Bills looking to end playoff drought
PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- Going on his fourth year in Buffalo, safety Aaron Williams is all too familiar with the cycle of emotions Bills players and fans endure during a season.
The high expectations elicited at the start of training camp in July are usually dashed by December with another losing record.
"Every year, everybody gets hyped-up for an incredible season, and then people get let down with a six-win season," Williams said upon reporting for the start of camp. "To me, I’m getting tired of it."
The Bills have lost much of their relevance during a 14-season run in which they’ve failed to make the playoffs -- the NFL’s longest active drought. They’ve not won more than six games since a 7-9 finish in 2008, and haven’t had a winning record since going 9-7 in 2004.
It’s no surprise to Williams that some already look at Buffalo as an afterthought.
"Everybody just thinks we’re the same old Bills," he said. "But we’re going to come out here with a new attitude and be aggressive and bring this city more wins."
There are indications of a turnaround being possible.
General manager Doug Whaley addressed the team’s biggest need this spring by adding talent to an offense that sputtered under rookie quarterback EJ Manuel. The boldest move came at the draft, when Whaley traded next year’s first-round selection to move up five spots and choose receiver Sammy Watkins fourth overall. He also acquired receiver Mike Williams and running back Bryce Brown in trades.
On defense, the team’s strength last season, the Bills added free agent linebackers Brandon Spikes and Keith Rivers. Questions marks remain on a unit that lost three-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd to free agency and is without starting linebacker Kiko Alonso, who sustained a season-ending knee injury this month.
Look for these things after Buffalo on Sunday became the NFL’s first team to open camp this summer:
STICKING WITH MANUEL: The Bills are staying with Manuel at quarterback, but the question remains for how long?
The 2013 first-round draft pick is coming off an inconsistent rookie season during which his development was slowed by three separate knee injuries. Manuel went 4-6 and showed signs of struggling even when healthy. He finished with 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
"I believe he has to take a step," Whaley said. "He doesn’t have to feel the weight of the world on his shoulders, and he has to go out and win. We’ve surrounded him with some people where, if he does his job, we should be OK."
Making quicker decisions in the pocket and taking command in the huddle are key issues for Manuel.
REPLACING KIKO: From playing every snap as a rookie, Alonso won’t see even one this year after tearing a ligament in his left knee while working out in Oregon.
That leaves a significant hole after the second-round pick led Buffalo with 159 tackles, two fumble recoveries, and tied for the team lead with four interceptions.
"Nobody’s going to feel sorry for you," defensive tackle Kyle Williams said. "We’ve drafted some guys, we’ve signed some guys. It’s next guy up."
The initial plan to fill Alonso’s spot is having a three-way competition between rookie third-round pick Preston Brown, third-year player Nigel Bradham and second-year player Ty Powell.
WATKINS WATCH: Watkins turned heads by showing glimpses of his dynamic potential during spring minicamps. He also showed an attention to detail by working on route-running techniques after practices.
Now it’s on the first-round pick to continue showing progress and building rapport with Manuel.
SCHWARTZ IN CHARGE: Former Lions coach Jim Schwartz takes over as defensive coordinator after Mike Pettine was hired to coach the Browns.
The defense thrived under Pettine’s aggressive approach last season by finishing second with 23 interceptions and a franchise-record 57 sacks. The Bills did struggle against the run, finishing 28th.
Schwartz has a less-aggressive philosophy when it comes to blitzing, and has a strong track record in devising schemes to stop the run.
FOR SALE: The Bills are on the market after Hall of Fame owner Ralph Wilson died in March.
The sale process is expected to ramp up next month when prospective ownership groups begin submitting bids to Wilson’s estate. A potential owner could be identified as early as the end of August.
Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula, and a Toronto-based group that includes rocker Jon Bon Jovi, are among the interested candidates.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.