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BLOSSOMING OF GROUND GAME GIVES BILLS' FANS REAL REASON TO HOPE

Bills' fans are not impulse buyers. Their team may have hired a new coach, traded for a new quarterback and signed some interesting free agents, but the faithful were still holding the 1998 edition at arm's length.

The faithful were more faithful to the memory of the Jim Kelly Bills. They have been slow to embrace this new team with its new concepts, slow to accept changes, slow to buy tickets.

That may be changing.

What may be bringing about the fresh view is that in the last two weeks the Bills found their offensive personality. The new personality seems to be in synch with its blue-collar clientele.

It's clear that what the Buffalo attack plans to do this season is ram the football down the gullets of its opponents. The format began in earnest in the first home exhibition game against Carolina three weeks ago. The outcome was disappointing and so were a number of elements of the Bills' play, but late in the first half began the primitive, effective power-running attack that blossomed in subsequent games against Chicago and Washington.

Friday night against the Redskins it took full bloom with 230 rushing yards. Not since the Bills bludgeoned the Miami Dolphins for 341 yards in a 1995 playoff game have they run the ball so effectively.

A Buffalo team which could convert just a quarter of its third-down challenges a year ago drove 70 yards on its first and sole possession with Rob Johnson at quarterback, then drove 99 yards under Doug Flutie the next time it had the ball.

It may have been exhibition football but it was still a remarkable change.

What makes it all the more remarkable is that the Bills were Team Turnover last year and this summer no Johnson passes were intercepted. The team that led the NFL in fumbles last year protected the ball well in the last two games.

As Ron Jaworski remarked when he was in town last week, the style of Joe Pendry, the Bills' new offensive coordinator, is to run at the opposition, soften them up and then "kill them with play-action passes."

In the bargain that ball-control running could rest the Buffalo defense as it hasn't been rested in years.

What makes that philosophy appear all the sounder is the emergence of 248-pound rookie Jonathan Linton as a ball- carrying force. Linton was drafted by the Bills with the idea of converting him to a blocking fullback. He was progressing in that role, but he also was a 1,000-yard rusher for North Carolina as a senior. When the Bills' hierarchy took a look at him as tailback against the Panthers three weeks ago its hearts began to beat faster.

Linton's 97 yards against Washington pushed him to the ground-gaining lead for the preseason. More important, it gives Pendry the chance to continue pounding the ball even when starter Antowain Smith comes out of the game. If Thurman Thomas or Derrick Holmes were Pendry's only options, he would have had to adjust to a more finesse style with Smith on the bench.

Now there is a delicious scenario where Smith and Linton pound the durability out of an enemy defense and Pendry attacks them with a change-of-pace featuring Thomas or Holmes. A fresh back can be in the game at all times.

Among the most heartening factors in the last two victories may have been the improvement in the offensive line. It is far from the lost cause the pessimists suggest. Remember that when Buffalo ran for those 341 yards against the Dolphins in that memorable playoff game, three of the current line starters -- Jerry Ostroski, John Fina and Reuben Brown -- were part of that unit.

This sort of offensive football will bring cries of "they're so predictable I can tell you which plays are coming!" So what. Predictable often wins.

Personally, I prefer predictable to the dangerously unpredictable. As evidence I offer the infamous reverse-pass-against-the-grain-by-Andre Reed gadget play in overtime last October which turned a potential upset victory over Denver into heartburn.

Give me power football.

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