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BALLARD IS PLAYING LIKE A HOUSE AFIRE; PERFORMANCE AGAINST EAGLES' WHITE WAS HISBEST OF SEASON

It's amazing how much a year and 12 games of consistently strong pass-protection can change a quarterback's perspective.

In 1989, Jim Kelly fingered Howard Ballard as the weakest link on the Buffalo Bills' offensive line.

This year, Kelly can't heap enough praise on the behemoth right tackle.

When someone asked the quarterback recently if he agreed that Ballard's improvement was as significant as many observers believe, he replied, "I think he's improved more than everybody says. He's gotten to be one of the best in the league."

Ballard's greatest performance of the season came Sunday, during the Bills' 30-23 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. He spent much of the game blocking Eagles Reggie White one-on-one.

That's the same Reggie White widely regarded as one of the NFL's two best defensive ends (the Bills' Bruce Smith being the other).

"How many times did you hear Reggie White's name called?" Kelly said, referring to the fact neither White nor any other Eagle registered a sack. "If you were to tell me before the game that I wasn't going to be sacked, I wouldn't have believed you. I knew I was going to get hit a couple of times, but our line did one hell of a job."

White, who entered the game with 10 sacks, was credited with a mere four tackles.

"That game just proves that House has definitely improved," Kelly said. "And his biggest improvement is in pass-blocking, just from being in there and working with the people beside him, and just getting used to our offense. And he really worked on it in the off-season."

Bills center Kent Hull, a two-time Pro Bowler, sees Ballard as being worthy of All-Pro recognition.

"Right now, Howard is our most consistent lineman," Hull said. "He never gets rattled. He does the job, and right now, he's doing it better than anyone."

As always, Ballard does his best to maintain a low profile -- as low as a 6-foot-6, 315-pound man can. When Bills coach Marv Levy presented him with one of the offensive game balls Sunday, Ballard, who rarely shows much emotion on or off the field, responded with a quiet, "Thank you."

Facetiously, a grinning Levy told him, "Don't get so excited, Howard."

"There's a little bit of satisfaction overall," Ballard said of keeping White off Kelly's back.

Then, with a wry smile, he added, "Hopefully, the general manager or whoever negotiates contracts will look at the film of that game and say, 'Well, we'll give him $200,000 or $300,000 extra.' That would be nice."

This season, Ballard is due to receive a minimum of $132,000 -- a base salary of $125,000 and a roster bonus of $7,000. Last August, Will Wolford, the Bills' left tackle, was given a new contract that pays him around $700,000 per year.

After the season, Ballard will enter the option year of his contract, which calls for $144,500, including another $7,000 roster bonus.

By all accounts, the former Alabama A&M standout will have a strong case to present at the bargaining table.

"There's a parallel with Howard and (tight end) Keith McKeller," Levy said. "Both are guys out of relatively small programs (McKeller from Jacksonville, Ala., State) who have worked hard and been able to respond to coaching and not get discouraged when they made their early mistakes. It's something in their makeup, in their temperament, that has allowed both of them to get better.

"The experience that Howard got under his belt last year (as a first-time starter) was very valuable. I'm sure his confidence level has gone up. It's just an accumulation of coaching and repetition and the work he has done with (strength and conditioning coordinator) Rusty Jones in conditioning. He does a great job of remaining on an even keel. He has a good perspective.

"In a lot of ways, he's a wonderful guy to coach and have on your team."

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