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Saban departure fries Fish but bodes well for Bills

Here are my three reactions to the Nick Saban escape from the Miami Dolphins to the University of Alabama:

1. This is a very good thing for the Buffalo Bills. Saban is a good, shrewd coach. In the long run he would have been a very formidable opponent for the Bills.

2. His jumping ship is a damning statement on the state of the Dolphins organization.

3. Even though he walked out on a commitment he made to Dolphins owner H. Wayne Huizenga -- he's being vilified for it in Miami, just as he would be if the same thing happened in Buffalo -- I have no problem with Saban doing what he thinks is best for him.

Saban has been a winner everywhere he has gone. He has a lot of similarities to New England's Bill Belichick. He made some mistakes in Miami, no doubt. He picked Daunte Culpepper over Drew Brees, based on the medical reports he got from the Dolphins' doctors. That doesn't look smart right now. We'll have to see what happens. If the old Culpepper appears in 2007, maybe it won't look so bad. Saban also hired Mike Mularkey to run his offense. That doesn't look so good, either. Mularkey eschewed the run too often in Miami this year and didn't get the ball often enough to his best player -- receiver Chris Chambers. On the other hand, it's not Mularkey's fault Culpepper turned up gimpy or that Joey Harrington is a bust. Bill Walsh would not have worked wonders with Harrington and the Miami offensive line this year.

Saban was not an idiot in 2005 when he squeezed nine wins out of the combination of Gus Frerotte and Sage Rosenfels. He is a good coach. Anybody who can go 9-2 at Toledo and Michigan State, claim a national championship at Louisiana State, and earn the long-time respect of Belichick is a good coach.

Huizenga no doubt will find a good coach to replace Saban, but he won't find a better one, even if he somehow hires Bill Cowher. So that's a plus for the Bills and the other AFC East teams.

The next coach has a big job on his hands. If Saban thought the Dolphins were on the cusp of contending for the conference title, it's hard to imagine him leaving. His departure is a statement that the Dolphins have big problems. Culpepper's knee may never be the same, and it's debatable whether he's the kind of stand-up guy you want leading the team. The offensive line is poor. So is the defensive secondary. And by the time the offense gets fixed, the Dolphins' stellar defense is going to be too old to win.

Things can change fast in the NFL, but Miami looks more than two years away from a title.

It's easy to rip Saban for deciding the job was too tough and rushing back to the relative security of the college game.

"He has run away from the challenge," Hall of Fame Dolphins coach Don Shula told the Miami Herald.

True, Shula probably never would have done such a thing.

But let's put Saban's resignation in the larger context of NFL coaching, circa 2006.

NFL owners fire head coaches hastily all the time. Granted, coaches know this when they sign up for the job. But the head coach is often the first and easiest scapegoat in the NFL. The league has averaged 6.6 head coaching changes a year since 1990. There were 10 last year. It's an insane business. The job has gotten even harder in the past 10 years, with the salary cap era creating a jam-packed offseason schedule of free-agent recruiting and spring practices. Coaches get fired capriciously all the time. For a change, a coach bails on the owner. It's his prerogative.

(Here we should point out that this was a far different situation than Mularkey bailing on the Bills last year. Mularkey knew he was a dead man after the 2005 season. No new regime keeps the head coach from the failed former regime.)

The reality is a top major college program is a far better job for any coach who wants some semblance of a normal life. The competition is not as even as in the NFL. Build a strong program, and it's easier to stay in one place a long time.

Saban was smart enough to see this and lucky enough to find a convenient escape hatch to Alabama.

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Royal's value

The Bills remain high on tight end Robert Royal, even though he wasn't as involved in the passing game as he might have been if the Bills' offense were in a further state of development. But like all the free agents the Bills acquired last offseason, Royal was a positive presence in the locker room. He's well liked. He's a team player. He keeps people loose and upbeat.

This was underscored in a story in the Washington Post this week that quoted an unidentified Redskins player complaining about Washington's annual practice of playing fantasy football in free agency and neglecting team chemistry.

"When it comes to guys who have been here three or four years, who played hard and played in pain for them, they use that money to go out and buy the next toy," the Post quoted a veteran player as saying. "They make promises about using the money to keep everybody together, then guys like A.P. [Antonio Pierce], and Ryan [Clark] and Robert Royal -- our real glue guys -- leave and they go outside again. . . . You look at a lot of the guys who left here, and they're mostly playing well and their teams are doing well. . . . It's like they're trying to build a team of superstars, or guys who are paid like superstars, and it's not working."

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Shell no shock

Speaking of scapegoats, Raiders owner Al Davis found his latest in dismissing loyal Art Shell after just one season. Shell could be criticized for giving the offensive coordinator job to Tom Walsh, a guy who recently had a job fluffing pillows. Walsh had been out of football for a dozen years, some of which he spent running a bed and breakfast in Idaho. Walsh was Shell's coordinator from 1990-94.

The problem for Shell was, this is who you get when everyone in football knows the head coach doesn't have the final say. The fact the head coach's authority too often is undercut is a big part of the Raiders' dysfunction. Who wants to work there? There's no quarterback. The highest-paid player, Randy Moss, coasted through another season. There is no continuity. It will be fascinating to see who is willing to step into this job.

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Scapegoats II

Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio sacked five more coaches. He has sacked coaches after every season, and now will be working on his third offensive coordinator in four years and third special teams coach in five years.

Among the fired were special teams coach Pete Rodriguez, offensive coordinator Carl Smith and QB coach Ken Anderson. Rodriguez has an excellent track record and was considered a coup when hired in 2004. But the Jags allowed two punt returns for touchdowns (by Buffalo and Indianapolis) and a blocked punt for a TD by Kansas City. Del Rio is a good coach, but it doesn't seem right. It will be hard to upgrade from Rodriguez.

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Onside kicks

As expected, Lions General Manager Matt Millen is staying despite his 24-72 record over six seasons. As we said at the start of the year, this actually makes sense. The time to fire Millen was last year, before Detroit searched for a new coach. That's what should have happened. But once the decision was made in January 2006 that Millen should pick the new coach -- Rod Marinelli -- then it's even crazier to fire Millen after one year of the Marinelli regime. A new GM would almost certainly not be committed to Marinelli.

Once he landed in Alabama, Saban had this to say about running back Ricky Williams, who will try to re-enter the NFL after a year in Canada: "God knows about No. 34 [Williams], but if he comes back, you win three or four more games if the guy is playing, I'm telling you," Saban said. "He's got a presence." What's mystifying is the Dolphins drafted Ronnie Brown second overall in 2005. Yet they don't seem to love the guy.

The final QB stats in Dallas: Tony Romo -- 65.3 percent completions, 19 TDs, 13 INTs, 21 sacks, a 95.1 passer rating; Drew Bledsoe -- 53.3 percent completions, 7 TDs, 8 INTs, 16 sacks, a 69.2 passer rating. One has to think Bledsoe will retire. But Bledsoe said he is undecided and will take some time to make his decision.

Four quarterbacks took every snap this season (not counting trick plays). They were the Bills' J.P. Losman, the 49ers' Alex Smith, the Lions' Jon Kitna and the Colts' Peyton Manning.

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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