Inside Slant: Bills

The Bills interviewed seven candidates for their vacant head-coaching job, and in the end, the last man interviewed was the last man standing. <P> Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, 42, was named the team's 13th coach Wednesday and was introduced to the media on Thursday at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

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Mularkey, a rising star in NFL coaching circles who turned down an offer to coach the Cincinnati Bengals last year, emerged from a deep list of candidates that also included recently fired head coaches Jim Fassel and Dick Jauron and coordinators Romeo Crennel, Charlie Weis, Jerry Gray and Lovie Smith.

"There were a lot of very good candidates," owner Ralph Wilson said. "There were a lot of very competent coaches in the seven we interviewed. All of them. You couldn't go wrong."

While Wilson was actively involved in the selection process, it was president and general manager Tom Donahoe who did the screening and brought to his boss his recommendation.

That it was Mularkey came as no shock.

A journeyman tight end for nine NFL seasons, Mularkey signed with the Steelers as a Plan B free agent in 1989 when Donahoe was that team's director of pro personnel. In 1996, Mularkey became the Steelers tight ends coach when Donahoe was director of operations. While it was believed that Donahoe would go with someone with NFL head coaching experience this time after striking out with Gregg Williams -- who, like Mularkey was a promoted coordinator -- the safe move in Donahoe's eyes was apparently going with someone he knew and felt comfortable with.

Williams, 17-31 in his three seasons, was a total stranger whose expertise was in defense. And while Buffalo managed to improve to No. 2 overall in defense during last season's 6-10 finish, the offense slumped to No. 30 in yards and points scored. Finding someone to fix the problems on that side of the ball became very evident. "They are very close (to succeeding)," Mularkey said of the Bills after his interview with Donahoe. "Their defense got better and was stout at the end of the year. Their offense struggled, and if you can get those two to complement each other and get a little more ball control with the offense, they got a chance. They are not far away at all."

Mularkey has a track record of running the ball, and he'll have two good backs in Travis Henry and Willis McGahee to work with. He also has rescued quarterbacks off the scrap heap in Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox and will be entrusted to get Drew Bledsoe back on track.

Thirdly, his advantage as an ex-player to relate to the athletes and put together a competent staff from his many contacts, were two other important factors that swayed Donahoe.

Sam Wyche, the former Bengals and Tampa Bay coach who gave Mularkey his first NFL assistants job back in 1994, explained why so many people in the NFL are impressed with him. "He intrigued me. He was no nonsense, a very stable guy. He'll remind you when he gets a little older of Marv Levy. He has an aura about him," Wyche said. "The more I talked to him not only did I think he'd be a good head coach but one I thought could climb the ladder."

Mularkey's rise up the ranks has been swift and impressive. Known for his studious ways and his ability to teach, Mularkey was named Steelers offensive coordinator in 2001 and promptly got results out of virtually the same personnel that his predecessor, Kevin Gilbride, could not. Ironically, Gilbride was the Bills' offensive coordinator the past two seasons under Williams, a move insiders now agree, was the mistake that cost Williams his job.

In 2001 and 2002, Mularkey's offense ranked in the NFL's top five and helped the Steelers compile 13-3 and 10-5-1 records. Quarterbacks Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox saw their careers rescued under his watch, receivers Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress became 1,000-yard producers, and running backs Jerome Bettis and Amos Zereoue powered a punishing running game. Last season, things unraveled on the offensive line, leading to a No. 22 ranking and a 6-10 finish. But it did nothing to tarnish Mularkey's reputation. He also interviewed for the Atlanta Falcons opening.

"He brings a lot to the table," said Bills linebacker Takeo Spikes, who faced Mularkey's offenses as a member of the Bengals. "They had injuries this season and it took a toll, but I think he's a great coach and it's great for the Buffalo Bills. We have a lot of talent on offense, we just need to put it together." And that's no malarkey.

NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES --The NFL Coaches Association sent a letter to the Bills and the NFL asking them, essentially, to release their assistants under contract or guarantee them positions with the new coaching regime. It appears the letter is standard procedure. The NFLCA's primary goal is to eventually alter current rules regarding benefits for coaches. If a coach is fired, he receives his salary for the remainder of his contract, but does not receive medical benefits or accrue years toward his pension. --New Redskins coach Joe Gibbs on why he hired ex-Bills coach Gregg Williams as his defensive coordinator: "I have some real good friends who coached with him. It's one of those things where you kind of know his reputation. And when he became available, I think almost everybody was talking to him." --The length of Mularkey's deal was not immediately known, but it's believed to be four to five seasons for slightly less than the $1.5-million per year average San Francisco defensive coordinator Jim Mora, Jr. received from Atlanta. Mora, like Mularkey, has no previous NFL head coaching experience. --Assistant GM Tom Modrak never accepted Miami's offer to interview for its general manager's job feeling uncomfortable with the position. He hunched right with ex-QB great Dan Marino being name to an executive post with power over both coach Dave Wannstedt and Rick Spielman, who was promoted to the GM job.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "With all the experience that Mr. Donahoe and Mr. Wilson have, they certainly know what they're doing better than anybody in the NFL. I feel really good about the decision." -- Bills WR Eric Moulds about the hiring of Mike Mularkey to replace Gregg Williams as head coach.


Mike Mularkey's top choice for his defensive coordinator is Dick LeBeau, but ironically, he could be competing with his old boss, Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher, for his services.

LeBeau, who worked for the Bills in 2003 as their assistant head coach, interviewed with Cowher this week and while Cowher is considering other candidates like Chicago's Greg Blache, the job is LeBeau's if he wants it.

"I've always had a special spot in my heart for Pittsburgh and the years I spent here," said LeBeau, a member of Cowher's original Steelers' staff who later coordinated the NFL's No. 2- and 3-ranked defenses. "It wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to come back and give it another shot."

It also wouldn't be the worst thing to return to Buffalo and work for GM Tom Donahoe, whom he has a strong relationship with. And this time, it won't be to hold Jerry Gray's hand.

"I had input but I really didn't call the game," LeBeau said of his duties in Buffalo. "That's the part I missed the most. So I think this would be a better situation (in Pittsburgh). I bring a certain amount of expertise. I would look forward to contributing and helping Bill in any way I can. I think I have some things to add."

COACHING CAROUSEL: New coach Mike Mularkey is expected to let go most of Gregg Williams offensive assistants (the Bills ranked 30th in points scored). Beleaguered offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, the man Mularkey replaced as coordinator in Pittsburgh, has already interviewed for the head-coach opening at Cornell University. That would free quarterback's coach Tom Clements to join Mularkey in Buffalo as offensive coordinator. Mularkey would also like to lure tight ends coach Ken Whisenhunt. It's believed he has already hired ex-Giants offensive line coach Jim McNally, one of the best in the NFL and a Buffalo native.

Defensively, Mularkey will keep Bills defensive line coach Tim Krumrie and linebackers coach Don Blackmon. Special teams coach Danny Smith and safeties coach Steve Jackson have accepted job offers from the Washington Redskins (where Williams has been hired as defensive coordinator) and their appointments will be announced soon.

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 J.P. Losman (Tulane), 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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