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I don't mean to make Eric Moulds out to be a philanthropist. The guy signed a six-year, $40 million contract, the richest deal in Bills' history. He pocketed a $12.5 million bonus for attaching his signature to the document. The rest of us would gladly put up with the infernal snow and wind if it meant that sort of windfall.

Still, if you're a Buffalo sports fan it's cause for celebration. Given a chance to sell himself to the highest bidder, Moulds took stock of his surroundings and decided he liked this town just fine.

It's a lot of money, to be sure. But he could have commanded even more on the NFL's open market, where several of the league's contenders would have been eager to hand over millions to a playmaking wide receiver of Moulds' considerable talents.

"There's no doubt it would have been larger to go somewhere else," said Harry Henderson, one of Moulds' agents at Pro Sports in New Orleans. "At the Pro Bowl, everyone knew Eric was there. He was the most courted free agent."

Henderson said three of the Eagles' stars - Donovan McNabb, Troy Vincent and Hugh Douglas - did an aggressive recruiting job in Hawaii. They took Moulds out on the town before the Pro Bowl to sell him on the virtues of Philadelphia.

In the end, though, Moulds figured he'd be better off staying in one place, and being identified with a single NFL team. He had talked to his buddy, Keyshawn Johnson, who warned him about the drawbacks of starting over in another city. Cris Carter, his workout partner in the offseason, also told him to stay put.

Moulds listened to his friends. In the back of his mind, he could also hear the crowds at Ralph Wilson Stadium, a place so rowdy and raucous it reminded him of his college days at Mississippi State. He realized how lucky he is to perform in an NFL city with such a rabid, loyal following.

"It's a football city," Moulds said. "Year-round they talk football here. Year-round it's football crazy."

Skeptics say the Bills, with their salary cap woes, couldn't afford to sign him. The fact is, they couldn't afford not to. The offense has been lame with him the last two years. Without him, it would be a disaster. There wouldn't be a quarterback controversy. It wouldn't matter who threw the ball.

Moulds caught 94 passes for 1,326 yards last year on an offense in disarray. During the last three years, he's averaged 75 catches for 1,229 yards. If the choice was between Moulds at $6.6 million a year or Marcellus Wiley at $5 million, the Bills made the right choice. Pass-rushing defensive ends are a precious commodity, but Wiley has played effectively as a starter for only half a season. He's still a risk at that price.

Moulds is a proven commodity. If the new coaches are great teachers, as Gregg Williams says, there's no telling what his numbers will be in the West Coast offense.

"When you look at a roster, you're trying to find difference-makers on both sides of the ball," said Bills general manager Tom Donahoe. "He is certainly that. With a new staff, it gives them a nice weapon on the outside to do some of things they want to do. His attitude was excellent. He made it clear he wanted to be here. He appreciates the organization and the fans in this area."

He's had his stumbles along the way. Until he broke through in 1998, Moulds was more renowned for his off-field problems with women. He was immature, as a player and a man. But over the last couple of years, he has matured into a team leader, a tireless worker, a gracious and accommodating spokesman in the dressing room. A star.

It's about time Buffalo fans got some good news about a star. Last year, three Bills legends went out the door at one time. Michael Peca says he's through with the Sabres; Dominik Hasek's remaining time is short here. Either Doug Flutie or Rob Johnson will be gone early next week. Wiley is almost certain to be a cap casualty March 1.

Fans can at least take comfort in the fact that Moulds is locked up for six more years. He is 27, in the prime of his career. By the time this contract is through, if he stays healthy, he will put up numbers that put him on track for the Hall of Fame. In time, he could be considered the greatest receiver in Bills history, even better than Andre Reed.

One day, Bills fans might look back on that $40 million as a very sound investment. You diehards could even start today.

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