Huge banners celebrating the Bills four Super Bowl appearances hang in the field house. Motivational quotes adorn the walls of the locker room and weight room, reminding players and coaches that their “future is created by what you do today - not tomorrow.” A six-foot tall photo of the Vince Lombardi Trophy is plastered on a wall in the team meeting room.
The words and symbols are all part of Doug Marrone’s motivational campaign to change the culture of losing that has infested this franchise since its last playoff appearance at the turn of the century.
Marrone knows all about culture changes. He was the offensive coordinator when the New Orleans Saints overcame the devastation of Hurricane Katrina to become Super Bowl champs. And he spent the past four seasons as the head coach at Syracuse University, helping raise that football program from the ashes to two-time Pinstripe Bowl champions.
Now, he faces the daunting challenge of resurrecting a franchise that hasn’t had a winning season in eight years and hasn’t fielded a playoff team in 13 years.
I think he will accomplish what predecessors Gregg Williams, Mike Mularkey, Dick Jauron and Chan Gailey weren’t able to. But it most likely won’t happen this season, unless rookie quarterback EJ Manuel winds up having an immediate, transformative season like 2012 rookie QBs Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson did in their first NFL seasons.
As training camp begins at St. John Fisher College, we look at what must go right for the Bills to end their winning-season and playoff drought.
It all starts with the quarterback. Veteran journey man Kevin Kolb is hoping to resurrect his career in Buffalo and enters camp with a slight edge over Manuel, a big, athletic QB who still is somewhat raw. There will be great pressure to play EJ immediately, but unless he makes a quantum leap in camp, Marrone and his offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett may opt to go with an NFL veteran to tide them over until Manuel is ready.
Get the ball in C.J. Spiller’s hands often. He’s become one of the most dynamic playmakers in the game, but, for some strange reason, Gailey limited Spiller’s touches. That won’t be the case with the new regime. Expect Spiller to get many more chances to hit home runs.
Discover a speed receiver to take the extra coverage off of Stevie Johnson. T.J. Graham disappointed in his rookie season, but has looked much better this spring. He will be pushed by rookie Robert Wood, the USC burner who caught 11 touchdown passes during his senior season.
Find linebackers who can make game-changing plays. New defensive coordinator Mike Pettine favors an attacking style and swift athletic linebackers play a big role in his schemes. Nigel Bradham showed some promise last season and has looked sharp in spring workouts, as has Kiko Alonso, the rookie out of Oregon. The Bills really haven’t fielded a big, play-making linebacker since Takeo Spikes a decade ago. Bradham and Alonso have the potential to end that drought.
Receive solid, healthy years out of defensive tackles Marcel Dareus and Kyle Williams. Dareus had to deal with the death of his brother last season and wound up enduring a sophomore slump. There’s no reason to think he won’t bounce back in 2013. Effort has never been a problem with Williams, but the injuries have begun to mount and that’s a major concern. The Bills need these two to perform at a high level in order to bolster a defense that was pathetic last year against the run.
Plug the big hole left by the departure of Andy Levitre. The left guard was the Bills most versatile offensive lineman, able to fill in at several other positions. Colin Brown was being counted upon to take over at left guard, but he’s going to be seriously challenged by former Pittsburgh lineman Doug Legursky.
Embrace Hackett’s up-temp offense. The Bills are going to speed up the pace on offense, something I was lobbying for Gailey to do last year. They’ve been working on the hurry-up throughout OTAs and mini-camps. Look for that to continue.
Get safety Jairus Byrd in uniform as quickly as possible. He’s holding out after being assigned the franchise tag. I think he’ll sit out much of camp, and that's not a good thing because he has a new defense to learn.
Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak has covered the Bills since 1985 and followed the team since the late 1960s. His new book with Steve Tasker will be published in August.
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