Bills need Bledsoe to break Marino mold

Ever since the New England Patriots made him the first overall selection of the 1993 National Football League draft, Drew Bledsoe's ability to fire laser strikes to just about any spot on the field has evoked comparisons to Dan Marino.

(David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter and has covered the Buffalo Bills since 1990. He is a new addition to the BillsReport.com staff. If you would like to send him feedback you can send him an E-mail at dstaba13@aol.com)

Their size, lack of mobility and on-field swagger reinforce parallels between No. 11 and No. 13.

With the Buffalo Bills teetering at .500 as they prepare to host the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, though, a simple question emerges: Is that really a compliment?

To be sure, Marino was one of the best pure passers in league history (before anyone screams that he was THE best, watch some NFL Films footage of Sonny Jurgensen in his prime), as well as one of the fiercest competitors.

Marino utilized those qualities in producing an unmatched statistical career, as well as dozens of unforgettable performances.

During the regular season, that is.

Miami reached the Super Bowl once with Marino under center, in his second and most brilliant professional season. After that came 15 seasons in which Dolphins fans waited for a repeat, and 15 annual disappointments. Their team reached the playoffs in 10 of Marino's 17 seasons, but each of those postseason journeys ended in defeat, usually a most dismal one.

No matter how much Miami bolstered its defense -- and no franchise embraced free agency more enthusiastically in the early and mid-1990s -- or how many running backs the Dolphins drafted, the yearly script barely varied.

During the offseason, Don Shula, then Jimmy Johnson, would go shopping for defensive studs, then vow to install a power running game to take some of the pressure off Marino and the defense.

A dangerous, or at least efficient, ground attack would force defenses to play relatively straight, making Marino even more lethal. Or at least so the thinking went.

It didn't matter if it was supposed to be Lorenzo Hampton, Troy Stradford, Sammie Smith, Mark Higgs, Bobby Humphrey, Bernie Parmalee, or Karim Abdul-Jabbar doing the heavy duty. The new philosophy generally lasted until the running back du jour got hurt or had a bad game, or until the first time Miami fell behind by more than a field goal.

Then it was back to all-Marino, all the time.

Sound familiar?

With Takeo Spikes, Sam Adams and Jeff Posey signing as free agents during the offseason and Travis Henry figuring to build on his 1,438-yard breakout season, Bledsoe was supposed to be spending the 2003 season handing the ball off and perfecting his play-action technique.

Instead, he spent the last two Sundays throwing into flooded zones with defenders in his face and Buffalo's sole chance of victory hanging from his right shoulder.

The torn rib cartilage suffered by Henry in the first half at Miami two weeks ago provides an overly simple excuse for offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride's complete abandonment of the running game. Backups Joe Burns and Ken Simonton showed little to indicate they deserved more carries, either.

But the roots of the Bills' ground woes trace back through their dominant pair of season-opening wins and through the exhibition season. Henry had 28 carries for 86 yards in the 31-0 blistering of New England on opening day and 26 yards (and three scores) on 21 totes a week later in Jacksonville.

He was only able to accumulate those rather pedestrian numbers because the defense and Bledsoe's throws had created a comfortable cushion, making it easy for Gilbride to send him into the line again and again.

Killing the clock with a cushy lead is common sense. Sticking with the run when things aren't otherwise going perfectly requires a commitment to doing so, a step Gilbride has been unwilling, or unable, to take since arriving in Buffalo before the 2002 season.

That mindset rubs off on the group of men most integral to doing much of anything with the ball -- the offensive linemen. Like the Marino-era offensive lines in Miami, Buffalo's blockers look thoroughly geared to retreating to fend off pass rushers instead of blasting open running lanes.

Establishing the run will be especially important Sunday against Cincinnati. The defense installed by new coach Marvin Lewis ranks eighth in the league against the pass, but just No. 25 versus the run.

Getting Henry, Burns or Simonton going would also keep the Bengals' nickel and dime packages, which put their trio of experienced cornerbacks -- ex-Raider Tory James, Artrell Hawkins and former Bills No. 1 pick Jeff Burris -- on the field at the same time.

Cincinnati figures to have trouble moving the ball, with running back Corey Dillon likely to sit out with a groin injury. Even after Dillon left last week's 21-14 win over Cleveland, though, Cincinnati kept pounding away with Rudi Johnson, a limited plugger with only 17 previous NFL carries.

If the Bills can't establish the run early or run up a big lead on Bledsoe's arm, the burden again falls completely on Buffalo's defense. As the last two weeks have shown, that unit can keep the Bills in games most of the way, but isn't yet good enough to win them on its own.

To end Buffalo's two-game skid, the defense and Bledsoe will need some sort of contribution from a running game that has managed just 105 yards on 58 carries over the past three weeks.

That will require a near-total reversal of Gilbride's philosophy from a week earlier. Throwing downfield twice on third-and-short situations during the second half against Philadelphia showed his complete lack of confidence in his offense's ability to move the ball even 3 feet on the ground.

It also showed Gilbride's infatuation with Bledsoe's ability to cover huge stretches of turf in spectacular style.

Grinding out victories on the ground isn't nearly as flashy, and offensive coordinators generally don't win praise from media and fans -- or shots at head coaching jobs -- for staunchly conservative game plans.

And the temptation to air it out when you're calling plays for a Bledsoe or a Marino must be tremendous, particularly when your franchise quarterback's ability to throw deep is matched only by his desire to do so.

Marino, like his peer in Buffalo, Jim Kelly, was hardly discrete about lobbying his coaches when he wasn't happy with his team's offensive philosophy. Marino paid lip service to establishing a consistent ground game, but never really sounded like he meant it. By October of each season, you could be sure that he didn't.

It's October, and Bledsoe and head coach Gregg Williams are saying all the right things about the importance of the running game.

Buffalo's once-promising season, and quite possibly Bledsoe's legacy, depends on whether they, and Gilbride, believe what they're saying.


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