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Bills' march to progress may travel winding road

In six days, all signs of the lockout will be scrubbed away and we will begin to discover what sort of improved Bills team General Manager Buddy Nix and coach Chan Gailey have fashioned for us, starting with the exhibition opener against the Bears in Chicago.

This is the fifth attempt by a fresh football management team to bring some semblance of competing into a Buffalo season. No, the Bills will not go to the Super Bowl in February. They were a .500 team for the last half of the 2010 season, with four near-misses overall. All the victories and half of the nice-tries were against losers but unless you are a compulsive crepe-hanger you have to admit that amounts to some progress.

The idea now is to get better, hopefully much better. But the realistic fact is that Buffalo is in the same division, the AFC East, with two teams, New England and the New York Jets, that are legitimate Super Bowl prospects.

It's impossible to make amends for the last decade in one season.

This team has to be improved one chunk at a time and its defense was leaking oil by the gusher last season. So Nix and Gailey wisely aimed at repairing that side of the line of scrimmage first. There may be as many as four new starting linebackers by opening day, Sept. 11. The secondary should be buttressed by the return to health of safety Jairus Byrd and the addition of rookies Aaron Williams and Da'Norris Searcy.

The 2010 pass rush would have been better off sending threatening letters to opposing quarterbacks. If the balky Achilles tendon of linebacker Shawne Merriman is completely healed, expect a deadly new combination of rookie defensive lineman Marcell Dareus and Merriman.

Second- and third-year pros often bring important improvement to their teams. Defensive linemen Torell Troup and Alex Carrington could be in that category. Linebacker Arthur Moats may be ready to make a comfort-zone contribution in his second season.

Young players often get better unexpectedly. Wide receiver Stevie Johnson is a perfect example. Remember that Jason Peters came to the Bills as an undrafted tight end and developed into a Pro Bowl offensive tackle. Unfortunately, he was allowed to become a Philadelphia Eagle.

Stop whining and pay attention. Between Sept. 25 and Dec. 11 the Bills play seven games against teams that are serious contenders for the Super Bowl. We'll find out how much backbone this team has grown in the Chan Gailey era.

Larry Felser, former News columnist, appears in Sunday's editions.

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