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'BIG THREE' MIGHT HAVE TO SUBTRACT REED IN Y2K

Andre Reed, the franchise's all-time leading receiver, may well be playing his last home game as a Buffalo Bill Sunday.

In fact, there is a chance Bills' fans could be watching two or even all of the team's "Big Three" for the last time at home when Buffalo meets the Indianapolis Colts in the regular-season finale.

The three all-time Buffalo greats -- Reed, Bruce Smith and Thurman Thomas -- could be victims of the salary cap next season.

Reed's future in Buffalo is in the most doubt because the 35-year-old receiver has seen his role greatly diminished over the second half of the season and lately has been just a bit player.

Asked earlier this month whether he would consider retirement if his role didn't change, Reed answered, "Probably yes, and it's sad if it comes down to that. It's been frustrating all year for me, very frustrating."

The big factor in the future of all three is the salary cap. It is figured the Bills will be roughly $12 million over next season's salary cap even after the allowance is raised in February by some $5 million, to $62 million.

Reed is slated to make $1.775 million next season, but his cap figure will be $2.375 million counting a portion of his signing bonus.

Smith and Thomas currently are far more integral parts of the team. Both have said on numerous occasions they would like to be back. The Bills probably would like to have them back, but economics may prohibit that.

Smith's 2000 salary cap figure will be $5.448 million and Thomas' is believed to be around $2 million.

"It all depends with the salary cap," Thomas said. "You've got Doug (Flutie), you've got Rob (Johnson) and we've got to re-sign Ruben (Brown), Eric (Moulds), Kurt Schulz and Thomas Smith. There's just a lot of things you have to look into. I think that's going to be left up to (General Manager) John Butler and (owner) Ralph Wilson whether they want us around here or not."

"I think Andre, Bruce and myself are just taking it one game at a time and trying to take this team as far as we can."

Bills coach Wade Phillips would not speculate on Reed's future with the team.

"I don't know whose last year it is. It could be my last year," Phillips said. "It's great to have had Andre Reed on our team, and I think everybody agrees with that. He's been a great, great player for a long time and still is. That's the only thing I think about with him."

Reed wasn't available for comment Monday, but he is openly unhappy with his role. He didn't catch a pass in Sunday's win at New England. The Bills said Reed was limited due to sore ribs, but he was rarely thrown to when he was in the game. Reed indicated afterward his ribs weren't a factor.

Reed has several milestones within reach. He needs three catches to tie Jerry Rice for the most 50-catch seasons in NFL history with 13. He's five receptions away from moving past Art Monk (940) into second place on the all-time career list. Reed has 13,072 career yards, 18 shy of fourth all-time, currently held by Steve Largent.

The Bills might be able to retain Smith or Thomas or both by restructuring their contracts. If they remain with the team that surely will happen. Last year, the Bills entered the offseason about $10 million to $12 million over the cap and did wholesale restructuring of contracts to compensate.

Since midseason, Peerless Price has gradually taken time away from Reed. It's clear offensive coordinator Joe Pendry likes Price and wants him in the game.

Price had a big day against the Patriots with five catches for 62 yards. He feels for Reed, but the rookie also covets being the heir apparent.

"It's a situation you want as a player to be the starter," Price said. "When you see the end of a guy's great career like Andre, you don't want to be him, but you want to step into his shoes and play a major part in the offense like he has for years.

"He's been supportive through all this. The one thing I'll always remember is he told me (Sunday) that he's with me 100 percent no matter what his situation is on this team."

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