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Players go, but losing remains ; Teammates move on, often for money. Whitner's locker was a stark reminder.

Donte Whitner took locker cleanout day to a new level Monday. He showed up early and removed every trace of himself. When the media arrived at 9 a.m., the stool bearing Whitner's No. 20 was sitting empty up in his stall. The coat hooks were lonely, the cubbyholes bare. Even the nameplate was missing above his locker.

For weeks, Whitner had been hinting that contract talks were at an impasse. Now the evidence was there for all to see. After five years, the Bills' talkative strong safety is gone, free to peddle his services on the NFL's open market, where he will be chasing a premium safety's salary in the $7 million range.

Whitner didn't stick around to say goodbye. That's how it goes sometimes at the end of an NFL season. No team stays the same from one year to the next. Players come and go, and it can happen before you even realize it's time for farewells.

"Some of the veterans told me that last Friday," said rookie defensive tackle Torell Troup. "They said, 'Say your goodbyes now, because you never know who's going to be here and who's not.' I didn't know it was like that."

Troup said it's a lot different from college. At least you know who's graduating. In the NFL, with free agency and revolving rosters, it's not uncommon for a third of the faces in a locker room to change in a year. The Bills have 11 free agents, and most of them are likely to be gone.

As the players like to remind us, the game is a business for both sides. Coach Chan Gailey mentioned the business of football later in the day when he described Whitner's future with the Bills as "tenuous" -- the same word he agreed might apply to first-round disappointment Aaron Maybin, by the way.

Players think of themselves as family, but they understand that a professional team is a fragile entity. Teammates move on, often for money. Whitner's locker was a stark reminder. Cornerback Drayton Florence, another unrestricted free agent, referred to himself as a "businessman" Monday.

"It's definitely a tough time," safety George Wilson said. "We've been working out together since March. But we've been together every day since we reported to training camp. We spend more time here than we do with our own families. You know that every year brings change and you have to accept it for what it is.

"This one is a little tougher," Wilson said, "because you don't know when you're playing your next game."

Wilson is also an unrestricted free agent (that's three key members of the secondary). He has been with the Bills for six years. Originally signed as a wide receiver, he made the switch to defensive back in 2007 and made himself into a reliable safety and special teams standout. This is likely his one chance to cash in as a free agent.

"This is an opportunity I've been awaiting for a long time," Wilson said, "to get a good reward for a lifelong work I've done to this point. I'm confident in all I've done. I know what I bring to the table. I've always laid it out there on the field. I've never held anything back."

"The Senator" has been a voice of reason in the dressing room, too. Like Whitner, Wilson has been a spokesman and leader during some difficult times. He'll be a nice guy to have around in the likely event that Whitner leaves, and at a much more reasonable salary.

Wilson is the Bills' union representative. More business. He did not sound optimistic about the negotiations between the players and owners on a new collective bargaining agreement. So along with the uncertainty about the Bills' roster, there's the prospect of a lockout shutting down the sport.

That made the mood more somber than usual Monday. The players immerse themselves in football for nearly six months, then all of a sudden it's over. It has to be a huge physical relief, but also an emotional letdown for a room full of intense, competitive athletes.

Losing doesn't help matters. This makes six straight losing seasons, and 11 straight without a playoff appearance. I've forgotten how it feels to walk into the Bills' locker room on the day after the regular-season and feel the gathering sense of hope and promise about an upcoming playoff run.

How long has it been? The last time the Bills weren't cleaning out their lockers after the last game of the regular season was 11 years ago, five days before the Music City Miracle, the team's last playoff game. Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith and Andre Reed all had one game left in their Buffalo careers.

Maybe that's why there was such an empty feeling on locker cleanout day. The years go by, the players change, and the losing continues. After awhile, it feels like more failure being swept under the rug.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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