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BILLS TAKE TURN OFF ROAD TO NOWHERE

The traffic flows in both directions on the Road to Respectability, the National Football League's main drag.

Franchises such as the Jags, Redskins and Chiefs are fast headed south, toward Hopeless Hill. There they'll meet up with the wayward likes of the Cowboys, Panthers and Lions, teams that will win no more than five games a season through 2003.

Other organizations -- the Titans, Colts and Bucs for starters -- sit stalled on the side of the road, inert, as high expectation fights a tug-o-war with encroaching reality. The Titans are fraught with cap concerns, the Colts beset with defensive liabilities, the Bucs unable to sustain an offense from one week to the next. Which direction the three might be headed is sheer guesswork.

And then there are the Buffalo Bills, a franchise that over the last two weeks has blended with the NFL mainstream. The Bills have made the turn off Uncertainty Avenue on to the Road to Respectability. Uptown's still miles away, but that's a lament for another season.

The upside of having a team in transition is that a couple jiggers of progress will warm the collective psyche. The Bills were better against the Jags than they were against the Jets, and better yet against Chargers, the outcome less relevant than the endeavor at this stage of the journey.

The Bills are at the point in their growth where indiscretion still looks good on them. Raion Hill's post-throw jab at Doug Flutie is indefensible if their record is 4-1. At 1-4, it's a badge of honor. There's no shame in straying to accost No. 7 when your own quarterback is repeatedly scorched by lightning bolts.

Brian Moorman's taunt of Ronney Jenkins produced a debilitating penalty but also an answer to Wade Richey's earlier affront to Nate Clements. Something potent's brewing when the emotion of the battle winds down through the ranks to the man who strikes the kickoffs.

"I'll tell you this," head coach Gregg Williams said Monday. "As we work on establishing a physical attitude on special teams, he's just trying to get involved. He's doing the same that their guy did early in the ballgame when there was four guys over on their sideline getting involved and there's no call.

"Is what he did wrong? Yes. Has it been addressed? Yes. Was it addressed then? Yes. Has it been addressed today on the film? Yes. And he knows that we don't put ourselves in a position for someone to make that call. It's tough that it happened at that time in the ballgame."

This blossoming esprit de corps -- like everything else in town -- is being tied to the quarterback, the notion spreading that the Bills have rallied around Rob Johnson. There's much more to it than that. Johnson plays an integral role in nurturing the team mindset but maintains no control over its growth pattern. When was the last time, before Sunday, the Bills lost a close game and the locker room was devoid of finger-pointing? Enduring defeat as a single entity signals that this new mix is fermenting.

"Anytime you can overcome tough times, tough situations, I think you get closer," Williams said. "I think when things are obviously really easy you don't know the measure of how close your team is."

The Bills suffer no shortage of measuring devices. Cap-induced changes spilled their guts. Injuries hit the offensive line so hard they'd be challenged to run against Gary Condit. Sam Cowart's absence can't be offset when it comes to defensing the run.

All we demanded -- and will continue to demand -- are signs of progress, indications that this season is laying a foundation for the next. We needed to see the Bills get back on the Road to Respectability, distance themselves from Hopeless Hill. It's looking like they've made the turn. Williams rattled off a list of positives he saw in the Chargers' game, none of them dismissable as spin.

"I think those are things (where) you saw confidence grow as a team," he said. "Not just as a particular unit, but in the team. And that's important. We saw it the week before. We saw it, really, in the Jets' game. . . . I think the team is growing in that respect."

e-mail: rdicesare@buffnews.com

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