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By David Staba

A naked bootleg?

A naked bootleg?

A play that called for Drew Bledsoe to run with the ball on fourth-and-3 with the game -- and quite probably the Buffalo Bills' season -- on the line?

A naked bootleg?

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Even the only member of the Buffalo offense allowed to visit opposing end zones, Eric Moulds, was surprised by the call. In the locker room after the game, Moulds said he thought Travis Henry was supposed to get the ball.

Moulds' confusion was understandable. Watching a fourth-and-3 play that ended not with Bledsoe lumbering for a first down, but 310-pound New England defensive tackle Richard Seymour prancing 68 yards for a head-to-the-parking-lot touchdown, you had to wonder if any of the Bills, including Bledsoe, knew just what was supposed to have happened.

"What the ---- was that?" demanded one fan at Cactus Jack's on Main Street in Niagara Falls on Sunday, after seeing the Bills plunge from within 17 yards of tying the game to certain defeat.

Good question.

Even if you believe Bledsoe, whose fatal flaw has been painfully proven again and again to be his inability to move even a step or two to avoid the rush, was physically capable of getting to the corner and covering those three crucial yards, the call still makes no sense.

For a bootleg to work, the defense has to be committed to stopping the run. Ideally, they pile on the running back to whom a handoff has been faked, allowing the sneaky quarterback to prance around end undeterred by any large men trying to stop him.

Fourth-and-3 is not a running down, unless you're calling the plays for a Little League football team whose quarterback is too small to hold the ball with one hand.

And Bledsoe's ball-handling skills might be the most abysmal of any starting quarterback in the National Football League. It's as if he feels guilty about deceiving the defenders, and so offers fake hand-offs that are little more than a quick gesture in the general direction of the running back that is in no way meant to be confused with an actual hand-off.

That shortcoming didn't matter much in this case, for a very simple reason.

Not only were the Patriots not anticipating a run to Travis Henry or anyone else, they didn't look like they even considered the possibility. They sent a blitz, a tactic that doesn't involve the blitzers worrying about misdirection or fakes. The intent of the blitz is to knock the snot out of the quarterback and hopefully, eject the ball from his grasp.

Done and done.

The call and its end result pretty well encapsulated the 2004 Bills to date.

Actually, the disaster summed up the entire Tom Donahoe era pretty well: Too-clever coaches plunking big-name players into situations in which they can't possibly succeed.

On an afternoon when the Bills played the best team in football on more or less even terms for nearly 58 minutes, the coaches made a lousy choice of plays which the players executed quite badly.

Think of the brilliant decision to ask Travis Henry to throw a halfback option pass within spitting distance of Miami's end zone in Week 3 last year. That bit of inspiration slammed the brakes on a 2-0 start and sent the Bills into a spiral from they never pulled out of, guaranteeing Gregg Williams would seek employment elsewhere a few months later.

Whether Mike Mularkey can maneuver this year's model back onto the road to something approaching respectability didn't seem like an issue for most of the afternoon.

The crowd at Cactus Jack's, gathered to surprise veteran Niagara Falls mixologist Bruce Reed on his 62nd birthday, expressed outright enthusiastic about Buffalo's chances, particularly through the first half.

Terrence McGee's 98-yard kickoff return to tie the game at 10 ignited a low roar. The second-quarter sequence that started with Buffalo defensive end Chris Kelsay's recovery of a Correy Dillon fumble he forced at the Bills' 4-yard line, continued with punter Brian Moorman's 34-yard dash after picking up a botched snap and was punctuated by Bledsoe's 41-yard touchdown strike to Moulds provided the closest thing fans have experienced to a frenzy in the season's first month.

That crescendo proved the high point for the home team. For most of the second half, Buffalo reverted to form.

The offense couldn't sustain drives, converting just two of12 third-down situations.

The defense couldn't end them, letting the Patriots convert 5 of 11.

The offensive line, which had its problems protecting Bledsoe when everyone was healthy, spent much of the day without injured center Trey Teague and left tackle Jonas Williams. Bledsoe wound up getting dumped seven times, six of them in the second half.

Travis Henry ran well, until the third-and-2 before the bootleg fiasco, when he stumbled and fell a yard behind the line.

Willis McGahee's uniform fit him well and he deployed nicely as a decoy on the couple of plays last year's No. 1 draft choice is allowed on the field.

You'd think, if the Bills' offensive masterminds absolutely had to run something tricky on fourth-and-3, they might have chosen something involving the fastest guy on the team, rather than the slowest.

But using McGahee on such an important play might have hurt Henry's feelings. And, had Bledsoe picked up the first down on the bootleg, well, that sure would have shown that jerk Bill Belichick.

That's what it's come to for the Bills. They worry about bruising egos instead of winning games, and use crucial situations to build self-esteem.

Donahoe prattles on about mental toughness, but indulges players who celebrate their inner children by dancing after second-down tackles and inducing killer penalties at the worst possible moments.

Hopefully, Ol' Whitey's tolerant approach is working in-house, and everyone employed by the franchise feels good about themselves today. Because it's safe to say no one who buys the tickets that pays their salaries does.

BILLS MVP: Moulds had another huge day, catching 10 passes for 126 yards and his weekly touchdown. You'd think he might have been able to get open on a 3-yard hitch pattern on fourth down, but that wouldn't have been nearly as clever a call.

THE OTHER GUYS' MVP: Tom Brady made one mistake all day, floating a lousy pass into Buffalo's end zone. Of course, after further review, it was incomplete and not an interception.

STAT OF THE WEEK: New England mounted four scoring drives of at least nine plays. The Bills managed zero.

TOAST AWARD: I know Lawyer Milloy is hurt, but is there a viable explanation why Coy Wire is allowed on the field when the other team has the ball? And don't even professional athletes have to do something, anything, to get their own radio show?

WING REPORT: Wings were spotted at Cactus Jack's, but to be perfectly honest, the never-ending stream of Mexican appetizers and a full buffet kept BS from locating them.

The multiple variations on meat and cheese wrapped in deep fried dough earned the overall spread a solid A, though.

And in the interest of consistency, BS did pick up a double order of mediums from Bob and John's La Hacienda on Hertel Avenue in Buffalo after the game. Thanks to the feast at Cactus Jack's, though, we only made it through a half-dozen. They were nicely sauced, if a touch underdone, leading to a final grade of B. Of course, that will probably slide up a notch after they're reheated later today.

BS FAN OF THE WEEK: Bruce, who thought he'd be watching the game with a dozen or so friends, was stunned to find more than 100 at Cactus Jack's.

BS asked Bruce about one reveler's assertion that he's been on one side of the bar or the other of every establishment serving adult beverages in Niagara Falls.

"Well, no, I think there's a sushi bar I've never been to," he said.

For 15 years, he worked at the restaurant that's now Cactus Jack's, when it was known as La Casa Cardenas. You can still wish him a belated birthday by stopping by the Red Coach Inn when he's mixing them up there, or by e-mailing him via his daughter, Karisa Carpenter, who organized Sunday's shindig, at kevc613@aol.com.

The crowd included the mayors of both versions of Niagara Falls, with Vince Anello representing the American side and Ted Salci making Bruce an honorary citizen of Niagara Falls, Ont., moments after the partiers bellowed a markedly off-key rendition of "Happy Birthday."

Asked if he considers himself a Bills fan, Bruce said, "Yes, and I can prove it to you," before burying his face in his hands and sobbing gently.


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 Oct. 5 2004