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Stand by your man


He's a player who will require patience. His team must remain committed to him. Fan and media criticism must be ignored.

We're talking about Byron Leftwich and the Jaguars, right?

Wrong. Though they are statements that would easily apply to Leftwich, in this case they are meant to describe Willis McGahee and the Buffalo Bills.

McGahee was selected by the Bills with the 23rd overall pick in the 2003 draft, even though McGahee was less than four months removed from a major knee reconstruction that made McGahee more of a pick for '04, or maybe even '05.

It was a pick Bills president Tom Donahoe made because McGahee was too good to pass up. The Bills believed McGahee was, by far, the best player in college football. The knee injury he suffered in Miami's national title game loss to Ohio State afforded the Bills a rare opportunity at the bottom of the draft. Donahoe searched his soul, pulled on his thickest of skins, and made the pick.

Never mind that none of the players selected in the first round after McGahee last year turned out to be anything more than average. The Buffalo media, and some of the national media, too, jumped Donahoe. They hit him hard for drafting a player who couldn't play; for potentially wasting Ralph Wilson's money on a guy who might be ruined for life.

But what if McGahee makes a full recovery? What if he turns out to be Jim Brown?

This is the salary cap era. There is no allowance for tomorrow. There is only today. Patience has gone the way of the dinosaur.

"Maybe I'm just getting old and cranky, but it doesn't bother me," Donahoe said of the criticism he's absorbed for the McGahee pick. "If you have confidence in what you're doing, the criticism really doesn't affect you."

It should be the mantra of every personnel man, every head coach in the league. More than ever, because of the salary cap ramifications, you gotta stand by your man. Hey, you picked him, right?

This Sunday, McGahee will be in uniform when the Bills host the Jaguars in the season opener. McGahee will back up starting running back Travis Henry. McGahee could get 5-10 carries, and the Buffalo media will sharpen their swords, again, especially if Henry rushes for a hundred yards and McGahee's contribution is minimal.

"It may not be until next year that we see the real Willis McGahee," Donahoe said. "You see flashes of it. He's probably 80-85 percent of where he needs to be. We'll be pleased if he gets back to 95 percent. You see glimpses of the run skills. The biggest positive, knock on wood, is that he's not had any setbacks. He just needs more time."

Yeah, and so does Leftwich, and a whole lot of other 2003 draft picks who have yet to establish themselves as stars in this league. In each case, there is a scout, a general manager or head coach who's had to steel himself against fan and media dissent. You gotta stand by your man!

Would Donahoe do it again?

"Absolutely, because these kinds of players are so rare and so hard to get that you have to take a chance. It was not a blind gamble. We talked to our doctors. Everybody was on board with it. To roll the dice on a talent like McGahee, we'd definitely do it again."

They are the kinds of decisions that can cost a GM his job, but that's the risk the good GMs take. They don't pay you to do what's best for you. You don't make the big buck to play it safe. Do something dramatic. Make a difference. Take the heat, and always stand by your man.

Donahoe has always been a value-conscious drafter, and the McGahee pick was all about value. Donahoe admits that the salary cap era has introduced a greater awareness for addressing need, but when you don't like what's left on the board, and the Bills didn't, you better not let the hanging curve go by just because it's a little out of the strike zone. You gotta swing to get a hit.

"They weren't right last year and they probably won't be right this year," Donahoe says of the media that's targeted him. "We were going to the Super Bowl after we beat Jacksonville last year. We fell short of their predictions. This year, they think we're going to win five or six games."

Donahoe is aware of the swirl at the Jaguars quarterback position, and he knows the key to whatever chance Leftwich has of becoming the top quarterback he was drafted to be hinges on the Jaguars' commitment to him.

"Nobody knows your players as well as you do. Even the media guys who work hard don't see everything and know everything. You can't pay attention to it. Some guys develop quickly and some don't. You have to stick with what you believe in. He's a big-time talent," Donahoe said of Leftwich. "He just needs more time on the job. There's no substitute for playing."

And there's no replacement for patience which, in today's game, often requires very thick skin.

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