- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- Buffalo Bills general manager Buddy Nix and coach Chan Gailey are not afraid.
Both know this is a huge year in Buffalo. On paper, this is the best Bills team Gailey has coached and the best group Nix has put together. Many are expecting a playoff year from the Bills, who haven't made the postseason in 13 years.
This is new territory for Buffalo. For more than a decade, the Bills have been lovable losers. They finished 6-10 and last in the AFC East in 2011. But a stellar offseason has breathed new life into the franchise and created new expectations.
"We're not backing off from [expectations]. We expect to win and we expect to contend," Nix told the AFC East blog. "I think sometimes when you're afraid to say you expect that is because you're preparing yourself to lose. We're not afraid to say it. We've laid some groundwork for two years, and we're to the point now where we need to take the next step."
The groundwork included landing the top free agent not named Peyton Manning: defensive end Mario Williams. Buffalo also signed 10-sack defensive end Mark Anderson, re-signed No. 1 receiver Steve Johnson and drafted highly touted cornerback Stephon Gilmore and potential starting left tackle Cordy Glenn.
Buffalo did a great job putting a deep and talented roster together. The front office bought quality groceries. Now, it's time for Gailey and his coaching staff to cook a good meal.
"That's exactly right," Gailey said, responding to the metaphor. "That's my job: to get us to a winning program and playoffs and a championship."
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Will Mario Williams live up to top billing? Williams and Gailey have a lot in common. Both are under pressure to produce in 2012. But Williams is also under the microscope due to the $100 million contract ($50 million guaranteed) he signed in March, the biggest contract in Bills history.
With that comes the expectation of double-digit sacks and game-changing plays. That is what Williams does best, and he said he's "ecstatic" to wreak havoc in Buffalo this year. But Williams, a former Houston Texan, is returning from a season-ending pectoral injury and must stay healthy.
Williams certainly looks the part. He checked in at 292 pounds and is a mountain of muscle. He adds an intimidating presence to the Bills' defense.
In many ways, the Bills have built their defense around Williams. They switched back to a 4-3 scheme, which better suits Williams' strengths. Buffalo will plug Anderson in on the other side to take some of the pressure off Williams.
2. Will Ryan Fitzpatrick be consistent? Fitzpatrick’s career has been marked with inconsistency. He is one of the streakiest quarterbacks in the NFL, one who can get really hot or really cold at any moment. Fitzpatrick led the NFL with 23 interceptions last season.
Bills quarterbacks coach David Lee believes the streakiness is due to inconsistent fundamentals. Lee and Fitzpatrick worked extensively on mechanics this offseason to reduce the number of bad games.
"At this point I feel like it is easy to have better mechanics, but it is when you get into the games that it is really going to be the test for me," Fitzpatrick said. "And not just Week 1 through Week 5. It is going to be the whole season."
Fitzpatrick's streakiness was on display in practice Tuesday. On one play in team drills, he threw a beautiful deep ball to receiver Derek Hagan for a touchdown. Fitzpatrick then threw an interception into coverage on the next play.
By nature, Fitzpatrick is a gunslinger. But reduced turnovers will put the defense in better position and it could produce more wins for the Bills. A lot is riding on Fitzpatrick this season. The Bills recently gave him a $59 million contract, and it's time to prove he can lead a franchise.
3. Can Buffalo win in the AFC East? The biggest thorn in the side of the Bills has been their division rivals. Buffalo is just 2-10 against the AFC East the past two years.
The Bills can't quite put a finger on the reason. Part of it was inconsistency, part was lack of toughness. Another part was missed opportunities.
"They were better than us, but we gotta change that," Nix said candidly. "We hadn’t measured up in the two years we’d been here, even though if we could’ve stayed healthy I thought we could’ve been in contention at the end. I felt all along we could win nine or 10 games if we could keep everybody healthy. But we didn’t have a lot of depth anyway, and the ones we lost were our best leaders."
The gap between the New England Patriots and everyone else in the AFC East appears wide. No team outside of New England finished with a winning record last year. However, the Bills are confident they did enough this offseason to close the gap. Part of that confidence is due to splitting with New England last season.
"We still feel like we should win the division -- every team does," Gailey said. "Miami feels that way. The Jets feel that way. The Patriots feel that way. That's the goal going in."
Reason for optimism
Buffalo's defensive line should be one of the best in the NFL. Defensive tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams are paired with defensive ends Mario Williams and Anderson. That's a lot of money and high draft picks invested in rushing the quarterback and winning in the trenches.
But the starting defensive linemen aren't the only quality players. Buffalo has a deep bench, led by backup defensive ends Chris Kelsay and Shawne Merriman and backup defensive tackle Dwan Edwards. The rotation along the defensive line should wear down many opposing offensive lines.
"I feel like everybody on our defensive line could be a starter one way or the other, whether it is here or somewhere else," Mario Williams said. "Our competition level is extremely high. Every day we are pushed and we push each other. We hold each other accountable. I think that is the biggest thing."
Reason for pessimism
Buffalo is a team still learning how to win and is fighting plenty of bad history. As noted, it's been 13 years since Buffalo qualified for the postseason, a playoff run that was ended by the Music City Miracle.
It takes a lot of focus, maturity and consistency to win throughout a 16-game season. Past Bills teams lacked those traits. Once things went downhill, it was too easy for Buffalo to fall back into the "same old Bills" mentality.
Buffalo had a little taste of success last year. The Bills started 5-2 and were in first place in the AFC East. But things turned sour quickly and the losing snowballed. Buffalo lost eight of its last nine games and finished last in the division.
The Bills were the unexpected media darlings of the NFL for a couple weeks before things fell apart.
"You learn how to take that with a grain of salt, because it’s what you do on Sundays that count," Gailey said. "I hope we learned that lesson. I hope we learned not to let that affect our play and our thought processes in any way."
The Bills said they have a better plan for tailback C.J. Spiller this season. He was mostly ignored as a running back until starter Fred Jackson was put on injured reserve with a broken leg. But Spiller, a former first-round pick, is getting more carries in practice and looks sharp heading into his third season. He broke a couple of big runs in Tuesday's practice. Expect Spiller to get more carries this season, but it's still going to be a major challenge taking Jackson off the field.
The early reviews are in, and Gilmore looks legit. He's fluid and a good athlete. But perhaps the best thing about Gilmore, the No. 10 overall pick in the draft, is his competitiveness. Gilmore has lined up against Johnson, Buffalo's No. 1 receiver, at every chance in practice. The rookie wants to go against the best the team has to offer, and at times things have gotten physical between the two. Gilmore might already be Buffalo's best cornerback.
Speaking of cornerbacks, I would be surprised if longtime Bills corner Terrence McGee makes this team. McGee has been a leader and a consummate professional in Buffalo for nine years. But a youth movement at cornerback and many injuries could mean McGee's days are numbered. He's missed at least five games in each of the past three seasons. A season-ending knee injury forced McGee to miss 10 games in 2011 and he's still not 100 percent. He could bring leadership and depth to the secondary when healthy, but he may not get enough time on the field in camp or the preseason to show he's worthy of making the 53-man roster.
The Bills are definitely a bigger team. They have 23 players on their roster who weigh 300 pounds or more; at 292 pounds, just misses making the 300-pound club. Not all are going to make the team, but Buffalo has made it a point to get quality depth in the trenches.
I didn’t really see much separation between the backup quarterbacks. Vince Young and Tyler Thigpen are battling for the No. 2 spot, and the loser of this battle may not make the team because Brad Smith also is getting a lot of work at quarterback. Young and Thigpen made some good and bad throws Tuesday. This duel likely will be decided in the preseason.