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This year, I was more relieved than usual to see the NFL preseason come to a merciful conclusion. Given one more encouraging performance by the starters, a lot of Bills fans would have begun making travel plans for the Super Bowl in Dallas.

Don't get me wrong. I've lived in Buffalo for more than 20 years. Most of my friends are Bills fans of varying intensity. There's a giddy, optimistic fool residing within each of them. They don't just see the glass half full, they see a magic potion spilling over the sides. They respond not with reason, but emotion. They are, after all, fans.

Last week, I went to see an old friend at the beach in Canada. His son, who works in the banking industry, had put together an elaborate, seven-page proposal on how to keep the Bills in town. It's a constant amazement to know how much people care about this team.

No matter how disillusioned or despairing, a true fan grasps at any flicker of hope. So Bills fans' hopes have been soaring in recent weeks. It's nice, after a lost decade, to see actual signs of competence. Chan Gailey looks like a real head coach. Trent Edwards seems to have rediscovered his confidence. C.J. Spiller is a rare athletic talent.

Still, you should be careful not to overreact. It's good to see progress, however scant. But keep in mind, the standard was low to begin with. Dick Jauron looks even more dreadful in retrospect. That doesn't make Gailey the next Lombardi. Ralph Wilson finally hired a "general manager of football," to use his words. That doesn't make Buddy Nix a genius.

This is still a team with a lot of problems, and a glaring shortage of talent. They have no established No. 2 receiver, inferior offensive tackles, a weak linebacking corps that will struggle in coverage and in the pass rush. The same defensive linemen who struggled against the run last season will be adjusting to a 3-4.

Edwards was cool and efficient in preseason. He made quick decisions and got the ball downfield. He's clearly elevated by Spiller's presence. But let's see what happens when good defenses come after him. Then we'll find out if he's a new man, or the injury-prone QB who was too quick to dump the ball off in the face of a pass rush.

The truth is, they're rebuilding. Nix admitted as much during the draft last April, when he said the Bills weren't going to behave as if they were a championship contender, like many other NFL teams. If Nix thought they were a playoff contender, he might have gone after a top-level offensive tackle or outside linebacker.

No fan roots for his team to lose. Fans take pleasure from every victory in a grueling NFL season. When the Bills win, Mondays are better. Work feels better. Talk at the dinner table is more lively. But do you really want the false hope of another six- or seven-win season? Is that the best thing for a team that's rebuilding?

What about Edwards? Does this show of competence suggest he might yet be a franchise quarterback? If he remains upright and gets the Bills close to .500, does that warrant a big contract extension? This sounds a lot like the argument we had when J.P. Losman and Rob Johnson went into their fourth seasons in Buffalo.

Actually, the parallels to 2001 are striking. That year, the Bills also had a new general manager (Tom Donahoe), a new head coach (Gregg Williams), new offensive and defensive schemes, an injury-prone QB looking to salvage his career (Johnson), a promising rookie running back (Travis Henry), a highly paid receiver in his prime (Eric Moulds), a shaky offensive line, a dubious pass rush, and a deep, talented secondary.

That team had more talent than this one, which had zero players ranked among the Top 100 in the NFL in a recent poll by Scouts Inc. There was a general feeling that the '01 Bills, despite getting rid of 31 veterans, had the chance to go 8-8. They went 3-13. They hit bottom.

Then Donahoe, in a desperate attempt to restore hope among the fan base, traded for Drew Bledsoe and set in motion a string of dubious personnel decisions that put the franchise on a decade-long path of dysfunction. Somehow, after spending eight years assembling one of the least talented rosters in the NFL, Tom Modrak is still in charge of college scouting.

Sure, they've hit on some players. They have a couple of promising young guards in Eric Wood and Andy Levitre, a terrific safety in Jairus Byrd. Spiller didn't fill an obvious need, but he's a star in the making. On the other hand, James Hardy was a waste of a second-round pick. Leodis McKelvin still hasn't won a starting job. Aaron Maybin can't get on the field. Marshawn Lynch is baggage. Donte Whitner has yet to justify being picked eighth overall.

You don't dig this deep a hole and pull yourself out overnight. That was Donahoe's mistake, trying to rebuild the public's faith before he rebuilt the roster. You need to be honest. Bills management needs to be honest and admit they need to bottom out before starting the road back to a genuine contender.

I know, they got the No. 4 overall pick after '01 and wasted it on Mike Williams. That's no reason to be fearful of picking high. It's loser thinking. The higher you pick, the better chance of getting a great player. The best thing for the Bills is to pick high in next year's draft, which is a good one for quarterbacks, and get a franchise QB.

It's great to hope. Losing and failure aren't necessarily the same. The Bills can lose and still move forward. If the preseason is any indication, they can also be entertaining. Have hope, but sprinkle it with logic. There have been too many recent personnel blunders to believe this can be a .500 team.

I'm willing to be surprised, but its looks like a three- or four-win team. By now, even the most ardent fan has to wonder what's to be gained by winning six or seven.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com