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 Tuesday, September 7
Bills a very well-armed group
By Chuck Pollock
Pro Football Weekly

 Don't let the Bills fool you.

Antowain Smith
Antowain Smith
Last year: 10-6, third place in AFC East.
Key returnees:: QB Doug Flutie (202-for-354, 2,711 yards, 20 TDs, 11 INTs); WR Eric Moulds (67 rec., 1,368 yards, 9 TDs); RB Antowain Smith (300 carries, 1,124 yards); DE Bruce Smith (10 sacks)
New faces: CB Antoine Winfield (first round), WR Peerless Price (second round)
New places: LB Chris Spielman (Browns, then retired), TE Lonnie Johnson (Chiefs)
Watch out: Smith should get better after a year learning to run in the two-back offense.
Better than '98: Bills continue to improve kick coverage, which was worst in league in '97.
Worse than '98: Teams will have a better idea how to defend elusive Flutie.
-- Scripps Howard News Service

If they had so much confidence in Doug Flutie, they wouldn't have traded for Rob Johnson three weeks later.

Regardless of their true feelings on the subject, the team that went from eight playoff appearances in nine seasons to a 6-10 disaster after Jim Kelly retired suddenly is QB-rich with Flutie and Johnson.

Head coach Wade Phillips doesn't have a QB dilemma; he has one of those problems coaches love: too many good players at one position.

The quarterback situation aside, the Bills feel they have positioned themselves for a strong playoff run.

Buffalo, historically selective in the free-agent market, did virtually nothing this year, in part because of the salary-cap restraints created by the multimillion-dollar salaries of those two quarterbacks.

The main departure was a courtesy, as the Bills allowed ILB Chris Spielman, who sat out the '98 season to be with his wife as she suffered through and recovered from breast cancer, to sign with the expansion Browns in his home state. Speilman reinjured his neck during the preseason and opted for retirement.

In addition, Buffalo's patience ran out with TE Lonnie Johnson, who signed with Kansas City.

Here's a position-by-position look at Buffalo's roster:

Flutie, who will turn 37 in October, was 1998's Comeback Player of the Year. He was 7-3 as a starter (not counting the game in which he relieved an injured Johnson in the first series during a victory at Indianapolis) and led Buffalo to the playoffs after the team got off to an 0-3 start. Yet, despite that performance, Phillips hasn't officially named a starter, calling Flutie and Johnson "co-number ones."

Johnson won his last two full games -- beating San Francisco and New Orleans -- and would have been 5-1 as a starter had Steve Christie not missed a last-second, 39-yard field goal in San Diego, and the defense not blown an 18-point, third-quarter lead against the Rams. Grade: B+

Running backs
Antowain Smith rushed for 1,124 yards and eight TDs in his first year as a starter, but the Bills were so underwhelmed they threw themselves into the fray for Lawrence Phillips, who ended up signing with the 49ers.

Thurman Thomas, 33, has become the perfect third-down specialist, while FB Sam Gash made the Pro Bowl for his blocking and deserved it for his leadership. Second-year pro Jonathan Linton has ability, but he's a fumble waiting to happen. Grade: B

The real question in Buffalo is whether Doug Flutie will be able to recreate the magic he had in 1998. Rob Johnson actually throws very well -- he throws better than Flutie -- but he got sacked so often that it's clear he needs to learn to get rid of the ball.

Flutie will have a more difficult task in 1999, because teams have had a little more time to figure him out, and defenses will be able to put together a better game plan against him. If the Bills get off a slow start, Wade Phillips won't hesitate to go with Johnson. The Bills have two solid quarterbacks, but they need to find the guy who will give them the best chance to compete for the playoffs.

This is another solid team, and I like them. The Bills aren't a great team, but they have a nice defense and some talent on offense. With a break one way or the other, they could be challenging the Jets and Dolphins for the AFC East title.

After two disappointing seasons, former first-round draft choice Eric Moulds joined the NFL elite last season. He made the Pro Bowl, caught 67 balls for a team-record 1,368 receiving yards and set an NFL playoff mark with 240 receiving yards in a loss at Miami.

Andre Reed, at 35, remains a threat. With an average season (52 catches), he would move into second place on the NFL's career receptions list. Second-round draft choice Peerless Price looms as Reed's successor and a deep complement to Moulds. Price also frees up No. 4 receiver Kevin Williams for kick-return chores. Jay Riemersma, with six TD catches in '98, tied the team record for scoring receptions by a tight end. Grade: B

Offensive linemen
Former ORT Jerry Ostroski replaces Dusty Zeigler at center, with Robert Hicks stepping in at right tackle.

OLT John Fina, three-time Pro Bowl OLG Ruben Brown and ORG Joe Panos return, with Zeigler (who can also play guard) and Jamie Nails in reserve. Grade: C+

Defensive linemen
DE Bruce Smith, at age 36, is still a gifted pass rusher. He ranks second on the NFL's all-time sack list. NT Ted Washington, a two-time Pro Bowler, is a pocket crusher. DE Phil Hansen's talent is overshadowed by his linemates, but he is a very effective player in his own right.

DEs Marcellus Wiley and Shawn Price and DTs Pat Williams and Sean Moran are good role players. Grade: A

The play of rookie ILB Sam Cowart last season led the Bills to change from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 scheme. Cowart got help inside from John Holecek, who had a breakout year.

Steady Sam Rogers starts at the strong-side OLB spot, with Gabe Northern on the weak side. The backups are Dan Brandenburg outside and Joe Cummings and Marlo Perry inside. Grade: C

Defensive backs
Underappreciated CB Thomas Smith starts on one side, and Ken Irvin is being pressed by first-round draft choice Antoine Winfield on the other.

SS Henry Jones is among the AFC's better players at his position. FS Kurt Schulz is a hitter. Eric Smedley and Manny Martin are the reserve safeties, and Donovan Greer will serve as the fourth corner. Grade: B

Special teams
Steve Christie is one of the league's more accurate placekickers, but his kickoffs aren't long. Punter Chris Mohr is a hang-time specialist.

Kevin Williams' returns could improve now that he has been freed from his third-receiver responsibilities. The coverage teams lost leadership and a gifted tackler with the retirement of Mark Pike. Grade: B

Material from Pro Football Weekly.
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