Bills could take lesson from Washington's Spurrier

It took Steve Spurrier, architect of the "Fun 'N' Gun" attack that carried his Florida Gators to college football's national championship, one year to learn that building your offense entirely around the forward pass doesn't work at the pro level. Kevin Gilbride, former guru of the "Run and Gun" system favored by the extinct Houston Oilers in the early 1990s, has spent 11 seasons as a head coach or offensive coordinator in the National Football League without absorbing that simple truism.

"When we got the running game going we were really potent as an offense and it was something that made us really unpredictable," Spurrier said this week. "Teams had a tough time stopping us when we mixed it up a bit more."

See how simple it is?

To be fair, Gilbride showed a little more love for the ground game the past two weeks, after calling for just 12 runs in Buffalo's 23-13 home loss to Philadelphia. Last Sunday against the New York Jets, he maintained a nearly 50-50 run-pass balance for most of the first half.

But when it really mattered, when his sputtering offense absolutely needed to gain as little as 36 inches to keep the ball, and a realistic a chance of winning, Gilbride couldn't help himself.

Drew Bledsoe took the blame for checking out of a run on third-and-1 late in the first quarter. Bledsoe has never required much prodding to put the ball in the air, but Gilbride's lack of faith in his offensive line to clear as little as a single yard of space has clearly rubbed off on his quarterback.

That short-yardage pass didn't work. To the surprise of absolutely no one, either did the subsequent toss sweep to Henry on fourth-and-1. Both situations cried out for a simple response - give the ball to Henry as quickly as possible and send him into a hole behind Sam Gash, quite possibly the top blocking fullback of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

But no. After the NFL's worst run defense swarmed Henry's painfully slow-developing attempt, the Jets marched 66 yards (39 coming courtesy of the league's most feeble run offense) to take a lead they never lost.

It's easy to scapegoat Gilbride, and by extension, his boss. But neither Gregg Williams nor Gilbride can deliver the blocks that have been inadequately thrown, or open the lanes that have remained closed. That's up to an offensive line that was supposedly improved, possibly even a team strength coming into the season.

Gilbride's infatuation with downfield throws into sagging, flooded secondaries hasn't helped. But it's not as if a pass-block-first mindset has kept Bledsoe's uniform clean and uncreased, either. Buffalo has given up 19 sacks, third-most in the NFL.

This week, Spurrier's Redskins visit Ralph Wilson Stadium battered both in the defensive backfield and up front. Cornerback Fred Smoot is out with a chest injury, while a bum thumb will keep defensive tackle Jermaine Haley sidelined. That should provide flaws in Washington's run and pass defenses, provided Gilbride can focus on a way to exploit them.

Injuries are one reason the Redskins visit Orchard Park with an identical record to Buffalo's - Washington will take the field without five starters in all. But the two 3-3 marks have nothing in common but numbers. The Redskins come in riding a two-game losing streak, but last week's 35-13 home defeat to Tampa Bay stands as their only truly bad loss to date. Even in that one, Washington led 13-7 in the third quarter, before the defending Super Bowl champions capitalized on a couple of interceptions thrown by Patrick Ramsey.

Though some Spurrier-watchers think his conversion to ball control is a fleeting façade, and that he secretly longs to see Ramsey launch 50 throws a game, his recent fondness for running back Ladell Betts indicates otherwise.

Betts entered the season as a backup to Trung Canidate, who offers Spurrier's ideal blend of speed and good hands. But even before the inevitable injury that will keep Canidate off the field Sunday, the slower, but more powerful Betts was getting more carries.

Betts figures to get plenty of work this week, particularly with Ramsey's psyche still bearing scars from his disastrous second half against the Bucs.

Taking away Betts as a viable option will be the first priority for a Bills defense whose own struggles in recent weeks have been overshadowed by the offense's more glaring troubles.

In the past three weeks, Buffalo's acclaimed defenders have yielded a more-than-respectable average of 282.3 yards per game, but recorded only five sacks and forced just two turnovers - both of them in the 22-16 overtime win against Cincinnati.

Part of that is the result of playing from behind, when opposing offenses take fewer chances. The absence of Sam Adams in the middle last week doesn't help, either. But the investment Buffalo made in Takeo Spikes, Jeff Posey and Lawyer Milloy, not to mention the pair of No. 1 picks spent on cornerbacks Antoine Winfield and Nate Clements, should yield more than one big play per game.

There should be opportunities for the defense to impact the stat sheet in a positive way Sunday. No team has allowed more sacks than the 24 yielded by Washington, and for all the praise he's received from Spurrier, Ramsey remains a second-year quarterback very susceptible to getting rattled by a loud crowd and decent pass rush.

Of course, it would help if Buffalo's offense could score a touchdown before halftime, something it hasn't done since Week 2 in Jacksonville.

One sub-plot to Washington's visit on Sunday is the return of Bruce Smith, and the Hall-of-Famer's bid to break an alleged NFL record in the process.

It would be nice to see Smith get the two sacks he needs to surpass Reggie White's 198 career sacks and take the top spot on the "all-time" list, if only so we never have to hear about the subject again.

The problem with the NFL even having a career sacks record is that it's anything but all-time.

Tackling the opposing quarterback while he's trying to pass has only constituted an official statistic since 1982, three years before the Bills drafted Smith with the first overall pick.

The NFL started keeping official standings in 1920 (when the Buffalo All-Americans got jobbed out of the first league championship by the Decatur Staleys, ancestors of the Chicago Bears - but that's another story). That means that the sacks registered in 75 percent of the league's history don't count.

Unlike baseball, in which historians can reconstruct entire careers out of box scores, there's no way to adequately retrace the totals compiled by the consensus pick as the greatest pass rusher ever, Deacon Jones, or contemporaries like Leo Nomellini, Gino Marchetti, Alex Karras or Willie Davis. Even those names would only take the list back to the 1950s, excluding pre-television legends like Bucko Kilroy and Turk Edwards.

Bruce's production, longevity and role on four AFC championship teams mean he's a lock for enshrinement in Canton five years after he finally retires. Surpassing White's sack total, something he's talked incessantly about since before his hair started turning gray, means absolutely nothing.

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