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Sports fans have a seemingly infinite capacity for forgiveness. The fact came crashing home when Milwaukee fans gave Ryan Braun a standing ovation in his first game back from a steroid suspension. As a local reminder, Sabres fans did the same for their prodigal son, Dominik Hasek.

Given a little time, they’ll forget almost any transgression. Fans are zealots. The word derives from “fanatic”. Modern fans don’t require their heroes to be model citizens or scholars. In the end, they want to attach themselves to greatness, and they want their teams to win.

So I imagine Bills fans are taking the more optimistic approach with the team’s recent high-profile, high-maintenance acquisitions. They know Mike Williams and Brandon Spikes have more baggage than a traveling circus. But can they make it happen on the football field?

It’s worth taking a shot. No NFL locker room is without its dubious characters nowadays. One team’s castoff can become another team’s unearthed treasure, its rehabilitated star. A lot of pro athletes begin their careers as arrested adolescents. Various Super Bowl Bills come to mind.

If Spikes and Buffalo native Williams clean up their acts, they can be bargains for Doug Whaley and Doug Marrone. Williams is a more talented version of Stevie Johnson, a 6-foot-2 wideout who has scored 25 touchdowns in 54 career NFL games.

Marrone doesn’t strike me as a patient man. He’s Russ Brandon’s guy, so he’ll have a longer leash than some rookie coaches. But if a team doesn’t improve, a new coach can get into trouble quickly in today’s NFL. I’m guessing Marrone feels he’s operating under a tougher standard.

At times, I’ve wondered if the Bills could use more of an edge in the locker room. They seemed soft and complacent. It doesn’t hurt to have guys who don’t toe the line and challenge authority. A contending team grows from within, when competitive guys come of age together, like the Jim Kelly teams.

We’ll see about Williams and Spikes. They’ll both be 27 when the next season begins, in their athletic prime. They’re not kids anymore, though they act like it. A winning team needs mature leadership. It needs a competitive core of players who act like adults, who show the younger guys how to compete for one another. This team needs more of it.

I’m suspicious about these two. Both Williams and Spikes got run off their teams by a respected NFL head coach who puts a premium on discipline.

Lovie Smith decided Williams wasn’t worth the trouble and traded him to Buffalo for a sixth-round draft choice. Bill Belichick didn’t try to re-sign Spikes, even though Spikes was his best tackler. The Bills signed him to a one-year deal, which tells you they’re not sure, either.

Surely, the Bucs had a bad feeling about Williams. Why else would they get rid of him just one year after signing him to a six-year, $40 million contract? The word in Tampa is that Smith wanted to make an example of Williams, to show his new team that talent would not be enough in his regime.

Marrone wants to give Williams a second chance. Actually, we’re far beyond second chances. Williams was suspended for a year after cheating on a test at Syracuse. Williams returned in 2009, which was Marrone’s first year at SU, then left for good in midseason after violating curfew and getting involved in a car crash on a trip to a casino.

Williams’ party lifestyle was well-chronicled in a recent Tampa newspaper story. It’s quite a list. Williams was charged with trespass and criminal mischief after allegedly ripping the door of a girlfriend’s apartment off the hinges. He reportedly was caught speeding five times in six weeks.

Wild parties, aggrieved neighbors, negligence, lawsuits and threats of eviction from his home in a gated community. Yes, and we’re supposed to believe this is another case of an athlete who is “misunderstood” and has jealous people out to get him.

Williams, who was a star at Riverside, says he has a 1-year-old son now, so he feels a father’s responsibility. He talks as if being a good dad is as easy as flipping a switch. He says he needs to grow up. He deserves the slight benefit of the doubt, but he strikes me as a con man.

Five years ago, I interviewed Williams about his plans to return to SU and prove himself as a player and student. At the time, he said his mother wanted him to get out of Buffalo for good. Now we’re supposed to believe that coming back home to the city is the answer to all his troubles.

Spikes isn’t what you’d call the ideal leader, either. If the Pats give up on a productive player, that’s a troubling sign. Belichick can be a bully, but he’s the biggest winner of his time. If a future Hall of Fame coach thinks Spikes has a dubious work ethic, it makes you wonder.

Belichick suspended Spikes for a playoff game last season because he was late for a team meeting. That makes two members of the Bills’ new defensive front seven who sat for being late at the end of last season. Maybe Marcell Dareus and Spikes can share an alarm clock this season.

The guy has an edge, that’s for sure. Spikes is a star on Twitter. He’ll bring humor to a Bills locker room that can be dull and lacking in original thought. But like Stevie Johnson, Spikes seems more interested in being a character than a champion.

Spikes once sent out a homophobic tweet, then said it was a joke later. Ha ha. Soon after Spikes joined the Pats, he was the star of a sex tape that appeared on the Internet. He was suspended by the NFL for four games for violating the substance abuse policy. Naturally, he said it was a prescribed medication.

There was criticism of Spikes’ conditioning in New England. He preferred working out on his own to taking part in the Pats’ off-season program. He’s clearly thrilled to be away from Belichick. Last week, he sent out tweets that said “4 Years A Slave” and “Free at last! Free at last!”

Spikes is free to speak his mind. But it’s insulting to hear a well-paid athlete compare playing in the NFL to the horrors of slavery. It’s hard to believe that anyone who was educated about the civil rights movement could be so cavalier about Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

But if the Bills stop the run and make a playoff run next season, I’m sure all will be forgiven.

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com