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HISTORY TELLS US FAMILIAR G-WORD IS REASON TO WORRY

The math is simple. Most major college athletes could do it without a tutor: Wade Phillips says Antowain Smith is 100 percent healthy. Smith says he's 95 percent. The difference is five percent.

Now, five percent is a nice number if you're looking to refinance your credit card debt. It would be an improvement as the state sales tax. But in this case, five percent is a troublesome figure indeed.

We're talking, after all, about an athlete's groin. If there's anyone who has learned to dread the word 'groin', it is the sports fans of Western New York. If Smith says it's still sore after practices and games, nine months after it first became a problem, it is cause for worry.

Remember Bryce Paup? He was the most dominant defensive player in the AFC for the Bills in 1995. Then he hurt his groin and was compromised by the injury for the entire 1996 season.

Dominik Hasek hurt his groin in February. He is still not over it. He got the Sabres into the Stanley Cup finals. He played some remarkable goal in various phases of groin distress. Last month, he finally had hernia surgery. One of these days, the problem might go away.

Smith hasn't been the same since hurting his groin late last season. It didn't become public until months later, when he aggravated it during April minicamp. In June, it appeared to have healed. But when he got to training camp in August, he hurt it again. One month later, he says it's behind him. Sort of.

"I did everything I needed to do as far as treatments and strengthening exercises," Smith said. "So as far as I'm concerned, it's a done deal. I can't say it'll never happen again. Any time you're playing football, any injury can occur. It's not 100 percent, but 95 is better than 90, and it's better than 85."

Watching Smith at times in preseason, you'd be tempted to say he's half the back he used to be. Smith has rushed 21 times for 48 yards. He has looked suspiciously like the guy who ran seven times for 15 yards in the playoff loss at Miami.

After the playoff loss, Smith criticized the coaches for giving up on the running game. Lately, he's put the blame on the offensive line -- an easy enough target, I must admit. But he has not seemed like the same back who burst on the scene as a rookie in 1997, despite what Phillips would have us believe.

"Antowain Smith is fine," Phillips said. "He says he's 95 percent? So he runs a 4.45 instead of a 4.44. I think he's ready to go. He's not hurting at all."

Of course, Phillips thought Bruce Smith was ready to go before last year's opener at San Diego, too. Then, on game day, Smith decided he wasn't healthy enough to play. Owner Ralph Wilson ran onto the field to confront Smith personally, so stunned was he to learn that Smith wasn't suited up.

So the Bills aren't the most impeccable sources when it comes to player injuries. No coach likes to give the opposition an excuse to go after a player's vulnerable spot. What can we expect Phillips to say -- that he's nervous about his star running back, like Joe and Jane Fan in Cheektowaga?

The most honest statement the Bills have made lately about Smith was their pursuit of Lawrence Phillips. Whether it was the groin or his soft showing late last year, they considered alternatives.

So there's an uneasiness about the Bills' offense on the eve of the opener. There are doubts about Smith's ability to be a featured back. There are doubts about the reshuffled offensive line, which will go without Joe Panos in Indianapolis.

I suspect there are even some submerged doubts about Doug Flutie. For some unfathomable reason, Phillips refused to commit to Flutie as his starter until Monday. Even then, he couldn't bring himself to use the word "starter" for Flutie and "backup" for Rob Johnson. Maybe it's because no coach can ever be totally comfortable with his fate in Flutie's hands.

The Bills shouldn't need much Flutie magic against the Colts. Smith had two of his three 100-yard games against them last year. This is an opponent that should get the running game untracked and, at least momentarily, end the questions about Smith's groin and the offensive line.

"We believe in what we can do," Smith said. "Preseason doesn't count. Now, if we go out and don't do it Sunday, then all the talk will be justified."

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