Bills proving to be a lousy bargain

With almost nine minutes left on the clock last Sunday and the home team trailing by a single point, disheartened Buffalo Bills fans started streaming out of Ralph Wilson Stadium. Of all the questions to be answered in the 10 months before Opening Day, 2004, one stands above the rest - what will it take to get them back?

The faithful have been through difficult times before. They endured the John Rauch and Jim Ringo eras, the mid-1980s, Todd Collins' stint as the Bills' Quarterback of the Future and the 3-13 ending to the Rob Johnson Experiment.

But each of those down times was either the end or beginning of something, with expectations held to a reasonable (for fans) level.

For a franchise that's seen just about everything, this point in time represents uncharted territory.

This season wasn't supposed to be about making progress, but arriving. With the defense bolstered by big names providing balance for an offense that lit up the league during the first half of 2002, this would be a year for the Bills to journey deep into the playoffs and earn their coach a contract extension.

Instead, it's turned in to the single most disappointing season the Bills have ever played, no matter what happens over the next six weeks.

There's not even much competition for that title.

During the Bills' truly hideous seasons in the late 1960s, early '70s and mid-'80s, fans got pretty much what they anticipated.

During other years that fall into the "disappointing" category, the letdown was much gentler.

In 1967, Buffalo fell from almost earning a spot in the first Super Bowl a year earlier to 4-10. But those Bills showed serious signs of age before the season and offered few reasons to think they'd return to the heights of their AFL title season in 1964 and '65.

There was 1982, when Buffalo fell below .500 and out of the playoffs for the first time in three years. But that barely counted as a season, with seven games wiped out by football's first in-season strike, which kept fan fervor to a minimum before and after the work stoppage.

The Bills' string of Super Bowl appearances ended in 1994, but there was almost a sense of relief when Buffalo finished 7-9, along with the feeling that some needed retooling would take place.

There was a similar feel to 1997's 6-10 mark, which brought Marv Levy's coaching career to a close and made it quite clear that Todd Collins' future was elsewhere.

But no one expected much more out of any of those seasons. Talk to Bills fans now, and you don't hear merely the sarcasm and derision that come with losing, but a sense of anger, even betrayal.

Of course, some of that stems from people taking their football a little too seriously. But it also comes from the way the Bills themselves have handled their disintegration.

You can't blame the organization for the preseason hype - every team overestimates its strengths and glosses over its weaknesses during the spring and summer.

But after watching the same coaches call the same plays that yield the same results every week for more than a month, its impossible to escape the feeling that either Bills President/General Manager Tom Donahoe has no influence on how the players he assembled are used, or that he's been looking ahead to next year since his team got humiliated by the then-winless Jets.

Donahoe scoffed at the notion of firing Williams and Gilbride during Buffalo's bye week, telling fans circulating petitions promoting such a move to "save the postage."

Donahoe's tough-guy talk looks pretty silly now, after the coaches to whom he's so devoted led their charges to a total of 14 points, none of them coming via touchdown, in losing to two very beatable opponents by a combined margin of six.

Indianapolis won't let the Bills hang around with a chance to win into the final moments. Peyton Manning's Colts, with or without wide receiver Marvin Harrison, are more than capable of surpassing the combined output of Dallas and Houston by midway through the second quarter.

Fortunately for Donahoe, whose boss has never been known to tolerate unsold tickets, the Colts game was nearly sold out before the season went in the toilet. Same goes for the final two home dates against the Jets and Miami.

Accomplishing the same level of sales for 2004 is another story.

The departure of Williams, Gilbride, the rest of the offensive coaches and quite possibly the defensive staff, as well, is a foregone conclusion.

The inevitable coaching shakeup alone isn't a sure ticket-seller, though. While Gilbride gets, and deserves, most of the blame for the offensive disaster, it's safe to say that Bledsoe-mania has completed its run, at least for now.

Some have even suggested dumping Bledsoe this offseason, but Donahoe didn't go to all the effort of clearing cap space during the last three offseasons so he could use it on a quarterback no longer on the roster. There's a bigger decision to be made when Bledsoe's roster bonus comes due next year, but that's next year.

Even if Bledsoe's more immediate status were open to serious debate, its not as if his potential successor is available for a late-season audition. No offense to Alex Van Pelt or Randy Fasani, or anything.

If first-round pick Willis McGahee were anywhere near playing, that might sell a few tickets this year and, if he plays up to his draft position, even more for next.

But to hear McGahee laugh when describing the progress of his wounded knee, or lack thereof, getting paid not to play isn't exactly tearing him up inside.

Besides, Travis Henry - the guy McGahee is supposed to replace some day - is one of the few guys worth watching when the Bills have the ball. If that broken bone in his leg allows him to suit up, that is.

That's what this season has come to for the Bills faithful - hoping that a running back with a broken leg feels good enough to supply a ground attack that the offensive coordinator will under-utilize.

As well as Buffalo's defense has played for most of the year, the Colts present the most explosive attack the Bills have faced this side of the Chiefs. And we all know how that pairing ended up.

The Ralph should be fairly full at kickoff time on Sunday, mainly because professional sports franchises don't give refunds. Even though, if recent form holds, ticket holders for this game will really want - and maybe even deserve -- one.

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