PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- The Buffalo Bills' new beginning doesn't mean the franchise has forgotten the past. Just the opposite.
"We're not running from our history," first-year general manager Doug Whaley told me after a training camp practice at St. John Fisher College in the Rochester suburb of Pittsford. "We've not been very good."
There has been widespread change for the NFL's most playoff-starved franchise (which has not seen postseason play since the 1999 campaign). In addition to officially promoting Whaley to GM, the Bills also raised Russ Brandon to the position of president and CEO. And the reshuffling went way beyond just the front office: There's a new coaching staff (spearheaded by head coach Doug Marrone), a new quarterback (whomever they choose) and a ton of new optimism.
The hope is that these aren't your same old Bills. The fact that the new faces in the organization understand the recent history they are fighting against makes one think there is reason for the positive vibes. Finally.
Here are five things I learned in my day with the Bills:
1) The onus is on a well-compensated defensive line: The previous Bills regime invested heavily in its defensive line, more so than it did any other position group. "Super" Mario Williams, partner in crime Kyle Williams and 2011 first-round pick Marcell Dareus will cost the team about $150 million if each earns the entire worth of his contract. At face value, this sure seems like a talented trio, but their lack of production last season led to a 26th-ranked scoring defense and, in turn, the mass firing of the coaching staff. The skills are still present, which is something new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine noted early. "That's the first thing I realized," Pettine told me. "We have to maximize this defensive line while we get these other groups together." Behind the D-line, the defense will be young. Second-round pick Kiko Alonso is viewed as an every-down linebacker who plays older than his years. "His football IQ is extremely high, and you can tell that by the types of questions he asks," Pettine said. "It was like graduate-level stuff." As for his approach on the field, Pettine said Alonso played like he had pads on in the spring. In the back end, the Bills feature rising star cornerback Stephon Gilmore, whose preparation has impressed the staff. But still, there are a lot of question marks on this D, so the hope is that the front four masks some woes. "It starts up front," Pettine said. "For us to be good defensively, our (D-line) group has to be the best group on the field. I think if you have issues in the other areas, you can make up for those up front."
2) Is the foundation already on the field for the Bills? The youth movement is for real in Buffalo, and it leads to fast and energetic practices. The enthusiasm doesn't just spawn from charismatic offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, who is never shy about showing how much he loves the game of football. No, it also comes from the 2013 draft class -- a group that could truly shape the future of the franchise. First-round pick EJ Manuel might end up being the long-time starter at quarterback (more on that position battle below), and if that happens, the draft class will go down as a big hit. But on top of that, throw in plug-and-play receiver Robert Woods, Alonso, speedster Marquise Goodwin and defensive back Duke Williams. And then there's electric undrafted receiver Da'Rick Rogers, still a wildcard behavior-wise, and undrafted former Washington State quarterback Jeff Tuel, a guy the team thinks it might have hit on. That's a lot of pieces. As Whaley said, they could form the nucleus for the coming years, especially because they all showed up the same year as Marrone. "There's the ground floor of what we're trying to instill as far as the identity," Whaley said. "And what we're all about. We get these young guys and they grow, so two or three years from now, we can step back and they'll start instilling it on the guys that are coming in and holding those guys accountable." Oh, and don't discount C.J. Spiller and other young-ish veterans, either. It should make for a raw team that can improve as the year goes on. Is Marrone open to making the future now by playing all these guys? "A lot of us say, 'Hey, the best players are playing,' " Marrone said. "That's really true."
3) The truth about the QB battle: The competition is still ongoing. Despite Manuel's mastery of the two-minute drill in the preseason opener -- the rook even called his own play when the headset went out -- and Kevin Kolb's knee injury, Manuel hasn't been named the starter yet. Competition is king. But in talking with key members of the Bills organization, the sense you get is that they'd all love for Manuel to grab the job with two hands and never let go. That would allow the rebuilding to start off right. "Absolutely, it helps if he becomes the starter and becomes successful; there's no doubt about it," Whaley told me. "When you draft a guy in the first round to be a quarterback, he's going to be the face of your organization, the face of your franchise. And as he goes, we go. And that's part of what we're trying to instill. Let's be aggressive, let's go with it -- if he wins the job." That will be the biggest decision yet in Marrone's young tenure: making the call between Manuel and Kolb. As Whaley says, the best-case scenario is that Kolb continues to throw as well as he did in practice on Tuesday, so that however the race plays out, you don't feel there's a huge drop-off when the backup comes in. But ultimately, the ideal situation is that Manuel's stellar play continues and it's a no-brainer. If not, Marrone told me, there will come a time when he simply must make a decision. "That's what we do, as coaches, general managers, scouts," Marrone said. "The time's going to come, if we have to do it, 10-12 days prior to the first game."
4) The raves about EJ Manuel have as much to do with his makeup as his ability: No, not like the makeup I wear for TV -- mental makeup. The Bills love what Manuel is made of. I heard that when team reps visited Florida State for pre-draft scouting on Manuel, they were stopped by various people (an usher at a baseball game, a hotel employee) who recognized their Bills gear and waxed poetic about what a good guy the quarterback is. In a conversation after the draft, a big-time college coach told me that if Geno Smith had Manuel's makeup, the West Virginia product would've gone No. 1 overall. "He's the guy that we thought we were getting," Marrone said of Manuel. "The main thing (in the pre-draft process), you don't really know how he handles adversity, you're trying to get that from the college coaches. You're going to face a lot of that, especially early on. These are the things we're looking at -- intangibles -- but we were really digging and looking hard. We were at a point like ... we couldn't find anything that we thought was wrong." But, Marrone stressed, that was the pre-draft process. That is over. What the coach likes now is Manuel's honesty. He likes that Manuel asked coaches about the proper way to prepare for a pro game versus how he used to prepare for a college contest. What's going to be fascinating is how he meshes with Hackett, a 33-year-old breath of fresh air in the NFL. Hackett has installed an offense influenced by his prior coaching experiences -- at Stanford, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in his first tenure with the Bills and at Syracuse -- and he relishes doing things his own way. From what I've heard, Hackett's infectious manner has brought an energy to the quarterback room that was missing in prior years. But can everyone blend quickly enough to make a dent in 2013? Time will tell.
5) Where is Jairus Byrd? The short answer is, not in Pittsford. And the Pro Bowl safety almost certainly won't show up before the Bills move back home to Buffalo when camp ends. The franchise player who hasn't yet signed his franchise tag -- and thus, isn't officially holding out or subject to fines -- wanted a long-term deal. It never materialized before the deadline for 2013. Now he can't get one until next year ... so he's biding his time away from the team, making everything uncomfortable and uncertain. Will he arrive in time for the season? Probably, but nothing is set in stone. As for the Bills, they remain in the dark, too, waiting for their playmaker. Team officials have publicly expressed that they'd like to lock up Byrd after this year. On defense, as Pettine explained, they are treating it like an injury. "It's the coaching cliché -- worry about the guys that are here," Pettine told me. "(Byrd) is in close communication with the guys on the team, and he has the material. He's been able to prepare himself mentally. But there's no substitute for being here and playing. That's a situation where we all understand there's a business side to it. There's no grudge at all. Play your butt off, have a great year, see what happens next year."
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