THE BELIEF If theBills can get third-year quarterback J.P. Losman playing like an All-Pro, manyof their problems will be solved. No one was handing him the job, mindyou--there'd be actual competition for the position.
THE REALITY Thecompetition was supposed to come from veteran Kelly Holcomb, who stepped inafter Losman faltered early last season. Holcomb averaged 9.7 yards percompletion, a dink-dunk number, and who can forget the hitch he completed toEric Moulds for zero yards on fourth-and-eight when Buffalo had a chance toupset New England? It's not the kind of passing offense you want when you'vegot downfield threats such as Lee Evans and Peerless Price, the latter backwith the club for a second tour.
That's whyeveryone's happy that Losman, who averaged 11.9 yards per completion, won thejob. "Did I lose faith last year?" says Losman, who got a few morestarts midway through the season. "I'd get in bad situations and not knowhow to get out of them. Now I think I know."
A deep passinggame would be a nice grace note in the Bills' operation but not its definingelement. Ever since they stopped running the K-Gun with Jim Kelly, they've beena blue-collar team--not much pizzazz but lots of tough running and defense. Newcoach Dick Jauron is a defense guy who believes in a trimmer playbook and a lotof effort.
Buffalo was atits best last year when it was controlling the ball with tireless running backWillis McGahee and letting the superior defense supply the finishing touches.And there are some fine athletes on that unit: Nate Clements and TerrenceMcGee, as good a pair of cover corners as there is in the league; free safetyTroy Vincent; Aaron Schobel, a high-energy pass rusher; an excellent and swiftlinebacking corps. "Our basic defense will be the Tampa 2," Vincentsays. "A Cover 2 zone, but the twist is the linebackers will be givenfreedom to get downfield."
But it's thespecial teams outfit that sets the tone and makes the Bills unique. McGee ledthe NFL in kickoff-return average (30.2), and little Roscoe Parrish had thehighest punt-return average (13.3 yards, though too few to qualify). PunterBrian Moorman was tied for No. 1 in gross average and second in net--in one ofthe league's worst wind tunnels. Kicker Rian Lindell was 3 for 3 from 50 andbeyond.
The coverageunits, whipped to a frenzy by their dynamic coach, Bobby April, are some of themost feared in the league, and Buffalo's overall special teams ranking, basedon the 20-category system used by most NFL coaches, was No. 1 last year."The guy who grades highest each week gets his picture on the front of theplaybook," says linebacker Mario Haggan, one of the wedge busters alongwith linebacker Josh Stamer. "Last year Josh had the most tackles. I hadthe most pictures."
Is it possiblefor a club to actually ride into the playoffs on the shoulders of a specialteams unit? Has it ever been done? "When I coached the Redskins' specialteams in 1972, our first Super Bowl year," says new Bills general managerMarv Levy, "we allowed 39 yards in punt returns--total, for the season. Weset the tone for the team. But don't forget we had guys like Sonny Jurgensenand Charley Taylor too."
Ah, yes, talent.It always seems to come back to that, doesn't it?
10 at NewEngland
17 at Miami
24 N.Y. JETS
8 at Chicago
15 at Detroit
5 GREEN BAY
19 at Houston
3 SAN DIEGO
10 at N.Y.Jets
NFL rank T23
Opponents' 2005winning percentage .477
Games againstplayoff teams 5
AN OPPOSINGTEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE BILLS
> What I likeabout the Bills is that they're good guys, and it starts with the coachingstaff. Dick Jauron, defensive line coach Bill Kollar, special teams coach BobbyApril--there's a love for the game there; they don't act as if it's all aboutthem. The challenge is to get the offense to play up to the level of thedefense and special teams.
> Their twobest players are weakside linebacker Takeo Spikes and running back WillisMcGahee. If I had to take one of them, it'd be McGahee because there's such adrop-off behind him.
> The bestthing they did in the off-season was to break up that offensive line and getrid of guys like Mike Williams and Bennie Anderson.
> For them tosucceed, J.P. Losman has to cut down on mistakes.
There aren't manybig names on the rosters, but right tackle Jason Peters could be asuperstar.
When dynamicweakside backer Takeo Spikes tore his right Achilles in the third game lastyear, his place was taken by Crowell, a 2003 third-round pick with lots ofspeed but little experience. "He became my project," Spikes says."I'd take the game tapes home and break them down, then call Angelo andwe'd go over them." Now they're both starters, Crowell moving to the strongside. "With London Fletcher in the middle," says Spikes, "we'll beone of the fastest linebacker units in the game."
COACH DICK JAURON(36-49 in NFL), first season with Buffalo
PEERLESS PRICE --NEW ACQUISITION
ROBERT ROYAL --NEW ACQUISITION
TUTAN REYES --NEW ACQUISITION
MELVIN FOWLER --NEW ACQUISITION
SACKS 2 1/2
LARRY TRIPPLETT-- NEW ACQUISITION
DONTE WHITNER (R)-- NEW ACQUISITION
Rookie (college statistics)
NFL RANK (RUSH/PASS/TOTAL)
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JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (LOSMAN)
GO THE DISTANCE Buffalo needs Losman to not try to do too much, and just get the ball to his deep targets.
HELMET PHOTO BY DAVID N. BERKWITZ