Camp confidential: T.O. can't cure all Bills ills
|Terrell Owens, the celebrity headliner on the first day of training camp, serves as a distraction from the numerous issues facing the Bills.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- On the first day of Buffalo Bills training camp, fans pressed their torsos up against the metal railing at St. John Fisher College to get the best possible look at a local attraction that, for the past few months, has been surpassed only by Niagara Falls.
For the first time since he signed in March, fans were able to behold the wonders of Terrell Owens in a Bills uniform. His every move was cheered. Each time he touched the ball -- even during casual warmup tosses on the sideline -- drew applause. They pleaded for autographs. They barked out chants, supplementing a popular refrain: "Let's go, Buf-fa-lo! Let's go, T.O.!"
The other 70 or so players were rendered afterthoughts. Owens, on the first day of camp, WAS the Buffalo Bills. He hadn't scored a touchdown, caught a pass, run a route or said something inflammatory yet. Owens, running around in chrome-bottomed Nike cleats, was all that existed.
And for the rest of the Bills, that should be a pleasant distraction.
The future Hall of Famer has diverted so much attention from myriad question marks surrounding his team.
The Bills have gone nine straight years without a playoff appearance. They went 0-6 against the AFC East last year. They have an injury-prone quarterback. Their miscreant Pro Bowl running back has been suspended the first three games. The fans generally loathe head coach Dick Jauron. The offensive line has been rearranged more than Tex Cobb's face. Rookie defensive end Aaron Maybin, the 11th overall pick, probably won't sign a contract any time soon.
Still, this year's season-ticket base will be the largest since Buffalo's Super Bowl years. The Bills have been able to market perennial hope, and this year's dreams are hitched to Owens, a player who makes the team nationally relevant for the first time since Doug Flutie was around.
But let's look deeper than the obvious storyline from Bills camp. Owens can't possibly fix everything.
|Joe Robbins/Getty Images|
|Langston Walker's transition from right tackle to left could be a key to the offensive line's performance.|
1. How will the Bills' reconstituted offensive line perform?
In the afternoon practice on the first day of training camp, Buffalo's offensive linemen conducted drills 10 feet in front of the railing that separated the most boisterous fans from the field. The throng gazed right past the most important players on the team so they could gawk at Owens and yell to him about how good his new toasted-oats cereal product is.
Buffalo will be as successful this year as its offensive line will allow.
The Bills had no choice but to trade Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, who held out right up until the regular-season opener last year. They were convinced the still-disgruntled Peters would boycott the team into the season, maybe miss several games, to make his point again. They dealt their best player to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Rather than look for veteran help to replace Peters, the Bills flopped right tackle Langston Walker, a career right tackle of no particular acclaim, to the left side. Right guard Brad Butler slid to right tackle. They signed Geoff Hangartner to play center. They drafted Eric Wood in the first round and Andy Levitre in the second round to be their guards.
All five linemen projected to start on opening day will be in different positions than last year, when they gave up the fifth-most sacks in the NFL.
2. Will the pass rush be significantly better this year?
Only three teams had fewer than Buffao's 28 sacks last year.
The Bills selected Maybin to bolster its anemic pass rush. Many were skeptical he would make an immediate impact because he was a one-year starter at Penn State who entered the draft a year early. His chances of being a significant contributor are lessening with each day he's not under contract.
But the main character here is two-time Pro Bowl end Aaron Schobel
. He played in only five games last year because of a foot injury. Schobel collected 26 sacks in 2005 and 2006, but dropped to 6.5 sacks in 2007 and 1.5 in his limited time last year.
3. What kind of impact will the no-huddle offense make?
|John David Mercer/US Presswire|
|Early on, Trent Edwards has looked good directing Buffalo's new no-huddle offense.|
If the first few days of training camp were any indication, the Bills' offense will be fun to watch -- win or lose. To maximize their weaponry both at receiver and in the backfield and perhaps mitigate the line's limitations, offensive coordinator Turk Schonert, a former Sam Wyche pupil, has gone no-huddle.
The Bills' first-team defense has had trouble keeping Owens and Lee Evans from getting behind them. Trent Edwards, criticized for his inability or unwillingness to go deep, has been hurling rainbows that are going for touchdowns.
Some close to the team, however, aren't convinced the Bills will use it throughout a game. The belief is that they'll start out in the no-huddle and use it as long as it works. If defenses don't cave in the first half, the conservative-minded Jauron might be prone to get more conventional.
Fred Jackson sounds like an everyman name. But there's a decent chance you'll know who he is, especially if you're a fantasy football enthusiast, a few weeks into the season. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended running back Marshawn Lynch for the first three games. That will cede backfield duties to Jackson and Dominic Rhodes.
Jackson emerged from football oblivion. Undrafted out of Division III Coe College, he went to the arena bush leagues, then to NFL Europa and the Bills' practice squad. He has become one of the NFL's most underrated backs. He rushed for 571 yards last year with a 5.0 average, racking up 136 yards in place of an injured Lynch in the season finale. He caught 37 passes for 317 yards.
Newcomer to watch
Is there anybody else to consider other than Owens? We don't need to discuss the obvious, so let's pick the next in line.
Wood, a dominant center at Louisville, was drafted with the top pick the Bills received from the Eagles in the Peters trade. He will be learning a new position, but is confident it will be an easier transition from center to guard than any other position-to-position switch on the line.
Some consider the Bills a dark horse in the AFC East. They have the offensive firepower to make some noise, but have they improved enough to overcome their 0-6 division record last year? The Bills have gone 7-9 each season since Jauron arrived. It's foreseeable they could go 7-9 a fourth year in a row, but be much better than they've been. … Bills fans should hope second-year cornerback Leodis McKelvin is keeping his early camp performances in perspective. He has been getting flambéed by Owens and Evans on deep balls and getting his ankles broken by Owens' post-catch cuts on the underneath stuff. McKelvin's confidence probably is bruised, but he's squaring up against two of the game's best every day. … Edwards hasn't been able to stay healthy through his first two NFL seasons, which puts an emphasis on the backup. The Bills signed Cincinnati Bengals reserve Ryan Fitzpatrick to fill that role, but the Harvard grad has struggled. The no-huddle offense hums under Edwards, but when Fitzpatrick takes over, passes frequently don't find their mark. Third quarterback Gibran Hamdan has a chance to make a push for the No. 2 job. … The Bills are one of the NFL's deepest teams at receiver, but a rash of seemingly minor injuries has them trying out even more receivers. Steve Johnson, James Hardy, Felton Huggins and P.K. Sam have been sidelined. … The Demetrius Bell project continues to evolve. The son of former NBA great Karl Malone, drafted out of Northwestern State in the seventh round last year, didn't play a down last year. He has been seeing a healthy amount of reps at second-team left tackle and guard.