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Offensive line's reputation is tested in every game

Yes, he's worried. It's what Jim McNally does for a living. He coaches offensive line, and he worries. It's in the job description. He's been at it for 40 years. He knows as much about blocking as any man alive. Still he frets, because he cannot be perfect, and because one missed block could bring his whole world tumbling down.

"I make coffee nervous," McNally said. "I'm always worried."

McNally finds no consolation in the fact that the public is worrying, too. Buffalo fans are always concerned about the O-line. When was the last time you felt totally secure about the Bills' offensive line heading into a new season? The last Super Bowl year? The last time Kent Hull snapped the ball?

It's not peculiar to Buffalo, either. You can count on one hand the number of NFL cities -- Kansas City, Pittsburgh, maybe Philadelphia -- where people aren't worried about their line. Fans regard the O line the way they do their politicians, with a wary skepticism.

"When the quarterback gets sacked, the novice, the average fan, thinks it's the offensive line's fault," McNally said. "It's been that way for the last hundred years."

Last year, the line struggled for more than a month to find itself. McNally, a Buffalo boy who came back home to finish his career, felt like a failure in his own town. Then the line clicked and was one of the most effective units in the league. In the last 10 games, the Bills allowed just 16 sacks and rushed for 122 yards a game. Then, in the offseason, the front office replaced the starting quarterback and the left side of the offensive line, and the worrying began anew. Would Mike Gandy be a suitable replacement for Jonas Jennings? Did Bennie Anderson have much to do with Jamal Lewis rushing for 2,000 yards in Baltimore? Would they have J.P. Losman running for his life?

"You're always wondering," McNally said. "I think after four or five games, you're going to really find an identity. As we progress through the season we'll find out, 'Hey, Willis McGahee really does this well,' or, 'We really do well running this play to Mike Williams,' or, 'Hey, let's run this to Gandy.' "

Actually, they looked a lot like last year's line in the opening win over Houston. They allowed just one sack of Losman and plowed the way for 152 rushing yards. In the first half, they dominated the Texans at the line of scrimmage. Gandy, the new left tackle, owned Antwan Peek on the opening drive. Anderson more than held his own at left guard.

It was an ideal matchup for an opener, though. The Bills were at home, before a sellout crowd, against a defense that finished last in the league in pass rush a year ago. The offensive coaches devised a smart game plan. They came out throwing, taking pressure off Losman and backing off the Houston defense.

That's how it goes for an offensive line. Lose and the fingers get pointed your way. Win and you've merely done what people expected. When the Bills won six in a row last year, it was the defense and special teams who got the accolades. The offensive line was taken for granted.

"A reputation sticks quick," said tight end Mark Campbell. "I think when we didn't do well for the first quarter or first half of the year, the reputation had already stuck."

"We're accustomed to it," said Anderson. "Most of us have been offensive linemen our whole careers, so we understand. We have the mentality that it's us against the world, anyway."

Anderson is a history buff. He even taught the subject for a while. He's studying the Roman Empire. Anderson knows that for an offensive lineman, your last game is ancient history. He and his mates realize that today's opponent, the Buccaneers, will be a more daunting test than the Texans.

Tampa Bay is a perennial defensive power under coordinator Monte Kiffin, who is known for his creative, unpredictable schemes. The Bucs always have speedy playmakers in their front seven. They slash and move, and they always seem to come up with something you haven't seen before. They'll throw everything at you but the Kiffins' sink.

The Bills will be on the road, in the Bucs' home opener, before a hostile crowd. It'll be Losman's first NFL road start, the first road game for the Gandy-Anderson tandem, protecting the kid's left side. We'll find out some more about the line's identity today. It promises to be a struggle. That's why McNally is his usual frantic self.

"I don't know if I would say he was any more excited or crazy than he normally is," Campbell said, "because that's him. That's his personality, especially during the season."

McNally admits it gets worse as the season goes on, as the grind of NFL coaching takes its toll. But he loves it. It's his happy obsession. He has a couple of prime young prospects in Duke Preston and Jason Peters. So sit back and let him do the worrying.

The line will be fine. At least, he thinks so.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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