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SMITH'S DAYS AS GO-TO BACK SHOULD BE OVER

It was the third play from scrimmage in the second half of the Buffalo Bills' loss to the New York Jets Sunday, a routine running play up the middle that gained 4 yards. It also may have ended Antowain Smith's time as the go-to running back for the Buffalo Bills.

Smith never got the ball again for the approximately 28 minutes remaining in the game.

It wasn't a surprise. The 4-yard gain was Smith's longest of the day. He averaged just 2.6 yards in five carries, which was six-tenths of a yard more than his season average. At 6-foot-2, you would expect that Smith could fall forward and get more yardage than that.

His one bright moment came in last week's victory over Green Bay when he had a 16-yard run. His last consistent production came in the playoff loss to Tennessee, when he gained 79 tough yards and scored two touchdowns. His last 100-yard-plus game came Nov. 14 against Miami. In the 11 other games leading to the playoffs, he never cracked 70 yards.

Smith, who didn't begin his pro career until he was 25, is 28 years old. Out on the field he looks about 35, just plain slow. He bears no resemblance to the man who gained 1,124 yards in 1998, nor the 1997 rookie who averaged 4.3 yards a carry and gained 840 yards even though he didn't start a game that year.

For the rest of the second half Sunday, when the Bills wanted to run, young Shawn Bryson was assigned the task. He carried the ball five times in that span, averaging 5 yards a carry. He also had a 21-yarder wiped out by a penalty when the Bills were flagged for an illegal formation.

With a bye week available to get him ready for Indianapolis, the guess here is that it is Bryson's time, that "running back by committee" may be over. With their special teams functioning as the enemy within, the Bills need a consistent running attack to blend with the sharp passing they are getting from Rob Johnson. A running game opponents must respect also could serve as extra protection for Johnson.

Bryson is a player who spent his entire college career as a blocking/pass receiving fullback at Tennessee. In four seasons he carried the ball just 91 times, mainly because the Vols had big-time ball carriers such as James Stewart and Jamal Lewis, both first-round draft choices in the NFL.

What the Bills saw in Bryson was a 238-pounder with rare speed, under 4.4 seconds for the 40-yard sprint. Out of the shambles of the 27-14 loss to the Jets may have come the answer to the Bills' search for a feature back.

There wasn't any official notice given, but Wade Phillips may have signaled that the Jets game would be Smith's final trial last Wednesday at the weekly media day. Someone brought up Smith's familiar complaint that playing in a two-back set is a handicap for him. Phillips cut off the question, clearly impatient, not with the questioner but with his own player.

"One-back, two-back, they're all the same plays," said Phillips. The translation of that was: "Forget the excuses, just produce."

Despite Bryson's lack of experience, the Bills are virtually forced to go with him. It won't be a slide. He has to find his comfort zone in a position which is still new to him. Gaining yardage on the ground is increasingly difficult in the NFL, especially with all the run blitzes and eight-man fronts defenses are using. Then, too, the Buffalo offensive line doesn't rate among the top 20 in a 31-team league.

A changeover in time for the tough Colts wouldn't involve just Bryson. A far better effort than it has shown so far must be coaxed out of the offensive line.

Before Monday night's game against Washington, Emmitt Smith of Dallas implored his new coach, Dave Campo, to pound away with the running game despite the eight-men fronts expected to be used against the Cowboys.

Pounding away does not mean producing an average of 2-yard gains. All that gets you is fourth and 4 with the punt team taking the field.

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