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MOULDS GRABS FOR THE REINS OF LEADERSHIP

Eric Moulds said he talks with some of the NFL's top receivers on a regular basis. Randy Moss, Keyshawn Johnson, Cris Carter . . . you name it. The wideouts are a sort of fraternity. They're the league's best athletes, its most dynamic personalities. They share a lot of the same skills, the same problems, the same demands (the ball, for one).

Last winter, when he became a free agent, Moulds asked his fellow wideouts for advice. Carter, his offseason workout buddy, told him he should stay put in Buffalo. Johnson, a dear old friend, said the same thing. He warned Moulds about the drawbacks involved in starting over in another city.

But Moulds and his pals couldn't have imagined it would come to this. They never thought that, four games into the season, Moulds would be playing for a winless Bills team that enters tonight's game against the Jaguars looking for a victory and some desperately needed self-respect.

"It hurts," Moulds said. "Losing is tough. But in talking to Coach Williams, I knew it would take time for him to get the guys he wanted in here. I understand where he's coming from. I know the fans are used to having a playoff team. But it's going to take time. I don't want to make excuses, but we have a lot of young guys, making young mistakes. I think in time, we'll build a great team here."

Just the same, he would not have come back to Buffalo if he thought the Bills were embarking on a long-term rebuilding plan.

"I wouldn't have come. No. Money is great, but you want to have a ring. In the offseason, I see guys with these championship rings. At the Pro Bowl, I had a long talk with (Baltimore's) Ray Lewis, to get his perspective on what it took for them to be successful. He said everybody made a commitment. They rallied around each other."

Moulds has made the commitment. He signed a six-year, $40 million deal. That's not pocket change, but it was less than he could have commanded on the open market. But he's finding out what it's like to be a star - maybe the only real star - on a bad team.

When he arrived in Buffalo in 1996, he was surrounded by stars. It was a veritable galaxy. Kelly. Thomas. Reed. Smith. Tasker. As recently as a year ago, he had such veterans as Doug Flutie, Henry Jones and Ted Washington to look up to. You didn't have to worry about being a leader.

Then he turned around and most of the old guys were gone. Suddenly, Moulds was the one the younger players were looking to. Only now, for the first time in 15 years, the Bills were really bad. What did a leader do now?

He did what star receivers always do. He said the team needed to get him the ball more. He said the coaches had to diversify the offense. Then he went out two weeks ago, played with a sprained shoulder and had his best game of the season in a loss to the Jets.

You have to give him credit for that. Shooting your mouth off when you're not getting the ball is a risky thing. It can come off as selfishness. But at least Moulds did something. And the offense did perform better the following week.

"There's a fine line between being selfish and being a confident guy who wants to be a playmaker," Larry Centers said. "I don't think Eric has crossed the line in any way."

Centers is one Bill who has spent a lot of time in losing situations. He approached Moulds last week to talk about losing, about leadership, about relaxing and doing your job even in difficult times.

"It's been tough," Moulds said of his recent criticisms of the coaching. "But it's not being selfish. It's wanting to help the team win. I've done some things in the past that helped the team win. I want to continue to do those things. I don't want to be seen as one of those guys who get the big contract and then people say, "Well, he's got his money, now he's done.' "

It's not always easy for a receiver to express his skills. He has to rely on someone to put the ball in his hands. Keyshawn Johnson has struggled with it. Moss hasn't gotten the ball as much this year. Antonio Freeman went public about a lack of catches in Green Bay.

Moulds has the added burden of being the highest-paid player in Bills history, on perhaps their worst team ever. It's tough watching former teammates go out the door, victims of the team's fiscal woes. The more veterans who walk out, the greater the pressure on the ones left behind.

When Moulds got his big contract in February, President and General Manager Tom Donahoe called him a "difference-maker." But he hasn't made enough of a difference so far. He had 63 yards receiving through three games. Even after his breakout game against the Jets, he is on pace for 40 catches.

He looks in the paper and sees the other members of the fraternity getting 10 catches, 125 yards. He told Johnson and Moss by phone last week how lucky they were, having 20 to 30 catches already.

"I told them you've got to be able to sacrifice if you're not catching the ball," Moulds said. "You've got to do other things, like blocking. I guess as I got older I started to realize you're not going to catch 10 passes a game."

He needs to catch more, though, and he knows it. Moulds is the playmaker, the star, and the Bills have to get the ball in his hands, even if they have to line him up in the backfield. Every touchdown the offense has scored this year, the team has been behind at least 13 points. If they're going to turn things around, they need to set a tone early.

Getting Moulds involved would be a start. To borrow an old phrase from his pal, Keyshawn, give him the damn ball.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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