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The Off Season Is Here
Tom Donahoe Has A Lot of Work Ahead Of Him
by Joe Chenelly
December 31, 2003

Let’s start off with the guy that much of the media is listing as most likely to become the 13th head coach of the Buffalo Bills: Jim Fassel. The former NFL quarterback has a proven ability to make offenses work. His most noteworthy ability is developing quarterbacks. His past protégés include John Elway, Kerry Collins and Jeff Hostetler. He has also coached Phil Simms and Boomer Esiason. There are eight Super Bowl appearances and five championship rings among that bunch.

Fassel served as an NFL assistant with the Giants (1991-92), Denver Broncos (1993-94), Oakland Raiders (1995), and Arizona Cardinals (1996). He was a player-coach for the Honolulu Hawaiians of the World Football League (1974) and was an assistant with the USFL's New Orleans Breakers (1984).

As quarterback, Fassel led Fullerton College to the 1967 junior college national championship. He went on to play at Southern California, with Seattle Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren, and at Long Beach State. The Chicago Bears drafted him in the seventh round of the 1972 NFL Draft. He played briefly with Chicago, the Houston Oilers and San Diego Chargers.

For those few people who have read past columns under the same byline as this piece, rest assured I have not changed my mind. I stand by my opinion that among those available with head coaching experience Tom Coughlin is the best fit for the Bills.

Sure, he can be a testy, cranky guy, who rarely finds a player he can get along with, but he is everything the Bills need. An offensive mastermind, a no-nonsense coach well known to instill discipline in his teams, and he is a proven winner. He averages more than 10 wins per season. Plus, he can instantly turn a team into a contender. He led the Jacksonville Jaguars to the AFC Championship game twice in his first five seasons. He took his team within one victory of the Super Bowl in only the 35th game of the franchise’s history.

Bill Parcells, without a doubt the top coach in football today, has gone on record saying that Coughlin is the best coach he's ever had on his staff. If you don’t think that is saying a lot, keep in mind that Bill Belichick was Parcells’ defensive coordinator for several years.

Coughlin, 57, is the real deal when it comes to attention to detail. He's a solid player evaluator. Most importantly, he is a taskmaster, which is exactly what the 2003 Bills needed. Does anybody remember that in 1999 Coughlin's Jaguars finished with an NFL best 14-2 record in the regular season? During his tour in Jacksonville, his Jags went 72-64, including 4-4 in playoff games.

The one major concern I have stems from what I see as the beginning of Gregg Williams’ demise. He began his first year as a Bill using a bullhorn to sound reveille at training camp, the players resented the strict military bootcamp-like attitude. The players cried to the media and Williams backed off. He never really gained control after that. Coughlin certainly has more sense and wouldn’t be quite so crazy, but he also certainly knows how to tick off players. He won’t back down though, and it was his stubbornness that caused him to lose control of the Jags.

There are things to consider when getting your hopes up about landing one of these two coaching candidates. First, Arizona is very interested in Fassel. He may already be a lock for the vacant position. He could do wonders with soon-to-be NFL rookie Eli Manning. Secondly, with Fassel out of New Jersey, Coughlin is far and away the favorite to be heading the Giants next season. It's seems unlikely anyone would pass up an opportunity to coach in the league's largest market for a job in one of professional sports’ smallest markets. Of course, Coughlin did turn down the Giants job several years ago.

As for Jim Haslett, I don’t think he will leave New Orleans, so there is no real reason to go on about him. Bills general manager Tom Donahoe said he knows nothing of the supposed clause that would allow Haslett to leave the Saints for Buffalo. I would never say never though.

I’ve received several requests to add Dennis Green to my list of good-to-go candidates. My answer is no. Yes, Green took some very talented players to the playoffs several times, but what did he do once he was there? Nothing. He is 3-7 in the post-season, and he's never made it to the big one. Okay, this year the Bills would gladly settle for a chance to play in January, but I want the whole thing from the next coach, Vince Lombardi Trophy and all. Moreover, Green is ego-maniacal, self-absorbed and untrustworthy. Come on, he works at NFL headquarters! He wants to control everything, and I am very much against giving one person total control. There needs to be checks and balances. I like having a separate head coach and general manager. The Miami Dolphins and Atlanta Falcons are both just realizing this.

The coaching situation will work out. This is a great opportunity for Donahoe to redeem himself. Let’s hope he does just that.

My real worry is Drew Bledsoe. What happened to #11? The Bills really don't have any choice but to stick with him for at least another year. I just hope the next offensive coordinator can grasp the run game concept. Bledsoe should offer to restructure his contract to make up for his poor season. He can do it quietly if he must, as long as he does it.

I like Sam Gash a lot, so I haven't written about how much Bledsoe missed Larry Centers this season, but as one reader pointed out, Centers may be more sorely missed in the Bills’ passing game than Peerless Price. With that said, if the Bills had stuck to the run like they promised at the beginning of the season, there would be no doubt that the Bills made the right choice in getting Gash. If you build a team to function a certain way, you better at least try to function that way.

The answer to Drew’s slump lies in the acquisition of a strong number two or number three receiver. The Bills need to do what it takes to draft a top-flight tight end. A tight end can certainly be a difference maker. Take a look at Denver’s Shannon Sharp, Kansas City’s Tony Gonzalez, Baltimore’s Todd Heap and Indianapolis’ Marcus Polland. All of who happen to share the field with the best running backs in the game. (Clinton Portis, Priest Holmes, Jamal Lewis and Edgerrin James, respectively) Coincidence? I think not. Great tight ends allow running backs to become great in their own right. An All-Pro tight end could mean everything to Travis Henry’s and Willis McGahee’s future success.

Kellen Winslow of the University of Miami would complement the present-day personnel very well. Winslow has the talent and genes (his father is a Hall of Famer) to be a great one. He has been compared to Tony Gonzalez in that he can line up as a receiver or in the slot. Winslow won the 2003 John Mackey Award honoring college football's top tight end. He is a big, physical junior, but he’s known to be cocky. Before the season, Winslow called himself “The Chosen One” and said he'd return to Miami if the Hurricanes didn't win the national championship. However, after he became a projected top-10 draft choice, he now is expected to have his name called by Paul Tagliabue in New York this April. Hurricanes coach Larry Coker says he has received several calls from NFL teams wanting to know whether Winslow is a team player. Coker assures them none of his players are more passionate or competitive than Winslow.

If the Bills can’t get Winslow, All-American tight end Ben Troupe is another potential prized player. The Florida Gator has spent this past season catching passes and hurdling defenders and running over others. Despite having a true freshman quarterback throwing his way, Troupe has caught 39 passes for 638 yards and five touchdowns heading into the Outback Bowl. He is a punishing blocker who can make the possession catch or go up the seam and make a big play. He also has good speed for his size. At 6-4, 265 pounds, he runs the 40-yard dash in 4.7 seconds.

While both men are excellent blockers, the consensus is that Winslow is a better receiver and Troupe is a better all-around tight end. Both are likely to go in the first round, but Winslow is thought to be better than a 13th overall pick, which is what the Bills currently hold, and Troupe is thought to be a late first round pick at best.

I definitely don't think that a dominant tight end is the only missing piece in this puzzle. The o-line needs the upgrade the defense saw last spring. But, it is likely the top tackles in the 2004 draft will be gone before the Bills pick, so I'm high on Winslow and Troupe. One of the top free agents Buffalo needs to pursue is New England Patriots center Damien Woody, a first round draft choice in 1999. Not only does he excel at making line calls, he can pass block as well as anyone. He has plenty of experience in playing in big time games.

The next several months promise to be much more exciting for Bills fans than this past season. Sundays won’t be the same, but at least my blood pressure will go down.

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