ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- He strode down the tunnel and onto the field, just as he had countless times before. There was a little less hair on his head, a little more of a bulge in his belly, but the larger-than-life persona was unmistakable -- even in a golf shirt, shorts, and sandals.
He stood on the sidelines of Ralph Wilson Stadium, taking in all of the non-contact action during the first practice of the Buffalo Bills' minicamp just like any spectator. But he wasn't just any spectator. He was Jim Kelly, the greatest quarterback in the history of the franchise. And by his mere presence, he served as a reminder of the enormous gap between past glory and present mediocrity.
The Bills are well into another offseason with another quarterback they hope will be another Kelly. They'd love Trent Edwards to put up the kind of numbers -- while leading a dominant offense on a dominant team -- that made Kelly a first-ballot selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. They'd settle for the kid to have half of Kelly's accomplishments (okay, minus the 0-4 Super Bowl record) and be half of the leader Kelly was.
For now, all we can say with any conviction about Edwards is that, beginning his second offseason with the Bills and his first as their starter, he seems ready to lead. He seems ready to be the type of quarterback the team desperately needs to improve on last year's 7-9 finish and fulfill widespread hopes that, with a fairly solid core and some key additions through free agency and the draft, the Bills have the makings of a playoff team.
"I think I'm much different," Edwards said earlier this month during the team's minicamp. "You have to be a much more commanding quarterback if you're the starting quarterback. Last year, obviously, I wasn't so I couldn't do the things that I necessarily would have done had I been the starter.
"This year, you've got to lead a little more, carry yourself a little bit differently, and, hopefully, guys will follow you."
Edwards is trying his best to improve the chances of that happening by cultivating a relationship with teammates that didn't exist during his rookie season. Although he started nine games and eventually supplanted J.P. Losman in the No. 1 spot, Edwards knew he wasn't in any position to serve as C.E.O. of the Bills' offense.
Now, he asks other starting offensive players to stick around after practice for additional work or to study additional videotape. He invites them over to his home or to just hang out in an effort to bond and build chemistry. He also is much more cautious about what he says and does publicly and in the locker room.
"If you're the starter, (teammates) are going to watch your actions and what you're saying to the media and what you're saying to other guys on the team," Edwards said. "You've got to carry yourself a little bit differently."
"He's the man; he wasn't that last year," new Bills offensive coordinator Turk Schonert said. "He's got a bigger responsibility. He's got to be ready every single day. Everybody's looking at him, looking up to him."
In 10 games last season, Edwards completed 151 of 269 passes (56.1 percent) for 1,630 yards. He threw seven touchdown passes, was intercepted eight times, and had a passer rating of 70.4. His record as a starter was 5-4.
For the most part, Edwards demonstrated greater patience and comfort in the pocket than one would normally expect from a rookie. He generally made good decisions with the football, didn't overreact to adversity or success. He made plenty of solid, accurate throws.
Steve Fairchild, who had been the offensive coordinator, took the brunt of the blame from media and fans for passive game plans and play-calling. He also was criticized by setting his quarterback up for failure by designing a scheme that often called for deep, five-step drops and long-developing pass patterns.
Fairchild left to become head football coach at Colorado State. Schonert, who had been the Bills' quarterbacks coach, took over the offense, and promptly installed a scheme that calls for the quarterback to take short, three-step drops, and get rid of the ball quickly. Under Schonert, the offense will move at a much faster tempo, something he learned and liked while playing quarterback for Sam Wyche in Cincinnati.
"There are definitely big plays to be made in this offense," Edwards said. "That's the style that (Schonert) has and that's the type of plays he's going to be calling. It's a matter of seeing those plays develop and giving the big play a chance, but also knowing where your underneath routes are and your check-down routes are. And that's what's nice about Turk. He's going to stress try to make the big play, but he played the position before, and he knows that his offense has answers for a variety of different coverages and if they're soft (underneath), you take the big plays later."
Edwards is working to grasp the new offense, which also allows him to do something that Fairchild never allowed him to do -- change plays at the line of scrimmage. It hasn't been easy. Edwards has performed better on some days than others during the Bills' offseason workouts.
Early on, too many of his passes wound up in the hands of defenders. He has seen some improvement, but there is work to be done.
Home stadiums: War Memorial Stadium, 1960-1972; Ralph Wilson Stadium (known as Rich Stadium, 1973-1998), 1973-present
Division championships: 10
AFL/AFC championships: 6
Super Bowl appearances: 4
"You think that the receiver's doing one thing or you think it's a good pass, and it goes right to the corner and it's a pick and looks bad on you," Edwards said. "Now it's a matter of how you get on the same page. That comes with repetitions and comes with talking (to his receivers)."
"The offense has changed a little bit, so he's still in a learning process with the system that we're going to use and the tempos we're going to use," Schonert said. "Right now, his wheels are turning and spinning. He thinks, 'Okay, I know I'm supposed to do something ... what am I going to?' He kind of stammers through it. (Tuesday), he had a great day. He made some great audibles and checks and didn't sputter through anything. (Wednesday) he had a couple where he did."
Edwards accepts the fact that the optimism many Bills fans have for their team is contingent upon him performing at a higher level than he did in 2007.
He doesn't flinch at the prospect of having so much more pressure to produce than a year ago.
"I think you're going to get that pressure regardless of where you go," Edwards said. "That's been since Day One, since freshman year in high school when I started playing. It all starts with the quarterback. You can have a talented running back and talented offensive linemen, but if you can't convert on third down ..."