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JOHNSON, FINA BOTH HAVE A LOT TO PROVE

For a while it was "The Education of Rob Johnson." Next it was "The Physical Survival of Rob Johnson." Now we're approaching the point where it will be "The Professional Survival of Rob Johnson."

From "How soon will this guy be in traction?" the big question is approaching, "Does he have the right stuff to be an NFL starter?"

This is not the revisiting of the Doug Flutie-Johnson feud. Flutie's debut as a San Diego Charger was obviously what we came to expect when he started at quarterback for the Bills: 129 yards passing, a couple of interceptions, a touchdown pass, some first downs earned by his wits, while the Chargers' reinforced defense chewed up the opposition.

Only a Flutie nut would consider that "magic."

What we have here is Rob Johnson on his own. So far he resembles an early elimination in the latest TV reality show, "The Great Race."

The West Coast offense was supposed to be Rob's baby. Short drops, enough receivers out on the patterns so someone is almost always open, get rid of the ball, no sack, maybe a first down. How tough is it to find big Jay Riemersma, one of the best tight ends in the NFL? Why wouldn't you look for Larry Centers, the NFL's all-time pass-catching back, to convert a short slip into the flat into a 5- or 6-yard gain?

Why should Johnson need a half dozen "stick-em" reminder labels on the back of the helmets of his offensive line to prod him into using Eric Moulds, the best offensive player on the team? Moulds is the highest-paid Bill because he has the ability to catch a short pass, break tackles and turn a 6-yard gain into a 30-yard gain in this new offense.

That way Johnson doesn't have to take a 7-yard drop, hope for time for Moulds to get 60 yards downfield and unleash the ball before he gets smacked. With the new offense and Eric, you don't have to get the perfect play.

Moulds is a luxury with whom Johnson connected once, in the fourth quarter when the outcome was no longer in doubt. If that's going to happen regularly, why did Ralph Wilson pay Moulds millions of dollars? The Bills could get one fourth-quarter use out of a $450,000 journeyman.

Speaking of value for a dollar, Tom Donahoe's semi-veiled warning about John Fina not delivering his end of the bargain spoke volumes last week. I can't remember an NFL general manager ever being that blunt about an individual veteran.

Fina got undressed by Joe Johnson of the Saints in the opener. The postponement of all NFL games last week saved him possible embarrassment at the hands of Jason Taylor of the Dolphins.

The Colts are not a reputable pass-rush team, but the last time they faced Buffalo they took fungo practice against Johnson, felling him eight times. If Fina can't produce in this game, he'll be gone.

Forget this talk-show fantasy idea about Fina switching to guard and Ruben Brown to tackle. Fina gets left-tackle money, in other words, millions. For what the Bills are getting in return, Kris Farris or Marques Sullivan couldn't be much worse and at least they are on the upside of their careers.

If Williams and Donahoe will pull the plug on John Holecek and Henry Jones, they'll pull the plug on Fina. They have to give themselves an honest chance to see if Johnson is their future or not.

(Larry Felser, long-time columnist for The Buffalo News, writes a column in Sunday's editions.)

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