PITTSFORD, N.Y. — A visit to Bills training camp quickly reveals that Buffalo has assembled a pretty formidable nucleus of talent here at St. John Fisher College. But so far, a ton of it is standing on the sidelines this summer, watching the rest of the team begin its on-field preparation for the 2016 regular season.
For various reasons, observing the Bills early in camp this year means not seeing the likes of lead receiver Sammy Watkins (off-season foot surgery), first-round pick Shaq Lawson (shoulder surgery), defensive tackles Marcell Dareus (undisclosed medical issue) and Kyle Williams (knee surgery), running back Karlos Williams (conditioning), offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson (Crohn’s disease) and linebacker Manny Lawson (upper-body injury) partaking in the sweat-fest of practice. All told, there are 10 names on the Bills’ non-participation list, and there are a bevy of Pro Bowl berths represented on it.
So no wonder Buffalo’s camp feels kind of low-key and short on last year’s buzz and anticipation. There’s all that missing star power. Then again, an 8–8 finish last season and the novelty of head coach Rex Ryan’s heralded arrival having worn off is adding to the feeling of blandness so far. Not that anyone here seems to mind the distinct lack of buzz surrounding the Bills. Buffalo is taking an easy-does-it-approach in camp, in part to try and avoid the onslaught of injuries that bedeviled it last season.
“Our whole goal is to get that whole clump (of players) ready for the Sept. 11 opener in Baltimore,” Bills general manager Doug Whaley told me. “A lot of those guys, we already know what type of players they are, so let’s be smart with them. We’ve done it the other way, and last year we had a rash of injuries that bled into the season. So let’s take a different approach this season.”
Ryan has an interesting take on last year’s injury plague. He blames the team’s quarterback competition during last summer’s training camp for helping create the problem. The Bills had Tyrod Taylor, E.J. Manuel and Matt Cassel battling it out for the starting job, and often held offense versus defense team drills in multiple locations in order to maximize the snaps each quarterback received. That led to more injuries, Ryan said, and that’s not a problem the team will face this year with Taylor firmly established as the No. 1.
“We said we were going to give a true competition and we did,” Ryan said. “But how it affected our team, I think it hurt our team going through it. Obviously it wasn’t an ideal situation because we ended up having two-spot drills, and we did all that to increase the opportunity for our quarterbacks in particular to get reps. But at the same time it probably hurt us when we had some injuries, some small tissue injuries that we’re trying to avoid this year. This year we know who our quarterback is. So we’re taking the, Let’s be more patient approach [rather] than just jumping guys back in there.”
More news and notes from Bills camp
• Speaking of Taylor, all signs point to the club striking a long-term deal with its starting quarterback before the regular season opens, rather than making him play out his contract year. Whaley told me that while a deal wasn’t imminent, the indications are all positive that something will get done in the coming months. Bills sources paint the situation as just a matter of time before the two sides agree, and that’s a smart move, because Taylor definitely showed enough production and promise last season to warrant an investment in his future.
“The thing that makes you optimistic is we both want the same thing, to get a deal done that’s great for him and great for us,” Whaley said. “The lines of communication have been open and the frequency (of talks) has picked up. The timetable? No telling, but hopefully before the season starts.
“There’s no doubt about it, (Taylor’s) the unquestioned starter and has been that since the off-season program started. He’s got a great command of the offense, a greater comfortability factor practicing with the guys, and with his presence he’s taken a step in the leadership role as well.”
• It’s early August and Bills receiver Marquise Goodwin is back in Pittsford catching passes, when he dreamed instead of being in Rio de Janeiro competing in the long jump at the Olympics for the United States. But Goodwin, who missed the Bills’ off-season program training for the Olympic track and field trials, didn’t make the cut, finishing seventh, four spots behind the top three qualifiers for the Games. But he’s past the pain of that failure and ready to focus again on his battle to assert himself on Buffalo’s receiving depth chart, with a pivotal contract season looming. His NFL future could well be determined by his showing in 2016.
“I have no bad feelings about not making it, but obviously it was a little disappointing at first,” Goodwin said Tuesday morning, a day after leaving Bills practice with what he termed slight cramps. “You’ve just got to get over it. It’s not the end of the world. It’s not life or death for me. The results showed I finished in seventh place. I know we sent the best three from that day, but that’s just that day. The next day it could have been a different story. I prepared like I needed to and I competed like I needed to. It just didn’t fall in my favor. But mentally I’m at peace.”
And yes, Goodwin will watch as much of the Olympics as training camp schedules allow. “Three of my great friends are down there competing and representing our country,” he said. “I’m in daily contact with them, and I’m pretty sure they’ll make sure I feel like I’m there pretty much. They’ll keep me informed.”
• The Reggie Bush signing certainly makes sense for the Bills, who needed backfield depth in the wake of the four-game league suspension Karlos Williams will serve to open the season. But Buffalo went slowly with Bush, visiting with him Monday here to make sure he still had the strong desire to play, and also making certain to carefully explain Bush’s role to lead running back LeSean McCoy, who has been known to be a bit sensitive about any perceived slights.
Bush isn’t here to take any significant carries away from McCoy, but offensive coordinator Greg Roman is said to be entertaining some sets where both of them could be on the field at the same time, displaying their elusive running styles. But Buffalo’s dismal punt return unit is where Bush will show up first, and he was on the field Tuesday morning during a walkthrough practice fielding some punts.
While Bush returned 98 punts in the NFL from 2006–11 (with four touchdowns), the past four seasons he has added only two punt returns to his total, both coming last year in San Francisco. In other words, it’s been a while, so stay tuned for how much impact he can make on that front.
• I’ll have more from Bills special teams quality control coach Kathryn Smith later this summer, but this is all you really need to know about the first woman to serve as a full-time NFL assistant coach: She gets it. And she’s not in this game to make a statement. She just wants to do her job, and do it well. Case closed.
“I don’t laugh at the question of whether I’m a trailblazer, but I don’t feel that way,” Smith told me Tuesday, standing outside the team cafeteria. “There’s a lot of people, just because they’re men, who are taking the same path I am. They’re starting as interns, they’re starting as quality control coaches, and working their way up that way. I’m not looking at it as I’m doing anything different than at any of the 31 other teams and across sports and across any job really.
“I’m an entry-level coach. I’m trying to do the job, and hopefully there comes a time where it’s not, Oh, because I’m a female, we want to interview her, where the people that have that same position elsewhere aren’t being interviewed. To me, if I can work the way the men do, than there isn’t that difference of just because I’m a female I’m doing interviews, I’m being asked all these questions, when I’m an-entry level coach. I’m quality control. I’m busy. I’ve got a lot of stuff to do to help this football team.”
See what I mean? You go, girl.
• The Bills secondary needs safety Aaron Williams to be the player he has been in the past, and he made it through his first padded practice Monday since undergoing very serious neck surgery last season. But nobody really knows when he’ll be able to fully trust his body again and cut it loose in his typical hard-hitting style. Ryan said he thinks it’ll come when the Bills hold an intra-squad scrimmage on Friday. Whaley said it’s likely to be in the team’s first preseason game next week. Bills safeties coach Ed Reed said he doesn’t see any sign of tentativeness from Williams, but the player himself admits he is being careful about contact thus far.
“It’s just if I can’t do a certain drill, I’ll ask coach, Do I have to do this or not?’’ Williams said. “But for the most part I try to be cautious about contact right now.”
Williams underwent tests on his neck before the surgery, and if the results were different, his football career would have been over. Having stared into that abyss, he’s back now. But we won’t know if he’s all the way back until we see Williams hit, and be hit.
Five questions with assistant secondary coach Ed Reed
Q1: There’s a cliche in sports that says great players don’t make great coaches, because they have a hard time getting players with lesser talent to understand and duplicate the way they played the game. Are you finding any part of that thinking true?
ER: I don’t think that’s the real reason why, but I don’t understand why coaches don’t make it. I don’t think that’s the reason. I really do know why (coaches don’t make it), but I know that’s not the reason. You can’t teach them how to do it the way you’ve done it, you teach them as best you can what they’re supposed to do, and give your advice. I don’t tell them I used to do it like this or I used to do it like that. I tell them the technique that should be played on that play.
Q2: As a future Hall of Famer, what made you want to leave a cushy gig like co-hosting Inside the NFL on Showtime and get back out here and put in the long hours of an assistant coach, coaching Bills safeties?
ER: It’s always intrigued me, coaching. And I didn’t really leave Showtime. I’m still part of the (Inside the NFL) team. If they call me, I told them I’d still be on call, for a guest appearance. They know if they need me [they can call], but I’m not doing the weekly thing (like Jets receiver Brandon Marshall). That’s a little bit different commitment. Should you be able to do that as a player? If your focus is your job?
But I’m under contract technically with those guys, and I mentioned it to the organization and to Rex before I even signed for this job, that I’m still under contract and if they call, coach, that’s something I still aspire to do. And I left it that way with the producers, so they know.
Q3: Rex Ryan was quoted saying you could be an NFL head coach in five years if you want that. Is that something you’re after?
ER: I think it’ll happen a lot sooner than that. I know exactly what it takes, but there’s also a learning process within that. Whenever the offer presents itself, I would welcome the opportunity. It’s something I aspire to, and it’s a goal of mine. But if it don’t come, it don’t come. It’s not something I’m pressing for right now. My focus right now is to be the best assistant defensive backs coach I can be.
But I’ve been around a lot of head coaches. I’ve learned a lot from Brian Billick. I learned a lot from Coach (John) Harbaugh. I learned a lot from Rex. I learned a lot from being around Coach (Gary) Kubiak (in Houston). I’ve been around Curtis Johnson, Chuck Pagano, Mike Smith, Mike Pettine, guys who went from being an assistant to being a head coach. If you check the tree that I come from, I’ve been around a lot of head coaches.
Q4: Sources say you did a mean version of Prince’s “Purple Rain” on one recent karaoke night out with some fellow members of the Bills organization. Would that be Baltimore Ravens purple, or as a tribute to Prince’s Minnesota roots, Vikings purple?
ER: Yeah, man, you know, compliments to the great one. But it’s always Ravens purple, never a Vikings purple.
Q5: Sources also say your 8-year-old son, Edward, is a Patriots fan, which can not make him popular with Bills fans. So how did he feel about the “Free Tom Brady” campaign?
ER: He’s a Pats fans when we’re not playing. And he was cool about Brady. I explained it to him, that there are right and wrong things in life. There are things you can do, things you can’t do. You gotta teach him. I use any situation where you can teach kids, because you gotta use that. It’s about right and wrong, and there are consequences to every action.
Biggest Turnaround: The Bills’ practice to avoid penalties
Buffalo was the most penalized (some would say most undisciplined) team in the league last season, and Ryan wants that sloppiness to end, pronto. So he has instituted a few penalties of his own in camp this season, and they include immediately running a lap around the practice field if you commit a foul of some kind. Even veteran center and team leader Eric Wood had to suck it up and make the galling jog mid-workout Monday morning.
It’s not the most original form of corrective motivation, but, hey, if it works...
“We felt last year we had way too many self-inflicted penalties,” Ryan said. “It’s something we thought was important, to eliminate those type of penalties, the offsides, the pre-snap deals and the false starts, and the late hits. We want to be as physical a football team as we can within the confinement of the rules.”
Why laps? “We’ve done push-ups in the past,” Ryan said. “But I was like, You know what? The greatest motivator for me when I was playing was I hated to do that lap. It’s embarrassing. It was something that gasses you, and by the time you get back in there you’re kind of gassed a little bit. So if we can get better just a little bit in those areas, that will help us.”
Drawing Some Buzz: Stephon Gilmore
One of the few Bills stars who has been in action and making his presence felt so far in camp is fifth-year cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who has picked off a pair of passes in 11-on-11 team drills. Gilmore, the team’s first-round pick in 2012, is playing for a long-term contract this season, and Ryan said he seems determined to take his “game to a higher level.”
And part of that higher level might be Gilmore’s intention to get a higher salary than the five-year, $75 million deal ex-Carolina cornerback Josh Norman signed with Washington this spring.
“He’s been a tremendous player, but I see his game is actually improving,” Ryan said, doing the work of Gilmore’s agent. “It looks to me, he’s been by far and away the most impressive guy out here.”