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AN OPENING-DAY WIN SHOULD BE A STEPPING STONE

The exhibition season is out of the way, and conventional wisdom is that the Bills will now focus entirely on their opening game in San Diego next week. Conventional wisdom is wrong. San Diego has been the focus for more than a month.

It figures. Not only are first impressions lasting ones for a new coaching staff, a new offense and a new quarterback, but historical precedent is a major factor.

Since the NFL began using a 16-game schedule in 1978, 53.5 percent of teams winning on opening day went on to qualify for the playoffs. Just 22 percent of the losers played in the postseason.

Buffalo has qualified for the playoffs 15 times since 1960. The team won 12 and lost just three openers in those years. During the Marv Levy era, the Bills made eight postseason appearances. They won seven of eight openers in those seasons.

There's always an exception, and in this case it's Pittsburgh. The Steelers lost four of their last five openers and still made the playoffs each year.

Niners need blockers

San Francisco is the latest NFL power to experience a crisis on its offensive line. After Kirk Scrafford, their right tackle, retired following last season due to a neck injury, the Niners traded a second-round draft choice in 1999 to Denver for 320-pound backup tackle Jamie Brown.

It was a desperation move. Mike Shanahan, the Broncos' coach, was asking for a third-round draft choice but privately said he'd take a fifth.

The 49ers' offseason plan immediately installed Brown, almost sight unseen, at left tackle and moved Derrick Deese to right tackle. It was a graphic example of how difficult it is for NFL teams to acquire experienced offensive linemen. Not only did the Niners overpay outrageously, but Brown didn't show up for the first two preseason games -- explaining, "God told me not to play."

San Francisco coach Steve Mariucci, acting without divine guidance, replaced Brown with Dave Fiore, a college free agent from Hofstra who was a 49er development-squad member. Brown got another chance last week, but when he showed up late for the game Mariucci suspended him for three weeks.

Fiore, a natural 275-pounder, has bulked up to 290. Reportedly his work has been efficient.

There are a couple of lessons here. One is that the best way for a team to build an offensive line is to develop the linemen itself. The other is that there aren't enough good 300-plus linemen to go around.

Offensive lines with 300-pounders from tackle to tackle are a creation of the '90s. Dick Vermeil, coach of the St. Louis Rams, says his 1980 Philadelphia Eagles went to the Super Bowl with 275-pound tackles. "Tackles that size don't make NFL rosters today," he said.

The problems are that the talent pool for players the size of sumo wrestlers is relatively small and that the human knee was not constructed to support all that weight. For instance, the career of Seattle's Howard Ballard, known as "the House" when he played for Buffalo, is now threatened by arthritis in his knees. In Dallas, guard Nate Newton is attempting to squeeze another season out of his career by losing more than 50 pounds.

"I think there is a problem with linemen carrying all that weight," says Hall of Famer Joe Schmidt, former coach of the Detroit Lions. "Does 25 extra pounds really make you a better player?"

Vikings send a signal

It's true that exhibition games don't mean much, but people are respecting the two shutouts the Minnesota Vikings had in their first two games against AFC powers New England and Kansas City.

The Vikings, under coach Dennis Green, always start the season fast. It's late in the season when they sag. This year their division, the NFC Central, is the most competitive in the NFL.

So where do a couple of shutouts against AFC teams relate to this season? At the end, when the Vikes play three interconference foes -- Baltimore, Jacksonville and Tennessee -- in the final three weeks.

Payne is gaining

Cornell alumnus Seth Payne has been one of the hits of the Jacksonville camp, demonstrating his value at both defensive tackle and end. Payne, a Victor native, played a lot at tackle for the Jaguars as a rookie.

Payne's Big Red teammate, Chad Levitt, was supposed to challenge for the Raiders' starting fullback job but injuries, which kept him out of action for a month, took him out of the running.

Chip off the old block

The Kemp quarterback tradition goes on. Jimmy Kemp, Jack's youngest son, recently moved into the starting job with the Edmonton Eskimos and threw two touchdown passes in last week's victory over Winnipeg. In three starts he's passed for 1,065 yards and six touchdowns.

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