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BILLS WILL TEST NEW STAFF'S TEACHING SKILLS

When Gregg Williams became the Buffalo Bills' head coach, he said the assistants he hired would be great teachers.

They had better be.

The Bills are about to undergo a major personnel overhaul for the second straight year. The end result will be a roster that's long on youth, and short on experience in some areas.

Because of their salary cap problems, the Bills have to release several high-priced veterans. But the defense will end up paying the biggest price.

Nose tackle Ted Washington will be released Thursday, according to sources. Cornerback Ken Irvin, defensive end Phil Hansen and linebacker Sam Rogers might join him if they don't agree to sizable pay cuts.

Washington's agent, Angelo Wright, has already made it clear to the Bills that a pay decrease is out of the question. The sooner Washington is released, the better, as far as Wright is concerned.

Linebacker John Holecek also might go bye-bye if the Bills go to a 4-3 scheme as expected. There wouldn't be enough playing time for him and Sam Cowart in the middle.

Barring a minor miracle, the Bills also will lose defensive end Marcellus Wiley. He's coming off a career year and will command more money on the free agent market than the Bills can afford.

Should these moves come to pass, the Bills will go into the season with six - count 'em, six - new starters on defense. And that doesn't include versatile lineman Shawn Price, who is an unrestricted free agent.

The Bills could probably get by without Irvin, a solid, but replaceable talent. They might even survive minus Rogers and/or Holecek. But I can't see how they can overcome the loss of Washington, Wiley and Hansen.

Can you imagine the Bills' defense being as dominant as it has been with Pat Williams, first-round disappointment Erik Flowers, second-year project Leif Larsen and '99 draftee Bryce Fisher (he has completed his obligation to the Air Force) as the starting defensive line? I didn't think so.

Washington would be the biggest loss. He means as much to the Bills' defense as Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams did to Baltimore's Super Bowl-winning unit.

Washington's ability to clog the middle and occupy multiple blockers was a key reason the Bills had one of the NFL's stingiest run defenses.

His detractors will say he is overweight and overpaid because he's not an every-down player. But how many times have we seen opposing offenses face second-and-long and third-and-long situations against the Bills because of meager gains on first downs? In addition, Washington kept blockers away from Cowart and Holecek, allowing them to make all those tackles.

I love Williams, but he's never been subjected to constant double teams like Washington has. Who knows how he'll do as the man up front.

"You can't have a great defense without a defensive line," said Wright, whose client list includes Williams and Adams. "Baltimore's defense wasn't dominant just because of Ray Lewis. You have to control the line of scrimmage to be successful as a defense, and it starts up front."

The offense will go through some changes as well, beginning with quarterback. Whether it is Doug Flutie or Rob Johnson, offensive coordinator Mike Sheppard and quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe will be challenged to teach their man the complexities of the West Coast offense.

If it is Johnson, the bigger challenge for Sheppard and Kragthorpe might be rebuilding his confidence. Johnson was sacked 49 times last season. Many of them were his fault because of his maddening habit of holding the ball too long in the pocket.

But I also blame the Bills' former coaching staff. Johnson has made the same mistakes for the past three seasons, which leads me to believe ex-offensive coordinator Joe Pendry and quarterback coach Turk Schonert didn't do a good enough job correcting Johnson's flaws.

The pounding Johnson took wasn't limited to the field. He is not very popular in Buffalo, a point driven home when fans booed every incompletion and cheered when he suffered a shoulder injury against San Diego. He also has to win over some players in the locker room who are strongly behind Flutie.

It won't matter what kind of offense the Bills have unless they have a competent offensive line. This bunch had a miserable season in 2000. The run blocking was inconsistent and pass protection almost non-existent, at least when Johnson was under center.

The Bills allowed 59 sacks last year, four shy of the franchise record. Some of them were caused by running backs or tight ends failing to pick up blitzing linebackers and defensive backs and Johnson's slow trigger. But the offensive line was responsible for its fair share.

Tackle Marcus Spriggs and guard Jamie Nails, the right side of the Bills' offensive line, are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents on March 2. Backup right tackle Robert Hicks, who fell out of favor with the last coaching regime, will be a restricted free agent. Reserve guard Joe Panos is a possible salary cap casualty.

None of these guys is going to be highly coveted on the open market, so some, if not all, of them might return. But the offensive line is still in dire need of a talent upgrade. Bills fans are hoping new position coach Ronnie Vinklarek does more teaching than yelling, unlike his surly predecessor, Carl Mauck.

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