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High hopes: Young QB leading new offense has Bills thinking playoffs

PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- Despite owning the AFC's longest active playoff drought -- eight long years and counting -- the Buffalo Bills have some legitimate buzz surrounding them this preseason.

I'm not the only NFL pundit tabbing Buffalo as the surprise team in the AFC, but the most important thing I discovered at Bills training camp is Dick Jauron's young team isn't afraid of the big talk.

In the NFL, it's seldom wise to believe the hype. But it can be useful for a team to once in awhile acknowledge the raised bar of expectation, if only to ensure its reach extends beyond its grasp. That's the direction Buffalo leans these days, where ticket sales are way up, a playoff guarantee has been issued, and the selling of fresh hope starts with a quarterback entering his first full season as a starter. The Bills believe their time is now.

"The increased expectations, they're definitely worth something as a player,'' veteran Bills receiver Lee Evans told me the other day. "The buzz is real, and amongst our team we feel pretty confident. We feel like even though we have a young team, we have guys who have been out there and played, and gotten a lot of experience. We've got guys looking to take a step up from where we've been. We have the opportunity now. We just have to go make something out of it.''

By far, the biggest cause for the optimism in Buffalo's camp at St. John Fisher College is the Bills' belief they've got their longstanding quarterback problem solved. Second-year man Trent Edwards, a third-round pick who went 5-4 as a rookie starter last year for the 7-9 Bills, is their guy. Buffalo has a new offensive coordinator in Turk Schonert, a new, more attacking-style offense, and a confidence in Edwards that seems to quietly grow by the week.

"Trent wants to be good, and he wants to take us where we've been trying to go for a long time now,'' said Schonert, Buffalo's ex-quarterbacks coach who was elevated to coordinator this offseason after Steve Fairchild took the Colorado State head coaching job. "You can see it in his eyes. What I like is that this job wasn't too big for him from day one. He got thrown in there last year, and he handled it great.''

The Bills began finding out what they had in Edwards -- who Schonert confidently told me was the steal of the 2007 draft as far back as May of that year -- early in their Week 3 game at New England. That's when he was forced to replace the injured J.P. Losman (knee) after Buffalo's first possession of the game. Let's let Edwards tell you what it was like making his NFL regular-season debut in that particular setting:

"I was still in shock at seeing Tom Brady over on the other sideline, and just looking around at the stadium,'' Edwards said, shaking his head at the memory. "I wasn't expecting to play much, and all of a sudden J.P. goes down with a knee injury and guys are walking around on the sideline looking at you saying, 'You're ready to go. It's your time.' I'm thinking, 'I haven't really practiced all week,' but I did everything I could. You just have to trust your instincts and trust your reactions and go from there.''

The Bills lost big that day, 38-7, to fall to 0-3, but they went 7-3 over their next 10 games, and even a three-game losing streak to end the season hasn't dulled the enthusiasm. This spring, Bills safety Donte' Whitner even guaranteed what everyone knows is the goal: A playoff berth in Buffalo for the first time since 1999, when Wade Phillips was head coach.

Adding to the excitement over the Bills is the up-tempo, aggressive-minded offense Schonert has installed. Under Fairchild, Buffalo was painfully predictable, but Schonert believes in constantly challenging a defense and making it as uncomfortable as possible with the use of multiple looks and different formations. The Bills in camp are working on a no-huddle, shotgun formation that somewhat harkens back to the Sam Wyche-coached offense that Schonert played quarterback in in the mid-to-late 1980s.

"We're going to do some of the things we did in Cincinnati, but it's more just about keeping the defense off balance,'' Schonert told me. "We didn't do a lot of up tempo last year. I think they're excited about doing a little no-huddle, and those type of things. Formation-wise, I like putting people in different spots and making the defense adjust. Not just lining up the same all the time. We're going to move people around and be disruptive.''

It's isn't all rainbows and butterflies in Buffalo's camp, of course. With left tackle Jason Peters holding out, there's a huge hole in an offensive line that can't possibly replace the team's only offensive Pro Bowl selection. There's no reason to panic yet, because Peters missing some training camp practices won't doom the season (see Michael Strahan and Asante Samuel in 2007), but this is a showdown that has the potential to go on for some time yet.

The Bills recognize Peters, one of the game's best left tackles, is underpaid. He's set to earn $3.3 million this season, which doesn't sound bad, but actually makes him just the third-highest paid offensive lineman on his own team. But Buffalo's front office counters that he has three years left on the five-year deal he signed in 2006, and it won't negotiate until he returns to work.

Furthermore, the club is baffled by the almost total lack of communication coming from Peters. As of last weekend, neither Jauron nor chief operating officer Russ Brandon had spoken directly with Peters since the end of last season. Brandon termed Peters' approach "a road map of silence.''

"I love the guy, and he's a tremendous player,'' Jauron said. "But he's not communicating with us. He's not talking to us. We have to move on and deal with the players who are here in camp.''

While the Bills have struck contract extensions with many of their key veterans in recent years, team owner Ralph Wilson isn't known for caving in to the demands of a holdout. That's why the Peters' saga could get much uglier before it gets better. He's getting fined $15,000 for every day he misses, but the reality is the Bills need him desperately if their playoff dreams are to come true, and they know it. His absence could undo much of the progress Buffalo's offense hopes to make in 2008.

"No doubt, he's very important to this team,'' Evans said of Peters. "You hope he's here when it matters, because he's a big cog on our offense. Right now, we're moving on. We've got to do what we've got to do. He's still our teammate and we've got his back. We hope it all works out for him and for us.''

I asked Schonert how deposed starter J.P. Losman was handling his backup status behind Edwards, and Schonert gave a revealing assessment of the team's 2004 first-round pick.

"He's handled it OK,'' Schonert said. "Obviously it's a huge disappointment for anybody. He's a competitive guy and he wants to play. But there's a time where you've got to put it aside, because he's one play away from being on the field and everybody's counting on him.

"He's had some ups and downs. He gets into a funk and you've got to kick him in the butt and say, 'It's not might, we will need you at some point. I'm counting on you big time, and so are the rest of your teammates.' ''

Losman is in a contract year, and no one is under any illusion he'll remain in Buffalo past 2008. When he takes the field this season, his performance will help determine the rest of his career.

"There's two ways he could go,'' Schonert said of Losman's '08 season. "He could prepare like he's a starter and be ready when called upon and produce. If so, he's going to make a lot of money for himself. Probably with some other team. But if he falters, he could ruin his career and make it hard for anyone to want him. But he's competitive and he'll be all right. He'll pull out of it. It's got to happen sooner than later that he gets focused.''

The Bills can't wait to throw the ball more this season to running back Marshawn Lynch. They didn't want to over-burden him as a rookie last year, but he could top last season's 18 receptions for 184 yards by the end of September.

"He's definitely ready for it,'' Jauron told me. "He's a very talented player and we've got to use him. He's a guy who understands that the game is to get the ball in the end zone, and he can do it from almost anywhere. So we've got to give him a lot of chances.''

I'm thinking Lynch could hang up some monster numbers this season. Maybe 1,300 yards on the ground, and another 700 through the air.

It's too early to tell if second-round pick James Hardy will be able to handle a major role in the Bills offense this season. More likely he'll be asked to use his height to contribute in the red zone, where he is just what the doctor ordered for a Buffalo team that has lacked size at the receiver position. The Bills will probably try to figure out the two or three things that Hardy does best, and then make those routes the focus of his rookie year.

"A big receiver can be open even when he's covered,'' said Jauron, adding he loves Hardy's work ethic and dedicated approach to the game. "You can throw him the ball high, and he can shield the defender with his body, and hold people off. And then in the red zone, which is really the only place on the field where the so-called jump ball comes into effect, I think he's got a chance to win some jump balls. We haven't had that.''

If there's a position that should be competitive throughout the preseason, it's tight end, where incumbent veteran Robert Royal is trying to hold off several competitors for the starting job. The Bills signed Courtney Anderson in free agency, and have drafted a pair of tight ends the past two years, Derek Schouman and Derek Fine.

Royal is returning from a knee injury that required surgery, and Schonert is eager to see someone make a clear-cut case for the first-team role.

"That's the area of our offense we've got to find out about, because we've got so many young guys there,'' Schonert said. "Of all the positions, that's the one that's the biggest question mark in my mind.''

NFL players normally do anything in their power to avoid the Turk. He's the guy on every team who comes and finds them on cut-down day, telling them to bring their playbook. But the Bills offensive players I talked to absolutely love playing for their Turk.

"I'm thrilled he's our offensive coordinator,'' said Evans, of Schonert, a longtime NFL assistant getting his first chance to coordinate an offense. "You know Turk's played the game, so it's not like somebody telling you something they've never done before. He has a confidence about him. He knows the game and that rubs off on you. He knows how to relate to players, how to communicate, and how to get things going. And his offense, it's very dynamic.''

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