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By David Staba

It's one of the great things about working in the media, along with the extravagant pay and unshakeable faith and approval expressed by the public. Don't have a controversy to write or talk about? You can just make one up.

Take the alleged running back controversy supposedly enveloping the Buffalo Bills. Listen to the furious debating long enough and you'd think Travis Henry vs. Willis McGahee challenges Rob Johnson vs. Doug Flutie for Buffalo's bloodiest modern rivalry.

It's a great storyline -- productive, yet underrated veteran against a first-year phenom trying to recapture the flash that made him the first running back taken in the 2003 draft, even after suffering a catastrophic knee injury.

Twenty months after the gruesome end to McGahee's college career, he has shown a nose for the end zone in his first National Football League game action after a year of rehabbing, watching and practicing. At least when he's playing with and against guys worried about whether their careers will last until September.

The big problem here is the notion that such a thing as a "running back controversy" even exists. A quarterback controversy is one thing, since the starting quarterback theoretically amounts to a team's unquestioned player/leader, the equivalent of the coach in the locker room and huddle.

If indecision festers surrounding the spot, as it did at the turn of the century, when the two gentlemen mentioned earlier were shooting dirty looks at each other, it can launch a disastrous ripple through the team.

But a running back controversy? C'mon. (WARNING: BillStuff's first overwrought football/military analogy of the 2004 season dead ahead.) Quarterbacks are generals. Running backs are the infantry. Teammates usually care passionately about who leads them. But as long as whoever carries the ball is reasonably productive, the rest of the team could not care less about the identity of the toter.

Yes, Henry has more than proven his worth with more than 2,800 yards gained on the ground over the past two years. And yes, McGahee has shown every sign that he's capable of some pretty impressive numbers himself, and his big-play potential gives his game something Henry's lacks -- if and when that knee is near 100 percent again.

If McGahee continues progressing physically and mentally, Buffalo president/general manager Tom Donahoe will have to make the decision he's been preparing for since jumping at the wounded runner in April 2003.

That day's a ways off, though -- like about five months.

The first reason is purely practical. No one -- not Donahoe, not new head coach Mike Mularkey, not McGahee himself or even ultra-weasely agent Drew Rosenhaus -- can say with any certainty, or even much confidence, if McGahee will fully recover, or when, or if the completely restructured knee can stand up to the 300-plus runs and runs-after-catch required of a franchise back in the modern NFL.

If you buy a used car, the lemon law gives you 30 days to find out if the engine will seize up or the transmission will disassemble itself. To not take at least as much time to find out whether McGahee's wheel is good as new, or even close, or will stay that way, makes no sense.

Neither man distanced himself from the other during Saturday's 16-15 exhibition loss to Tennessee. A day after no-commenting an anonymous source's insistence that he'll demand to be traded if he's not named the starter soon, McGahee scored another touchdown. He also averaged less than three yards per carry and has yet to show he's ready to break away from anybody.

The sight of Henry getting wheeled off the field during the second quarter, though, should wield greater impact on the thought process in the front office than any run or catch made by either back. X-rays showed his ribs to be only bruised, so he should be back on the field and in the midst of the media frenzy by mid-week, if not before.

For anyone who thinks trading either guy now makes some sort of sense, we call your attention to the Sunday last autumn when the Philadelphia Eagles came to town. With Henry sidelined, the Bills were left with the small, yet slow, tandem of Joe Burns and Ken Simonton.

Watching Burns and Simonton appear to run up a muddy hill all afternoon against Philly should have convinced any doubter that you have to have two quality running backs on your roster.

The Bills do. And no matter how many national media outlets report on the story or how many agents issue anonymous leaks, that's the way it should stay.

STAT OF THE WEEK: While McGahee leads the Bills after two exhibitions with 86 yards on 24 carries -- that's 3.58 yards per attempt, or more than half-a-yard less than Henry averaged each of the past two seasons -- rookie quarterback J.P. Losman stands in second place with 80 on seven runs.

Along with his 9-for-11 accuracy in his first two professional appearances, Losman has already flashed the sort of athleticism and skill that convinced Donahoe to grab him in April.

Keep in mind, though, that his gaudy numbers have come against the scrubs, and throwing him in as a rookie is not a viable option. At least until Drew Bledsoe turns in his first truly lousy performance.

I DON'T WANT TO BELIEVE IT: The most sincere of condolences go out to the family of Clip Smith, a fixture in local media for decades.

Smith, who died from injuries sustained in a car accident in Hartland on Saturday afternoon, was a throwback to a time when broadcasters didn't have to have perfectly styled hair or leading-man looks to show up in your living room on a regular basis.

Long the weekend sports anchor on Channel 7, the barely contained joy Smith took from his excruciating puns and traditional "Clipley's Believe It or Don't" segment more than made up for the corniness of the bits.

After leaving television, the proud Lockportian proved an excellent radio host. He still worked in those tortured puns, but while he excelled at playing devil's advocate, Smith was more moderator than demagogue, drawing out his callers and showing them respect even when their opinions differed from his generally conservative views, rather than shouting or ridiculing.

I had the pleasure to be a guest on Clip's radio show on a couple of occasions, and his professionalism made what can be a nerve-racking experience relatively painless.

Thought about closing this item with a bad pun, but decided that would be a feeble tribute to the master.

COMING SOON TO A TV NEAR YOU: The BS front office is busily planning for the third season of covering games from every vantage point possible.

Here's your chance to suggest a particularly unique and/or outstanding perspective on which to base our weekly bouillabaisse of in-depth analysis, unfair wisecracks and chicken-wing reviews.

All you have to do is drop a line to dstaba13@aol.com and explain why your tavern, parking lot, or other public celebration of America's weekly secular holiday presents a can't-miss opportunity.

Once again, the weekly BS column will usually appear each Monday, only on the Niagara Falls Reporter's Web site (www.niagarafallsreporter.com). And because the NFL just doesn't get quite enough publicity, we'll also be offering our fearless predictions every Friday on the site.

David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter. He welcomes e-mail at dstaba13@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Aug. 24 2004