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he Buffalo Bills are coming along nicely, carving out an identity, branding themselves as a dangerous team.

The inane penalties have been minimized. The flaws in their offensive execution have been addressed. Jerry Gray's defense is better than ever, and should get better yet as Troy Vincent returns to help shore up the inconsistent secondary.

Seeing where the Bills are now, how much they've progressed, makes the first month of the season all the more lamentable. At least two potential victories were frittered away. Just one more notch in the win column and the second half of the season is filled with promise, the difference between 3-5 and 4-4 a gulf when playoff possibilities are assessed. Oh, the pain of woulda, shoulda, coulda.

Rookie head coach Mike Mularkey deserves high marks for stabilizing a team that had lacked focus and discipline out of the gate. It's apparent he's earned the respect of his players, that they appreciate his style of managing.

The coach has taken some outside heat for procrastinating on the Travis Henry/Willis McGahee transition, but his approach was sound. You don't oust a dependable veteran on a hunch. You wait until the heart of the team can accept the rationale, the move becoming a soft sell in the aftermath of 1-4.

Are the Bills sitting on four wins if Mularkey makes the switch sooner? Maybe. Or maybe he'd have taken a step backward in the eyes of a veteran core that might have perceived a snub against Henry as an overreaction on the part of Mularkey. It's best to err on the cautious side when you're a rookie head coach seeking to earn your players' trust.

Mularkey has proven adept at steering the ship behind the scenes. But he's also raised some eyebrows with sideline decisions made in plain view. The botched Drew Bledsoe bootleg at a critical juncture of the New England game was a case of
overcoaching, of grasping for genius in a situation that yearned for practicality. Yeah, it might have looked good on paper. But he was asking for the planets to align, for everybody on the defense to bite while Bledsoe took the corner, presumably Michael Vick-like.

Sunday's victory over the Jets also had its curious moments. The Bills have a play that puts a back-up cornerback on a receiving end of a double reverse. They have a play that calls for a pooch punt from their place-kicker, which might be an interesting twist if they didn't possess the league's deadliest punter.

But what the Bills didn't have Sunday is a plan of attack from the Jets 2 with their timeouts expended and the first half about to expire. Mularkey admitted the coaching staff "learned a lesson." He said at halftime they were already strategizing in case the circumstances arise again.

Fortunately for Mularkey, being caught unprepared had no impact on the final result. Lessons always go down easier when victory's the chaser. But it's time to cut down on the shenanigans, on the plays conceived in a schoolboy's notebook.

Instead of dreaming up wrinkles, attend to the basics. Instead of spending
16-hour work days contriving far-fetched deceptions, have a handle on what personnel group affords maximum opportunity in a race against the clock. A reverse to
Jabari Greer isn't going to change the outcome of many football games. Milking the clock for all its worth in the red zone is a different story.

This isn't to say Mularkey's lives on the edge. He went ultra-conservative in the fourth quarter Sunday, running on third-and-13, running on third-and-5, bypassing a revitalized passing game, punting both times as the Jets hung tight.

There's no doubt Mularkey is still carving out his coaching identity, defining his style. Eight games into his career, I'd give him a B.

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