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It's a question seldom asked in September, especially with 13 games remaining on the schedule: Is the Bills' season over already?

It looked that way in the fourth quarter Sunday as they blew what was left of an 18-point lead to a less-than-mediocre St. Louis team. It's the third winnable game the Bills have lost, the opponents' aggregate margin of victory being nine points.

In the trainers' room Andre Reed, the team's all-time pass receiver, was being treated for a separated shoulder and its young quarterback, Rob Johnson, was trying to clear his head from his second concussion in three weeks.

In the interview room a disconsolate Wade Phillips was itemizing the long list of football atrocities that kept him from winning his first game as head coach of the Bills.

The answer to the question about the season being over already is "not necessarily," but it has many conditions attached to it. Most of the conditions are difficult ones.

The facts are that this is an undisciplined team in poor physical condition. Sunday the Bills did what they have been doing since the season began, committing dumb penalties and making foolish plays. Phillips confirmed that in the litany of football sins that he listed after the game.

The Rams demonstrated how much Buffalo lacks conditioning by what happened in the fourth quarter. They have been crabbing for weeks about how their coach, Dick Vermeil, has been working them too hard and too long. Last week they were losing, 24-0, to heavily favored Minnesota and came almost all the way back before losing. Late Sunday afternoon they were rolling while the Bills were gasping.

There is a lesson there for Phillips, his assistant coaches and the entire organization: Who cares how much the players gripe? They can despise the coach and it doesn't matter as long as they play winning football.

Phillips can't afford to be disconsolate. He has to get tougher in the two weeks before his team plays again, this time against formidable San Francisco. In his postgame comments Phillips said "I'm going to keep this team fighting; we're not going to give up."

Well, yeah, most losing coaches talk like that. Phillips can't reconvene training camp and get these guys in the sort of shape they should have been in on opening day. He can't go back and order Bruce Smith to do something other than stand in the sun. The coach was chagrined that his vaunted pass rush could stalk vulnerable Tony Banks for just two sacks while the Rams recorded nine on Johnson. He found it hard to believe the Rams gained 181 yards rushing against his team.

We'll know if his talk is empty if some Bill decides to call a personal press conference in the next couple of weeks and the brass stands around with its teeth in its mouth. Wade is a very nice guy, likable, fair, easy to deal with. But you know what Leo Durocher said about nice guys. "They finish last." Except for the futility of Indianapolis the Bills would be all by themselves in last place in the AFC East.

Phillips isn't the only member of the Bills' organization who should make a U-turn in his approach. John Butler, the general manager, has a large role in this, too.

Butler is the Father Flanagan of the NFL. Like the founder of Boys Town he's never seen a Buffalo Bill behaving badly. According to him they're all "fine young men." Well the truth is that he has a number of players who aren't so fine, players who like to test coaches and teammates, seeing just how far they can push them. They still get away with it because of the hangover from the past.

One of the most difficult things for coaches in modern pro sports is coaxing their players to perform to the fullest. One of the principal reasons for Marv Levy's great success here was his skill at massaging the giant egos of his vastly talented roster. It paid off in four Super Bowl appearances.

That era is over. Butler should stow the "fine young men" routine. Phillips should stop worrying if the players don't sing "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" to him. Smith, Thurman Thomas and Reed are remnants of those great old teams, but essentially they are yesterday. What profit is there in worrying about their feelings? The rest of this team is today and tomorrow. A lot of the younger players have learned bad habits already.

There is too much at stake not to look at it that way.

The organization and its allies are attempting to keep the franchise in Buffalo. A significant portion of the local sporting public has held this team at arm's length, unconvinced that it would be worth watching.

What happened on the last three Sundays suggests that the portion remains convinced that such a shoddy product is not worth the money. Phillips and Butler have to convince it otherwise.

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