Don't go changing: Bills show faith in O

May, 18, 2011
5/18/11
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At some point, the unlikely collection of NFL teammates struck somebody as unusual, and they began to sort out who the highest draft pick was.

Together last month for a mini passing camp near quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's home in Arizona, eight Buffalo Bills players laughed about their long-shot backgrounds.

Sophomore receiver Marcus Easley was the closest thing to a bonus baby, and he was a fourth-round draft choice with zero NFL games. So who was next in line? Backup quarterback Levi Brown was the answer, a seventh-round pick last year, 209th overall, and unable to make the roster out of training camp.

Bills practice
Courtesy of David NelsonBills players (L to R) Naaman Roosevelt, Levi Brown, Steve Johnson, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Fred Jackson, David Nelson, Donald Jones and Marcus Easley pose for a picture following a workout last month.
Wide receiver Steve Johnson went 224th, Fitzpatrick 250th. Running back Fred Jackson and receivers David Nelson, Donald Jones and Naaman Roosevelt weren't drafted at all.

"This is testament of who we are as a group," Nelson said Tuesday night from his home in Dallas. "We all believe in each other. We all push each other. We all compete with each other. We know we're against the odds. We're a bunch of guys nobody gave a chance to."

The Bills have a couple of first-rounders in their offense who didn't attend the workouts. Running back C.J. Spiller and receiver Lee Evans are important components, but it's impressive to consider such a big contingent of overlooked players making up a team's offensive core.

Nelson and the rest of that gang can speak with a little more conviction about their futures in Buffalo now. When they gathered for some casual workouts, there was plenty of doubt about the direction of the offense.

The draft hadn't taken place yet, and the Bills owned the third and 34th selections. There was considerable talk about a quarterback being a serious option. If Auburn star Cam Newton still were on the board, could the Bills pass him up? Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert might have been a possibility, and it was anybody's guess who would still be on the board in the second round.

"I'm sure Fitz was bracing for something," Jackson said Tuesday of the pre-draft mood. "Everybody had to be."

One thing was for sure among the Bills' players: They were rooting for the front office to stand pat at quarterback.

"We've been talking about it as a receiver group for a while," Nelson said. "We were hoping that they would stay away from quarterbacks in the draft because we have all the confidence in the world in Fitz and what he can do. We like the direction we're headed in with him."

The Bills gave their offensive players a major vote of confidence last month. Of their nine draft choices, only two play offense. They drafted Clemson tackle Chris Hairston in the fourth round and North Carolina running back Johnny White in the fifth round.

The Bills will acquire more offensive players whenever free agency dawns. General manager Buddy Nix has said they will sign another quarterback, but the club sent a strong message about Fitzpatrick's standing when they didn't draft one.

"They showed they have a lot of faith in Fitz," Jackson said. "Me and my teammates all have a lot of faith in him, too. We're excited about that. I'm looking forward to working with him and trying to build on what we did last year and making that playoff push."

Fitzpatrick and Jackson will enter the 2011 season with substantially more juice than they had last summer. Both of them were considered backups.

"You have to say that it had some kind of affect on us," Jackson said. "We weren't on the same page when we got in the lineup, but that's part of the game, and we have to adjust.

"It does hurt to not get the reps, but as long as you mentally prepare like you are the No. 1 guy, you can hit the ground running. Hopefully, now we can get those reps and go into this season as the No. 1 guys and put this team on our shoulders and make some plays."

[+] EnlargeRyan Fitzpatrick
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesThe Bills are confident in Ryan Fitzpatrick's ability to lead the team.
Fitzpatrick won over the Bills' locker room and much of their fan base last year. Trent Edwards' presence had worn thin everywhere. The man known as "Captain Checkdown" was uninspiring at best. He was frequently injured and rarely showed a hint of nerve.

New coach Chan Gailey backed him in the beginning. Edwards took most of the offseason reps and was named the No. 1 quarterback when training camp opened. Edwards started all four preseason games.

Fitzpatrick, Brown and Brian Brohm fought over the scraps. Fitzpatrick attempted 23 passes before the season.

Asked at the NFL scouting combine in February whether he regretted those decisions, Gailey replied, "Shoot, yeah. If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn't have done that."

At 0-2, the Bills made an abrupt change. They waived Edwards.

Fitzpatrick was a jolt to the huddle, to the Ralph Wilson Stadium crowd, to the community. He grew a bird's-nest beard and called himself the "Amish Rifle." He wore his wedding ring during games. He actually threw the ball downfield.

He made the games entertaining again, even the defeats. Fans forgave him for occasional reckless interceptions.

Jackson was in a similar situation despite rushing for more than 1,000 yards the previous season.

He was in a crowded backfield with Marshawn Lynch and hotshot rookie Spiller and didn't start the first four games, carrying the ball 20 times for 87 yards through the first quarter of the season.

When the Bills traded Lynch for a 2011 fourth-round draft choice and a conditional 2012 sixth-round pick, the door opened for Jackson again.

"Right now, I feel like I'm the No. 1 guy and C.J. will come in and get a lot of plays," Jackson said. "I feel like I'm going to be the guy that's carrying the load and has got to make that running game go.

"I'm sure C.J.'s working hard and will [have] the opportunities as well, but I just got to shoulder the load and take the pressure off Fitz and make us a balanced offense. I want to be that guy."

Spiller generated preseason buzz for rookie of the year honors, but he had a disappointing campaign (283 rushing yards and no touchdowns, 157 receiving yards and one touchdown) and still has much to prove.

Jackson rushed for 614 yards in the second half of the season, tying with Ray Rice for sixth in the NFL in that span. The running backs ahead of them were Arian Foster, Jamaal Charles, Maurice Jones-Drew, Chris Johnson and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Nice company.

The Bills ranked 25th in total offense, 18th in run offense and 24th in pass offense. Not too swift compared to the rest of the NFL.

But all of their best offensive superlatives in 15 categories (points, first downs, yards, etc.) happened Oct. 24 or later. The same can be said about individual player superlatives, aside from Fitzpatrick's 71.4 completion percentage in Week 3 against the New England Patriots.

The Bills obviously found enough there to make a commitment, and the players aren't crying for help. They're thrilled the group will stay together.

"We did some good things on offense last year," Jackson said. "We feel like if we could get back on the field healthy and get another crack at this thing, we'll continue to have some success."

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