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PUT DIRE PREDICTIONS ON HOLD, BILLS FANS -- THE SKY ISN'T FALLING

I'M SKEPTICAL about all this skepticism concerning the Bills.

Much of the doomsday stuff is an updated version of what we've all been hearing every spring since 1989. Our heroes had barely ascended then, yet those who view things gravely were predicting their descent. The same sort of refurbished prophecies have been made each year since.

No doubt the AFC East will be more competitive and the Bills will be different in several ways. But aren't good teams supposed to freshen themselves before they grow too old and it's too late?

Besides, where is it chiseled in stone that any of the pretenders, including Miami, the tarnished defending champion, improved enough to pass Buffalo?

Consider the Bills' personnel losses during the free agency scramble:

Will Wolford -- His case is well known. In essence, Buffalo was jobbed.

James Lofton -- He'll be 37 by opening day, and he shows it. The Colts' Ted Marchibroda, a strong admirer of Lofton when he coached here, had him in Indy for a tryout. James is said to have run a 4.7 and change for the 40-yard sprint. In the list of college prospects compiled by draftnik Mel Kiper of ESPN, you have to go down to No. 58 before you find someone that slow.

Shane Conlan -- No way, with a salary cap less than 12 months away, was Buffalo going to pay $2 million a year to a linebacker who comes off the field on third down and sometimes second.

Carlton Bailey -- A matter of judgment. They benched him late last year, so they weren't going to pay him $1.7 million.

Mitch Frerotte -- A gritty overachiever, but wasn't he cut twice previously? Frerotte is the sort of player good teams try to replace with someone better.

Clifford Hicks -- A marginal defensive back who had a good year as a punt returner. So the Bills have to find another punt returner. It's not terminal.

With the exception of the Wolford case, these are the sort of problems most NFL teams have. Even in replacing Wolford, Buffalo isn't exactly destitute. There may be skepticism in the dressing room about whether John Fina can play left tackle, but Miami, the Jets, Indianapolis and New England all would crawl on their hands and knees to acquire a young offensive lineman as good as he is. The same goes for Glenn Parker, controversial contract or not.

There are some doubts in the Buffalo dressing room about whether the young guys can produce or not, but veterans are always poor judges of developing talent. That's why they have coaches and scouts.

Frankly, I'm anxious to see young prospects like Mark Maddox. He's smart and tough enough to make it as the new inside linebacker, replacing Conlan. If he does, the Bills will have one of the fastest linebacking corps in the NFL with Marvcus Patton on the outside and Maddox and Cornelius Bennett, however reluctant, on the inside.

This August should be the time for defensive backs like Matt Darby and Kurt Schulz to make their moves. The same for Brad Lamb, who could inject extra speed into the receiving setup.

In this view, the Bills' biggest negatives are the psychological hangover from three straight Super Bowl losses and the law of averages. No team ever went to four consecutive Supes.

But if the Bills aren't the team to beat in the AFC, who is? It's difficult to make a case for any other.

The Bills' success hinges on two main factors:

1. Jim Kelly.

Now that they have recommitted to Kelly, he has to come through in a big way. Even if his arm doesn't have the power it did when he was younger, it may be immaterial because of the zone coverages he faces. What is more important is his thorough preparation for each game and his grace under pressure, which has nothing to do with his toughness.

2. Marv Levy's salesmanship.

Levy has to convince his veterans that the team wasn't wrecked by free agency and that they must be patient with their young teammates. He'll probably never convince Kelly to paste a sign that says "The Buck Stops Here" on his locker, but he has to sell the quarterback on the idea of accepting more public responsibility than he has in the past.

There is less worry about the reappearance of the "Bickering Bills" than there is about the emergence of the "Whining Bills." Thumbsucking seems to be the order of the day for anyone who hasn't signed a multimillion dollar contract.

Bruce Smith, who wants Reggie White money, says "a happy player is the best player."

Oh? You couldn't tell it by last year's team. Tight end Keith McKeller was happy after he signed his contract, but he was useless to the Bills. On the other hand, nose tackle Jeff Wright was unhappy all season, but he had a terrific year.

The Bills often play better when they are hungry and worried. Can the heads of the vets be screwed on tightly in '93? Levy is good at that sort of thing.

Surely, John Butler, the new general manager, did his part so far. He scrambled to get the last of the important free agent Bills signed recently. The most impressive move was assuring tight end Pete Metzelaars will be back. Cleveland, without a starting tight end, wooed him ardently.

No matter what happens in the next couple of months, we'll probably all hear more than we want to about rich new contracts for Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Bruce Smith. No team can support three superstars making $5 million a year, which would be more than half the salary cap. The Bills' biggest alterations are likely to come in 1994.

But that's off in the distance. You know what football coaches say: One season at a time.

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