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WILLIAMS IS COACHING FOR HIS JOB

Funny how things can change in a month, isn't it? Four weeks ago today, I was heading to New England to cover the buildup to the big Bledsoe Bowl. The Bills were 5-3, winners of three in a row. There was talk of burying the Patriots for good and taking command of the division heading into the bye week.

Anything seemed possible at the end of October. Drew Bledsoe was one of the favorites for league MVP; Tom Donahoe was a hot contender for executive of the year; Gregg Williams was being mentioned as a candidate for coach of the year.

Three losses later, the walls are crumbling at One Bills Drive. The offense, so potent early in the year, is just another tired offense. Bledsoe is just another quarterback throwing 40 times a game. The defense is an embarrassment, the special teams consistently mediocre.

Williams is facing a huge crisis, and he is coaching for his job. One month ago, with a .500 record well in range, he seemed safe and secure. But this three-game skid has returned him to shaky ground, to the place he occupied last winter after going 3-13 in his first season and sacrificing his offensive coordinator, Mike Sheppard.

The owner, Ralph Wilson, is not inclined to fire him. Neither is Donahoe, the general manager. Williams was his choice. It would be an admission that he'd hired the best interviewer, not the best coach. But if the Bills go into full meltdown -- if they finish 6-10 or even run the table in reverse and go 5-11 -- what choice would there be?

I still believe Williams has many of the qualities of a good head coach. He is well-organized, a hard worker and a leader who communicates well with his players and gets them to play hard. But there are lingering questions about his ability to make key decisions under pressure, and to adjust quickly to game situations.

Successful head coaches must have a gift for recognition, a command of the moment. Williams seems lacking at times. The decision to punt on New England's 32-yard line and the failure to allow Priest Holmes to score late in the K.C. game were just the most recent examples of his shaky command of late-game situations.

Wilson publicly questioned the decision to punt against New England. That was not an encouraging sign. If the Bills finish 6-10, or 5-11, the trail of doubt will lead directly back to the third quarter of the Patriots game, when Williams blinked in a coaching stare down with the Pats' Bill Belichick. Wilson won't be lacking for ammunition.

Before the season, you figured they might be 5-6 after 11 weeks. It's how they arrived at this point that's so alarming. Coaches watch a lot of film. You can't keep on doing the same things forever. In recent weeks, the Bills have been soundly outcoached and seemingly bereft of answers in all three phases of the game.

The defense is the biggest concern, the albatross around the head coach's neck. Williams came here with a reputation as a defensive genius. He promised to bring an attacking defense that would create turnovers. They have five interceptions all season. They have four sacks in the last five games.

Granted, the Bills are woefully thin on the defensive line and at outside linebacker. But if Williams is such a defensive whiz, how come this unit is on pace to break the record for points allowed in a season? Why did it look so inept against the Patriots' screen passes and the Jets' draw plays?

There's virtually no chance they'll fire defensive coordinator Jerry Gray and keep Williams. You can't fire the offensive coordinator one year, the defensive coordinator the next, and leave the head man intact. If either Gray or Williams goes, they both go.

Williams still has time to right the Bills' ship. The team never quit on him last year when things went bad. It shouldn't happen now. He has a solid core of veteran leaders who have helped keep the team together.

But as Larry Centers said after the Jets game, they've lost the air of confidence they had earlier in the year. Their swagger is gone. Internal leadership is fine, but this is the time when a head coach has to earn his money. This is when he has to draw on all his emotional and tactical powers and turn things around.

Young head coaches come of age during times of crisis. If Williams has what it takes, this would be a good time to show it.
e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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