2003 NFL Preview

Rolling the dice

Bills head coach hopes big season brings big payday

Posted: Tuesday July 29, 2003 9:21 PM

  Don Banks

This is the fourth in a series of postcards's Don Banks will e-mail from his annual NFL training camp tour.

Tuesday, July 29

Team: Buffalo Bills

At St. John Fisher College in quaint, pretty-as-a-picture Pittsford, N.Y., a suburb of Rochester. Not only is all of Pittsford abuzz over playing host to the Bills for the fourth consecutive year, but in another couple weeks, the 85th PGA Championship will be played here at Oak Hill Country Club, which is just around the corner from the Bills' camp. Why, CBS talking head Jim Nantz himself was in town on Monday taping promos for the tournament. Needless to say this is a great time to be a Pittsfordian.

1. There's not a whole lot of urgency driving the Willis McGahee negotiations these days. The University of Miami running back remains the Bills' only unsigned draft pick, but I don't see Buffalo giving in to their first-rounder any time soon.

After all, no matter what McGahee's ever-industrious agent Drew Rosenhaus says, the likelihood all along has been that McGahee will "redshirt" this season, giving his knee the time it needs to fully heal. And with Travis Henry and Olandis Gary in camp, it's not like the Bills are hurting for bodies at running back. That doesn't even include Ken Simonton, the offensive MVP of NFL Europe for the Scottish Claymores this summer.

If the Bills were to sign McGahee today, they'd have to cut someone to make room on their roster for him. That would mean releasing a player who is practicing in order to add a player who likely wouldn't be practicing yet. See what I mean about a lack of urgency?

2. Speaking of Gary, it's hard to say just where he fits in Buffalo's long-term plans. He's running with the second team behind Henry, but with McGahee on the horizon, there doesn't appear to be much of a future for him in upstate New York.

Since logging that out-of-nowhere 1,159-yard rushing season as a Denver rookie in 1999, Gary has gained 455 yards in three years. He lost almost the entire 2000 season after blowing out his knee in the season opener, saw Mike Anderson explode as the Broncos' No. 1 back in 2001 and played behind rookie Clinton Portis and Anderson last year in Denver.

Gary signed with Buffalo in free agency in April, knowing that Henry was the Bills' main man in the backfield. Within a week, the Bills drafted McGahee, further crowding the depth chart. The Bills say when they signed Gary, giving them an experienced backup runner, it allowed them the luxury to select McGahee for the future. If Gary has learned anything so far in his five-year NFL career, it's that things can change in a hurry.

3. Here's a stunning statistic to chew on: First-year Bills assistant head coach Dick LeBeau is in the midst of his 45th consecutive NFL training camp, as either a player or coach. LeBeau, who'll be 66 in September, is one of the most respected and well-liked guys in the league, and the NFL last went to camp without him in 1958, which happened to be his senior year at Ohio State.

LeBeau starred at cornerback for Detroit for 14 seasons (1959-72) and went directly into coaching. This is his 31st season as an NFL coach, with stops in Philadelphia, Green Bay, two tours in Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh. The past three years, of course, LeBeau served as the Bengals head coach. LeBeau had another year remaining on his Cincinnati contract, meaning he could have taken it easy this year and still gotten paid. What, and break his streak? And besides, what else is there to do in the heat of summer besides coach football?

Forty-five years in a row. Folks, that's George Halas' and Bucko Kilroy's neighborhood. Impressive. Most impressive.

4. Some unsolicited advice for Bills fans: Don't fret about whether Josh Reed can replace the departed Peerless Price. Reed looks ready to roll in Buffalo's No. 2 role, the one that Price vacated when he left for Atlanta. And let's face it, I could probably line up opposite the all-world receiver Eric Moulds and get something done. Hey, I said "probably."

Reed doesn't have to catch 100 balls to be a success. It's his toughness, his ability to work in traffic and his consistency that Buffalo craves. He proved he had all of those attributes last season as a rookie. All he has to do now is keep developing them.

5. Put the St. Louis Rams hierarchy on truth serum and I'm guessing they'd admit that letting middle linebacker London Fletcher get away in free agency last year wasn't their best work. Jamie Duncan was no London Fletcher, was he? Here's a hunch that with twin tower defensive tackles Sam Adams and Pat Williams eating up space and blockers up front, Fletcher and weakside linebacker Takeo Spikes are going to have big years as tackling machines in the heart of Buffalo's improved defense.

6. That was a very nice thing that the Bills did in their new media guide, devoting the entire first page to the memory of John Butler, the team's former general manager who died in April after a bout with lung cancer. Butler spent the past two years as San Diego's general manager, and as many within the league knew, did not leave Buffalo on the best of terms with Bills owner Ralph Wilson.

But Butler, 56, worked 14 years for the Bills, the last eight as the team's GM and executive vice president. One of the game's most astute judges of talent, he was an integral part of Buffalo's glory era and those four consecutive Super Bowl trips.

Even better, a Buffalo source told me Tuesday that Wilson called Butler the day before he died, and the two thankfully made their peace. Both the Bills and Wilson deserve credit where credit is due.

Coy Wire. First off, it's a great, football-sounding name. But much more important, this kid can play. Buffalo's third-round pick last year, Wire started 15 games at strong safety in 2002, after having spent two years each as a running back and linebacker at Stanford. Already a ferocious hitter, this season Wire will be much more instinctive in the secondary, without having to think about his every move.

Then again, thinking is one of Wire's strong suits. He studied philosophy and religion at Stanford, and is known for his strong bent toward the spiritual side of life. Part Japanese, Wire said he has long had an affinity for Eastern culture.

"I always felt the spirit was strong in me, and I always try to stay in tune with the god within," Wire said, in something that would not qualify as standard football-ese. "Some guys call me spiritual, but I don't really want to label it. It's just me. Religion and philosophy has definitely helped mold me into the person I am."

To repeat, the person he is is a hitter on the football field. Many expect Wire to develop into a force at strong safety in the John Lynch, Rodney Harrison mode. Even though he's mild-mannered off the field.

"When I step on the field, something comes over me," he said. "I'm a totally different person and my demeanor changes, my attitude changes. I can't really explain it. The best thing I can say is that this is what I was meant to do."

Two years running, Buffalo's defense has struggled mightily to create turnovers. The Bills' 19 takeaways last year were the fewest in NFL (10 interceptions, nine fumble recoveries). In 2001, the Bills again had just 19 takeaways (11 interceptions, eight fumbles) and were ranked at the bottom of the league. That just won't cut it, and that's why Buffalo went shopping for defensive playmakers this offseason. Rest assured changing that turnover trend is Job One in Buffalo this season.

The Bills' new offensive line coach is Pat Ruel, late of Green Bay and Detroit. He has hands down the best given name in the NFL: Golden Pat Ruel. Get it? Golden Ruel. For the record, Golden was his grandfather's name.

"The Golden Rule says to do unto others as you would have them to do unto you," Ruel said Tuesday. "But in football, it's do unto others before they do unto you."

I applaud the gamble that Gregg Williams is taking on himself and his football team this year. The Bills head coach is entering the third and final year of his contract, and as every NFL fan knows, it's rare that coaches are placed in that awkward position. Contract extensions generally are granted before a contract shows just one year remaining.

Trust us on this one, Williams could have had a contract extension in Buffalo if he wanted one. But it would have been at terms that reflected his 11-21 record in his first two seasons in Buffalo -- and fairly so from the organization's standpoint -- rather than the more lucrative package that he'll be in line for if his Bills win as much as they expect to this season.

Williams is rolling the dice, but I think it's a very shrewd and calculated risk. If the Bills win nine or 10 games and make the playoffs in the rugged AFC East, he'll be sitting in the proverbial catbird seat in contract negotiations. In a new deal, he'll be able to command a salary considerably richer than the one he would have received in any extension offer.

Simply put, if Williams had signed an extension this year, he would have been taking the Bills' deal. If his team takes that next big step in its development and makes the playoffs -- and many people like Buffalo's chances, me included -- then he'll get the deal he wants. That's how leverage works.

Either way, I admire the confidence Williams has in himself and his team. He believes the Bills are going to be winners this season, and he believes his big payday will result. And he doesn't seem bothered in the least this season by his lack of job security.

If the Bills win this season and Williams and the team can't get together on a new deal, he'll undoubtedly be a hot free-agent commodity at that point. One potential scenario to file away for next year? Williams is from Kansas City. Chiefs head coach Dick Vermeil also is entering the final year of his contract and has intimated that this will be his last season on anyone's sideline. Williams to K.C. if he and the Bills part ways? It could happen.

Check back soon for more of Don Banks' Postcards from Camp.

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