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The question has come up many times before.

And Marv Levy's answer has always been as easy to predict as Lonnie Johnson's next mistake on the football field.

"Do you have any plans to retire after the season?" reporters would ask.

"No," Levy would answer, quickly, decisively. "I'm looking forward to next year."

The question came up again Saturday, right after the Bills' 31-21 season-ending loss to the Green Bay Packers. Right after a game in which Johnson and several of his teammates did enough goofy things to fill a volume of blooper videotapes. Right after a game in which the Bills received a clear indication of the Grand Canyon-sized gap between themselves and the best team in the NFL, just as they did when the clubs met in the preseason in Toronto.

Maybe Marv, looking as distraught as ever, was just having a tough time trying to digest yet another ugly performance by his offense and special teams.

Maybe he was just feeling bad that one of his all-time favorite players, Steve Tasker, had played the final game of his career . . . well, actually, the final 97 seconds, because that was how long he was on the field before being ejected for bumping an official during an argument.

Whatever the reason, Marv wasn't at all decisive in his response.

In fact, one could conclude that he was being evasive.

First, he cracked a joke: "My immediate future plans are to take a shower."

Then, when the subject of his retirement came up again, Levy turned coy.

"When and if the time comes, there isn't going to be a lot of notice," he said. "I'm not going to preview it."

The questions swirled though the minds of more than a few people gathered around the podium outside the visitors' dressing room in Lambeau Field.

Hmmm. There's not going to be a lot of notice . . . he isn't going to preview it . . .

Could Levy actually be considering a sudden departure, like after this afternoon's final meeting with his players in Rich Stadium?

Or, perhaps, on Monday afternoon, during his scheduled season-ending/state-of-the-Bills news conference?

Or, maybe, next week, after his annual postseason South Florida pow-wow with team owner Ralph Wilson?

Levy did say he intended to put his energies into helping the Bills "get as good as we can as fast as we can." He also said, "We hit the basement. When that happens, you don't give up, you get up. And we're going to get up, and we're going to get up fast."

As wonderful as all of that might sound, it's impossible to believe that Levy is simply going to turn the switch off of one season and turn on the switch of a next without pondering his future.

The man is 72. He will be 73 by the start of the 1998 season. And his football team, once the kind of club that dominated the way the Packers do, has crumbled all around him.

Major repairs are needed in several critical areas -- quarterback, offensive line, tight ends, special teams. Major changes are necessary in the design and implementation of the scheme. Major improvements are needed in the instruction and development of younger players.

Several veteran Bills players were quick to line up after Saturday's game and challenge growing criticism that Levy no longer communicates well with their younger teammates. Even if that's true, communication is only a small part of the equation.

The Bills' return to serious contention is not going to happen "fast," as in one offseason and maybe not even two or three. We're talking about building pretty much from the ground up. We're talking about the sort of grinding, all-consuming stuff that would tax the physical and emotional energy of a much younger man.

Sure, Wilson has reiterated his position that Levy can coach forever. Sure, Levy can do what he has done at the end of recent seasons and make changes among his assistants.

The popular speculation is that Dan Henning will want to revamp the staff he was forced to inherit when he became offensive coordinator last January.

That presumes, of course, that Henning -- as the "mastermind" of one of the worst offenses in Bills history -- isn't gone himself.

But what Levy should do is give his own situation greater thought.

He has had a great coaching career, not only in Bills history but in NFL history as well. He has a spot reserved in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And, bottom line, he deserves a lot better.

He deserves a lot better than to be standing on the sidelines as his offense reaches new heights of ineptitude -- as passes sail over the helmets of receivers or bounce at their cleats; as tight ends and running backs collide on pass routes; as fumbles are lost and interceptions are returned for touchdowns.

He deserves a lot better than to see his special teams deteriorate into a disaster-in-waiting.

Asked for his reaction to seeing Green Bay score on a muffed punt and block a Chris Mohr punt, Levy replied, "It's mortifying."

Levy also deserves better than to be regularly criticized by fans and media.

"Someday, somehow, somewhere, I'm going to retire," Levy said, raising his voice and showing some annoyance with repeated questioning about his future. "Right now, I'm not going to discuss it until the time comes."

As painful as it might be to admit, the time is here.

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