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END DEBATES AND PUT IN WILLIS, J.P.

First, the good news, what little there is of it. Rookie quarterback J.P. Losman suited up for a regular-season Bills game for the first time Sunday. Losman's broken leg is nearly healed, and he conceivably could see his first game action in Sunday's home game against Arizona.

So don't despair, Bills fans. Don't let a grisly, 20-6 loss to the Ravens get you down. The future is near. Saturday, while setting the clocks back one hour, you can go ahead and set your football clocks ahead to the post-Bledsoe era. Then you can begin counting the days. For most lucid Buffalo fans, I imagine that day cannot arrive soon enough.

I can't predict when Mike Mularkey will turn the page and go with the quarterback of the future. After all, it took him six weeks to realize he wasn't starting his best running back. Then, after Willis McGahee rushed for 111 yards and helped get Mularkey his first NFL win, the rookie head coach convinced himself Travis Henry was still his starter.

After the Miami win, Mularkey hid behind the old coaching maxim that says you can't lose your job to injury. So he started Henry against the Ravens. He allowed Henry to carry the ball five times for 6 yards in the first half, realized his offense was mired in quicksand, and went back to McGahee in the second half.

Not surprisingly, the Buffalo offense came to life after halftime. McGahee, restored to the role of featured back, rushed 13 times for 50 yards in the second half. Hmmm. Over a full game, that would translate to 26 for 100, or roughly what he had gained the week before against Miami. Once he got the work, he got into a rhythm and the offense began to hum.

Granted, everything went to pieces once Drew Bledsoe started throwing interceptions in the fourth quarter. But the Bills promoted McGahee to starting running back in the second half Sunday. Henry came back from injury. He struggled. McGahee took over. He made the offensive line look competent again. If the Bills had been smart enough to start him, maybe they would have won.

Running back controversy? What running back controversy? Mularkey made his choice, even if he wasn't ready to admit publicly that McGahee is his featured back.

"What we did was, we weren't getting it done," Mularkey said. "We needed a spark wherever it was, and Willis came in and did a nice job. I'm not going to make a decision at the podium right now that he is."

I'll take it from here, then, coach. McGahee is your starter. You needed a spark? What did you call what Willis gave you against the Dolphins? A cup of water in the face? The guy carried you to victory over your big rival, ending a seven-game losing streak. He might as well have ignited an M-80 in the coaches' office.

The time for worrying about Henry's feelings is over. Mularkey needs to give McGahee the job and move on. It's time for the rookie coach to stop acting smart and start being smart. Put the best player on the field and give your team the best chance to win.

That's what the good coaches do. It's not really that complicated. Good coaches put players in a position to succeed and keep it simple. Bad coaches spend too much time trying to show people how smart they are. In his first six games as an NFL head coach, Mularkey has often come across as the latter.

The Bills had a first down on the Ravens' 46 with the game tied, 3-3, late in the first quarter. On first down, they call a fake reverse that winds up with Bledsoe surrounded by three defenders. Two plays later, they line up Eric Moulds in the backfield. Bledsoe fakes to Moulds, turns and throws an ill-advised screen for McGahee that gets tipped and picked off by Deion Sanders, who runs it back for a game-changing touchdown.

Bledsoe said the Bills had planned to use misdirection plays to counteract the fast Baltimore defense. But wouldn't it have been wiser to forget the fancy plays? Six games should be enough for Mularkey and offensive coordinator Tom Clements to realize that every time you ask Bledsoe to execute an exotic play, it has disastrous consequences.

The Bills' offense has been a joke on the road for most of the Bledsoe era. They've lost 13 of 15 road games and averaged 9.5 points in the 13 losses. Bledsoe rarely has enough time to throw in hostile stadiums, and when he does he can't throw a 5-yard pass accurately and with any kind of touch. So the only real hope is to pound teams with the running game.

You figured they'd have some momentum after the Miami game. Instead, they came out flat. Moulds said his teammates seemed to be playing harder in the second half than they had in the first. Mularkey said there was a lot of talk at halftime about playing with pride in the second half.

How in the world could a 1-4 team, coming off its only win of the season, not have been sky-high for the Ravens? The Bills should have been a desperate team from the opening kickoff. Maybe they would have been more fired-up if their coach had started his best running back.

McGahee and Henry say it takes awhile for a running back to find his rhythm. That's why teams don't split the carries between two guys. I asked McGahee if it had taken him longer to get into a rhythm than it had a week earlier against Miami. He hesitated for several seconds, then admitted it had.

Alternating running backs in the first half was a dumb idea. Mularkey should have known better. But like his general manager, Tom Donahoe, he tried to middle it. He can't have it both ways. Apparently, he's finally figured out McGahee is the man.

That's a start. Now let's hope that when Losman is ready, Mularkey won't fool around. Bledsoe insists he's still the quarterback. He says the offense is going to turn it around. He's been saying that for two years. It's not getting better. In an unpredictable league, the one sure thing is that the Buffalo offense will go on the road and embarrass itself.

It's about the future now, and the sooner Losman and McGahee are lining up in the same backfield, the better.
e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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