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BILLS' OFFENSIVE WOES MAY PUT SOME ON HOT SEAT

Even Hail Mary passes aren't enough to save the Bills' offense these days. Andre Reed ended up with one of those lucky bounce numbers in the dying seconds of Buffalo's loss to the Patriots on Sunday night, making the final score look a lot tidier than it actually was. The translation of New England's 28-25 victory was that the Bills are in descent, which could become steeper in the next few weeks.

Jim Kelly didn't perform much better than he has all season long, which is semi-dismal. His offensive line came off the ball with all the zeal of a mid-July workout in its Fredonia training camp. Even the return to the lineup of Steve Tasker after a six-game absence did not make a difference.

Through the agony of the two-month touchdown drought, the Bills' offensive coaching staff has gotten off easily. Kelly's shocking slide has occupied most of the fans' attention. What the Bills needed from the deep thinkers was a game plan that might provide enough creativity to allow the first-down markers to be moved on a consistent basis. What they got instead was a mess. It was "midnight in the garden of three-and-out."

Punter Chris Mohr, who used to have a job like the Maytag repairman, was among the busiest Bills on Sunday with seven kicks. These days, he is a familiar figure on the field. That wasn't the only odd sight on the field. At one point in the second quarter, Jeff Burris crashed into running back Curtis Martin of the Patriots, causing a fumble which Buffalo recovered at the New England 37. Eleven plays and 23 yards later, Steve Christie lined up to kick a field goal.

There was a time, not that long ago, when the Bills used to pounce on such opportunities. Give them a turnover, and they rocketed into the end zone. Apparently those days are over.

Just as it has so often this season, the defensive unit kept the Bills in the game. The New England running game was stuffed, trussed and locked in a cell. It gained just 59 yards, and averaged a mere 2.1 yards per carry. Chris Spielman, Sam Rogers and their pals put the padlocks in place.

For a long while in the second half, Drew Bledsoe and the passing game were muted also. But after three quarters, New England had held the ball twice as long as the Bills, which meant that by the final 15 minutes the endurance was being sapped from the Buffalo defenders. Bledsoe, inevitably, found time to mount the drive that overcame a dramatic Buffalo comeback.

Interestingly, the comeback was pulled off with Kelly in the K-Gun formation, which was his comfort zone throughout the glory years. The offensive coaches have attempted to install a variety of formations this season, but the only thing that really seems to work for Kelly is his old security blanket, the Gun. It seems obvious that if he is to remain the starting quarterback, the K-Gun it will have to be.

The multiple formations will have to wait for the next quarterback.

At least it seems obvious that the K-Gun and Kelly should continue to be Siamese twins. It may not be so obvious to the coaches.

Asked if he expects the K-Gun to remain the Bills' possession formation of choice from now on, Kelly replied, "You're asking the wrong person."

It seemed evident that he was biting his tongue not to criticize the coaches publicly. In the final 3:45, Buffalo needed just one first down to keep its critical possession drive going. On third down, the Bills came out in a two-back set, which was sent in by the strategists. "It didn't work, did it?" said Kelly, who was not amused.

Asked if the proper formation for that down should have been the K-Gun, Kelly said, "I thought the K-Gun worked pretty well, if you get my drift."

Ironically, the K-Gun is leftover creativity from the days when Ted Marchibroda was still running the Buffalo offense and Kelly was installed, physically and psychologically, at its helm. That was two head coaching jobs away for Marchibroda. Isn't it about time that his successors started making their own reputations?

Plainly, the Buffalo players are not getting nearly enough help from their offensive coaches. This lack of contribution is putting the coaches in peril. Owner Ralph Wilson spent lavishly to sign receivers Quinn Early, Eric Moulds and Andre Reed, as well as seeing to it that the entire offensive line would be secured for the immediate future.

At the current rate, Wilson is paying about $1 million per touchdown.

After the 1994 season, the Bills changed defensive coordinators, firing Walt Corey and hiring Wade Phillips, whose work has drawn wide-spread praise. It was plain that Wilson had ordered the change.

A similar change could take place on offense if there isn't a relatively quick U-turn.

The steady resurgence of Thurman Thomas, while it may be encouraging to his teammates and the fans, is almost an embarrassment to the offensive coaches. If the team's pinwheel runner is back on track, why aren't more points being scored?

The Hail Mary touchdown by Reed clouded the Bills' dilemma. The fact is that their offense has descended to a class with Tampa Bay and Arizona.

Thomas ran for 119 yards on 26 carries against the Patriots. Just last December, the Buffalo running game was gouging St. Louis, with Sean Gilbert and D'Amico Farr on its line, for more than 200 yards, Miami for more than 200 yards and an additional 300-plus in a playoff game.

Even at a 30 percent discount, it is difficult to understand why the ground game can't remain a savior for the Bills' current predicament.

The offensive coaches had better come up with some answers soon, or their own futures won't look so healthy.

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