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IT'S NOW OR NEVER Dick Jauron's popularity among his players won't protect his job -- but maybe T.O. can be the savior

One constant in the head coaching career of Dick Jauron is player support.

When Jauron was fired after five seasons in Chicago in 2003, the Bears players -- to a man -- lamented the fact his tenure was over.

Through three straight 7-9 seasons in Buffalo, Bills players consistently have gone out of their way to support their leader.

Perhaps the biggest compliment that can be made about Jauron's eight-year head coaching tenure is he has kept his teams focused, united and motivated from start to finish.

That capability gets put to its biggest test ever this season.

Can Jauron lead a Bills team that is united -- and successful -- while withstanding pressure that's coming from all directions?

He's presumably on a one-year leash. When Ralph Wilson decided to retain Jauron last January, the owner acknowledged his head coach had one more season to produce a winner.

He's unpopular with a large majority of the fans.

His offense is reeling after last week's firing of offensive coordinator Turk Schonert and the release of left tackle Langston Walker.

He must effectively manage megawatt personality Terrell Owens, who at his best is a productive, straight-shooting, suffer-no-fools superstar and who at his worst has been a disruptive thorn in the side of some of his coaches.

In short, Jauron opens the season with a tenuous grasp on the lid of a pot that looks ready to boil over.

"For the coaches, for the players, for this group of guys, this is a big year," said linebacker Paul Posluszny. "We need to get to the playoffs, and we're running out of time here with having mediocre 7-9 seasons, and that's just not going to cut it anymore. We need to get to the playoffs."

"They've got to win and they've got to win now," said Bills Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly. "I know the pressure's on because if they don't win now they're all going to find themselves looking for a job next year."

>The savior

Enter T.O.

Jauron's hopes to end the Bills' offensive failures hinge largely on the 35-year-old Owens.

Can the alleged "coach killer" become the "coach savior" in Buffalo?

Whether it's an act of desperation, a marriage of convenience or a stroke of genius, Jauron's job depends on Owens.

"He has performed. As long as he performs, we'll be all right," Jauron said.

"I am here, and I am blessed to be here, grateful for the opportunity, and I am going to embrace the moment," Owens said.

From strictly a football standpoint, Owens' addition makes sense. The Bills have been searching for a quality No. 2 receiver since 2006, when Peerless Price was signed to replace Eric Moulds.

With second-round draft pick James Hardy out due to a knee injury, the Bills needed someone to pair with Lee Evans. They courted free agent Laveranues Coles, but he wasn't the ideal solution. They would have had to give Coles a rich, four-year deal. That essentially would have made Hardy a perennial backup. It would have been a waste of that second-round pick. Coles accepted a richer offer to join Cincinnati. The other veteran, one-year options included Joey Galloway (who visited Buffalo but picked New England) and Amani Toomer (who just got cut by Kansas City.)

Owens, with his 139 career TD catches, was by far the most productive one-year option available to the Bills. In a perfect Bills world, Hardy produces the second half of 2009 and is ready to be Evans' ideal complement in 2010.

Jauron wasn't in any position to get picky over Owens' reputation. How else was the Bills' 25th-ranked offense going to have even a chance of competing with New England? It's hard to think of another option available to the Bills at the time Owens was released by the Dallas Cowboys.

"When you compete in a division that's as good as our division, you better get good, and you better have it everywhere to compete with these guys," Jauron said. "He brings that to our football team, and we needed it."

However, Owens may strain all of Jauron's renowned ability to keep a happy, contented ship.

The Bills better get Owens the ball frequently.

If the team is losing and Owens is not getting the ball, he will complain. He genuinely believes -- with a fair amount of history to support his position -- that he needs to be heavily involved in order for the team to succeed.

Past coaches and players suggest Jauron needs to be proactive in managing Owens by checking in with him frequently, taking his temperature, so to speak. Owens has not managed conflict wonderfully in his career. It's Jauron's job to manage conflict with Owens as soon as it arises and not let issues fester.

At this point, before the first pass is thrown or the first defeat suffered, Jauron downplays the issue of conflict with Owens.

"If you think that emotional outbursts don't occur on every sideline every Sunday, you're sadly mistaken," Jauron said. "They do. Between coaches and players, between players and players. To the degree he's had them? Maybe. Do they get the publicity he gets? No, because of his success as a player, his abilities as a player and obviously to the degree of the disturbance on the sideline at times and how prominent the people that are involved in them are.

"So, they happen all of the time in our business on the practice field, on game day, in the locker room and they're national events when he's concerned. If and when they arise, and we hope they don't, we'll deal with them."

>The man

Jauron inspires more loyalty than one would expect for a man who has a 57-77 career record.

Consider the comments of quarterback Trent Edwards late last December when Jauron's future with the team was in doubt.

"I sent a text message to him earlier this week that said I've never respected a person more than I do the coach that I have," Edwards said. "I love him to death. I love coming to work for him every day."

What is it about Jauron that engenders such loyalty?

The players clearly like Jauron's practice regimen. Following in the tradition of coaches like Paul Brown, Bill Walsh and Marv Levy, Jauron puts a priority on teaching and does not beat up his players in practice.

"I think he understands his players," said linebacker Keith Ellison. "He understands when to push us, when to pull off. He has a good pulse of his team. He treats you like a man. It's not like a college program where it's a dictator at the top. He's going to tell you the straight truth."

Contrary to Jauron's communication style in the media -- which generally is to be bland and say as little as possible -- players say Jauron is a straight shooter who tells them directly where they stand on the team and what they need to do to improve.

Players see through false bravado. Jauron doesn't project any of that.

"You always hear about the great leaders are people who are humble and they never take credit for anything," guard Brad Butler said. "Coach Jauron is one of those guys. They always try to give credit away."

They also say he is able to set the tone for the team and turn its focus forward, not backward, each week.

"I think it's important a good leader has a vision and that he's able to paint a good picture for everybody he leads," Butler said. "I think he does a good job of that. We understand where we're trying to go and it's going to be a week-by-week and day-by-day process."

Jauron generally doesn't make enemies in the football administration, either. That was a factor in allowing him to get a contract extension last year. He didn't have anyone lobbying Wilson against him.

Off the field, Jauron does not try to encroach on others' power. He does not inject himself into contract negotiating. He leaves salary cap management to the administration. He doesn't usurp the personnel department. Unlike a lot of NFL coaches who become power hungry, Jauron respects others' turf.

>The record

Of course, player popularity can take a coach only so far.

Jauron can not escape the fact his career winning percentage as an NFL head coach is .425. He has just one playoff appearance in eight full seasons. Jauron is just the 14th coach since 1970 to survive to a fourth season after three straight losing years.

Jauron supporters can rightly point to the fact he never has had a proven, veteran quarterback leading his teams. His starting quarterbacks have been: Shane Matthews, Cade McNown, Jim Miller, Kordell Stewart, J.P. Losman and Edwards.

However, part of a head coach's job is to find a quarter-bback. Jauron has had a big hand in picking those players.

Jauron also never has been able to hire a successful offensive coordinator. Both of his choices for offensive coordinator in Chicago -- Gary Crowton and John Shoop -- failed to produce consistent results and were widely criticized.

He picked Steve Fairchild to run the offense his first two years in Buffalo. The Bills' offense ranked 30th in yards both seasons, and Fairchild probably would have been fired after the 2007 campaign had he not left to become head coach at Colorado State.

Then Jauron turned to Schonert, who lasted just one season, plus a training camp.

Jauron's offenses have ranked in the bottom 10 in the NFL seven of his eight seasons. The only positive year he had, from a yards perspective, was his first, when the Bears ranked eighth in 1999.

>The gamble

Owens' presence eliminates much of Jauron's margin for failure. With Owens and Evans at receiver and a deep backfield, the Bills have the best collection of skill talent they have had since the 2002 season. Jauron has the best collection of offensive skill players in his head-coaching career.

The time to produce is now.

Jauron, despite his ultra-conservative public persona, had decided he's going to coach aggressively with his job on the line. The Bills are attacking on offense with the no-huddle approach, the risks be damned.

Schonert's firing makes one thing clear: If Jauron's ship is going to sink, he's going down his way.

Schonert would not bend to Jauron's thinking on the no-huddle offense.

Jauron wants to run the offense at a fast pace to put more pressure on the defense. The only way to run it fast is to have a smaller package of plays on a week-to-week basis.

The risk with a smaller package of plays is the offense could be easier for the defense to read and recognize.

If your offense has enough talent -- as the Jim Kelly Bills had -- then a relatively small package of plays doesn't matter.

It better work. If the Bills' offense falls flat to open the season, it's easy to imagine Jauron getting fired soon. The Bills have a veteran coach in Bobby April who could take over on an interim basis.

If the Bills start out ugly -- 0-4? 1-4? -- Jauron may not last to Halloween.

Does Jauron need to make the playoffs to save his job? Maybe not.

The release of Walker lowers expectations for the offense and possibly creates a built-in excuse for Jauron. The Bills still will owe Jauron $6 million for the final two years remaining on his contract after this season.

If the young offensive line shows improvement during the year and the Bills remain competitive, could Jauron sell this as a rebuilding year?

It's possible. But it's hard to imagine the fan base being supportive of another 7-9 season - or worse.

"I think that winning football games solves everything," Edwards said.

All of Bills Nation would say amen to that.

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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