Bills sink to new low following 0-5 start

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Thurman Thomas didn't realize how low his beloved Buffalo Bills had sunk until the Hall of Fame running back walked past four fans wearing paper bags over their heads at last weekend's home game.

It was one thing for Thomas to chuckle at seeing disgruntled fans doing that in places like Detroit or even New Orleans, back when the Saints were still the 'Aints.

But Buffalo?

''The first thing that came to my mind was, 'Are these guys that bad?''' Thomas said a few days after encountering the fans at Ralph Wilson Stadium during Buffalo's 36-26 loss to Jacksonville. ''And I got to thinking about it, you know, like, 'Wow, you only really see bags with teams that really stink.'''

Hate to break it to you, Thurman.

These Bills are, indeed, really bad - entering their bye week at 0-5, marking their worst start in 25 years and with little sign of things getting better any time soon.

Safety Donte Whitner called the Bills a ''laughingstock'' while guard Eric Wood didn't dispute the possibility of going 0-16 following the loss to Jacksonville. The Bills once-hearty fans have turned angry or apathetic, with the team facing the prospect of having as many as five non-sellouts at home, including its game Nov. 7 at Toronto against Chicago.

Former coach-turned-TV-analyst Tony Dungy had difficulty determining whether the Bills or winless Panthers were worse during an NBC broadcast Sunday. He said the two teams would play to a 0-0 tie if they met this season.

And even Bills owner Ralph Wilson had few words to describe his team's woes, except to say, ''It's bad,'' and suggest it might take as many as three years to turn it around.

Such is the sad state of a once-proud franchise that's gone from being the AFC's winningest team in the 1990s to one of the NFL's worst since 2000. It's a 10-plus-year stretch in which the Bills have enjoyed one winning season (a 9-7 finish in 2004) and failed to make the playoffs, tying Detroit for the longest active drought.

It's so bad, first-year general manager Buddy Nix said the biggest challenge he and coach Chan Gailey face is addressing the losing culture that's been allowed to fester.

''To be honest with you, it's the hardest thing you have to do,'' Nix said. ''I don't care whether you want to admit it or not, but losing gets to be a habit. And it gets to be something you accept. And we're not going to do that.''

This season's start marks the ninth time in 11 years the Bills have had a losing record five games in, a stretch of futility that's been the result of endless coaching and quarterback changes and inconsistent drafting.

Gailey is the team's sixth head coach since Hall of Famer Marv Levy retired following the 1997 season. The Bills have had nine quarterbacks start at least eight games since Jim Kelly retired after 1996. And Buffalo's drafts have produced as many first-round busts - offensive tackle Mike Williams, quarterback J.P. Losman, defensive tackle John McCargo and potentially linebacker Aaron Maybin - as proven regulars, including Wood and receiver Lee Evans.

Caught in the midst of criticism, frustration and ever dwindling expectations is a group of players searching for answers and clinging to what few positives they can, while believing one win could bring a turnaround.

''Our focus is trying to win a football game, getting some confidence back, trying to get a feeling of happiness,'' Evans said. ''We're not trying to say there's nothing bad going on. ... But if we sat up here and thought about everything bad going on, it would make it real hard to come in.''

The Bills offense lacks identity, and went through an upheaval after Week 2, when quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick took over as starter in place of Trent Edwards, who was released a week later.

Their defense has been even worse, having allowed 30 or more points in its last four games to mark the worst stretch in franchise history. And they can't stop the run, having allowed 689 yards rushing in their past three games.

Defensive end Marcus Stroud is stung by the level of criticism - some of it personal and profane - fans are heaping on the team.

''The fans are relentless. We're hearing it. Some of it is deserved and some of it isn't,'' Stroud said.

As for those who chose to wear paper bags, Stroud shook his head in wonder.

''If that's how you want to display your anger, that's cool,'' he said. ''But one thing about it, cussing at us and wearing paper bags ain't going to do a damn thing to help turn it around.''

Fans such as Mark Burr are fed up. Estimating he's attended more than 300 Bills games, he gave up his club seat season-tickets following the 2008 season and even passed up free tickets to go last Sunday.

''I have just programmed my DVR to record the games and make other plans for Sunday afternoon,'' Burr said.

Though crediting Wilson for his loyalty to Buffalo 51 years after establishing the franchise, Burr questioned the club's lack of direction.

''The incentive to win finishes a distant second to the bottom line,'' Burr said. ''He has a reasonable expectation to turn an acceptable profit, but the product has suffered more often than not.''

Wilson was open to paying for a high-profile coach this offseason, but the Bills were rejected by both Mike Shanahan and Bill Cowher. The owner says there's no one else to blame but him for what's gone wrong.

The last time the Bills were this bad was in 1984 and '85, when they finished with 2-14 records.

Hall of Fame defensive end Bruce Smith remembers fans wearing paper bags during his rookie season in '85. What's more memorable is how Smith joined Kelly, Thomas and Levy to form the core of a team that made four straight Super Bowl appearances from 1991-94.

''It's very difficult to see where we once were, and where we are now,'' Smith said.

Since February 2000 - when Smith, Thomas and receiver Andre Reed were all released - the Bills have always packed up after the regular season. As for this being the lowpoint and the dawn of something special, Smith wasn't sure.

''I hope. I try to be optimistic,'' he said. ''But to be quite honest, since the team was broken up in 1999, we have not had the success that we had hoped for.''

Tagged: Bills, Marcus Stroud

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