Two years ago, Buffalo Bills general manager Tom Donahoe fired coach Gregg Williams because he felt his team lacked mental toughness.
Williams' replacement, Mike Mularkey, better hope he's not held to a similar standard, because by his own admission, this year's Bills team also lacks mental toughness.
Heading into Saturday's game at Cincinnati (11-3), where the resurgent Bengals are celebrating their first division title in 15 years, the Bills (4-10) are undergoing psychoanalysis over why they are one the NFL's worst second-half teams.
"I think coach (Mularkey) said it best, 'We're not a mentally tough team,'" strong safety Lawyer Milloy said.
In 2003, the Bills lost four games by four points or less to finish 6-10. But at least that team, outscored just 132-128 in the second half, didn't fold up shop like this one has.
The 2005 Bills, who have three losses by five points or less, have been outscored 172-68 in the second half. Only 2-12 San Francisco has a worse scoring differential after halftime and Buffalo's 68 points is an NFL low (the 49ers have scored 81 points).
In the fourth quarter, the Bills have been outscored 110-39. Only Houston and San Francisco have done worse.
Why his team can't consistently respond to adversity - be it a scoring drive by the opponent, a penalty or a turnover - has Mularkey flabbergasted.
"If I had that answer I would have used it in Week Two," he said. "It's a greater focus, especially when adversity is working against you. .. As a team, those are the things we have to overcome. The mental toughness, the mental focus."
Last week's 28-17 loss to Denver was typical. The game was tied at halftime, but the Broncos pulled away with three long TD drives to start the second half. The Bills didn't respond defensively, allowing Denver to convert six of eight third downs and two fourth down plays.
"One of the things happening to us was being unable to stop them on first and second down, so they had a lot of third-and-1s," defensive tackle Sam Adams said. "They were able to convert those."
Buffalo's offense didn't help matters in the ball control department, particularly in the first half when a variety of self-inflicted wounds snuffed out six of seven drives. Penalties and dropped passes were the culprits.
But what about the second half? Why does it always seem that the opponents have the answers after halftime and Buffalo doesn't?
"I don't think it's a matter of halftime adjustments," Mularkey said on the Bills' web site. "It's a matter of making plays, and we've had a chance to make plays. The ball has not bounced in our direction every time this year like I've seen it happen with some other teams. Unfortunately, we have not finished games as strong as we should have, and that has nothing to do with halftime adjustments. We're just not finishing for a number of reasons."
Donahoe was asked if coaching was a reason. Buffalo committed 12 penalties last week and seemed as unprepared as a team in the preseason.
"There are all kinds of theories with regard to penalties and what causes them. Lack of discipline is one theory," Donahoe told the web site. "From watching our players everyday in practice and in meetings, we would not feel that our players lack discipline. Sometimes they may lack focus and concentration, and they can improve in these areas. When you commit 12 penalties against a good football team, you are not going to win."
Nor are you going to last long in your job. With two games left, there is a sense of urgency on the part of management, coaches and players to finish strong in Buffalo, but even that may not be enough to ward off a major housecleaning.
"I think we're playing for everybody's job," quarterback Kelly Holcomb said. "When you're having the kind of season we're having right now, nobody's really safe. I've been in the league 11 years and you have to win, you have to produce, and when you don't, changes are usually made. You can't sit around and worry about it, you have to go out and do the best you can do, try to keep your head up and keep playing and that's what we're going to do."
Running back Willis McGahee is recovering from elbow, back and leg ailments. And you can add a bruised ego to the list.
McGahee has received only 17 carries over the past two games, gaining 39 yards, and he hasn't topped 100 yards in six consecutive games.
McGahee, while not hiding his frustration over his lack of work, didn't allow it to boil over when quizzed hard by reporters this week. The Bills (4-10) play at Cincinnati (11-3) on Saturday.
"I'm past that stage now, I'm just going with the flow," said McGahee, whose 1,068 yards was still good enough to earn him a spot as an alternate for the Pro Bowl.
"If I called the plays, we'd be running all the time, but I don't know the whole scenario behind it. I know I can go out there and play, I just have to do what I'm told to do. I can't force them (the coaches) to give me plays or have plays designed for me. They're professionals, they know what they're doing. They know how to handle certain situations."
McGahee's second-half swoon won't help his effort to get a new contract this off-season, and it's expected that agent Drew Rosenhaus will blame the play-calling for his client's diminished numbers.
Coach Mike Mularkey continues to express faith in McGahee and a desire to make him the focal point of his offense, but that recent games unfolded differently than planned. As a unit, Buffalo's offense is 30th in the NFL in total yardage and 24th in converting third downs.
"We're not going to force-feed anything," Mularkey said. "We're going to do what it takes to win, that's the key. And if it's throwing the ball one week, it's throwing the ball. If Willis is the guy, we're going to ride him to the end zone -- we'll do that -- but not just to force carries on anybody. If it's there, we're going to do it."
--P Brian Moorman, who has rewritten Buffalo's record book in his five seasons with the club, was named to his first Pro Bowl on Wednesday. Moorman leads the AFC with a 45.54 gross average and is second in net average at 38.8. Moorman, an alternate in '02 and '03, was finally recognized for kicking in one of the NFL's worst stadiums for unpredictable winds. "A lot of guys don't realize what it's like to punt in Buffalo and I think it's starting to get out now," said Moorman, who signed with the Bills in 2001 as a NFL Europe free agent. "There is some respect for the guys who punt here, in New England, New York, Chicago. It's a lot different than playing in a dome. I've had numerous other kickers tell me after games, 'You can have this stadium.'" Buffalo's one Pro Bowl pick is its fewest since 1986 when no players were chosen. The Bills did manage to have five players named as alternates: kick return specialist Terrence McGee, last year's AFC starter; defensive tackle Sam Adams, a three-time pick; running back Willis McGahee; cornerback Nate Clements; and linebacker London Fletcher.
--Whether it's winning six straight games to challenge for a playoff berth with a 9-7 record (what the Bills did a year ago) or losing five in a row to fall out of playoff contention with a 4-10 mark with two games to play (where the Bills are now), coaching in the NFL takes a toll. "I think all coaches, head coaches, assistant coaches, winning or losing is a grind on people and on the body," coach Mike Mularkey said. "I don't know if it (this year) has taken any more. Usually I don't feel it until it's all said and done, then all of a sudden it hits me. But it hasn't hit me yet. I'm still getting up with energy, still coming in here with energy, still going out on the practice field with energy. I'm disappointed, absolutely, but it hasn't taken a toll on me right now."
--Veteran RG Chris Villarrial can't wait to make amends for what was probably his worst game in the NFL. Villarrial, one of the club's most reliable players, committed four penalties against Denver - a hold, two false starts and a personal foul for retaliating to a cheap shot. His penalties helped sabotage three drives. "I probably haven't had four penalties in a year during my career, so to have four in one night, it was bad," Villarrial said. "You just have to shake it off, be a professional about it and move on. Any negative yards for this offense is not good. We're a team that can't afford to do things like that. When we're rolling we have to keep it rolling and not make the stupid mistakes. My night was the other night. I apologized to my teammates, said I was sorry, and now we have to move ahead."
--General manager Tom Donahoe told readers of the team's web site that the team has told veteran WR Eric Moulds it wants him back next season. "We are hopeful things can be worked out at the conclusion of the season," said Donahoe, who would have to re-work Moulds' contract yet again to lower his near $11 million cap figure. But he said the team still rates Moulds an elite receiver.
--Speaking of Moulds, his 657 career receptions, combined with Andre Reed's 941, make the Bills one of just four NFL teams to have two players with 600 career catches. The others are: Denver (Rod Smith 791, Shannon Sharpe 675); Indianapolis (Marvin Harrison 917, Raymond Berry 631); and Washington (Art Monk 888, Charley Taylor 649).
--Bills CB Terrence McGee doesn't mind the creative touchdown celebrations of Bengals' star WR Chad Johnson. "I like it. I think it brings excitement to the game," McGee said. "I don't see why he gets burned for what he does. That brings the crowd into the game. So why would you get mad at a guy for celebrating? If you want to bring a prop out there, I think that brings excitement. As long as he's not making a touchdown and pulling his pants down, but if he's doing the fun stuff, that brings people to the game and that's more money (for everyone)."
--Speaking of end zone celebrations, Bills RB Willis McGahee wasn't sure how to react when he scored on a one-yard dive against Denver last week. It was just his fifth TD of the season and his first in seven games. "That was crazy," he said. "I didn't know what to do. Usually I have a little trick up my sleeve but I didn't even do anything this time." Last season, McGahee found the end zone 13 times.
THEY SAID IT: "You know there's going to be some changes, you don't know what type of changes or where they're going to take place. There's always change, on winning teams and losing teams. There's more on losing teams, and we understand that. That's the nature of this business. You definitely know there's going to be some new faces in the locker room next season." - LB London Fletcher on what lies ahead for the 4-10 Bills.
QB J.P. Losman's injured right - throwing - shoulder is improved from a week ago but he's still experiencing soreness in the joint.
"I want to be smart about that," said coach Mike Mularkey, who announced on Wednesday that veteran Kelly Holcomb will make his second consecutive start Saturday in Cincinnati.
Losman threw the ball without any noticeable problems on Wednesday and Mularkey said Losman would dress as the No. 2.
"I just think I'd like him to have all the reps, to get a good feel for everything they do, and he's not getting them all," said Mularkey, who didn't explain why Losman isn't getting them all if he's listed as probable for the game.
Does he fear his young QB will have a bad game against the powerful Bengals (11-3) and have his confidence ruined? "No," Mularkey said.
Meanwhile, offensive lineman Mike Williams (chest) didn't practice again and is likely to miss his fourth consecutive game.
Tight end Ryan Neufeld (knee) has been ruled out of the game and is likely to go on injured reserve.
Signed to the practice squad was defensive tackle Eric Powell from Florida State.
--QB Kelly Holcomb, who will make his second consecutive start Saturday in Cincinnati, has just three interceptions in 162 pass attempts. The Bengals lead the NFL with a whopping 30 interceptions, led by CB Deltha O'Neal's league-high 10 picks.
--OL Mike Williams is likely to miss his fourth consecutive game after not being able to practice on Wednesday for a second consecutive day. Williams has a chest muscle injury.
--WR Lee Evans will be looking to bounce back from last week's two-catch day against Denver that included two dropped passes. Against the Bengals last year, he finished with five catches for 101 yards and a TD.
--CB Nate Clements is looking to repeat his performance against star Bengals WR Chad Johnson from a year ago. Clements held Johnson to two catches for 10 yards in Buffalo's 33-17 victory.
GAME PLAN: When the Bills beat the Bengals last season 33-17 at Paul Brown Stadium, it was their fifth consecutive win and the fifth straight game they scored 30 or more points, a team record. What a difference a year makes. Buffalo enters Saturday's game on a five-game losing streak and it hasn't hit the 30-point mark once.
On paper, the Bengals can chose between unleashing RB Rudi Johnson against Buffalo's 32nd-ranked defense or Palmer on a Buffalo secondary that's given up 387, 336 and 259 yards through the air the past three weeks, including a record 238-yard game to Miami's Chris Chambers and 110 last week to Denver's Rod Smith.
CB Nate Clements needs a repeat performance against Bengals star WR Chad Johnson, who was held to two catches for 10 yards in last season's game.
Offensively, the Bills need to get RB Willis McGahee back on track to give QB Kelly Holcomb a fighting chance in rowdy Paul Brown Stadium. And Buffalo's defense, blitzed for 912 yards and 72 points in its last two road games, has to show up in some form other than road kill.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH --Bills CB Nate Clements, who is down to two games in his free agent audition tour, vs. Bengals WR Chad Johnson, who leads the AFC in receptions with 84 and receiving yards with 1,260 and has promised a special Christmas celebration after his first TD.
--Bills 32nd-ranked run defense vs. Bengals' RB Rudi Johnson, who can become the franchises first 1,500-yard back. He needs 148 yards.
--Bills QB Kelly Holcomb, who has just three interceptions in his seven starts, vs. Bengals' secondary that leads NFL with 30 interceptions, led by CB Deltha O'Neal's 10 picks.
INJURY IMPACT: TE Ryan Neufeld suffered a knee injury against Denver and will undergo surgery. He's the fourth Bills tight end to suffer a knee injury in the last calendar year. The injury may force Buffalo to promote reserve TE Brad Cieslak from the practice squad.