"Money," Butler says. "We just couldn't afford to keep them. You
know the way we like to structure our team." The old-fashioned
way: The Bills draft their players. Seventeen of Buffalo's 22
starters last year were homegrown draftees, tied for tops in the
NFL. The Bills are on a nine-year roll when it comes to No. 1
picks; each top choice became a valuable starter, and three
reached the Pro Bowl. The free-agent market hasn't been Buffalo's
style. The Bills didn't sign anyone this year or last. In fact,
there's no one on the Buffalo roster who played for another NFL
team last year. Yet the Bills have been in the playoffs for four
of the last five seasons.

Yes, indeed, Buffalo likes to draft players, coach them up to
playing standards and then try to keep them signed, if possible.
Given the Bills' success, it's hard to argue, but isn't it a bit
much to ask a bunch of youngsters to all move into major roles at
once? "People don't really know how good some of these guys are,"
says coach Wade Phillips, whose defense quietly led the league
last year (252.8 yards allowed per game). "Price and Eric Moulds
are two receivers who'll really be able to stretch the field,
Wiley is ready to be one of the fine defensive ends in the
league, Winfield is a talented young player. O.K., our free
safety's green, but [strong safety] Henry Jones will be making
some of the calls.

"No one ever heard of our inside linebacker, Sam Cowart, last
year, but believe me, he's arrived. Pat Williams, who backs up
Ted Washington at nosetackle, is another unknown talent. There'll
be situations when both of them will be on the field at the same
time. As for the other new guys, well, they'll just have to...."
We know, step up.

The biggest change, though, actually took place at the end of
last year. With a wild-card berth in hand, quarterback Doug
Flutie, who had a Pro Bowl 1998 season in which he thrilled the
fans with a highlight film's worth of magical moments, took a
seat for the final regular-season game against the Colts, who had
already wrapped up the AFC East title. Rob Johnson got the start
and had a career day, throwing for 287 yards and two touchdowns.
The next day Phillips announced that Johnson would start against
the Titans in the playoffs.

Flutie--and everyone else--was stunned. But Johnson, chased and
sacked and hammered for most of the afternoon, did lead the Bills
on a final field goal drive that put them ahead 16-15 with 41
seconds to play. Then came Tennessee's miracle kickoff return for
a touchdown. This year Johnson came to camp as the No. 1, which
was reinforced when Flutie tore a groin muscle in late July; he's
expected to be sidelined until late September. "We'll go deeper
with Rob," Phillips says, "basically because he's got the ideal
touch on his downfield passes. His reads will be deep to short.
Plus, he's mobile. He can run."

Mobile, but not elusive in the Flutie style, as was evident in
the Bills' Aug. 12 exhibition game against Detroit. Johnson
scrambled when he had to, but the speedy Lions defenders ran him
down. He's a nice thrower when he's comfortable in the pocket,
but he can't turn hopeless situations into first downs, as Flutie
can.

Flutie's knack of bleeding first downs out of nothing turned him
into a leader, and after a while the fans got used to it. What's
going to happen the first time Johnson fails to elude a sack and
hears the booing?

"I know the fans loved Doug," Johnson says. "I'm not nervous
about it, but it does make things a little tougher."

--P.Z.

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER TOP BILLING Jones is one of the key returnees on a defensive unit that was ranked first in the NFL last season. COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON

SCHEDULE

Sept. 3 TENNESSEE
10 GREEN BAY
17 at N.Y. Jets
24 Open date

Oct. 1 INDIANAPOLIS
8 at Miami
15 SAN DIEGO
22 at Minnesota
29 N.Y. JETS

Nov. 5 at New England
12 CHICAGO
19 at Kansas City
26 at Tampa Bay

Dec. 3 MIAMI
11 at Indianapolis (Mon.)
17 NEW ENGLAND
23 at Seattle (Sat.)

[BOX]

FAST FACTS

1999 Record 11-5 (2nd in AFC East)

NFL rank (rush/pass/total): offense 8/19(tie)/11; defense 4/1/1

2000 Schedule strength
NFL rank: 1
Opponents' 1999 winning percentage: .586
Games against playoff teams: 8

PLAYER TO WATCH

He has spent three years as a situational rusher, coming in on
passing downs. He has started four NFL games. Now all Marcellus
Wiley has to do is step in for the second-leading sacker of all
time, Bruce Smith. "He has a chance to reach double-figure
sacks, mainly because he's so relentless," coach Wade Phillips
says of Wiley. The 25-year-old Wiley, who has a sociology degree
from Columbia, takes an analytical approach to the game. "The
3-4 is less of an attacking scheme," he says. "You play run
first, then the pass, but that's where reading your keys comes
in. Sometimes you have to get through your read in a hurry and
go for the passer, even though it's not a passing down. That'll
put you on the road to double-figure sacks."

PROJECTED LINEUP WITH 1999 STATISTICS

Coach: Wade Phillips
Third season with Bills (38-30 in NFL)

Offensive Backs PVR*

QB Rob Johnson 93 34 att. 25 comp. 73.5% 298 yds.
2 TDs 0 int. 119.5 rtg.

RB Antowain Smith 95 165 att. 614 yds. 3.7 avg. 2 rec.
32 yds. 16.0 avg. 6 TDs

RB Jonathan Linton 107 205 att. 695 yds. 3.4 avg. 29 rec.
228 yds. 7.9 avg. 6 TDs

RB Sheldon Jackson 328 0 att. 0 yds. no avg. 4 rec.
34 yds. 8.5 avg. 0 TDs

Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen

[PVR*]

WR Eric Moulds 75 65 rec. 994 yds. 7 TDs
WR Peerless Price 148 31 rec. 393 yds. 3 TDs
WR Jeremy McDaniel 202 0 rec. 0 yds. 0 TDs
TE Jay Riemersma 199 37 rec. 496 yds. 4 TDs
K Steve Christie 222 33/33 XPs 25/34 FGs 108 pts.
PR Avion Black (R)[1]257 8 ret. 13.1 avg. 0 TDs
KR Avion Black (R)[1]257 23 ret. 34.2 avg. 3 TDs

LT John Fina 6'5" 300 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Ruben Brown 6'3" 304 lbs. 14 games 14 starts
C Jerry Ostroski 6'3" 327 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
RG Joe Panos[*] 6'3" 300 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Robert Hicks 6'7" 330 lbs. 14 games 14 starts

Defense

LE Phil Hansen 55 tackles 6 sacks
NT Ted Washington 45 tackles 2 1/2 sacks
RE Marcellus Wiley 25 tackles 5 sacks
OLB Keith Newman 2 tackles 0 sacks
ILB John Holecek 62 tackles 1 sack
ILB Sam Cowart 123 tackles 1 sack
OLB Sam Rogers 68 tackles 3 sacks
CB Antoine Winfield 63 tackles 2 int.
SS Henry Jones 75 tackles 0 int.
FS Keion Carpenter 4 tackles 0 int.
CB Ken Irvin 45 tackles 1 int.
P Chris Mohr 73 punts 38.9 avg.

[1] New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 139)
[*]1998 statistics

THE BOOK an opposing team's scout sizes up the Bills

"The first thing you have to ask is what is the mind-set of the
Bills after getting rid of four players who'd had highly
productive careers--Bruce Smith, Andre Reed, Thurman Thomas and
Sam Gash--and benching another, Doug Flutie. If this were a
veteran team, you'd have to be concerned about losing those guys,
but only one of the offensive starters is over 30, and on defense
you've got just three, all 32.... The Bills are on a mission,
after they came so close to the second round of the playoffs last
year, but they have a big weakness: They're strapped for cash,
and they did absolutely zero in free agency.... I like their
defense to repeat as No. 1 in the league, particularly if they
bite the bullet and start Pat Williams over Ted Washington on the
nose. Williams was twice as productive last year. What they might
lack in the pass rush, with Marcellus Wiley moving in for Bruce
Smith, they'll make up for in defense against the run.... The
biggest concern is the secondary. They're thin back there, and
they'll miss Kurt Schulz's smarts at free safety."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)