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Garbage in, Garbage out
Bils have major concerns heading into season.
by Rick Anderson, webmaster of Bills Thunder
August 31, 2001

What a better description than "garbage in, garbage out?" That is exactly what happened in the Buffalo Bills last preseason game in Pittsburgh on Thursday night as they lost 20-0. Both teams were experimenting with players on the bubble and it certainly showed. Many of the players on the field in the second half will never play in the NFL again. Sunday they will be paid a visit by the "Turk." Fringe players in the game, fringe players off the team come Sunday. Garbage in, garbage out.

The Bills fans who stayed glued to the television set for the entire game were treated to all sorts of garbage in the guise of a football team.

Now it's on to the real thing, as the Bills must prepare for the opening game of the 2001 NFL regular season against the New Orleans Saints on September 9th. From all indications, the Bills are far from ready for prime time. In fact, in the game against the Steelers, the Bills don't look any more prepared for the regular season than they did in their first preseason game.

Even though most of the game involved fringe players, there were some individual performances, while short, which were scrutinized by both the Bills coaches and their fans. Bills quarterback Rob Johnson and kicker Steve Christie continued to struggle in their appearances against the Steelers. The biggest concern has to be Christie, who has missed 5 out of his last 6 field goal attempts. He missed a gimmie 22-yarder and then proceeded to miss on a 41-yard attempt. A week ago, Christie missed an even shorter field goal, from 19 yards out.

Johnson, meanwhile, continued to struggle in his brief appearance in the first quarter. He was picked off once and sacked once, going was 2-of-4 for only 23 yards. In fact, none of the Bills quarterbacks, neither Johnson, Alex Van Pelt or Travis Brown (who is attempting to latch on as the third string QB) looked efficient. The Bills took "Vanilla offense" to an extreme, as they diluted even that so much that it seemed like skimmed milk.

Johnson appears as if he will remain healthy long enough to start the opener against the Saints. That is almost a miracle in itself considering the condition of the offensive line made up of two rookies and a second year center.

"I think we're ready to go," Johnson said. "We've had a long off-season, a long preseason, I think we're ready for the regular season."

That definitely remains to be seen.

The Steelers, meanwhile, came out with a semi-game plan. They came out with the no-huddle and seemed to keep the Bills off guard, especially when Kordell Stewart hooked up with a few early long completions.

Bills coach Gregg Williams will have lots of questions to answer in the next day or so. He has to trim his player roster down to the regular season number of 53 by 4 PM on Sunday and there will be some difficult choices to make. Williams also has some hard decisions on what to do with his current kicker and punter.

Both Christie and punter Brian Moorman had horrendous nights in the Steel City. Christie seemly has lost his confidence altogether. After watching in slow motion the replays of Christies misses, it doesn't appear to be the fault of the holder. The ball was in place and the laces facing in the right direction. A place kicker gets paid lots of money to do just one job, kick the ball through the uprights. He isn't required to make a tackle, he isn't required to get in the trenches and risk his body. It is one of the easiest jobs in all of sports. Now Christie isn't even doing the kickoffs, so the only job he is required to do is to make his kicks good. Christie has just not regained the form of his yesteryear and the big question is whether he ever will regain it.

Talking about his kicking game and if he is reaching for the panic button, Williams said, "I thought from field level, it looked like the operation on those field goals was clean. We have a lot more study, a lot more work to do. Obviously these next seven or eight days for him (Christie) and that whole crew and the operation is crucial."

While Christie may get a second chance and kick off opening day, it appears as if the Bills are going to have to bring in a new punter to handle those duties.

"A couple times, we didn't get the ball punted in the direction we wanted on the long punt return," said a disappointed Williams. "It was misdirection from where the ball was supposed to be punted."

It is imperative to enter the season with your kicking intact. Not trusting your field goal kicker is sacrilegious in pro football. With kickers being a dime a dozen, Buffalo cannot enter the opening game with huge doubts about Christie. It is clear the Bills will have to act quickly if they are to make a move at that position. Christie holds the Bills record for most points. That is great if you are a sports history freak, but this is now and if the Bills cannot rely on Christie to at least be able to hit from 35 yards out 85% of the time, then the Bills must find someone else to do the job.

Johnson is another story altogether. There is only one quarterback controversy this year involving Johnson and that involves Johnson vs. Johnson. Everyone knows that Johnson has the stature, that he has all the tools to get the job done. The only thing holding him back is himself. The big question is whether he has the tools above his shoulders to get the job done. Standing on the sidelines after his miserable stint, smiling and goofing off as if he had just thrown 3 long bombs is not the proper image to project. On a radio call in show on Friday, someone suggested the idea that Johnson should put on a head set and listen in on every play being called. Clowning around on the sidelines as if it were a beach party is not what a good head coach should want his starting quarterback to be doing, especially after being outperformed by the No. 2 quarterback throughout the entire preseason.

Even though the Bills performance seems to be getting worse instead of advancing, there were some bright areas in the game. Travis Henry continues to impress and coach Williams has indicated that he will be the starting running back against the Saints. Larry Centers seems to be a quick emergency escape for Johnson when the pressure is getting too hot. Centers once again looked impressive catching the ball out of the backfield. Running back Curtis Alexander had another burst up the middle for 39 yards and may have earned himself a spot on the final roster with that. In total, Alexander carried 10 times for 47 yards. He will have to pick up his game on the special teams if he wants to land a roster spot, however.

Williams now has over a week to get the Bills ready for the regular season. For a coach who promised a playoff berth, this team is nowhere near that caliber of a team right now. I have seen Bills teams loaf through the preseason and then really turn on the jets when it really counts. However, this team has too many holes in its armor to really be considered a playoff contender at this time. General Manager Tom Donahoe has to get on the telephone and pick up some players to fill those holes. He can start on the offensive line and attempt to bring in some veteran help to a line that has three very inexperienced starters. Then he should immediately bring in 3 or 4 kickers and punters to shore up the kicking game.

Even if Donahoe does put bandages on these wounds, he won't completely stop the bleeding. That is where coach Williams has to put his money where his mouth is and get the players on his roster to kick it up several notches. Whether he can get his team to live up to his playoff promise is like asking him to pull a rabbit out of his hat. The bad part for Williams is that he sent the Magician packing for San Diego.

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