Stout test for Bills

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:05 AM ET

For the past several NFL seasons, the Buffalo Bills have sold expectation over substance, banking that it would be enough to fill the seats.

Whether it was new quarterbacks, new coaches, or both, the resilient fans of Western New York and Southern Ontario have bought in willingly.

So perhaps it is more out of habit than hope that the first four home games of the pending season are virtual sellouts.

Because unlike those past seasons, expectations are muted as the Bills prepared to kick off the 2006 campaign against the New England Patriots this afternoon in Foxboro.

As high as 10 points with some books, the Bills are the biggest underdogs in Week 1 and come by that status honestly.

The off-season house cleaning in Orchard Park, made to erase the taste and troubles of a 5-11 season, took place mostly away from the field and will be put to a stout early test.

There were many a raised eyebrow when octogenarian owner, Ralph Wilson, hired another octogenarian, Marv Levy, to be a rookie general manager.

Such is Levy's legend in the region for his run with the Super Bowl teams of the early 1990s, few have dared criticized that move. They'll save that for later, if necessary. At least Levy is an attitude upgrade over surly Tom Donahoe.

Instead, Bills fans will see if the fourth coach this decade can be the first to make the post-season since Wade Phillips most recently led them there in 1999.

By all accounts that man, Dick Jauron, may be the most even-keeled of those sideline leaders.

It was evident early (and late) in his two-year tenure that Mike Mularkey was in way over his head. That Mularkey resigned, in part because he was troubled by criticism his family was taking, says enough.

His predecessor Gregg Williams thought he was running boot camp and that act wore out in a hurry

In the words of running back Willis McGahee, "chaos" often marked the Mularkey era and order has been restored under Jauron. Apparently shuffling back between quarterbacks J.P. Losman and Kelly Holcomb inspired as much confidence in the locker-room as it did in the stands.

"There were mixed emotions going around last year," McGahee told Buffalo reporters this week. "But that is the past and you can't dwell on that."

Though all eyes are on Losman, who gets a second crack at the starting QB job, a trimmed down McGahee may play the biggest role in erasing that past.

If the running game falters, opposing defences will gang up on Losman and quickly make Bills fans wish Levy had drafted former USC star Matt Leinart this past spring.

If McGahee can establish the run, however, Losman may be able to stretch the field and in speedy Lee Evans would appear to have a worthy target.

The defence will need to step up from a disappointing 2005 effort but the return of that unit's soul, linebacker Takeo Spikes, will provide a big boost.

Nothing will come easy, including a schedule that sees the Bills open up with difficult road encounters against division rivals New England and the Miami Dolphins.

After Wilson complained loud and bitter about the plight of the NFL's small-market teams, the Bills were given the small-market treatment.

All 16 games are 1 p.m. starts as the league schedule makers clearly believe they are nowhere near ready for prime time.

Worse still, four of their first six games are on the road leaving four of their last six at home.

It's almost certain that by the Christmas Eve date against the Tennessee Titans, the weather will be frightful. Not many are expecting the Bills record to be much better.


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