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MYSTERIES ABOUND AS BILLS HEAD INTO OFFSEASON

Let the uncertainty begin.

As the Buffalo Bills packed away their woeful 1997 season Sunday, they entered what figures to be one of their more tumultuous offseasons in years.

The Bills' 6-10 record is expected to trigger significant changes within the coaching staff -- including the possible retirement of head coach Marv Levy -- and throughout a roster that has nine players due to become unrestricted free agents and is in dire need of outside help.

"I don't know what to expect," running back Thurman Thomas said after the Bills' final team meeting of '97 at Rich Stadium. "Even when we had the 7-9 season back in '94, there wasn't this much uncertainty about things on this football team. It's different, but it happens."

There is a chance that, with the bitter disappointment of the Bills' worst finish since 1986 in his past and a long, difficult rebuilding process in his future, Levy might choose to retire.

According to those in attendance, Levy, who turns 73 in the summer, did not make any such announcement during his 20-minute meeting with the players. Levy did not speak with reporters afterward; he is due to hold his annual postseason news conference today.

After exchanging good-byes with each other and their coaches, players had varying opinions about Levy's intentions. Some, like quarterback Alex Van Pelt, said they had no doubt he would be returning to coach the team because he conducted his season-ending business as usual. They said he talked about improvements that needed to be made for next season and told them he would see them next year.

Others were a little less certain about the coach's status. They saw Levy express more emotion than usual, although some of it resulted from his recognition of retiring special-teams star Steve Tasker, who was also choked up.

Depending on what Levy might say today, a more definitive answer about his future probably won't come until after he and general manager John Butler have their annual postseason meeting with team owner
Ralph Wilson later this week.

Questions also linger about the future of some of Levy's assistant coaches. The entire offensive staff, including first-year coordinator Dan Henning, is in danger of being dismissed after Buffalo's offense struggled through one of its worst seasons in team history.

"Maybe this is not the right scheme for the type of players we have on this football team, I don't know," Thomas said. "If we're going to run this type of scheme next year, obviously you're going to have to look at some of the teams that Dan Henning coached. Look at the Washington Redskins -- big offensive linemen, good, big tight ends that are primarily in there for blocking.

"You're going to have to address all those things in order to help this team get back on track."

Of the nine Bills due to become unrestricted free agents, six are starters -- nose tackle Ted Washington, cornerback Jeff Burris, linebackers Bryce Paup and Sam Rogers, tight end Lonnie Johnson, and offensive guard Corbin Lacina.

It seems that Washington will be retained, either with a long-term contract or a franchise designation that guarantees he will receive a one-year contract.

"It's pretty much said and done, where the market is for me," Washington said. "I just hope we can come to an agreement on my market value. Most guys don't want to be a franchise guy. I think I've proven that I can be a dominant player, I can make plays, so I don't want to be a franchise player and then have to prove myself again the following season. I'd like to be tied down to one team and finish my career there, and that's here."

It is expected the Bills might not keep Paup, who is expected to attract heavy attention in the open market. Paup, who left the Packers as a free agent to join Buffalo in 1995, still has a residence in Green Bay and would not oppose the idea of returning to the defending Super Bowl champions.

"It's probably one of the best places to play," he said. "No one knows what the future holds. I'm not going to say, 'Oh, I want out of here,' because that's not the case. Things have a way of working out. If I'm supposed to be back, I'll be back."

Wilson is on record as saying he intends to spend heavily to help the Bills address their key needs in free agency.

That means several current players could become ex-players.

"We've heard there might be some radical changes, but that comes with the territory," tight end Jay Riemersma said. "For a lot of us, this is really when the pressure begins."

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