In his first press conference as the new Bills coach, Chan Gailey emphasized that football is a tough game for tough people. He presumably was referring to the people who play and coach the game. But he just as easily could have been describing Bills fans, too, because despite enduring a decade of dashed dreams and putrid performances, this eternally optimistic and loyal lot continues to “tough” it out, consistently filling the Ralph in hopes that maybe, just maybe, they won’t have to keep lamenting as old Brooklyn Dodgers fans once did about waiting until next year.
I would love to tell you that “next year” is about to arrive, but I would be jumping the gun by a football season or two. That said, I do believe genuine progress is being made under the new regime of Gailey and general manager Buddy Nix.
Though nearly three decades of covering this team and four decades of following it has taught me to be very careful about drawing any definitive conclusions from the practice games of August, there have been rays of hope this summer; glimmers that a foundation made of concrete rather than saw dust is finally being laid and that better days may lie ahead.
You don’t need to know if a football is filled with air or water to realize that C.J. Spiller is the real deal, and that barring injury he will become the home-run hitter this offense has sorely lacked. The runs he made against the first units of the Colts and the Bengals revealed the shiftiness and afterburner that could make him an NFL star. And the good news is that unlike other positions such as quarterback and receiver, the learning curve for a running back is not nearly as long or complex, meaning Spiller’s impact could be felt right away.
It looks, too, like the Bills finally have a coach in Gailey innovative enough to figure out how to get the ball into the hands of another potentially dynamic playmaker – Roscoe Parrish. We’ve heard for five seasons about the need to do this, but Gailey seems to be the first offensive mind able to act on this need, and the quick-footed Parrish could wind up giving defensive coordinators something to worry about from the slot-receiver position.
Buffalo’s success, though, will depend largely on the reclamation project that is quarterback Trent Edwards. Gailey has a good track record of resurrecting quarterbacks, and Trent clearly has looked much.
Still, I’m not ready to make any bold pronouncements that Edwards is on the brink of fulfilling the potential that Hall-of-Fame coach Bill Walsh saw in him coming out of Stanford. Only time will tell if Trent has truly turned the corner and is ready to be a dependable NFL quarterback over the course of an entire season. And, in his case, that will mean not only pumping up an offense that managed just 16 points per game last season, but also proving that he is durable enough to take a licking and keep on ticking.
Gailey is a grounded football coach in more ways than one. He realizes that the best way to help Trent and the Bills transitional defense is by establishing a strong running attack showcasing the aforementioned Spiller, along with superb multi-tasker Fred Jackson and former Pro Bowler Marshawn Lynch, who, like Edwards is seeking football redemption. So expect a lot of carries and short passes to this triumvirate of backs to take the pressure off Trent and a defense that still has a lot of question marks as it morphs from a 4-3 to 3-4 alignment.
I admit it. I was underwhelmed when Nix and Gailey were first hired. To me, it seemed like once again the Bills were taking the cheap way out by going the retread route. I, like so many of you, was hoping for a Bill Cowher or Mike Shanahan – a big name to shake things up.
And I wasn’t doing cartwheels when they opted to draft Spiller in the first round, when there were so many holes more pressing than running back, which ironically seemed to be one the Bills few positions of strength.
But the new regime’s approach has slowly won me over.
The pick of the dynamic Spiller could prove to be brilliant. And I like the sense-of-urgency and accountability Gailey has brought to a team that became way too comfortable under the reign of Dick Jauron. Gailey’s decisions to remove the television sets from the weight rooms and have his team practice in pads often during training camp weren’t merely symbolic. The moves helped drive home the point that he meant business.
So, things are moving in the right direction. But there is still a ton of work to be done before this organization climbs the rungs of the AFC East standings. A big question mark remains at left offensive tackle, where Demetrius Bell continues to be a work in progress. We also don’t know who’s going to emerge and become that second wideout opposite Lee Evans, or if the Bills can get adequate production from their tight ends. And, defensively, despite the presence of arguably the deepest and most talented secondary in the league, we don’t know if the Bills have the necessary personnel in place to pull off this dramatic switch to the 3-4.
The other factor, of course, is the improvement of the Bills divisional rivals. Off-season transactions and the return-to-health of game-changers such as New England quarterback Tom Brady could mean that Buffalo might wind up with a worse record than last year’s 6-10 despite fielding a stronger team.
I know that’s not what long-suffering Bills fans might want to hear. They’ve been more than patient, having their loyalty tested by a 10-year playoff drought a revolving door of err apparents to Jim Kelly and Marv Levy.
But there finally may be a gameplan in place that will work, executed by two football lifers who actually known what they’re doing. It appears that there is a core of young players on this team who give hope for the future. Legitimate hope. Not the false hope that’s been offered the past 10 years.
So patience in Job-like doses may be needed again. But en route to their five or six wins this season, the team should be vastly more exciting on offense and vastly more competitive.
And I believe that the Bills will get started on the right foot with an upset victory in their season opener against Miami Sunday afternoon at the soldout Ralph. That will be another step in the right direction. And, by the end of this season, barring the rash of injuries that have way-lowed this team in recent years, I believe this team will be markedly improved, even if that isn’t reflected in the standings.
Award-winning columnist and author Scott Pitoniak has covered the Bills since 1985 and has written five books about the team, including the recently published, Buffalo Bills Football Vault: The First 50 Seasons, which is available at any book store, the Bills team stores and Amazon.com. You can read more by Scott at .