It's hard not to feel optimistic when it's a sunny August day and you're in Pittsford, N.Y., on the campus of St. John Fisher College, the Bills' training camp home for the 12th straight year and home of what has to be in the running for the best training camp cafeteria in the league (ask any player about the stir fry station). Of course, that optimism must always be of the guarded variety, as Buffalo's 11 previous training camps at St. John Fisher have resulted in a single winning season, and no playoff appearances. Still, the Bills have clearly improved in certain areas -- particularly as far as their defense's front seven and the breadth of their offensive weapons. Even if the playoffs might again not be in the cards in a top-heavy division, things are at least trending in the proper direction. And, you know, the food's good.
The presence of former Charger Shawne Merriman, finally healthy after injuries marred the last three seasons, should help. Merriman has been active and disruptive in practice, and head coach Chan Gailey's main concern is to make sure Merriman lasts through the regular season, by giving him sessions off here and there. "I have seen flashes of the old Shawne Merriman," says Gailey. "I think that what we're trying to do is make sure he gets to Sept. 11 with a consistent amount of those flashes."
Merriman should have little trouble becoming the second Bills defender since the turn of the millennium to record more than 6.5 sacks in a season, and he could have many more than that.
Gailey plans to use Smith in much the same way he used Kordell Stewart with the Steelers in 1996 -- as a regular passing, running and receiving threat. "The difference between Kordell and Brad is, Brad's got four or five years of experience," says Gailey. "I think Brad's able to handle a lot more in the first year of our Wildcat than what we did with Kordell that year."
Time will tell whether it will make a real difference in the Bills' overall production, but it ought to be a fascinating experiment.
"Stevie, the way he's worked this offseason, the way he's worked in training camp, he wants to be the guy," says quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who will look Johnson's way more than ever after longtime deep threat Lee Evans was traded to the Ravens last week. "He's just hard to cover. He's slippery, he's a smart receiver, he's big. Especially once we get down to the red zone, people have a hard time covering him one on one."
Open spaces so that he can best take advantage of his agility and speed and also, presumably, so that he will have to less rely upon an offensive line that remains shaky and unsettled.
Barnett's antipathy toward the bright lights was fortunate for Buffalo, sometimes a difficult place to lure free agents to. He is a proven run-stopper with six 100-plus tackle seasons to his credit, and he and the Bills' 343-pound No. 3 overall pick, Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, should help ensure that their run defense will no longer be the league's most porous, if not better than average.
A 5-11 record is a distinct possibility. Buffalo might well win just one intradivision game, when it hosts Miami on Dec. 18, but matchups versus Oakland (Week 2), at Cincinnati (Week 4), versus Washington (Week 8), and versus Denver (Week 16) look promising. The result will be a seventh straight losing season, but at least it will represent a slight improvement on 2010's 4-12 finish.