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STEPPING UP IN YEAR THREE Losman takes great strides in first full season as starting QB

There was a look of pride on the face of Buffalo Bills assistant coach Turk Schonert as he smiled and shook the hand of J.P. Losman in the locker room at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium.

It was minutes after the Bills' season-ending loss to the Ravens, and Losman had just thrown two killer interceptions. It didn't matter. He had battled. He made some plays against a dominant defense. Moreover, he had passed a long, grueling test that began way back in March with the Bills' first spring practice.

"I just told him, 'You've come a long way this year,' " Schonert said. "He was frustrated because he knew he could play better against that type of team. But that's the competitor in him, and I love it. He's got high expectations for himself, and I've got high expectations for him.

"I'm excited about him."

Losman's dramatic improvement was the development of the season for the Bills.

He improved his completion percentage from 49.5 -- the worst of any starting quarterback in 2005 -- to 62.5 percent, ninth best in the league. He improved his passer rating from 64.9 points -- second worst in 2005 -- to 85.0 points, 11th best in the league.

In short, he proved he is a competent quarterback and made it a foregone conclusion that he is the starter for next season.

"There's no question in my mind that he is," Bills coach Dick Jauron said. "J.P. has answered a lot of questions. . . . He just keeps working at it, and I think he gives us hope for the future."

Obviously, it's too early to say if Losman is capable of leading the Bills to a championship. He's still two months shy of his 26th birthday. Both he and the Bills' offense have a lot to prove. He's still under contract through 2008. But his play offers hope that he might become a championship quarterback.

Losman's overall numbers were better than most other quarterbacks at a roughly similar stage of development this season -- including the Giants' Eli Manning, Chicago's Rex Grossman, San Francisco's Alex Smith, Houston's David Carr and Jacksonville's David Garrard.

"The more he plays I believe the better he'll get because he has a good attitude, and he's talented," Jauron said. "He's a physical talent. He can obviously throw the ball. He's got a strong arm. He's got mobility. He can move around and escape some. And he's learning how to play the position. And maybe the biggest thing since I've known him is how he handles the game. . . . I mean everything: our huddle, the play clock, the comfort with recognizing certain defensive looks and then making the right decisions."

>Much improved

The opinion of Losman leaguewide has gone way up.

Former Pro Bowl quarterback Rich Gannon, a CBS analyst who worked several of Losman's 2005 games and was critical of him, liked what he saw in 2006.

"I've seen improvement, there's no question," Gannon said. "His completion percentage has gone way up. The other thing I've seen from him is he has eliminated some of the bad decisions from his game, not just in terms of the interceptions. But there's a number of occasions where you'd see him run all over the place and then take the sack or throw a bad interception. He's cut that down. He's done a better job protecting the football. He's done a better job throwing the ball away.

"I think you take into consideration the fact this guy is in his second system in three years. That's not easy for any quarterback. I've seen growth in his understanding of the game."

ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Sean Salisbury was a fan of Losman before the 2004 draft. He still is.

"I think he's the most improved player in the league, at the toughest position to be the most improved at," Salisbury said. "Alex Smith was making great strides early in the season but tailed off a little bit.

"I like to see how a guy handles adversity. He went through the adversity of losing his job and seeing them go out and get a veteran in Craig Nall. He had to win over a new coach and a new general manager, and he did it.

"The biggest improvement is I believe everybody in that locker room now believes they can win with him, and that's important."

Backup quarterback Kelly Holcomb sees that as well.

"I think everybody in this locker room is gaining confidence because he's gaining confidence," Holcomb said. "From what he was last year to what he is now, he's leaps and bounds ahead of where he was. He understands stuff so much more."

"I've seen progress," said Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick. "He's got a tremendous arm and has a certain swagger about him, the way he likes to play. I'm very impressed with what I see."

Pat Kirwan, the former Jets personnel chief and NFL.com analyst, says Losman is ascending but still has a ways to go.

"I think he has passed where [Baltimore's] Kyle Boller got to as a quarterback but I still wonder about the competitive mental edge required to win on a consistent basis," Kirwan said. "He can get streaky. But his ability to sustain his performance long term is on my question mark list for '07. I would probably say he lies somewhere above Charlie Frye, Joey Harrington, and Kyle Boller but below the three rookies -- [Jay] Cutler, [Matt] Leinart and [Vince] Young."

Kirwan said opponents gave Losman more credit this year.

"I spoke with a few linebackers who lined up against him and they said he was composed and had a presence about him that wasn't there last year," he said. "All said they thought his arm strength was above average and that he could 'stick a ball' in tighter places than they thought he could. As for the secondary players I spoke with, they mostly claimed they underestimated his range and decision making. One safety said, 'Last year he . . . . was easily fooled, rattled and intimidated.' "

Losman's improved accuracy was the product of Schonert overhauling his footwork. Losman stopped rushing his drop-back and got his feet better set underneath him.

"I just kind of slow my feet down a little bit, try not to drop back as fast," Losman said. "I thought there was more of a rhythm and more of seeing the field faster. By speeding up my feet a little bit (in 2005), I think it sped up the defense as well. So, I just tried to slow everything down."

Gannon thinks Losman can be even more consistent with his footwork.

"From a constructive criticism standpoint, I look at his mechanics," Gannon said. "And I see sometimes his footwork is an issue. Sometimes he needs to slow his body down a little bit."

Losman agrees.

"I'd have loved to have been in this offense since Day One (in 2004), or any offense for that matter," Losman said. "It's about getting to know certain looks, the exceptions to every rule. Getting used to all the little things that an offense brings day in and day out. Footwork drills. There were some times this year where the footwork was a little off. But if I had been practicing the same footwork for the last couple years, maybe it could have been right this year. So I'm definitely looking forward to next year."

Gannon thinks Losman will get more comfortable with reading where to go with the ball.

"Another thing we always say in the business is you have to lose the extra hitch," Gannon said. "Sometimes you watch and he'll get back to the top of his set and he'll take a hitch, then he'll take an extra hitch just to make sure -- 'I see what I see' -- and then the ball comes out. He's got such a strong arm he feels like he can take that extra hitch. But in reality you're better off throwing on timing and not taking that extra hitch. That's a thing that he'll have to eventually develop as he gets more comfortable in the system."

Offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild thinks continuity will make a big difference.

"It gets to a point where if you can keep him in the same system with the same people around him, he'll see some pictures even before the ball's snapped and he'll say, 'I've been there. I know exactly what's going on,' " Fairchild said. "The continuity thing for him is so important. He's been in the league but really he was a relatively inexperienced player when we got him here this offseason."

>The next step

The problem for any franchise trying to develop a quarterback is there's no quick way to master the position.

Says Gannon: "I think the big thing for him -- as with any quarterback who's just finishing Year Three -- is in order to take that next step, in order to really evolve into a dominant player at the position, I'm talking a Peyton Manning or a Tom Brady, he needs to evolve mentally. He needs to be able to slow the game down more. He needs to be a master not only of what they're doing offensively in terms of personnel usage, formations, protections, but he has to be able to master what they're doing on the other side of the ball in terms of coverages, fronts, blitzes. He needs to intertwine both of them to be able to get his team in and out of bad plays and bad situations."

"The offensive coordinator can't always be right," Gannon said. "You get to the line of scrimmage and say this play has absolutely no chance. Am I going to run it and hope Willis McGahee makes a guy miss? Or am I going to get us into a better play? You don't see that from a lot of young quarterbacks. That's the next step."

"When you're blessed with physical skills, your biggest strength becomes your biggest weakness," Salisbury said. "Brett Favre's been in the league 15 years and my biggest criticism of him is he thinks he can make every single play.

"The next step for J.P. is to know when to say when. It's OK to punt sometimes. . . . If the defense is going to make me check down four series in a row, that's exactly what I'm going to do. The truth is if you do that early in the game, defenses will say, 'I'm tired of him checking it down.' "

"I feel that with another offseason in the same offense, with the same coaches and the same players, the sky is the limit," Losman said.

"He'll make a big jump next year, I'm sure of it," Fairchild said.

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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