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Fan frustration not likely to end in rebuilding year The Bills aren't close to being a playoff team. They're a few good players and a head coach from average.

This year, Donte Whitner isn't making any playoff guarantees. Sure, it went pretty well for awhile last season. When the Bills began 5-1, fans were tripping over each other to buy the strong safety a drink or pick up his dinner tab.

Once things fell apart, people weren't so gracious. It hasn't let up, either. Whitner says a lot of people rip him to his Facebook. He resists the urge to respond in kind. He understands.

"I try to send a nice remark back," Whitner said, "because I know it's frustration. I know how long the drought is, and how much people love the Bills. With love, it's a thin line."

Whitner is losing patience, too. This is his fourth season in the NFL, and he has endured three 7-9 seasons, a necklace of mediocrity. Triple that, and you can register the despair of Bills fans, who have suffered through nine straight seasons without a playoff berth.

But if it's any consolation, Whitner hasn't lost faith.

"No, I think expectations are higher than they were last year," he said. "I know they're higher. We expect more from ourselves this year. I know some people get discouraged by the preseason, but I don't think that's a problem at all."

Of course, the owner and head coach were sufficiently discouraged to fire Turk Schonert, the offensive coordinator, 10 days before the opener. Four days later, they cut starting left tackle Langston Walker.

It's a team with big problems and, presumably, big pressure to win. But based on recent events, it seems the Bills have written off the season and privately committed to rebuilding.

Optimists see the Bills as an average team coming off a 7-9 year, right in the annual muddle of NFL teams capable of making a leap to contention.

I judge them as a team that finished 2-8 and didn't score a touchdown in their final three home games. They weren't an average team, but a bad team that played an easy schedule and eventually found its level.

The Terrell Owens signing was a stroke of genius, a timely diversion. Owens sold tickets and allowed fans to forget how angry they were with the late-season collapse and the retention of Dick Jauron as coach.

Owens is a viable second receiver alongside Lee Evans. He might be worth a game or two, but it could be the difference between 4-12 and 6-10, between bad and merely mediocre. I'm sorry, they're not close to a playoff team. They're a few good players and a head coach from average. If it really is win-or-else time (and I'm not convinced), a lot of people will be in hot water four months from now.

The Bills were among the worst teams in the NFL at the end of last season. They haven't gotten any better. Owens will help, but he was erratic in his last year with the Cowboys, catching half the balls thrown his way. If the offense continues its pathetic play of August, it's a matter of time before he spouts off in public.

Aside from Owens, it's a team devoid of stars. They traded Jason Peters, their only Pro Bowler. Go ahead, name another player among the elite at his position. When publications list the top NFL players, you rarely see a Bill among the top 15 at his position. Those magazines sprout up like weeds in summer, but they can't all be wrong.

The offensive line might be the worst in football. Eric Wood and Andy Levitre have promise, but they're rookies changing to guard on the fly. Management anointed Walker as the left tackle when Peters was traded, then shifted to Demetrius Bell, a project who hasn't played a down in the NFL.

All five positions have been changed, and they're being asked to run the no-huddle. If the no-huddle is supposed to help the O line through the transition, you wouldn't know it from the preseason. Jauron's answer was to fire Schonert and give the coordinator's job to a neophyte, Alex Van Pelt.

Schonert's firing deflected attention from Trent Edwards, who struggled badly in the preseason. This is a big year for Edwards. When Marshawn Lynch returns from a three-game suspension, the Bills will have a solid one-two at running back to complement a deeper receiving corps. There are no more excuses, no coaches to scapegoat.

After the preseason, however, there's talk of the defense compensating for a weak offense. I'm not sure this defense is up to the challenge. It's a classic Jauron 'D', designed to bend but not allow touchdowns. But they never seem to get the big stop, and the pass rush is too weak to create turnovers.

The Bills were 26th in the NFL in sacks, tied for 27th in interceptions. They have two solid cornerbacks in Terence McGee and Leodis McKelvin, but it's hard to get pickoffs when your team can't rush the passer.

The hope lies with the two Aarons: Schobel, who returns from a foot injury, and Maybin, the first-round pick who looked good in preseason after a long holdout. But it's a little early to expect big things from Maybin, and a little late for Schobel.

Schobel is 32. He's no longer the dynamic end who had 26 sacks in 2005-06. Last week, New England traded its 29-year-old Pro Bowl defensive end, Richard Seymour, whose contract expires after the season. Two years ago, just before Schobel turned 30, the Bills gave him a seven-year, $50 million deal.

And you wonder why the Pats have finished ahead of the Bills nine years in a row? The Bills always seem a step behind, botching draft picks and signing veterans past their prime.

The Bills have a 91-year-old owner who hires coaches on the cheap. They have a weak football department, overseen by a marketing guy, Russ Brandon. Wilson, still running scared from the Tom Donahoe years, won't bring in a strong football man from outside, someone who would be empowered to tear apart an increasingly dysfunctional operation.

A strong GM would have fired Jauron and eaten the contract extension, instead of hiding behind "continuity." He would have spared the franchise the embarrassment of firing an offensive coordinator 10 days before the season.

It's a bad team, and it'll get worse. Only the Bills and Lions have gone nine straight years without making the playoffs. At least Detroit bottomed out and got the No. 1 overall pick.

For all their failures, the Bills haven't gotten a true star in the draft. None of their first-round picks in this decade has been voted to the Pro Bowl. Wilson blames Donahoe. But after the Owens signing and the draft, the owner said the talent was there. He's not making any guarantees, though.

"I was afraid in training camp that the fans were getting too high on this team," Wilson said. "They felt a playoff spot was a lock and I had to caution some people. I said, 'Wait a minute, a lot can happen in a football season.' "

What if Jauron starts 0-5? "I'll hope he doesn't start 0-6," Wilson said.

Say, does anyone know if the owner is on Facebook?

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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