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Paul Zimmerman
August 28, 2000
Their tried-and-true strategy—choosing inexpensive youth over costly experience—will be put to the supreme test
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August 28, 2000

2 Buffalo Bills

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

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

Offensive Backs


Rob Johnson


34 att.

25 comp.


298 yds.

2 TDs

0 int.

119.5 rtg.


Antowain Smith


165 att.

614 yds.

3.7 avg.


32 yds.

16.0 avg.

6 TDs


Jonathan Linton


205 att.

695 yds.

3.4 avg.

29 rec.

228 yds.

7.9 avg.

6 TDs


Sheldon Jackson


0 att.

0 yds.

no avg.


34 yds.

8.5 avg.

0 TDs

Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen


Eric Moulds


65 rec.

994 yds.

7 TDs


Peerless Price


31 rec.

393 yds.

3 TDs


Jeremy McDaniel


0 rec.

0 yds.

0 TDs


Jay Riemersma


37 rec.

496 yds.

4 TDs


Steve Christie


33/33 XPs

25/34 FGs

108 pts.


Avion Black (R)#


8 ret.

13.1 avg.

0 TDs


Avion Black (R)#


23 ret.

34.2 avg.

3 TDs


John Fina


300 lbs.

16 games

16 starts


Ruben Brown


304 lbs.

14 games

14 starts


Jerry Ostroski


327 lbs.

15 games

15 starts


Joe Panos?


300 lbs.

16 games

16 starts


Robert Hicks


330 lbs.

14 games

14 starts



Phil Hansen

55 tackles

6 sacks


Ted Washington

45 tackles

2� sacks


Marcellus Wiley

25 tackles

5 sacks


Keith Newman

2 tackles

0 sacks


John Holecek

62 tackles

1 sack


Sam Cowart

123 tackles

1 sack


Sam Rogers

68 tackles

3 sacks


Antoine Winfield

63 tackles

2 int.


Henry Jones

75 tackles

0 int.


Keion Carpenter

4 tackles

0 int.


Ken Irvin

45 tackles

1 int.


Chris Mohr

73 punts

38.9 avg.

#New acquisition
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
*: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 139)
? 1998 statistics

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?

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