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HOW GOOD ARE BILLS? JUST CHILL OUT UNTIL WE FIND OUT

The Bills won a football game Sunday. Does that put them on a freeway to the Super Bowl with no red lights ahead?

Why not? It makes as much sense as last week's public opinion. They lost a football game then and around here you would have thought they descended to some sort of sports hell with no chance of parole.

The coach, Wade Phillips, was ridiculed. There were calls to fire the general manager, John Butler, to dump running back Antowain Smith, to bag Ted Cottrell, the defensive coordinator; to cut special teams player Daryl Porter in order "to set an example." Even inside linebacker John Holecek, in actuality a human tackling machine, was accused of "taking up space."

Why do so many Bills' fans become crazed when there is the slightest deviation from all-out victory? Why does the local media sound a hurricane alert over something as inconsequential as Phillips not making an official announcement about the identity of his quarterback, even though anyone could have seen long ago that it was Doug Flutie?

Are we nuts, or what?

It wasn't always like this. People have been obsessed with the Bills for years, but it wasn't until the late '80s, the advent of their Golden Age, that frenzy took over.

Part of the frenzy has to do with the proliferation of media in a small market. Before that the Bills were covered on the road as well at home, principally, by The Buffalo News and its competitor, the Courier Express, the Olean Times-Herald, the team's flagship radio station and one or two of the local TV stations.

By the late '80s, the Courier was long closed (1982) but the blanket coverage now extended to the Rochester, Toronto, Jamestown and Niagara Falls papers, reporters from most of the major AM and FM radio stations, all of the TV stations in Buffalo and Rochester as well as the Empire Sports Network. Relatively new is the proliferation of talk shows, some of which compete to be the most savage.

The result is that everything concerning the Bills is news. The competition is healthy from a journalistic standpoint, but it's also loud.

Bring in a new player for a tryout and if the guy has any sort of reputation, even an outdated one, it's akin to the landing of Air Force One at Buffalo International Airport. Offensive linemen used to be anonymous, but now the disc in guard Joe Panos' neck is a celebrity. So is Jamie Nails' bathroom scale.

Taking criticism is part of the job of a professional athlete, coach or executive. They're in the business of professional entertainment. They're not religious missionaries. Criticism is normal and sometimes deserved. For the second season in a row, the Bills weren't ready enough for their opening game and Phillips should have expected some flack for that.

What he shouldn't have to expect is assassination on the talk shows. In his first season as Bills' head coach, Phillips inherited a team with a 6-10 record. He converted it to a 10-6 team that made the playoffs. It was tied for the best turnaround in the AFC. Phillips hired Joe Pendry to be his first offensive coordinator and under Pendry the Bills went from a team that scored 255 points in '97, lowest in the AFC, to 400 points, trailing only Denver and the Jets, who met for the AFC championship.

Instead of judging Phillips on those impressive feats, the lunatic fringe of Bills' fandom chose to judge him on the opening loss to Indianapolis.

Butler's record of success in the college draft is staggering, a major reason why the Bills rank near the top in victories in the '90s. All the more remarkable is that Buffalo hasn't picked better than 14th throughout the decade. Yet fans regularly call for Butler's ouster. Maybe it's his mustache.

Antowain Smith was slowed by a groin injury. Porter got over-aggressive and ran into a Colt punt returner, drawing a damaging penalty. That doesn't make them escaped convicts.

Everyone around here should relax about the Bills. The NFL is now a league of vulnerable teams and its personality changes weekly. Let's close down the gallows and let this season play itself out.

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