Buffalo Bills aiming to become NFL's next worst-to-first wonder

PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- The first NFL training camp practice of 2014 went a long way in explaining why these sessions have become so popular.

A general manager jumping out of his shoes talking about a potential breakthrough. A young quarterback asking for more responsibility. A fan base electrified by the first sight of its team since December.

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You'd never know the Buffalo Bills went 6-10 last year.

But that's the beauty of all this. It's July, and like everyone else in the league, the Bills are undefeated. Buffalo's players and coaches believe that they very well could be -- maybe even should be -- the team to continue an annual tradition in the NFL: the worst-to-first turnaround. More than just that, it's the way they see themselves.

"That was the plan for all the moves this year," Bills GM Doug Whaley said, as practice opened on a perfect Sunday evening. "Listen, we've been in doldrums for 14 years. Let's do everything we can to get into the playoffs. We owe it to our fans, we owe it to our late Hall of Fame owner, and we owe it to these players and the staff and the employees. That's why we made the bold move in the draft. That's why we did what we did in free agency. Do we believe we have it? Absolutely."

Then Whaley took a step back and added this, "When you go to 31 other camps, they're saying the same thing at this time of year. It'd be a problem if we thought, 'No.' "

Given the volatility of the NFL, few should say no. The league realigned in 2002, and in each of the 11 seasons to follow, at least one team has pulled off the outhouse-to-penthouse trick. Fifteen total have done it in that time, and it's happened six times in the NFC South alone.

That brings us back to the first camp to officially swing open its doors.

The situation here feels urgent. As Whaley alluded to, the once-proud Bills last played more than 16 games -- a birthright during the halcyon heyday of Jim Kelly and Co. -- in 1999, and the only owner the franchise has known, Ralph Wilson Jr., passed away in March. The team is up for sale. The brass dealt their 2015 first-round pick to move up five spots in May's draft and come away with Sammy Watkins. Last year's No. 1 was spent on a quarterback.

The feeling, very clearly, is that the time is now.

"Without a doubt, especially for an older guy like me who's been here," veteran tailback Fred Jackson said. "We gotta get it done. There's no time like now. We have to get it done. Everybody's expecting it. Our fans, 14 years is a long time. Not to mention it sucks for us. This is my ninth year here in Buffalo, and my best record has been 7-9."

Changing an ugly trend like that doesn't happen overnight, but there are many reasons why Whaley and his Bills cohorts see light at the end of the tunnel, including the following:

» EJ Manuel's clean bill of health: The quarterback suffered three knee injuries as a rookie, costing him six games of experience, though he declared himself "100 percent healthy" to me on Sunday. When he was in there last fall, Manuel was up and down. But the key here might be what the Bills ask of him as a sophomore, with a loaded skill group around him. The way the GM sees it, Buffalo just needs Manuel to be a point guard of sorts.

"Distribute. Distribute to the playmakers," Whaley said. "Now, five years from now? I'm gonna be saying he's our playmaker, so whatever he wants to do, he can do it. But the matriculation has to be like that. I lean on what it was like when I was with Pittsburgh. That's what happened with Ben Roethlisberger. His first year, if you look at his stats, I think we threw over 22 times maybe twice (Editor's note: There were four such regular-season occurrences), but we had a strong running game and we had a good defense. And that's what we got here."

» Sammy Watkins' impact: Watkins was more than the No. 1 receiver on Buffalo's board -- he was the No. 1 player.

"(Jadeveon) Clowney was just slightly behind him," Whaley said. "When he was gone No. 1, it was a no-brainer. It would've been a decision (if Clowney was there). But the way we ranked them, it was Sammy first."

And so as much as the Bills like their overall offensive talent, the expectation is for Watkins to make the kind of immediate impact Julio Jones did in Atlanta, which explains the haul they gave up.

"For us, a bona fide No. 1 receiver (is something) we haven't had since I've been here, and that's been four years -- and talking to them, it's maybe since (Eric) Moulds," Whaley said. "A bona fide guy who can open up things for other people, help the quarterback, and also affect how people attack us."

» Depth across the board: Buffalo needs it, too -- particularly in the wake of dynamic linebacker Kiko Alonso's ACL tear. While that's obviously not optimal, the Bills see a couple reasons to believe they're better-equipped to deal with it now than before. First, they handled massive losses last year and remained competitive into December. Second, competition is shaping up to be fierce at several spots, which means the backups should be pretty decent.

"It'll get tested right away," Whaley said, referring to Alonso's injury. "We feel with the signing of (Keith) Rivers, and the drafting of Preston Brown, Nigel Bradham coming back, and (Brandon) Spikes, we can absorb that blow. Hopefully we don't have to absorb another blow, but we think we can absorb that blow."

* * * **

So the Bills are all-in on 2014. The urgency is real, too, though Whaley swears it's not out of any sort of fear that the looming sale could lead to wholesale changes.

"I give all the credit in the world to (team president) Russ Brandon," Whaley said. "He's been a great leader through this whole process. His No. 1 edict to everybody in the building is, 'Business as usual.' He's gonna handle all the other stuff. He says, 'Let it fall on me, I'll protect you guys, you guys just focus on winning.' And he said two things will happen with winning. It'll honor our late owner. And everything else will take care of itself."

The winning part has been easier said than done in Buffalo over the past decade-and-a-half, but nights like Sunday give everyone the chance to forget that and think about what could lie ahead, bolstered by that history of teams turning things around from one year to the next.

Of the 15 clubs that have gone worst-to-first since 2002, 11 either had a new coach, a change at quarterback or both. Three others (the 2004 Chargers, the 2009 Saints and 2010 Chiefs) brought in big-name defensive coordinators (Wade Phillips, Gregg Williams and Romeo Crennel, respectively). Six of the eight last-place teams from last year have gone through a quarterback and/or coaching change. The remaining two (Buffalo and St. Louis) have added prominent defensive coordinators.

So with that -- and the hopeful start of camp in Western New York -- in mind, we'll wrap up with the big changes made by cellar-dwellers:

AFC East: Buffalo Bills
Last playoff appearance: 1999 season
Big changes: Head coach Doug Marrone and Manuel came in as a package deal, and each should grow in Year 2. New defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is the addition. His scheme is pretty different from predecessor Mike Pettine's, but both favor an aggressive style that players like.

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AFC North: Cleveland Browns
Last playoff appearance: 2002
Big changes: Everything, again. The Browns have their third head coach and third general manager in as many years. Also, for the fourth time since rejoining the NFL 15 years ago, Cleveland spent a first-round pick on a quarterback. There's a lot tied up in the hope Johnny Manziel performs a little better than Tim Couch, Brady Quinn and Brandon Weeden.

AFC South: Houston Texans
Last playoff appearance: 2012
Big changes: A new coaching staff headlined by Bill O'Brien, whose straightforward, no-nonsense style helped steer Penn State through awfully choppy waters over the past two years. The club also traded seven-year starting QB Matt Schaub and lacks a long-term answer at the position -- though rookie Tom Savage eventually will get a fair shot -- on an otherwise talented roster.

AFC West: Oakland Raiders
Last playoff appearance: 2002
Big changes: GM Reggie McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen are back for a third season, and the club's offseason activity had win now written all over it. Not only did the Raiders bring in Schaub, but they also added veteran castoffs like Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley, in hopes these guys could bounce back and help speed up the maturation of the rest of the team.

NFC East: Washington Redskins
Last playoff appearance: 2012
Big changes: After last season's drama, Dan Snyder and Co. are banking on first-year coach Jay Gruden to right the ship -- and the process has started with Robert Griffin III being given more responsibility, both as a leader and a quarterback. Scheme-wise, there isn't a ton of change: Gruden is West Coast on offense, as Mike Shanahan was, and the defensive staff was held over.

NFC North: Minnesota Vikings
Last playoff appearance: 2012
Big changes: Minnesota is two years away from opening a new stadium, and its best player is a tailback approaching 30. So there is some urgency. But new coach Mike Zimmer and the staff have been impressed by quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, one of seven first-round picks the team has logged over the past three years. The system will change on both sides of the ball, and you can expect an edgier team overall.

NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Note: While the Falcons posted the same 4-12 record, the Bucs officially finished last in the division due to tiebreakers)
Last playoff appearance: 2007
Big changes: New general manager (Jason Licht), new coaching staff (headlined by Lovie Smith), new quarterback (Josh McCown) -- yes, it's a brand new day in Tampa. But that doesn't mean this is a team in rebuilding mode. The roster certainly has the talent to make noise in 2014.

NFC West: St. Louis Rams
Last playoff appearance: 2004
Big changes: The Rams can only hope for the same results the Saints got in bringing Gregg Williams aboard prior to the 2009 campaign -- that New Orleans team was the lone one on the worst-to-first list to win the Super Bowl. Really, for the Rams, with the "RGIII trade" having paid off in a small army of building-block players, what's needed is a healthy, productive Sam Bradford, and continued growth across the board.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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