Inside Bills Report

President and general manager Tom Donahoe had a productive first week on the coaching interview circuit, meeting face-to-face with seven candidates in seven days. But as of late Wednesday, the great poker player was insisting he didn't have them ranked yet or was he close to naming a replacement for Gregg Williams. <P> "We don't have a favorite and to this point, we haven't ruled anybody out," Donahoe said.

Donahoe, who announced on December 29 that Williams wouldn't have his contract renewed after compiling a 17-31 record in three seasons, capped a busy week by speaking with Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, a tight end with the Steelers when he was that club's director of pro personnel.

That followed interviews with popular ex-New York Giants coach Jim Fassel and ex-Chicago Bears coach Dick Jauron and Bills defensive coordinator Jerry Gray this week. Last week, Donahoe flew to St. Louis to speak with Rams defensive coordinator Lovie Smith and to New England to call on defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis.

Fassel remains a very viable candidate to coach the Bills, particularly after the Washington Redskins shocked the pro football community by luring their three-time Super Bowl coach Joe Gibbs from an 11-year retirement and signing him to a five-year, $28.5-million deal, and the Arizona Cardinals agreed in principle on a four-year, $11-million pact with ex-Minnesota coach Dennis Green.

Fassel interviewed with the Redskins over two days late last week and was once considered a front-runner for the job and he spoke with Arizona, where he once was offensive coordinator, last Saturday. Suddenly, Fassel's job market is shrinking, prompting his co-agent, Steve Rosner, to make a strong push for the Bills' opening.

"Jim was very pleased with the interview," Rosner told the Rochester, N.Y., Democrat and Chronicle. "He thinks (the Bills) are a franchise that has tradition and looking at the talent level they have on their roster, it would be a great opportunity. It's a team that he would look forward to coaching."

Fassel, 54, who has an impressive resume on offense, coached the Giants to three playoff appearances and one Super Bowl in seven seasons, but his team crashed to 4-12 last fall, including a 24-7 loss to Buffalo.

He, Mularkey and Weis offer Donahoe a strong group of offensive-minded coaches to turn to. Buffalo's offense slumped to 30th in the NFL last season and dropped in 12 statistical categories. Fassel and Mularkey have a history of rescuing struggling quarterbacks, and Buffalo has one in Drew Bledsoe, who turned the ball over 22 times last fall and became a tackling dummy. Weis, meanwhile, coached Bledsoe in New England and has first-hand knowledge on how to fix him.

But Donahoe could also go defense again, as he did with Williams. Jauron, Crennel, Smith and Gray offer lots of options. At any rate, Donahoe is covering all of his bases.

"We're trying," he said. "We promised this would be thorough and we'd get the right person. We believe we have an attractive job because of our owner, our team and the fans we have. We're going to work our way through the process and take our time with it and be patient."

Buffalo has never paid its head coaches well, but Donahoe indicated he won't lose a good coaching candidate to money. If it's Fassel, the Giants will pick up the difference between the $2.7 million he would've earned with them in 2004 and what he'll make with his new club.

The Bills will be very coy, very sure and very secretive before offering anybody a deal, however. That's because if he turns them down, anybody they hire after him will be considered a door prize. Not exactly how a team wants to kick off 2004 season ticket sales.

Donahoe has come under sharp criticism for passing on Marvin Lewis and John Fox, the defensive coordinators for Baltimore and the Giants in the 2000 NFL season's Super Bowl, and picking Williams three years ago. Lewis (Cincinnati) and Fox (Carolina) enjoyed great success as head coaches in 2003.

It's been said that Lewis didn't want to come to Buffalo, but he told reporters he never was offered the chance. Donahoe said it's up to him to read a candidate's eagerness.

"Let me say this about the interview process: unless you guys and ladies sit in on the process, you have no idea who says what," Donahoe said. "And you have no idea who's interested in the job and who isn't. I've got to decide that. I'm the person responsible for making that decision and I've got to make a better decision this time than I made the last time."

If Fassel isn't the Bills man, it may be weeks before they hire a coach.

The Patriots Weis had a very strong interview with Donahoe but he's off limits until New England's season ends, and that may not happen until after the Super Bowl on February 1.

"If it's the right guy and we feel we have to wait, then you better wait," Donahoe said.

The Giants, wracked by injuries and a crisis in confidence, crashed to 4-12 under Fassel last season, losing their final eight games. But he was 60-56-1 overall with three playoff appearances and one Super Bowl trip in seven seasons with the Giants and is well spoken and well respected.

He's also confident he can win again.

"In today's game, it's so much different than in pre-salary cap and free agency days," Fassel said after interviewing with the Cardinals. "You do your homework, you draft your guys and keep some guys healthy, and you can grow pretty quick in this league. You've got to have everybody on the same page and moving in the same direction, but you can move fast -- up or down."

NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES

--Ex-Bills coach Gregg Williams was among the leading candidates to replace Ted Cottrell as defensive coordinator with the New York Jets and to be Tom Coughlin's defensive coordinator with the New York Giants, but he fooled everybody and signed with the legendary Joe Gibbs with the Redskins. "We're very happy for Gregg. He worked hard here," Bills GM Tom Donahoe said. As if often the case, the media that covers an NFL team is hyping up the potential new blood. Williams was lauded by some New York press for his "attacking 46 defense." That would be the one Williams had as defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans from 1997-2000, because his Bills defense was ineffective blitzing the quarterback and finished with the fewest takeaways in the NFL two years running and also allowed two of the four highest point totals ever.

--Speaking of statistics, the final numbers are in and it was ugly for the Bills in 2003, especially on offense. Buffalo dropped in 12 statistical offensive categories kept by the NFL, including total yards (12th to 30th), passing yards (fifth to 28th), third-down conversions (ninth to 28th), and points (11th to 30th). On the positive side, the Bills improved defensively in nine categories, including yards (14th to second), rushing yards (29th to eighth), sacks (21st to ninth) and points (27th to fifth).

--Speaking with Jerry Gray, Romeo Crennel and Lovie Smith satisfies the league's mandate that at least one minority candidate be interviewed face-to-face. Gray's interview was seen as a courtesy extended him by GM Tom Donahoe, and it's known that Gray wasn't too happy how it came off.

--Gray is a candidate to take the vacant defensive coordinator's job at the University of Texas, his alma mater, after the resignation of Carl Reese. Texas officials haven't contacted the Bills about Gray, but colleges aren't required to do so.

--GM Tom Donahoe said that assistant GM Tom Modrak does not appear interested in speaking with Miami about its new general manager's job and he anticipates that Modrak will stay with the Bills.

--Donahoe, who left Pittsburgh amid controversy with head coach Bill Cowher, continues to work hard dispelling the belief -- at least in Buffalo -- that he's on a power trip. He said his new coach will get a say in such weighty matters as keeping Drew Bledsoe as his quarterback and keeping the staff of assistants responsible for Buffalo's No. 2 defense. "I think you have to give the coach say in everything, just as Gregg (Williams) had the say in everything," Donahoe said. "I get portrayed here as some power-hungry control freak. I don't know who people are writing about and who they are talking about."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's a fine line in this league. The difference between a 6-10 team and a 10-6 team is not that great, and we have a lot of quality football players on this team, but we have to get some more and we will. I'll be shocked if we don't get this thing turned around." -- President and GM Tom Donahoe, whose three-year run in Buffalo so far has produced a 17-31 record.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Marv Levy, the former Bills coach and Pro Football Hall of Fame member, would like to coach again and the spry 78-year-old isn't being shy about it. Levy said he has contacted, on his own volition, two of the seven NFL teams with coaching vacancies, reportedly the Chicago Bears and the Washington Redskins.

"I will neither confirm nor deny," Levy said with a laugh.

When he retired at the 1997 season at age 72, Levy had broken George Halas' record for oldest person to coach an NFL team. Levy would covet a shot at the Bills' job -- he was 123-78 with four Super Bowl trips his first time around -- but he has not initiated such a move and the Bills, to this point, have not indicated they will contact him.

"Buffalo is a wonderful place. It's a great spot, a great job," Levy told the Rochester, N.Y. Democrat and Chronicle. "And I feel re-energized, more energized in fact than when I stepped away. I had a bit of the Dick Vermeil syndrome, but I'm in even better shape now than I was."

Levy, who speaks with Bills owner Ralph Wilson a half dozen times a year socially, said he has never brought up the prospect of coaching his team again.

"I've shied away from it," Levy said. "I don't feel that should be part of the conversation. I haven't initiated that conversation."

Despite his impeccable credentials, vitality and his reputation for being able to get the most out of the modern athlete, Levy's name doesn't pop up on anybody's "A" list of coaching candidates.

Why? In the league's zeal to correct the lack of minority candidates being interviewed, some are suggesting that age is the new discrimination in the league.

"It seems, but I don't know why," Levy said. "Call it a prejudice, maybe there's a better word, but it (age) seems the one thing that's acceptable. I don't know what to do about it but to point to guys like Bill Parcells and Dick Vermeil and Jack McKeon and say, 'Hey, look.'"

COACHING CAROUSEL: All of Gregg Williams' 14 assistants are under contract through 2004 and Donahoe insists none will be forced upon the new head coach. But while that's true, there will be plenty of arm-twisting and polite suggestions that the new man retain some of Williams' people in the name of fiscal sanity. Releasing everyone would cost owner Ralph Wilson about $3 million in salary.

Considering the results of 2003, the offensive staff is on shaky ground, headed by beleaguered coordinator Kevin Gilbride, while the defensive staff can expect some serious consideration of remaining on board. There are some solid coaches on that side of the ball, led by coordinator Jerry Gray, veteran assistant head coach Dick LeBeau, and defensive line coach Tim Krumrie.

Gray was interviewed for the head coaching opening on Monday but it was considered a courtesy move by GM Tom Donahoe. LeBeau, the former Cincinnati Bengals boss, has not been mentioned as a viable candidate.

FREE-AGENT UPDATE: CB, Antoine Winfield (URFA. Pound-for-pound among best tacklers in the NFL and can cover, but lack of interceptions hurts his chances of signing top deal, particularly with players like Charles Woodson also hitting the market. Bills will make attempt to re-sign Winfield, but won't go overboard and he has sent off plenty of signals that he's ready for a change).

RB, Sammy Morris (URFA. Serviceable third-down back coming off injury plagued year. Not a high priority, especially with coaching change).

FB, Sam Gash (URFA. 12-year veteran can still lay the lumber and somebody's got to block for Travis Henry and Willis McGahee).

FB, Philip Crosby (URFA. A cheaper, younger version of Gash. Food for thought).

LB, DaShon Polk (URFA. Excellent special teams player and versatile backup, Bills will make him an offer).

DE, Keith McKenzie (URFA. Eight-year veteran was active for just four games but deserved more playing time given the very average play of rookie Chris Kelsay. In his brief action, showed he could still be effective on pass-rush downs. Signed a one-year deal and won't re-sign with Buffalo unless he gets a guarantee of more work. Then again, he might not have a lot of takers.)

OG, Ross Tucker (RFA. Former Dallas Cowboy started last five games and held his own. Bills are hurting for guard play, and he'll get a solid offer). OT, Marques Sullivan (RFA. Lost his starting right guard job in camp then was switched to tackle. Started last four games at left tackle for an injured Jonas Jennings and got mixed reviews. Still has great upside and should get an offer).

QB, Travis Brown (RFA. Bills like his potential as No. 2 backup and he'll get an offer).

DT, Ron Edwards (RFA. Former starter played just five games after rotator cuff injury. He's a solid player and worth retaining).

RB, Joe Burns (ERFA. Hard-nosed backup and solid special teams player, he'll be re-signed).

LB, Dominique Stevenson (ERFA. Top special teams hitter. He'll be retained).

FEELING A DRAFT: The Bills will select 13th overall and there's no shortage of needs to fill. GM Tom Donahoe has already come out saying that finding a quarterback of the future to groom in the wake of Drew Bledsoe's struggles is a "priority." It's not likely that Miami-Ohio's Ben Roethlisberger or Mississippi's Eli Manning would slip out of the top 10, but the Bills would be waiting with their mouth's open. It's more likely they would hope to land the likes of a Phillip Rivers (NC State) or Josh Harris (Bowling Green) later on.

Aside from QB, finding immediate help at WR, offensive center or guard, TE and defensive end would help nicely. Buffalo needs speed at wideout to stretch the field, take the heat off Eric Moulds, and make the running game work.

MEDICAL WATCH: The season ended with starting tackles Mike Williams (knee) and Jonas Jennings (hip/toe) out injured. Williams appears to be fine and isn't expected to need any surgical procedures. Jennings missed the final four games after going on injured reserve with a broken right big toe. His injury also didn't require surgery and he should be fine heading into next season, but the 2001 third-round pick will be watched closely by the team's medical staff. Jennings also struggled with a painful hip flexor that caused him to miss another game.


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