PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- Buffalo Bills fans have been demanding a "hurry-up" approach to their organization. The Bills haven't made the playoffs since 1999. Urgency, particularly in developing a franchise-caliber quarterback, is everything to Bills fans. The good news is that the Bills hired Doug Marrone to "hurry up" the development of the offense. As far as winning, though, the Bills might have to "hurry up and wait."
But they are moving in a positive direction. Marrone is bringing Bills fans the fastest-paced offense they've witnessed since Jim Kelly ran the "K-Gun." Plays get off with 24 seconds left on the 40-second clock. When EJ Manuel is behind center, Marrone isn't afraid to have him throw a long, deep pass, which is a definite crowd-pleaser to the loyal Bills fans watching daily practice at St. John Fisher College.
With Marrone, it's constant motion. When the Bills move into special-teams mode, the offense bolts to another field to work on timing and prep for plays. But a young roster may mean the Bills are building more for a fun future.
Here are the five things I learned at Bills camp.
1: Camp position battles: Because Marrone comes from the college ranks, he puts every job on the line. Clearly, the quarterback battle is the headliner. Kevin Kolb has the NFL experience. Manuel has the arm strength, size and speed to fit perfectly in a cold-weather NFL city. Only experience gives Kolb the edge. There are fun battles for receiving spots. Steve Johnson is the No. 1 threat, and T.J. Graham is emerging in his second season as a nice No. 2 threat. Second-round draft choice Robert Woods shows great route-running ability, and third-rounder Marquise Goodwin offers speed on the outside. These rookies are battling for the No. 3 role on an offense that should keep three receivers on the field on most plays. Left guard is open and a question mark. Colin Brown is running with the first team at the moment, but late addition Doug Legursky, a former Steeler, should make a run for the job. On defense, some of the best battles are in the secondary. The Bills re-signed former first-rounder Leodis McKelvin to a four-year, $17 million contract to play cornerback and be a returner, but Justin Rogers, a 2011 seventh-rounder, is occasionally rotating ahead of him. Safety Jairus Byrd is holding out, so Aaron Williams, a starting cornerback last year, is vying to be his fill-in. Plenty needs to be sorted out at linebacker, particularly between the two outside linebacker positions. Manny Lawson should be the run-stopping linebacker. Jerry Hughes, a former Indianapolis Colts first-rounder, is the pass-rushing linebacker. Both should play on run downs, but Lawson is vying for additional time on passing downs. At defensive end, Alex Carrington and free-agent addition Alan Branch are competing for playing time.
2. QB competition on different terms: The Kevin Kolb-EJ Manuel competition is one of the best half-dozen quarterback competitions in football. Marrone would like to make the starting decision about 10 days before the start of the season. Marrone is smart to rotate in practices between the two. On Monday, Marrone's rotation was intriguing. Kolb worked mostly against the first-team defense and struggled, which was understandable. The 2013 Bills defense is going to be a mix of blitzes, fake blitzes and disguising alignments. Kolb often had to throw the ball away to avoid a sack. Manuel worked against easier alignments and occasionally put on a show. Camp opened Sunday night with six "go'' routes, and Manuel hit three for long gains. Fans went crazy with excitement. Marrone knows not to rush Manuel. He comes out of college raw, and clearly he has the skills to be a good one. What pleased Marrone is his dedication and work ethic. When Manuel arrived after the draft, he kept asking Marrone what he needs to do to be good. He hasn't stopped asking. On the field, Manuel has a presence because of his size and authority at the line of scrimmage. Kolb lacks that presence. Longtime Bills observers say he's a stronger-armed version of Ryan Fitzpatrick. Barring a big camp from Manuel, Kolb is expected to be the opening-day starter. When Manuel does a "hurry up'' on his development, he will start. That should happen at some point this year.
3. The value of Mario Williams: Despite registering 10.5 sacks, Mario Williams didn't live up to his six-year, $96 million contract in his first season with the Bills. His absence from the practice field this week due to a foot injury reinforces his importance to the Bills' defense. Without Williams, the Bills don't have a pass rush. Williams left campus, as Marrone put it, to undergo tests on a sore foot. If Williams misses any time this season, the Bills will be handcuffed getting to the quarterback. The plan is for Williams to stay at defensive end even though the Bills moved to a 3-4 scheme. He feels more comfortable with his hand on the ground at end than he does at outside linebacker. But he's the team's only pass-rusher. Free-agent signing Lawson has 18 sacks in seven seasons. Hughes has five in four seasons. Neither projects to have a 10-sack season. Marrone hired Mike Pettine from the New York Jets to bring in an aggressive 3-4 scheme that features defenders lining up in many different positions to confuse offenses. Without Williams, though, the Bills could struggle.
4. Promising strides at wide receiver: This is the most talented Bills receiving group seen in years. It's probably going to take until next year for the talent to evolve. Johnson is the established star. He's put together three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and showed he can be counted on for 80 catches a year. Marrone believes a passing offense moves well in the middle of the field, so he'd like to get Johnson into the slot as much as possible. The development of Graham in his second season with the Bills should be a preview of what to expect of rookies Woods and Goodwin. Graham looks quicker and more explosive on the outside. Johnson and Graham are the Bills' best inside-outside threats. The key to the offense, though, is how quickly Woods and Goodwin develop. Woods is a very good route runner. Even though he may lack speed, he can work well with Marrone's tendency to call for throws inside the numbers. Goodwin is the best downfield threat. Once Manuel develops, you can see him throwing deep passes to Goodwin and Graham.
5. Nothing is new in the NFL: Fast-paced offenses, pistol formations and read-options might preview a season that could feature more offensive change than we've seen in decades, but in some ways, it's déjà vu. The trip to the Bills re-emphasized that. The Bills' new hurry-up offense is an update of what Kelly did in his four Super Bowl runs more than 20 years ago. Marrone, who grew up watching Bills football, and offensive coordinator Nate Hackett studied and installed a fast-paced offense at Syracuse that turned the program around. Part of the research involved the K-Gun. With the K-Gun, Kelly used simple phrases to call the plays and tried to get them off every 15 to 18 seconds. Marrone and Hackett like their snaps with 24 seconds left in the 40-second clock. Like his former boss, Sean Payton, Marrone studies everything on offense. He'll look at some of the quick huddling systems of Sam Wyche, the inside passing game of the run 'n' shoot or anything that keeps defenses off-kilter. The difference with the fast-paced offenses of Marrone, Chip Kelly and others is the aggressiveness. The Bills averaged 66 to 67 plays a game in the K-Gun. The 2013 fast-paced offenses want to top the 74.4 the Patriots averaged last year.