THE BELIEF If the
Bills can get third-year quarterback J.P. Losman playing like an All-Pro, many
of their problems will be solved. No one was handing him the job, mind
you--there'd be actual competition for the position.
THE REALITY The
competition was supposed to come from veteran Kelly Holcomb, who stepped in
after Losman faltered early last season. Holcomb averaged 9.7 yards per
completion, a dink-dunk number, and who can forget the hitch he completed to
Eric Moulds for zero yards on fourth-and-eight when Buffalo had a chance to
upset New England? It's not the kind of passing offense you want when you've
got downfield threats such as Lee Evans and Peerless Price, the latter back
with the club for a second tour.
everyone's happy that Losman, who averaged 11.9 yards per completion, won the
job. "Did I lose faith last year?" says Losman, who got a few more
starts midway through the season. "I'd get in bad situations and not know
how to get out of them. Now I think I know."
A deep passing
game would be a nice grace note in the Bills' operation but not its defining
element. Ever since they stopped running the K-Gun with Jim Kelly, they've been
a blue-collar team--not much pizzazz but lots of tough running and defense. New
coach Dick Jauron is a defense guy who believes in a trimmer playbook and a lot
Buffalo was at
its best last year when it was controlling the ball with tireless running back
Willis McGahee and letting the superior defense supply the finishing touches.
And there are some fine athletes on that unit: Nate Clements and Terrence
McGee, as good a pair of cover corners as there is in the league; free safety
Troy Vincent; Aaron Schobel, a high-energy pass rusher; an excellent and swift
linebacking corps. "Our basic defense will be the Tampa 2," Vincent
says. "A Cover 2 zone, but the twist is the linebackers will be given
freedom to get downfield."
But it's the
special teams outfit that sets the tone and makes the Bills unique. McGee led
the NFL in kickoff-return average (30.2), and little Roscoe Parrish had the
highest punt-return average (13.3 yards, though too few to qualify). Punter
Brian Moorman was tied for No. 1 in gross average and second in net--in one of
the league's worst wind tunnels. Kicker Rian Lindell was 3 for 3 from 50 and
units, whipped to a frenzy by their dynamic coach, Bobby April, are some of the
most feared in the league, and Buffalo's overall special teams ranking, based
on 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 the
playbook," says linebacker Mario Haggan, one of the wedge busters along
with linebacker Josh Stamer. "Last year Josh had the most tackles. I had
the most pictures."
Is it possible
for a club to actually ride into the playoffs on the shoulders of a special
teams unit? Has it ever been done? "When I coached the Redskins' special
teams in 1972, our first Super Bowl year," says new Bills general manager
Marv Levy, "we allowed 39 yards in punt returns--total, for the season. We
set the tone for the team. But don't forget we had guys like Sonny Jurgensen
and Charley Taylor too."
Ah, yes, talent.
It always seems to come back to that, doesn't it?