ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- It's only spring, and the Buffalo Bills' 2010 season is already being written off as a disaster.
Look at just about any review of the Bills' offseason. The team has been pummeled for not making even a ripple, let alone a splash, in free agency. Its draft has drawn mostly low grades for failing to address one of two crucial needs -- quarterback and offensive tackle -- in the early rounds.
By most accounts, the rest of the AFC East improved while the Bills did no better than stand still. That isn't exactly a good thing for a team that finished 6-10 and hasn't made the playoffs for the last 10 years.
"They're looking at us to win only a couple of games," wide receiver Steve Johnson said. "That's like a slap in the face."
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They have a new coach, Chan Gailey. They have a new general manager, former Bills national scout Buddy Nix. They have new veteran players, even if they weren't the most recognizable among those available in the free-agent market. And they have a new draft class, which was on the field -- along with Johnson and other younger incumbents -- the past three days for minicamp.
After Gailey, the most noteworthy newcomer was running back C.J. Spiller, the Bills' first-round draft pick. He might very well be the lone difference-maker on the roster, at least on the offensive side. When your offensive line is shaky and you don't have a whole lot of faith in your passing game, get a speedster who can run outside.
The only quarterbacks participating in Buffalo's minicamp were Brian Brohm, signed late last season after washing out as a 2008 second-round choice of the Green Bay Packers, and seventh-round pick Levi Brown. Two others, Trent Edwards and Ryan Fitzpatrick, will be on hand for later offseason workouts. According to Gailey, competition for three quarterback spots is wide open, and this is one of those times when it doesn't seem like so much politically correct coach-speak, because there truly are no obvious favorites.
In New England, there's a quarterback named Tom Brady and a receiver named Randy Moss. The New York Jets have a new cornerback, Antonio Cromartie, joining another of the NFL's top players at the position, Darrelle Revis. Oh, and they picked up a receiver named Santonio Holmes. The Miami Dolphins might very well have added one of the best receivers in the league, Brandon Marshall, as well as standout linebacker Karlos Dansby.
"The teams in our division picked up a lot of big names, people who have proven themselves," Johnson said. "The Bills right now? We're the underdogs. Nobody knows who we are, except for a few people here and there. But we're basically the underdog story (of the AFC East) right now."
Johnson uses those words repeatedly when talking about the state of the Bills. Right now is a little more than a week into May. Right now is about three months before the start of training camp. Right now is about four months before the start of the season.
The prognosticators can predict that the Bills will finish 2-14 or 4-12, but for Gailey and the players, it does not have to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
"Right now, we've just got to fight," Johnson said. "As everybody knows, the division is tough, but we've got a bunch of guys that are competing. For the guys that we have, it's like, 'You're going to get your opportunities. Now let's see what you can do. You're going against the Cromarties. You're going against the Marshalls. It's time to make your name. Let's build your legacy.' It's going to be exciting to see what happens."
Said Gailey, "Last time I looked, every division in this whole league is tough. So what division you're in doesn't matter; you've just got to win. So if you win, that takes care of everything."
Rather than express concern or doubt over the Bills' ability to hold their own against AFC East competition, he points to the rest of the division for examples of why his team has reason for hope. In 2007, the Dolphins were 1-15. A year later, under first-year coach Tony Sparano, they won the division with an 11-5 record. In 2007, the Jets were 4-12. Two years later, under first-year coach Rex Ryan, they came within a victory of the Super Bowl.
"So to say (dramatic improvement) hasn't been done would be a lie," Gailey said. "It can be done."
With that in mind, Gailey's primary message to the players at minicamp was to define what it will take to get it done: Toughness. That didn't mean he was looking for violent collisions and brawls and for the padless, non-contact sessions to become something they aren't supposed to be this time of year. The time for that is in training camp.
Gailey wants toughness to be shown above the shoulder pads. He wants to see signs that there are players on the team who do, in fact, recognize the chance they have to rewrite the Bills' underdog story.
"This is about mental capacity, effort, being able to take what we teach and put it on the field, and at the same time, seeing work ethic without (the coaches) having to say anything," Gailey said. "Who gives that kind of work ethic that you know you're going to get day in and day out?"
During minicamp drills, Gailey, who doubles as the Bills' offensive coordinator, doesn't put much emphasis on technical details. He keeps most of his instructions simple and to the point.
"We've got one goal," he can be heard saying to receivers during a passing drill. "Beat your guy, and let's win."