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SMERLAS ON BILLS' UNPROTECTED LIST OLDER PLAYERS WITH LARGE SALARIES MOST VULNERABLE

Plan B is Plan A in the minds of decision-makers for all 28 National Football League teams this week.

Today is when the free-agency system, known as Plan B, takes effect and more than 600 players become unprotected free agents until April 1.

By 5 p.m. (EST) today, each team must decide which 37 players it intends to protect and submit an unprotected list to NFL headquarters in New York City. The 28 lists then are to be distributed to every club and, for two months, those players may change teams without their original clubs receiving draft-pick compensation.

If they don't, their rights revert to their original teams.

As a top-10 finisher in 1989, the Buffalo Bills may sign only 15 Plan B players.

The bottom nine teams may sign as many as they wish. Those in the middle are limited to 25.

Bills General Manager Bill Polian, head coach Marv Levy and assistant GM Bob Ferguson spent most of Wednesday trying to finalize the team's list of 21 unprotected free agents and contact the players who will appear on it.

Some changes could be made today, but few, if any, are expected.

Here is a speculative look at the Bills' Plan B possibilities:

Obvious candidates

Offensive guard Joe Devlin, defensive end Art Still and nose tackle Fred Smerlas have been told by Levy they are on the unprotected list. The coach also informed Devlin and Still they would not be re-signed if they didn't go elsewhere. Each of the three is over 30 years of age and receives a large salary, which makes them unlikely to be signed, and therefore logical to leave unprotected.

Another player in that category is wide receiver James Lofton.

Besides being 30-something and highly paid, offensive guard Tim Vogler and running back Robb Riddick also are attempting to recover from career-threatening knee injuries.

Tough calls

Sure, running back Ronnie Harmon never will be able to live down The Drop and has yet to live up to the expectations the Bills had for him when they made him a first-round choice in 1986. But the dilemma facing the team's brass is whether to allow him to be picked up for free by another team or to try to get something, no matter how little, for him in a trade.

As far as the Bills are concerned, cornerback Derrick Burroughs no longer can play for them because of a spinal defect that resulted in his spending most of the 1989 season on the injured-reserve list. But there is always the chance another NFL team might be able to persuade him to take the risk of playing again.

Backup tight end Butch Rolle doesn't figure heavily in the passing game, but is a strong contributor on special teams.

Kirby Jackson started in place of Burroughs at left cornerback, but his lack of speed is a liability. Still, he was the best replacement the Bills had, and losing him could present a problem if a better starter isn't found.

Although rookie wide receiver John Kolesar spent all of last season on IR with a severe knee injury he suffered in training camp, he has plenty of promise and could prove valuable on special teams if he recovers.

Quarterback Gale Gilbert spent all of last year on IR with cracked ribs suffered in Week Three of the preseason, but until that point he was making a serious run for the No. 2 spot.

Marginal

Several players who fall into a gray area of being kept for one more training camp but whose departures wouldn't be missed are linebackers Tim Cofield, Matt Monger and Tom Doctor (coming off a serious knee injury); wide receivers Flip Johnson and Darryl Franklin; offensive lineman Mitch Frerotte (coming off a back problem); nose tackle Bruce Mesner (coming off a knee injury) and cornerback Carl Mims (coming off an ankle injury).

Polian never has been shy in expressing his negative feelings about Plan B.

"How do I feel about it?" he said. "I feel lousy, I feel sick to my stomach, I hate it. What Plan B does, on balance, is help make a bad team mediocre. It doesn't help you make the playoffs; it hurts you.

"I believe that part of Plan B, under the catch phrase of 'competitive balance,' is designed to disrupt and upset good teams. It takes long-term veterans and forces you to treat them shabbily and bruise their egos. It causes discord in your team because you violate policies (such as not giving signing bonuses to veteran players) that have been long-standing and under which men have negotiated contracts previously."

Polian blames the free-agency system, which the NFL Management Council put in place last year to satisfy anti-trust scrutiny, for creating the "Bickering Bills" image the team developed late in the '89 season.

"The cancer that began to eat away at our football team began last Feb. 1, when Plan B went into effect," he said. "In reflecting upon how we handled Plan B last year, I give myself low marks. I became too emotionally involved in fighting something I still believe to be terribly wrong. The facts are, however, the plan is cleverly crafted to terribly hurt good teams if you don't participate to one degree or another.

"It's truly Catch-22. If you don't participate in the market (as was the case with Chicago and Cincinnati), the depth of your team is ripped asunder. If you do participate, and even one of the men you sign fails to make a contribution, much less makes the team, you've done serious damage to your team chemistry.

"These facts are inescapable. What is also inescapable is that we must win. Plan B, to whatever degree you participate, is expensive beyond all sanity. You're paying ridiculous amounts of money for what you're getting. I go back once again to the inescapable fact that you must win.

"All of us -- players, coaches, administrators -- are judged by our win-loss record. Therefore, while I despise the plan, while I realize it's fiscal insanity, and while I realize it totally destroys team chemistry, I don't have the luxury of fighting a moral war. So, we're going to have to do what's in the best interests of the Buffalo Bills, regardless of who it may inconvenience or hurt."

Of the Bills' six Plan B acquisitions last year, three made the team as reserves -- running back Ken Davis, long-snapper Adam Lingner and offensive lineman John Davis. Offensive lineman Caesar Rentie, defensive back Neal Guggemos and running back Tim Tyrell were cut in training camp.

The Bills' most serious Plan B loss was cornerback Martin Mayhew, who wound up starting for Washington and probably could have been a key contributor after Burroughs was lost for the season. Also lost were long-snapper Dale Hellestrae, fullback Carl Byrum, free safety Sherman Cockroft and place-kicker Kirk Roach.

"There's no question that Kenny Davis helped us," Polian said. "No question Adam Lingner helped us. John Davis did not play a major role, but he did make the squad.

"But was it a major factor for us? No."

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