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By David Staba

Drew Bledsoe's touchdown pass on his first series of his first game (albeit an exhibition) sent fans watching at Ralph Wilson Stadium and listening on the radio into a a frenzy.

But what happened next provided a sobering reminder that it will take more for the Buffalo Bills to return to contention than an upgrade at No. 11.

Bledsoe went 5-for-5 on Buffalo's opening drive, reaching the Cincinnati end zone on the sort of catch-and-run hookup with Eric Moulds envisioned by Bills brass and faithful since April's trade for the former New England quarterback. Then, with visions of Rob Johnson fading into oblivion, the biggest culprit in last season's 3-13 fiasco took the field.

Buffalo's defense.

Even without franchise back Corey Dillon sitting out the game and crashingly mediocre quarterback Jon Kitna leading the way, the Bengals drove 71 yards in 13 plays, converting four third-down situations en route to the tying score.

Cincinnati's first touchdown was especially reminiscent of last season, when the Bills allowed eight opposing backs to crash the 100-yard barrier and finished 26th in the league against the run. On Friday, someone named Curtis Keaton pranced 8 yards up the middle, undeterred by aspiring Buffalo tacklers, to deflate the Bledsoe-spurred enthusiasm a bit.

The Bills' starting defense departed after two more series, as did Bledsoe. Buffalo defensive tackle Pat Williams vowed last week after a training-camp practice in suburban Rochester that the Bills would reduce the number of opposing 100-yard rushers from eight to zero. Preseason doesn't count for much of anything, but Buffalo's backups allowed second-year back Rudi Johnson (who managed not a single carry nor reception as a rookie) to hit the century mark on a mere 14 carries.

In all, the Bengals carved out 181 rushing yards on the way to 17 unanswered points and a 24-17 win.

You can forgive Keaton's painfully easy touchdown by arguing that Buffalo's first-string defensive lineup is a work in progress. But any replacements would come from the second and third units that provided Johnson (wasn't Rudi the youngest daughter on "The Cosby Show"?) with his running lanes.

Buffalo's secondary is blessed with excellent tacklers, from cornerbacks Antoine Winfield and Nate Clements to safeties Pierson Prioleau and rookie Coy Wire. That's nice, but you don't want defensive backs as your primary deterrent against the run, as they were for much of Friday night.

That job belongs to the front line, which other than Williams, proved sub-standard against the run and in creating pressure on the quarterback last year and again on Friday.

Head coach Gregg Williams, defensive coordinator Jerry Gray and defensive line coach John Levra (who announced before camp that he's retiring after this season) have a little more than three weeks to find an acceptable starting combination around Williams. The contenders at tackle: Tyrone Robertson, Justin Bannan, Leif Larson, Devonte Peterson, Ron Edwards and Demetrious Maxie. At end: Kendrick Office, Bryce Fisher, Ryan Denney, Aaron Schobel, Erik Flowers and Grant Irons make up the depth chart.

Impressed? Neither were the Bengals.

Unless some of those names find a way to make themselves more familiar, Bledsoe will have to throw a lot of those perfect passes (his best of the night came on his last throw, a 12-yard fade under pressure for a touchdown to Peerless Price) to keep the Bills respectable.

Last week's emergence of a Canadian group fronted by Sherry Bassin as the front-runner in the Buffalo Sabres auction can't be good news for general manager Darcy Regier or coach Lindy Ruff.

Expected to make an official offer to wrest the floundering franchise from National Hockey League control this week, Bassin (owner of the Ontario Hockey League's Erie Otters) assembled a consortium of backers, headed by Alan Maislin of Montreal, which could include ex-Sabre Pat LaFontaine. The group not only would be the first to put an offer on the table, but that bid would be cash. Meanwhile, Buffalo Destroyers owner Mark Hamister, widely reported as the front-runner since the NHL assumed control from the disgraced Rigas family earlier in the summer, is still trying to put together a bid heavily reliant on subsidies from state and local governments, according to several sources.

In addition to an extensive hockey background, apparently strong financial backing and an expressed desire to keep the franchise in Buffalo, Bassin has some history with the Sabres. When former president Larry Quinn fired John Muckler from his general manager's position after the 1996-97 season, Bassin was a prime candidate for the job. Then-coach Ted Nolan promoted Bassin's candidacy, since the two had won three Ontario Hockey League championships together at Sault Ste. Marie.

But Quinn decided that his background in securing state money for construction projects qualified him to make hockey decisions, so he instead hired Regier, best known for his skills as a yes-man. Regier then effectively fired Nolan by rewarding him for earning NHL coach-of-the-year honors with an insulting one-year contract offer and hired Lindy Ruff.

Since then, ownership transferred from the founding Knox family to the indicted Rigas clan. Regier and Ruff guided the Sabres to the Stanley Cup Finals three years ago, but wore out their welcome last season after alienating goalie Dominik Hasek and captain Michael Peca, then doing nothing to replace either. Quinn, dumped by the Rigases, returned to doing what he does best -- schmoozing with Buffalo's Brahmin caste and making deals with their money.

Meanwhile, Bassin went back to building teams that dominated the OHL, winning his seventh league title last season in Erie. Nolan, blackballed after his rift with Muckler, watched, waited and got passed over for job after job in the NHL.

If Bassin winds up running the Sabres, it shouldn't be long before Nolan is back doing the job he never should have lost.

David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter and the editor of the BuffaloPOST. He welcomes email at

Niagara Falls Reporter August 13 2002