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The first hole in the Buffalo Bills' No. 3-ranked defense was blown open Thursday.

It's a 6-foot-5, 350-pound gap that is sure to be hard to fill.

The release of mountainous nose tackle Ted Washington might have been unavoidable given the Bills' salary cap problem, but that doesn't make it hurt any less.

"It's not fun for the fans, it's not fun for the players, and it's certainly not fun for the organization," said Bills President and General Manager Tom Donahoe about the release of Washington, punter Chris Mohr and guard Joe Panos. "Unfortunately we have some rules we have to live by. . . . We have to bite the bullet so we can get a handle on the cap in the future."

Cutting the three veterans was only the start of the Bills' salary trimming. Three or four more veterans will either join them or will have to agree to take big pay cuts by the end of business next Thursday, when the Bills have to be under the salary cap limit of $67.4 million.

Washington is the best free-agent signee the Bills have made since the free-agent era began in 1993. With Washington as the cornerstone of the 3-4 scheme, the Bills have ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in defense five straight years, and they were in the top six against the run the past three years.

While several other defenders are prime candidates to follow Washington out the door, Donahoe said he does not think the Bills are destined to fall apart on defense.

"We have a lot of confidence in Coach (Gregg) Williams and Coach (Jerry) Gray, and we'll figure something out," he said. "We want to be as good if not better (on defense)."

Washington, who will be 33 in April, refused the Bills' request to take a pay cut again this season. Last February, he agreed to take a $1 million cut in salary. But coming off a Pro Bowl season, Washington couldn't accept another cut.

"We took a pay cut last year to try to help them get over the hump and get to the Super Bowl," said Washington's San Francisco-based agent, Angelo Wright. "It was a situation where they knew he wouldn't take it. Once the regime changed hands, I think it was a given this was going to happen. . . . I think you rebuild or reload, and they're choosing to rebuild. Donahoe's on a honeymoon. The question is if they only win four ballgames, how do the fans respond?"

Washington still will count $5.3 million against the Bills' cap. But that's $2.338 million less than he would have counted if he stayed on the team under his current contract. The Bills could have restructured his deal, kept him and saved $1.6 million. But that would have made his 2002 cap figure $9.3 million, and it would have cost the team $4 million against the cap to cut him a year from now.

"That's the issue," Donahoe said. "There's a way we could continue to push this into the future, but all it does is exacerbate the problem. We have to stop doing that."

Washington likes the Buffalo area and has been one of the most active players the team ever has had in terms of donating time and money to charity. He declined to comment on the cut Thursday.

Washington is likely to get good interest on the free-agent market starting March 2. There is strong speculation the New York Jets, Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots may be interested in signing him.

"I think the interest is going to be moderately strong," Wright said. "People may have some questions about his age, but the reality is the guy is productive. He's still the premier run-stopper in football. He still does the same job as one person that most teams do with two people. For a team that wants to win now or is looking for a guy or two to get over the hump, I think Ted would be perfect."

Pat Williams steps into the starting lineup with Washington's departure. The Bills are in the process of restructuring Williams' contract, which will save $800,000 of cap space.

The departure of the injury-plagued Panos saves the Bills $2.1 million.

Mohr's departure would save $550,000 (less about $200,000 if he were replaced by a rookie). The Bills called Mohr's agent Thursday morning to inform him of the cut but said there was a chance they might try to re-sign him after March 1.

Mohr, who will be 35 in May, said he would consider any offer the Bills make.

"I wasn't really totally surprised," Mohr said. "I felt like they might want to go a different way."

Mohr played 10 seasons for the Bills, the longest tenure of any punter in team history. He gave the Bills outstanding consistency and regularly ranked high in the NFL in fewest punts returned and fewest return yards allowed. Last season, however, was a miserable year for him and the punt team.

"I have no regrets, and I feel I've been blessed," Mohr said. "And the people of Buffalo ought to feel blessed. They give the Bills a hard time, but Mr. Wilson could have taken the team somewhere else for more money. He has put great teams on the field for the 10 years I've been there. We've been in contention eight out of the 10 years. It's a great place to play."

Meanwhile, Donahoe, Williams and most of the coaches are in Indianapolis for the weekend to attend the NFL Scouting Combine for college draft prospects.

Donahoe said he and the coaches have a meeting scheduled for Saturday to discuss the quarterback issue. He expects them to have another meeting on the subject after they get back to Buffalo on Tuesday before a final decision is made.

"I'd love to keep both quarterbacks, but it's proven here that it didn't work," Donahoe said. "This situation and what we're doing with free agency and the quarterbacks is not a lot different than what we did in hiring a head coach. We're going to be thorough. We're going to work our way through it. We're not going to deviate from the process. And at the end we're going to make the best decision for our team."

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