Pressure on Losman

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:26 AM ET

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- They welcomed Drew Bledsoe to town with a parade.

For Doug Flutie, the enthusiasm was shown by the accelerated sale of luxury suites at a time when the Buffalo Bills were struggling financially.

Rob Johnson was the fresh face for those who tired of Flutie's act and the foil in the bizarre quarterback controversy that ensued.

So what will the fired-up fans of the Bills have in store for the latest would-be hero?

As with any of his predecessors the ultimate evaluation will be performance-driven, of course, but J.P. Losman already has had an early taste of what awaits should things go sour too soon.

At the team's final pre-season game a week ago, the boos poured down onto Ralph Wilson Stadium after Losman's second interception in a loss to the Detroit Lions.

To his credit, the 24-year-old Californian by way of Tulane University, shrugged it off with the ease Bills management hopes he will elude opposing pass rushes.

"Some things never go as planned ... I've got to roll with it," Losman said of a game typical of a pre-season in which he never found a solid rhythm. "Really, I didn't think it was all that bad. One bad throw.

"In the back of my head, I'm always going to be thinking about the real thing."

The real thing arrives this Sunday at the Ralph where the Bills face the Houston Texans to begin another season juiced with optimism that a five-year playoff drought will end.

DRAFT GAMBLE

For better or for worse, the Bills have stacked their chips in front of Losman, banking that the first-round draft gamble of 2004 will pay off.

Not since Jim Kelly retired in '96 has the team had a leader the fans could embrace long-term. And only Flutie, who was chased out of town in 2000, has had a winning record since.

Because he is essentially a rookie -- Losman broke his foot in training camp last year and had just a few snaps toward the end of the season -- he should be given a season's grace period. In Buffalo, where fans are crying out for the second coming of Kelly, Losman won't have that luxury.

In fact, the seeds of second-guessing already are sprouting. In a column he writes for his station's website, Ed Kilgore, the long-time sports director at Buffalo's NBC affiliate, raised the issue under the headline: "Losman or Holcomb a Question Worth Asking."

Holcomb, as in Kelly, is the veteran backup the Bills signed in case Losman gets hurt, struggles mightily, or both. Predictably, the Bills braintrust is saying it will give Losman every chance to succeed, acknowledging the learning curve will have the occasional dip.

General manager Tom Donahoe decided it was time to cut his losses with Bledsoe after three seasons. The deciding blow likely was the stinker Bledsoe delivered at home in the Bills final game, a loss against what Pittsburgh Steelers' backups that ultimately cost the Bills a post-season spot.

He didn't draft Losman in the first round to sit on the bench, either.

"We didn't look to going to J.P. as a step back, we looked at it as a step forward," Donahoe told the Associated Press this week. "We felt that we probably went as far as we could go with Drew and that's not acceptable.

"We want to go further."

If there is a consensus among the pre-season predictors it is that the Bills likely are to regress from a 2004 season in which a late surge left them just short of the playoffs at 9-7.

Such prognostications are based on the greenness of Losman and ignore the support net he has around him, the hedge Donahoe and coach Mike Mularkey have in this gamble.

A defence that was ranked No. 2 is back and should keep the team in most games. After years of sloppy special teams, the Bills top-ranked unit was loaded with big plays in 2004.

And then there is running back Willis McGahee, who seems ready to burst through as an elite runner, one capable of being the centrepiece of any offence.

Under offensive co-ordinator and former CFL star Tom Clements, the Bills plan to employ a run-oriented, ball-control offence not unlike the one the Steelers made then-rookie Ben Roethlisberger look so good with a year ago.

"The biggest benefit to (Losman) is we have a team with a good defence," Clements told the Buffalo News. "We're going to try to control the ball. We're going to be a running team and try for big plays when we have the opportunity."

RUN-AND-GUN

Which isn't to say Losman will abandon what attracted the Bills to him in the first place. His run-and-gun style has been likened to, among others, Kelly and Brett Favre.

"The coaches haven't made me feel that I just have to hand off the ball and be smart," Losman said. "You have to take your chances. You have to be aggressive. You have receivers in Eric Moulds and Lee Evans. You have to trust it."

There are a couple ways to evaluate the makeup of this veteran team that returns some 20 starters. The glass half full script is that the tools around him give Losman a cocoon which will allow him to develop.

Glass half empty says that in such a win-now league can any team wait for a kid who has just five career passes to get up to speed with such talented teammates?

So far, the Bills have seen some good and some bad from Losman. His assets are a strong arm and mobility that is in stark contrast to the statuesque Bledsoe.

At times during the pre-season, Losman misused that mobility, abandoning the pocket too soon.

His inexperience and occasional skittishness likely will have opposing defences keying on that run game, thereby forcing Losman to make plays to win games. He'll also see his share of blitzes, something Losman relishes given the one-two punch of Moulds and Evans awaiting his tosses.

"Guys are responding to the leadership role in the quarterback position," Losman said. "I've been ready for a long time. About as ready as I'm going to get. However ready that is, we're going to find out."


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