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WILSON CONDUCTS BIG BILLS HUDDLE THIS WEEKEND

The questions soon will be answered.

Will Marv Levy return to coach the Buffalo Bills? Will there be any changes on his staff of assistants? Will the Bills shop the free-agent market with the verve they promised in the closing weeks of their disastrous 6-10 season?

These are expected to be among the major topics of discussion when Levy and general manager John Butler travel to Palm Beach, Fla., this weekend for their annual post-season meeting with Bills owner Ralph Wilson.

During his state-of-the-Bills news conference Monday, Levy, 72, refused to say whether he would be back for another season at the helm. Although he is proceeding as if he will coach the team in 1998, he clearly is making no assumptions about his status after the Bills ruined a 5-4 start that put them in contention for the AFC East championship with a 1-6 finish. He shows no inclination toward retirement, but is looking to be told by Wilson, face-to-face, that he is still wanted in the job he assumed midway through the 1986 season.

It seems highly unlikely that Wilson will waver from his long-standing position that Levy -- who has a year left on his contract -- can coach the team for as long as he wants, regardless of his record.

Should the owner have a sudden change of heart, however, it is expected that defensive coordinator Wade Phillips -- whose contract was extended through 1999 after the 1996 season -- would promptly be named to succeed Levy.

In any event, there is strong speculation throughout the team and around the NFL that Wilson will call for changes within the offensive coaching staff, which has come under heavy criticism for the Bills' ranking last in the NFL in passing, last in third-down conversions, 25th in yards, 28th in turnovers and 29th in points.

Coordinator Dan Henning, whose multiple-tight end/power-oriented scheme failed miserably, could be on the way out. But his firing would put Levy in the unenviable position of finding a third offensive coordinator in three seasons and introducing yet another new approach for players to learn. The likelihood that Levy would not coach for many, if any, years beyond 1998 would also figure to make it difficult to find a top-level replacement, particularly one who is young.

Offensive line coach Tom Bresnahan and tight ends coach Don Lawrence also seem on extremely thin ice. If Henning stays, he will probably want to hire his own offensive staff rather than keep all of the one he inherited last year. It is known that professional differences have created friction between Henning and Bresnahan, who was demoted from the coordinator's job upon Henning's arrival. Bresnahan could also wind up taking the hit for an offensive line whose major shortcomings were evident from the start of the preseason, while Lawrence could be blamed for the lack of development of Lonnie Johnson and other tight ends.

The one assistant Henning would likely retain is receivers coach Charlie Joiner, who played for San Diego when Henning was the Chargers' head coach.

Levy would prefer not to make any coaching moves. And if he wound up retiring, it could very well be because he decided it was better than having to give the ax to close, long-time friends and loyal employees.

But it has not been Levy's history to put up much of a fight for his assistants' jobs.

Besides coaching issues, Wilson is also expected to discuss the team's areas of need and how they will be addressed through free agency.

It is expected the owner will give Butler and pro player personnel director A.J. Smith the green light to shop aggressively for a new quarterback, offensive linemen and tight ends. During his news conference, Levy said a top-notch kickoff returner and deep kickoff specialist were desperately needed to upgrade one of the worst special teams in the league.

Free-agent possibilities include quarterbacks Erik Kramer (Chicago), Craig Erickson (Miami), Jim Everett (San Diego), Randall Cunningham (Minnesota) and Jim Harbaugh (if he is released by Indianapolis, which could use the top overall pick of the draft on a QB); offensive linemen Larry Allen (Dallas), Tre' Johnson (Washington), John Jackson (Pittsburgh), Bruce Armstrong (New England) and Todd Steussie (Minnesota); and tight ends Jackie Harris (Tampa Bay), Eric Green (Baltimore), Derek Brown (Jacksonville) and Irv Smith (New Orleans).

Top kick returners that could be available are Michael Bates of Carolina and Eric Guliford of New Orleans (who ranked first and second in the NFC), while one-time Bill and current New York Giant Brad Daluiso could be a long-range kicking possibility.

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