Wade Phillips has looked at the Buffalo Bills' 0-3 start from any number of angles.
The team is performing too much like robots and not enough like football players.
Robots carry out their duties as diagrammed on the chalkboard or in the playbook. Football players react to critical circumstances in a game, such as down and distance, the clock, and the score.
After watching the Bills suffer three losses by a combined nine points -- and with a cluster of plays and mistakes being all that has separated them from victory -- Phillips has dedicated this bye week to having his troops return to the basics.
The coach wants them to concentrate on becoming football players again before their next game, Oct. 4 against the San Francisco 49ers.
"It's harder for players these days because everybody says, 'You do this, you do that,' and they don't get to think for themselves," Phillips said. "What I want to do is put them in some situations where they have to think for themselves and say, 'I'm playing a football game . . . this play's a big play."'
During Wednesday's practice, the Bills focused solely on the run, offensively and defensively.
Today's workout, the last before the players and coaches are off for a three-day weekend, will be devoted to the pass.
"I want to emphasize one area so they learn that area," Phillips said. "I think that's the way you teach rather than throwing in the passing game and the running game all at the same time. To be one play better is what we're talking about. And if everybody gets one play better, then we'll be a better football team."
"You can't be a textbook player," nose tackle Ted Washington said. "You've got to go out there and be an athlete and use your gifted abilities and just go out and dominate. Hopefully, this week will help us along the road to getting to where we need to be for the Niners."
Phillips also distributed to his players Wednesday a printed report chronicling all of the penalties the team has committed this season and the resulting loss of yards and scoring opportunities. The report pointed out that the Bills have cost themselves in the range of 40 points from penalties alone.
"It just drives home the point of how much it all hurts you," Phillips said.
The practices drive home the fundamentals.
"The emphasis defensively is on our pursuit angles," Phillips said. "Our effort's been good on defense, but our pursuit angles have not been good enough. And, as funny as it sounds, we've been too aggressive. We're trying to kill a guy for a 6-yard gain, and then he makes a big play when all we need to do is tackle him."
Another glaring problem, which surfaced in Sunday's 34-33 loss to St. Louis, is bad pass-interference penalties. Cornerback Ken Irvin gave the Rams a 30-yard gain that set up a fourth-quarter touchdown when he made contact with a receiver from behind while never turning back to look for the ball.
"The only thing you can do is just go back to the drawing table and work hard and start studying the very details of it and see where they're getting themselves in trouble at the line of scrimmage or, if they're playing off, how they're getting themselves in trouble in their techniques," defensive backs coach Bill Bradley said. "Like Wade said, this is a great time to go back and study with them, individually, and look at them from the very start of the play to the very finish.
"When you're grading tape from one week to the other, you don't have all the time to cover every little detail."
Fullback Sam Gash said that players tend to be more robotic when they don't have a full understanding of their assignments and of their teammates' tendencies. The Bills are employing a new two-back offensive scheme and have added several free agents and rookies.
"The more you learn, the more comfortable that you get, the more you're able to just react to things that happen out on the field and kind of dictate the situations a lot better," Gash said. "When you don't really know what's going on, then that's when you say, 'OK, this is my guy. I've got to go out and get him.' And if he moves or if you have to make a certain adjustment, that's when your whole mentality and the speed of the game slows down and everybody passes you by because you're not real comfortable."
In all three games, quarterback Rob Johnson has taken far too many sacks, often by running out of bounds behind the line, rather than throwing the ball away or trying to make a play on the run.
Phillips today planned to have Johnson -- who did not practice Wednesday as a precaution because of the concussion he suffered Sunday -- work on scrambling scenarios.
"We're going to physically take him out there, put him in a situation, have him scramble, then have him make the decisions," Phillips said. "And also the people around him have to know what to do. The guy that's deep has to know where he's going to be, the guy that's running an intermediate route has to know where he's going to go, and the guy that's in a shallow zone has to know what he's doing. And if there's nothing there, the quarterback can run with it.
"But the only way you do it is physically have him go through it. We've walked through it and we've talked about it and we've done it some. But obviously we haven't done it enough where he'd be doing better."
Bills vice president-administration Jim Miller was relieved of his duties today, The News learned.
Miller joined the Bills' front office staff on March 3, 1997. He was in charge of the team's administrative operation and worked with general manager John Butler on player contract negotiations and monitoring the salary cap.
According to sources, team owner Ralph Wilson held Miller accountable for some of the team's marketing failures in the effort to sell luxury boxes and club suites.
Former Bills head coach Marv Levy, who grew up on Chicago's south side, will be inducted into the Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame tonight.
Levy is among 17 personalities to be honored this year for their contributions to and impact on Chicago's sports tradition.
The late Harry Caray (broadcasting), Dan Hampton (football), Denis Savard (hockey) and Isiah Thomas (basketball) are also among this year's inductees.