Donahoe could strike out with Mularkey

Mike Mularkey is coming into Buffalo with a strike against him. <P><P> Bills fans shouldn't have been encouraged that Tom Donahoe's Pittsburgh ties apparently were stronger than his objective search for the best head coach for a team on the brink. And it's a large brink, between being a potential playoff team and falling into one of the periods of disarray and dismay that have marred the Bills' history.

That history has showed that experienced head coaches have been the successful head coaches in Buffalo. The ugly flip side is that assistants promoted into their first NFL head coaching job have failed spectacularly.

Even the short-term history here has left that impression -- that is, unless you consider Gregg Williams' 17-31 tenure a success.

More than anything else, hiring Mularkey seems to be another case of Donahoe's saying, "I'm smarter than you are." He does seem to be an intelligent man, but his football wisdom has taken some serious hits. Drew Bledsoe had half a good season, but that's not enough in two seasons staying on board a sinking ship of an offense. Drafting Willis McGahee gets an incomplete grade, because he hasn't yet played in the NFL. But then, that's the problem -- the Bills' top draft pick in 2003 did absolutely nothing for them that year.

The biggest problem, though, was hiring Williams. Perhaps the Bills would have been better off without that good first half of 2002 for Bledsoe. At least then Buffalo would have been rid of Williams a year earlier. I haven't thought much of Williams as a defensive coach, either, but because Joe Gibbs thought enough of the former Bills coach to entrust the Redskins' defense to him, I'll give GW a pass through this season.

Even Donahoe reluctantly admitted that Williams was a mistake. An intelligent man usually would learn from that mistake -- but instead, the Bills' president seems to be repeating it by bringing in the inexperienced Mularkey.

And unlike with Williams, who wowed Donahoe with flow charts and colored markers, the white-haired wonder seemed to have his mind made up early with Mularkey. After former Giants coach Jim Fassel interviewed for the job last month, he said the Bills seemed set on someone without head-coaching experience. Translation: They weren't going to pay the going rate for a 21st-century head coach.

Here's another departure from the Williams hiring: Mularkey -- whose $1.5-million average salary still is less than Williams will make as a defensive coordinator -- has a five-year contract. That will cost Ralph Wilson a minimum of $7.5 million. And what happens if after three years Donahoe decides he made another mistake? The Bills' owner then would be committed in 2007 to $1.5 million for Mularkey not to coach and probably more like $3 million for another head coach. If that were the case, though, he wouldn't be paying Donahoe's salary any longer.

Mularkey appears to have made good immediate moves with his assistant coaches. If anyone can solve the problems on Buffalo's offensive line, Jim McNally can. Most of the defensive staff will be back, with Jerry Gray having the most to prove -- that it was he more than Williams and Dick LeBeau who straightened out the Bills' defense.

A bad sign, however, is that Mularkey appears committed to Bledsoe. The Bills couldn't win with him at quarterback in 2003, and I doubt that they can in '04. That could be a second strike against the new coach.

By the way, I've seen both Super Bowl teams play several times this season. My pick: Patriots 27, Panthers 10

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