The giddiness that greeted the arrival of quarterback Drew Bledsoe in Buffalo two years ago--"the over-the-top parades," as he puts it--has subsided. The stands at training camp were only half to three-quarters full this summer, and the crowds were surprisingly subdued. That's what happens after a 6--10 season, one that cost coach Gregg Williams his job. Taking over is Mike Mularkey, who spent nine years in the league as a player and 10 as an assistant coach, including the last three as the Steelers' offensive coordinator.
"At least no one's booing," says Bledsoe, acquired in a trade with the Patriots in April 2002. "Talk about loyal fans. We owe them something this year."
So Bledsoe reported to camp at 228 pounds, "the lightest since my freshman year in college," he says. Bledsoe is still only 32, but let's face it, he'll never be considered mobile. When his protection broke down (as it often did), and when go-to receiver Eric Moulds suffered a slight tear in his groin and was hobbled for most of the season, things fell apart last year. Bledsoe's 73.0 passer rating was his lowest since 1995.
So this year the Bills spent the 13th pick in the draft on a breathtakingly fast and, as they've discovered in camp, sure-handed wide receiver out of Wisconsin, Lee Evans. He is expected to take pressure off Moulds, who has had to be a flier and a possession receiver. "It's going to be a big year for wideouts in Buffalo," says Moulds. "I talked to [Pittsburgh wideout] Hines Ward in the off-season, and he said, 'You're going to love Coach Mularkey's system. It gave me over 300 catches in the three years he was coordinator.'"
The Steelers also ran a lot of smashmouth with Jerome Bettis, but opponents always had to be on the alert for the trick play. Pittsburgh once ran a play with no quarterback on the field and a flanker under center, with everybody breaking for the sidelines. Mularkey also designed a series of plays out of the old double-wing formation. "You need the personnel to make that stuff work" he says. "In Pittsburgh we had Kordell Stewart and Hines and Antwaan Randle El. Pretty good little package, huh? Here? Well, you never know. The other day I watched [wideout] Bobby Shaw goofing around, and I said, 'You ever play quarterback?' He said, 'Why?' I said, 'Just curious.'"
Bledsoe, the quarterback who figures to take almost all of the snaps, was sacked more times (49) than any other passer in the league last season, so Mularkey brought in 60-year-old Jim McNally as line coach. McNally is considered among the best in the business--he worked with Hall of Fame tackle Anthony Mu√±oz in Cincinnati in the 1980s--but he is coming off a bad year with the Giants, who expected him to work miracles with a subpar unit. McNally has more to work with in Buffalo. His biggest challenge might be getting the most out of right tackle Mike Williams, who has been mostly a disappointment since being selected with the fourth pick in the 2002 draft. In an attempt to motivate Williams, the Bills demoted him to second team at the start of camp. Though bothered by a sore arch, Williams pleased Mularkey with his conditioning work, and he was quickly back with the starting unit.
Motivation won't be a problem for Travis Henry, a 5'9", 215-pound bundle of dynamite who ran for 1,356 yards in 2003 despite playing part of the season on a cracked fibula. During training camp Henry repeatedly answered questions about sharing time with Willis McGahee, the team's No. 1 draft pick in 2003, who sat out last season after suffering a crippling knee injury in his last game as a collegian, in January '03. The 25-year-old Henry is a prideful athlete, one of the most feared backs in the league, and his jaw sets as he repeats, "I'm proud of everything I've accomplished with this team."
Henry, who was slowed by bruised ribs during the preseason, will continue to get his carries, but the Bills are also high on McGahee, who has shown flashes of his old self during the preseason. Regardless of whoever carries the ball, the Bills should have enough weapons to win with if the offensive line holds up. If not, McGahee will at least give Buffalo fans a glimpse of the future. --P.Z.
> A 2003 fourthround draft pick out of Northwestern State (La.), cornerback TERRENCE MCGEE intercepted two passes as a rookie and started a pair of games. At training camp this year, the 5'9", 195-pound McGee turned heads with his athleticism. The Bills plan to use him in multiple coverages as a nickelback.
ENEMY LINES An opposing scout's view
You've got to wonder about Drew Bledsoe. His career quarterback rating is 76.7, and in the playoffs it drops to 54.9. He's not getting any nimbler, and I don't really think too much of their offensive line.... [Club president] Tom Donahoe has to prove himself this season. O.K., he got killed by the salary cap his first year , but what has he done since? This has got to be a winning season or the finger points to him.... I like their wideouts. Eric Moulds is a great player, and so is their running back, Travis Henry, although he's about ready to explode, with everyone constantly asking him how he likes sharing the load with Willis McGahee.... Defensively, they've gotten by. Their ends are all the same type, high-motor guys. Their two big tackles, Sam Adams and Pat Williams, will stuff the run for a series or two, but they tire quickly, and you've got to give them plenty of relief. I like their linebackers and secondary.... The Bills will be O.K. because their defense is solid, but not if they keep turning the ball over. And if they don't find a way to protect Bledsoe, that's what's going to happen.
They'll be O.K. because their defense is solid, but not if they keep turning the ball over.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2003 statistics
2003 RECORD: 6--10
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total):
COACH: Mike Mularkey; first season as an NFL head coach
19 at Oakland
26 Open date
3 NEW ENGLAND
10 at N.Y. Jets
24 at Baltimore
7 N.Y. JETS
14 at New England
21 ST. LOUIS
28 at Seattle
5 at Miami
19 at Cincinnati
26 at San Francisco
NFL rank: T-7 Opponents' 2003 winning percentage: .512 Games against playoff teams: 6