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By David Staba

At least no one got killed, maimed or permanently disfigured. As far as we know.

That's about it for the positives to take away from the Buffalo Bills' visit to Indianapolis on Saturday night for their third exhibition game of the summer.

The final score, 30-17 in favor of the Colts, doesn't begin to reflect what happened on the field. Coaches love to preach that all three aspects of a team -- offense, defense and special teams -- provide equal impact. The Bills brought that cliche to life Saturday, showing glaring flaws in all three areas.

But we'll get to those later.

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Buffalo's real problems took place in the training room, where team doctors discovered that strong safety Lawyer Milloy, last year's coup by team president/general manager Tom Donahoe, suffered a broken forearm early in the third quarter that will likely keep him in street clothes when the games that matter start next month.

Not long after that, Buffalo's medical staff went to work on backup quarterback Travis Brown, who was carted off later in the same quarter with an apparent left knee injury. Brown, you'll recall, secured the No. 2 job behind Drew Bledsoe last week when rookie J.P. Losman broke a leg during practice.

While the Bills continued their typically paranoid policy of remaining as secretive as possible about injuries well into Sunday, Brown was hardly bubbling with optimism.

"Without being a doctor or without being able to diagnose it officially, it's probably not real good," Brown said, according to the team's Web site.

At least Buffalo has a veteran fill-in at strong safety in Coy Wire, the starter at strong safety in 2002 who was deposed when Milloy became the late-summer free-agent surprise of 2003.

There's no such experience behind Bledsoe. With Losman and Brown out, Greg Zolman remains as the only other healthy quarterback on the roster.

Never heard of Zolman? Don't feel bad. He's compiled quite a resume since emerging from Vanderbilt, getting cut by the Indianapolis Colts, Green Bay Packers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and St. Louis Rams, all in a span of two seasons.

The question is: Are the Bills any worse off with Zolman as the backup than Brown? Yes, Travis proudly wore No. 5 for parts of the last three seasons, and proved himself very capable in two closely related areas:

  1. Remaining tightly focused on one receiver from the time he takes the snap until he throws to that receiver; and
  2. Throwing highly symbolic season-ending interceptions, pulling off that feat twice in three years. In 2001, he fed Miami safety Brock Marion for a 100-yard touchdown return on the last play of a 34-7 loss, which in turn capped a 3-13 nightmare of a year. Last season, another late interception preserved New England's 31-0 revenge in the season finale.

Brown opened Saturday's game just like he finished last season, throwing an interception on his first snap, a miscue that set up the Indy's game-sealing touchdown.

You might have thought an astute football mind like Donahoe would have signed a veteran quarterback this spring or summer at bargain-basement rates. Ol' Whitey clearly knew better, though, sticking with an unproven rookie and a relative veteran proven to not be very good.

Hey, Tom: Rob Johnson's still out there, should Shane Matthews get hurt.

All this talk about backups wouldn't matter so much if Bledsoe were still capable of eluding a street-sweeper, or if the offensive line in front of him could at least slow down the big guys trying to take his head off.

When Bledsoe had time to throw on Saturday, which was almost exclusively on first- and second-down attempts, he looked pretty good.

Third downs, the true test of both a quarterback and his line, were a disaster. On seven such plays with possession at stake, Bledsoe stumbled awkwardly for 3 yards on third-and-11, got sacked, completed a 2-yard dump to scrub running back Ken Simonton, threw incomplete, threw incomplete again, missed a connection with Willis McGahee to cause a fumble that snuffed a third-and-1 and got sacked again.

That last sack, on Bledsoe's final play of the night, gave an ominous hint that this season might not be all that much more aesthetically pleasing than last, despite the complete overhaul of the offensive coaching staff, addition of rookie wideout Lee Evans and return of McGahee.

Midway through the third quarter, the Bills had reached their own 40-yard line. Trailing 20-10, a score would have put them back in the game before Bledsoe called it a night. Instead, Colts defensive tackle Montae Reagor manhandled Mike Williams -- the same Mike Williams who was the fourth overall pick in the 2002 draft and earned more ink this summer for missing several mini-camps, then disappearing early in training camp. Reagor nearly threw the alleged 360-pounder into Bledsoe before taking the Buffalo quarterback to the ground himself.

The sack finished Bledsoe's night, in which he failed to lead Buffalo's starting offense to a touchdown. The regular season may not start until Sept. 12, but there's only so much you can do in two weeks.

Meanwhile, McGahee showed everyone demanding that Donahoe trade Travis Henry immediately that maybe they rushed to judgment just a touch. McGahee had a decent night, with 57 yards on 16 carries. He also failed to get the ball from Bledsoe on that third-and-1 from Indy's 38, and generally looked more interested in finding a soft patch of plastic on which to land after initial contact than in flashing his vaunted breakaway ability.

In short, McGahee looked like a back who will be ready to go full speed in a month or two, not when the season starts in two weeks. Then again, rookie Shaud Williams ran for 63 yards on 12 carries, so maybe Donahoe should trade Henry and McGahee to avoid controversy.

Like most of last season, the Bills' defense looked better than the offense, but still not good enough to win many games on its own. Following the 2003 script perfectly, the Colts took an early lead, allowing them to play things fairly safe and keep the game close.

But on the closest thing to a decisive play that you can have in an exhibition game, the Bills showed themselves to be painfully lacking once again. Leading 13-10, the Colts went for it on fourth-and-3 from Buffalo's 41.

In an interesting bit of strategy, Buffalo defensive coordinator Jerry Gray called a scheme that left Nate Clements all alone against Marvin Harrison, arguably the best wide receiver in football. Peyton Manning, arguably the best quarterback in football, astutely noticed this and hit Harrison for 40 yards, setting up the touchdown that gave the Colts a 20-10 halftime lead.

Keeping things in triangular balance, Buffalo's special teams surrendered one touchdown on a blocked punt and gave up an 84-yard kickoff return to set up another score.

Donahoe and Mike Mularkey, with his first regular season as head coach at any level bearing down on him like a freight train, will likely chalk up Saturday night's fiasco as one of those things that happen during the summer.

But fall's right around the corner, and at the moment, these Bills look unfit for any season.

BILLS MVP: Even with one hand in a cast, Kevin Thomas continued to show a knack for playmaking many of Buffalo's more acclaimed cornerbacks have lacked. His 15-yard interception return in the second quarter was the Bills' lone trip to the end zone until Zolman hit the soon-to-be cut Jonathan Smith for a 25-yard score with a bunch of future dishwashers on the field for the Colts.

THE OTHER GUYS' MVP: Dominic Rhodes ran for 58 yards and a score, returned a kickoff for 84 and caught two passes. Funny, but you don't hear Colts fans or media demanding that the team trade Edgerrin James to avoid a "running back controversy."

REMOTE OUT OF CONTROL: As it was only preseason, BillStuff didn't bother trying to find a gathering of fans watching the game, opting for a Saturday night on the couch.

Since science has proven that the human brain can only absorb so much exhibition football, some flipping around was inevitable. Aside from the usual drivel, BS found some highly unusual drivel.

At the same time ESPN was showing the college football opener between preseason No. 1 USC and Virginia Tech, ESPN2 offered a glimpse "behind the scenes" of the broadcast. For those who doubted that anything could be duller or less deserving of being called sports broadcasting than watching people play poker, this was it. For most of the "exclusive," three or four people were talking at once, so you couldn't understand what they were saying on the off chance you cared.

And to think, somewhere a professional lumberjacking competition went untelevised.

REMINDER: BillStuff becomes exclusive property of the Niagara Falls Reporter Web site starting Sept. 13, following the season opener against Jacksonville. If you have a suggested venue for our ace coverage team, e-mail dstaba13@aol.com. There are only two requirements -- a working television and chicken-wing access.

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. 31 2004