Postcard from camp: Bills
On the bucolic campus of St. John Fisher College in Pittsford, N.Y., which Peter King earlier this week
But even that couldn't dampen the optimism here, as the Bills seem genuinely poised to make the leap at which they'd hinted during last season's 5-2 start. On Tuesday, running back Fred Jackson passed out 100 T-shirts to staff and teammates (well, most teammates; 331-pound DT Marcell Dareus requested a size XXXXL, which was one X more than Jackson had) that was emblazoned with a Shepard Fairey-like image of head coach Chan Gailey and the slogan, "YES WE CHAN." There are, indeed, many reasons to believe that Buffalo's first playoff appearance since 1999 is within reach.
Even more significant is the depth that the line now boasts, which seems to rival even that of the Giants. Dareus and Kyle Williams will ably clog the middle in the Bills' new 4-3 scheme, which will be orchestrated by new defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt. But backing up and spelling the starters will be experienced and talented veterans like Dwan Edwards, Chris Kelsay and Shawne Merriman -- who seems again healthy after having played in just eight games the past two seasons.
"I think probably one of the best things in the world for Shawne will be not to have to play every snap of every game," says Gailey. "Let him recover slowly from the injuries he's had, get out there, do what he does best -- rush the passer -- but not have to play 60 plays a game."
Buffalo produced just 29 sacks last season -- 10 in a single game, against the Redskins -- and a newly teeming line should lift its defense into the league's upper echelon.
For one, neither Thigpen nor Young has impressed in practice. More than that, though, is that Fitzpatrick has established himself as the team's unquestioned leader, and has worked with new quarterbacks coach David Lee to make sure he plays more like he did during the team's 5-2 start (when he threw 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions) than their 1-8 finish (when that differential flipped to 10:16).
"My footwork was all over the place," Fitzpatrick says. "I was not an accurate passer the second half of the year." Fitzpatrick and Lee have refined his mechanics, particularly as far as his footwork and hip rotation, and those changes will nicely complement his intelligence and drive for a full 16 games, at a minimum.
Of course, no one on the team is much inclined to give the clips-devouring Jets much bulletin board material, but the feeling is that the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Gilmore has the ability to immediately become the shutdown corner that Revis is for their rivals, and to further enhance the Bills' defensive renaissance. "Everything I see in Revis, I see in Gilmore," says wideout Stevie Johnson. "Of course, Revis does a few things better, and I think Gilmore has a few things that may be better than Revis. I can't say too much like that, because I don't want to put too much out there. But he's definitely going to be a shutdown corner. You definitely can tell."
Now, Johnson, 26, has a contract befitting a premier receiver -- for five years and $36.25 million ($19.5 million of which is guaranteed) -- and he knows he has room to improve so that he really becomes one. For example, he averaged just 4.5 yards after the catch last year, 40th among wideouts and a drop from his breakout 2010, when he ranked 22nd. "Whatever I can get out of it, I'm going to try to get it," he says. The Bills will need a lot out of Johnson, because while their receiving corps contains some promise -- such as in speedy rookie T.J. Graham -- it is on the whole thinner than other areas of the team.
The signing of Williams was a landmark in the franchise's history, and might have a long tail, as subsequent free agents who have traditionally not even considered the possibility of Buffalo might now follow his lead. His biggest impact, though, will be immediate, and on the field, as a team that had no player record more than 5.5 sacks in 2011 all of a sudden has one who had 5.0 in the five games in which he played last year, before he suffered a torn pectoral muscle.
The Bills have been blessed with the league's third-easiest schedule, and while their talent should ensure that they will not again suffer a late-season slide like last year's, so does their slate. Between Weeks 11 and Week 16, they play the Dolphins, Colts, Jaguars, Rams, Seahawks, and then the Dolphins again -- six eminently winnable games, four of which are at home in what should by then be a very chilly Buffalo. If they can enter that stretch at even 4-5 -- and their first nine games include visits to the Jets, 49ers and Texans, and both matchups with the Patriots -- they will be in prime position to finish at least 10-6. While that record likely will not win the AFC East, it should be good enough for a Wild Card. At the very least, the Bills will finally be relevant once more.