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PHILLIPS WADES THROUGH STATE OF THE BILLS

Buffalo Bills coach Wade Phillips officially introduced Ronnie Jones as his new special teams coach Monday. It was an opportunity for Phillips to talk about the state of the team.

However, Phillips declined to be specific about anything that could affect the future of the Bills. He said free agency and other personnel issues can not be addressed until the team deals with the salary cap, which is expected to be about $62 million for the 2000 season. The Bills are believed to be $12 million over the projected cap.

"We're discussing that now," Phillips said. "We're getting all the figures on that and see where we are because there are some things we'll probably have to do. We are obviously over the cap some, so there's going to be some big decisions to be made."

One of the biggest decisions might be what to do with the Big Three -- Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed. Smith and Thomas have said they'd like to return, but Reed has indicated he'd like to play elsewhere next season.

Phillips said he would like to have all three back, but given the team's salary structure and their advancing ages, that may not be possible.

"They're all getting older," Phillips said. "I tell players from their first year on that there will be a time when you're not going to be able to play anymore. You can't play forever. Whether that time's here on some of our guys or not, we just have to evaluate that along with how much money is involved in all of it.

"Unfortunately, there's no sentimentality involved anymore. It used to be you could keep guys and say, 'Well, he can keep on playing until he can't play anymore.' And now with salaries being so high, is his value worth it at the end of career? That's a different consideration of the game today, but that's the way it is and we live with that."

Meanwhile, Phillips refused to say specifically why special teams coach Bruce DeHaven and running backs coach Bishop Harris were fired shortly after the Bills lost to the Tennessee Titans in the playoffs. Phillips wouldn't go into detail but insisted DeHaven's dismissal had nothing to do with the now infamous "Home Run Throwback" kickoff return for a touchdown that gave the Titans the 22-16 victory.

"I just feel like this is best for us," said Phillips, who expects to hire a running backs coach by next week. "You have to make hard decisions with players, coaches, whoever. (DeHaven) certainly was a hard decision, but it wasn't the one play. They're both really good coaches, there's no doubt about that. But I was a really good coach, too, and I got fired twice already, so it can happen. It really is not personal. I just feel someone will do better."

Phillips thinks he's got the right man to coach special teams in Jones, 44, who has more than 20 years of coaching experience in college and the NFL.

"I'm really pleased to be able to get him," said Phillips, who indicated that he will take an active role in special teams this season. "I've always been impressed with his coaching abilities. He's well organized and a tremendously hard worker. He covers every situation with his players. He leaves no stone unturned as far as that goes."

Jones did some work in special teams at both levels, but most of his background is as a defensive assistant. He was the linebackers coach with the Philadelphia Eagles in the late 1980s when Phillips was the team's defensive coordinator. Jones also was a defensive coordinator in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals in 1994 and coached linebackers with the Los Angeles Rams, Los Angeles Raiders and Houston Oilers.

He spent the last four years at the University of Texas-El Paso, including the last three as defensive coordinator. He was on UTEP when Phillips' son, Wesley, was recruited to play at the school. Jones also coached collegiately at Northeastern State, Tulsa and Arizona State.

"I'm really excited about being here," Jones said. "I appreciate the opportunity that Wade Phillips, Mr. (Ralph) Wilson and (General Manager) John Butler have given me. I think it's a great organization led by great people."

This hiring comes a little more than two weeks after Jones was hired to be the defensive coordinator at San Jose State. But when he and Phillips met last Tuesday and an offer was made, the decision to leave San Jose was easy.

"The people at San Jose State understood," Jones said. "Not saying they were extremely happy as I was about it immediately, but they understood it was an opportunity that I could not turn down and an opportunity I would not turn down.

"When you're out of the league for four years, a lot of times you wonder if you'll ever have the opportunity to get back in. I worried about that, to be honest with you, every day for four years. This is the top level of the sport, and this is where you want to be in the coaching profession. This is a dream come true for me, not only to get back into the National Football League, but have the opportunity to work with Wade Phillips."

Jones pledges that the Bills special teams will be physical, but disciplined on his watch.

"You can't afford a mental or physical breakdown in any phase of it," he said. "When everything is going well, nobody seems to notice or talk about special teams. But one mistake can cost you a football game, or a season sometimes. I want to make sure that special teams is not a weakness on this football team. I want it to be a strong point."

Saxon to coach backs

Former NFL running back James Saxon will be the Buffalo Bills' new running backs coach, according to various sources.

Saxon, 33, was a sixth-round draft choice of the Kansas City Chiefs in 1988 out of San Jose State. Bills offensive coordinator Joe Pendry was on Kansas City's coaching staff during Saxon's four-year stint with the team. He also played for the Miami Dolphins (1992-94) and Philadelphia Eagles (1995).

Saxon's only coaching experience was at Rutgers University, where he served as running backs coach from 1997-98.

However, he is well acquainted with the Bills. He was a coaching intern with the Bills at training camp last summer as part of the league's Minority Fellowship Program.

Coach Wade Phillips was unavailable for comment Tuesday. Phillips indicated Monday that a formal announcement on the new running backs coach would be made next week.

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