Anyone who closely monitored the Bills’ courtship of Mario Williams knows that there is an excitement brewing in Buffalo that the fans have not experienced in recent years.
Add proven pass rusher Mark Anderson, a first-rounder who could start Day One at corner in Stephon Gilmore, and a team that began the 2011 season with a 5-2 mark, and you have frenzy in Orchard Park for the NFL’s beacon of futility in the 21st century.
It’s one thing for Buffalo fans to have high expectations, but it’s another for the national media to take notice. Many who cover the league considered the Bills one of the “winners” of free agency, and Buffalo's draft received many positive marks. Looking back at Pro Football Weekly's preview magazines, the staff here predicted a winning record for the Bills only one time since 1999, and that was 2008, when the Bills couldn’t take advantage of a 4-0 start, finishing with a 7-9 mark.
Without giving too much away (you can order your Pro Football Weekly 2012 Preview mag here), the editors here are confident the Bills are the second best team in the AFC East. Certainly, it helps that the Dolphins are rebuilding and the Jets are coming off a disappointing season and did little to improve this offseason.
Optimism for the Bills is fairly noteworthy. While their drought does not necessarily bear repeating, I’ll do it anyways. They have not made the playoffs since 1999 (longest drought in the NFL), nor have they reached double digits in wins since ’99. The Bills have had seven consecutive losing seasons.
Now that the talent appears finally up to par with the rest of the league and the players are clearly confident in what is happening in Western New York, the question is, how will the team handle the added attention?
“There is a big buzz around town. The town deserves it,” RB C.J. Spiller told reporters earlier this month. "We haven’t been good lately, but at the end of the day we look good on paper. We’ve still got to go out on Sundays and get the job done.
“It’s not going to be overnight. We’ve got to continue to push the envelope toward the goal we’re trying to accomplish.”
The team needs no reminder that the bar has been raised. It took a few years to get there, but you won’t find a lack of confidence among the Bills.
“I see this team growing. They’re maturing,” O-line coach Joe D’Alessandris told PFW on Tuesday. “The acquisitions that we picked up on defense no doubt are going to help us. They’re bringing experience and consistency to the table, and confidence.
“Going into our third year with the same system, now we’re plugging in the right players — that we feel are the right players — for that system. They’re all working in unison real well with each other. There is a feeling of more and more confidence with our team.”
This isn’t your normal “everyone jump on the bandwagon and pick Team X to make the playoffs” like we saw last preseason with the Texans and Lions. There are reasons to believe that even though the Bills will be improved, the drought will continue. Doubts remain about QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, who struggled mightily down the stretch in 2011. The pass defense, which took a step back last season, will be counting on young cornerbacks Gilmore and Aaron Williams. A rookie or second-year player will be protecting Fitzpatrick’s blind side and there is no clear-cut No. 2 wideout. Oh, and the Bills still have to play the Patriots twice.
Considering all those factors, the hoopla that those in Buffalo are experiencing isn’t turning national, yet, which might be a good thing. National media members are taking notice, but with a small market like Buffalo and question marks looming, the Bills aren't getting star treatment.
If, or when that changes, this team has the right personnel in place to manage increased expectations, starting with Chan Gailey. The cool-headed coach told me at the NFL Scouting Combine, “I’ve been in this thing too long to feel different pressure. If you don’t have the pressure inside of you to go out there and try to win a championship every year, you ought to not be in the business.”
This is a team that takes after its head coach, and that will be crucial if the number of cameras, reporters and headlines start to drastically increase this fall.
The Bills have a locker room full of young players, as well as veterans like Fred Jackson, Fitzpatrick and Stevie Johnson, who play with a chip on their shoulder after getting passed over by many teams on their route to Buffalo, and you have a squad that is confident, but relaxed. This simply isn’t a team that will feed into the madness should it get off to a hot start and, at last, it appears to be on track to make the postseason.