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BUFFALO, N.Y. -- I can't say I'm surprised.
In honor of making my first visit to Buffalo Bills training camp and then their exhibition Thursday night in Toronto, I made one request for Bills fans to submit their questions and comments for this week's AFC East mailbag.
The response was amazing. Seventy-two questions came in over four days, and all but six of them were about the Bills. There was one Dolphins question, one Patriots question, one Jets question and three complaints that I write about Brett Favre too much.
So let me answer the non-Bills questions now: Jerod Mayo appears to be gaining Bill Belichick's trust and could be an immediate contributor; Vernon Gholston looks very uncomfortable when he's not in a three-point stance but he's making strides; Chad Pennington could put Miami in the five- or six-win range.
The rest of this mailbag is dedicated to the Bills because their fans came out strong.
While I read every question, answering each would get repetitive for you to sort through. I received many questions several times over. The most popular subjects were the holdout of Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters (13 questions), Buffalo's playoff chances (seven), the potential for a quarterback controversy after the first preseason game (four), what we can expect from Trent Edwards (three) and how good linebacker Paul Posluszny looks (three).
Matt in Rochester writes: Every year in Western New York there is a sense of hope and promise this is the year the Bills will finally make the playoffs for the first time since the Doug Flutie era. You have gone out on a limb to predict that the Bills will finally make the playoffs (pre-Favre trade). What makes the difference this year?
Tim Graham: Thanks for following my blog, Matt. You're right that I picked the Bills to make the playoffs before the Favre trade -- and before we knew the Jason Peters holdout would drag out so long.
I'm not totally backing off that prediction because I think the Bills have playoff-worthy talent. I just look at the various components and see a 7-9 team that will be better at every position. They clearly were the second-best team in the AFC East last year, and I think they're capable of 9-7 or 10-6 if their youth decides to make a statement.
Mark in Syracuse writes: I am personally drained by the Favre saga, but does having him play for the Jets kill the chance of the Bills to possibly make a run at a wild card spot?
Tim Graham: Favre doesn't totally snuff the Bills' hopes for the wild card, but he makes it harder. With Chad Pennington or Kellen Clemens at quarterback, the Bills had an excellent shot at going 4-0 against the Jets and Dolphins. Now, with Favre to the Jets (and Pennington on the Dolphins), those gimme games got tougher.
Jim in Nashville writes: I need to understand the issue with Jason Peters. It seems that there is more than just a holdout here. I've been a Bills fan for 30 years and don't remember the last time they drew a line in the sand with an important player. Bruce Smith was crucial and whined a lot about money and the more they paid him the better he played. It's obvious we need Peters. Why waste another year on "potential" alone? The Bills need to make some noise.
Tim Graham: I hear you, Jim. This holdout should be worrisome for Bills fans. I think the Bills are drawing a line because they're a small-market team that hasn't made the playoffs since the 1999 season. There's not a lot of extra postseason cash lying around like there was in the Super Bowl years -- as evidenced by their need to outsource games to Toronto. The Bills need to stand firm with Peters for the same reason the police don't negotiate with kidnappers. Buckle once, and everybody knows you might again. The Bills can't afford to reward that approach.
Jason in Rochester writes: The Bills played a preseason game against the Redskins on Saturday. While it wasn't impressive, it was more interesting than 5,000 words on a lap by Favre, don't ya think?
Tim Graham: I saw that first preseason game. Sorry. Favre's penalty lap was more interesting and, thankfully, it was over with much sooner.
Joe in Harrisburg, Pa., writes: That was some good stuff from Kawika Mitchell about the Bills' defense, which I am hoping can rebound from an injury plagued campaign. What can you tell us about the linebacking corps? Posluszny looked great in his first two games last year, does he appear to back to full speed with no signs of injury to his arm?
Tim Graham: Posluszny is going to be a stud. You don't need to worry about him. The addition of Mitchell adds a lot of size to the position (he's 25 pounds heavier than Keith Ellison). Angelo Crowell rounds out a formidable trio.
That said, depth is a concern. John DiGiorgio started 14 games last year, but is a significant dropoff from Posluszny. Donnie Spragan wasn't good enough to be an every-down player for the 1-15 Dolphins last year.
The player who might help the linebackers most of all is new defensive tackle Marcus Stroud, who will command double teams and keep offensive linemen off them that much more.
Chris in Reston, Va., writes: J.P. Losman must be the best and most promising of the group of young quarterback's who've been tossed aside on the scrap heap. Please tell me he's got an outside shot at the starting spot in Buffalo, especially after his lights-out performance in their opening preseason game.
Tim Graham: I'm answering the mailbag on Friday, so the Bills have played another game since your question. But had I replied before Thursday night's game in Toronto, I would've written the same thing. The only way Losman starts is if Edwards gets hurt.
Tom B in Endicott, N.Y., writes: What are your thoughts on our return game in Buffalo? I mean, we have Parrish, McGee and now with a glimpse of what we can expect from McKelvin, is there a chance we see McGee take a back seat to stick with cornerback? I don't see McKelvin taking over on punts for Parrish, but I do see McKelvin taking over for McGee. Not only that, but it could also mean more production from McGee on defense.
Tim Graham: I asked Bills coach Dick Jauron that very question after Thursday night's preseason game. To recap the situation for the unfamiliar, Roscoe Parrish led the NFL with a 16.3-yard punt return average, Terrence McGee was Pro Bowl return man two years ago and rookie Leodis McKelvin might be best of them all.
McKelvin ran back a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown against the Steelers and had a great night in the preseason opener, too.
Here's Jauron's response to me about how he'll approach the job, and it sound like it will depend on who's fresh at a given point in a game:
We've got really good kick returners. Terrence and Roscoe are our first-line returners and now, of course, Leodis. Those guys, knock on wood, they tend to get nicked, so there is room for all of them. They'll all have their opportunities, which is a good thing to see.
Daryl in Alberta, Canada, writes: As recently as a week ago, Ashton Youboty's spot on the Bills was uncertain and he might lose out to rookie Reggie Corner. He's turned in two great pre-season games, he's looked far better than Leodis McKelvin who still gets all the pub and Corner has been non-existant so far. He still on the bubble or what?
Tim Graham: Youboty's still on the bubble. He had a rough outing Thursday night. Yes,
he played quite well in the preseason opener against the Redskins, but he got burned on a 40-yard strike from Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes in Toronto. Youboty did sack Steelers rookie Dennis Dixon, but the fact he was on the field at the end of the game isn't a great sign.
John in Dallas writes: Can the Bills succeed with Dick Jauron as head coach? He appears too conservative, and in the NFL you have to take chances. Think he'll still be the coach in 2009?
Tim Graham: Jauron was the NFL's coach of the year in 2001. When the Bears fired him in 2003, the McCaskey family actually preferred to retain him but let GM Jerry Angelo make the decision.
Jauron is respected by his players and highly regarded by the Bills front office. He actually gained authority within the Bills organization after Marv Levy resigned as GM. I think Jauron will be the coach in 2009 even if the Bills don't make the playoffs.
Jay in Carlsbad, N.M., writes: Why do the Bills insist on keeping Josh Reed and not using Roscoe Parrish a lot more in the passing game or, heck, even on end-arounds or reverses?
Tim Graham: Parrish certainly can be electrifying every time he touches the ball. New offensive coordinator Turk Schonert wants to get Parrish more involved in the offense, but we've heard that before from previous play callers. Maybe they can't get past Parrish's 5-foot-9, 168-pound frame, but perhaps this will be the year he supplants Reed in the slot.
Brendan in Toronto writes: If the Bills actually had a decent team to play against, maybe we would get a bit more excited up here! But seriously, the Bills should stay in Buffalo. Just like the Ravens should have stayed in Cleveland.
Tim Graham: That the Browns could ever leave Cleveland should be more than enough reason for even the most optimistic Bills fan to be concerned.
Chris in Canada writes: Thanks for the Bills camp report. But I do have one thing to point out. Fred Jackson. Who you ask? Actually, those of us who follow the Bills will tell you he's a VERY good looking backup RB, who the Bills brass will use as a change-of-pace guy from Lynch. So even though you might not know his name yet you might want to remember it.
Tim Graham: Thanks, Chris. I do know who Fred Jackson is. I was just making a joke to express how much of a loss it would be if Marshawn Lynch were to get hurt. Jackson was an undrafted player who got his start in something called the United Indoor Football League and came off the Bills' practice squad.
I wanted to post your comment to underscore how much Bills fans love the guy. Thanks for writing.
Joe from Rochester writes: What are the chances that Xavier Omon will make the team, and what are the coaches saying about him?
Tim Graham: Omon's a great story, dealing with the deaths of two brothers and overcoming the odds to get drafted out of Division II Northwest Missouri State. But he has an uphill battle to beat out Dwayne Wright and make the 53-man roster as the third running back. Omon was listed as the fourth running back on Thursday night's depth chart. He's a raw talent the Bills would like to develop. He's a solid candidate for the practice squad.
Brian in Richmond, Va., writes: Now that you have been through all of the AFC East camps, I'm curious as to how Buffalo's coaching and practice organizational skills match up against the other teams in the AFC East? I'm not sold on our staff as of yet, and am wondering if the Bills are behind the eight ball organizationally?
Tim Graham: It's hard for me to say because as a camp observer I can only focus on one position at a time when the players are scattered all over the field -- sometimes two fields. And I have no idea what goes on in the film and meeting rooms, comparatively speaking. But I can say I haven't noticed any dead time in Bills practices, and the tone doesn't feel much different than the Patriots.
Bill in Orlando writes: How has Leodis McKelvin looked and will he be able to win that nickel corner spot? If he does win out at nickel I believe he will outshine other rookie corners.
Tim Graham: McKelvin has looked sensational as a return man, but he hasn't been able to outplay Jabari Greer yet to win the starting cornerback role. McKelvin will get on the field in pass situations and eased into an every-down role. The appropriately named Reggie Corner -- a lot better than a pitcher named Bob Walk -- also has been a pleasant surprise in camp.
Tony in Fort Lauderdale writes: In your opinion, do the Bills have enough options on offense to keep the defense fresh in clutch games? I think not having a proven TE will hurt is in the middle due to our lack of size at WR.
Tim Graham: I agree with your assessment that a reliable tight end is crucial to an offense, but the Bills might have that in Robert Royal, who had a two-touchdown game on Thursday. While that was an exhibition, Edwards was looking for him in the red zone and they connected twice against the Steelers' first-team defense. Also, I think 6-foot-6 rookie James Hardy will help alleviate the height concerns at receiver.
Jeffrey in Washington D.C. writes: Your article on "fear" and the Bills is clearly uninformed and plays into every Rust Belt/Buffalo stereotype that outsiders have but insiders don't. Buffalo's downtown is doing better than it has in four generations with new development and businesses opening. Yeah, it's the Rust Belt, not the Sun Belt, so no, its not a boomtown. But anyone with any knowledge of the area (I am from there, lived most of my whole life there) will tell you that its been slowly rebounding since it hit rock bottom in the early 90s, and has stabilized and started to successfully diversify its economy (stressing a large and growing medical corridor) since the late '90s. Do your research before pulling out the same "struggling," "devastating blow" crap that you interview depressed locals who have nothing but the Bills to look forward to. They are not representative of most people here. Yeah, if the Bills leave, it's a blow to civic pride, no question, but there are so many other positive things happening that it won't hurt that badly.
Tim Graham: I appreciate you writing in with your thoughts, Jeffrey. Your opinion is valued.
But to call me stereotypical of a Buffalo "outsider" is off the mark. I've spent more than half my adult life in Buffalo. I covered sports at the Buffalo News for eight years. I just sold my house in Tonawanda in March. I'm a member of the Buffalo chapter of the Communications Workers of America. My son was born at Women and Children's Hospital in Buffalo. I moved away to cover the NFL for the Palm Beach Post, but now that I'm with ESPN.com I might move back to Western New York when this football season is over.
The story about the Bills playing in Toronto was written to give people outside of Buffalo an idea of what it's like to be a sports fan here. While with the Buffalo News, I received thousands of e-mails from Western New York sports fans. I listened to the hosts and callers on WGR 550 everyday. I think I'm qualified to read the pulse of the local sports fan.
On a related note, I was disappointed that Mayor Byron Brown's office didn't r
eturn ESPN's calls requesting an interview for the story. While it took me two hours to hear from Jack Kemp out in Vail, Colo., Brown's office never bothered to call back. I would've loved to give Mayor Brown the opportunity to rave about the city, but he apparently didn't have time.
Jon from Western New York writes: Where, oh, where do you get your time estimates from? Buffalo is at most 90 miles away up the QEW. It takes me about 70-90 minutes. Did you ever drive it? Were you going on a bicycle?
Tim Graham: If you punch Niagara Square to One Blue Jays Way (the Rogers Centre address) into MapQuest you will learn that it's 99 miles from start to finish. From the Bills' facility in Orchard Park, N.Y., it's 109 miles.
As a former NHL writer for the Buffalo News, I have driven that stretch of the QEW dozens upon dozens of times, including last night. It took me 40 minutes to get over the St. Catharines skyway because of construction.
As for you needing only 70 minutes, let me break that down for you: To travel 99 miles that fast you would need to AVERAGE 84.86 mph. Factor in the border inspection, the $3 toll booth and the congestion around the Oakville Ford plant and you would need to hit 100 mph for a good stretch to reach that average.
Stephen from Parts Unknown writes: You're a joke.
Tim Graham: I'm starting to detect a trend here.
Mr. Anonymous from Buffalo writes: When writing your articles you should make sure all of your facts are 100 percent correct. The Buffalo Bills are at their second-highest season ticket holder in franchise history, not third.
Tim Graham: Here is an exact passage from an e-mail I received from Bills executive director of marketing Andrew C. Major in response to me asking about season tickets and the prospect of a waiting list:
We have sold over 55,200 season tickets (currently the third-highest total in our franchise history) but do not have a wait list for season tickets yet. We expect to begin a wait list for 2009 once the season begins. We don't have an official wait list for suites either.
I'm going to have to take his word for it.