Welcome to Camp Hope
Five months after the Super Bowl ended, football is finally back ... well, sorta. Training camps are getting started this week, and optimism is high in all 32 locales—including Buffalo, where playoffs have only been a rumor since 1999
PITTSFORD, N.Y. — Sunday night was precisely what the NFL wants out of the preseason. The night of the first practice of the NFL summer simply couldn’t have gone better. Hope was for sale everywhere on the St. John Fisher campus here, the same way it will be in 31 other camps starting with the Giants today in New Jersey, and there were thousands of consumers, happy to buy that hope.
There were fans, boisterous ones. About 4,000 fans jammed the stands on this football field in bucolic Pittsford, a southern Rochester suburb, for the 2.5-hour practice that ended as the sun was setting over the shade trees in the distance. One guy called me over to show me the Ralph Wilson tattoo he just had etched on his arm this off-season, in tribute to the late Hall of Fame owner of the team. “E.J. [Manuel]!! I love you!!” cried out one fan early on. Not to be outdone, another fellow yelled to the second-round Alabama tackle, Cyrus Kouandjio, who’d hoped to be a first-round pick last May, “Hey Cyrus! Prove everyone wrong buddy! We’re gonna road-grade people this year!!!”
There was the promising quarterback (the Bills hope), Manuel, getting the benefit of the doubt from the adoring crowd. He’d missed six games last year due to injury, and never played as well as the Bills had hoped, and he enters this summer with a giant question mark over his head. As Manuel goes, so will this team. You can say that for so many teams, but it’s especially true for a team that has playoff talent at running back, receiver, pass rusher and cornerback. It’ll be wasted if Manuel isn’t good, and he had some good moments on this night. In a team period, he hit exciting rookie Sammy Watkins on four throws out of four.
Speaking of Watkins, he’s the belle of the football here. They love him. And they love GM Doug Whaley for overpaying to move up to get Watkins in the first round last May. To move up five spots in the first round, from nine to four, Whaley paid next year’s first-round and fourth-round picks to Cleveland. “Hey Whaley!’’ a fan yelled. “Thank you for Watkins!” On night one, Watkins was as electric as advertised. Especially interesting was the way he got off jams at the line. He juked lightning-quick on some snaps, and powered into unsuspecting corners on others. “You can never let cornerbacks read you,’’ he said later.
There was a happy vibe because of music. The Bills, following the lead of the Super Bowl champion Seahawks, played loud tunes—U2, Macklemore, Eminem, Black Eyed Peas, House of Pain—for more than half the practice. Coach Doug Marrone’s a fan of practice music, which Seattle’s used in the Carroll era. (The Bronx-born Marrone, though, didn’t like one of the selections across a wide spectrum of the music world: “Sweet Caroline,’’ the last song of the night. You know, the eighth-inning fan anthem of the Red Sox.)
There were other reasons to be excited. Running back Bryce Brown, supposedly a spare part acquired in a trade with Philadelphia, ran like he had rockets in his shoes. Former first-round corner Stephon Gilmore covered like the franchise guy he was drafted to be. New linebacker Brandon Spikes played with passion. “I just wish we had pads on today,’’ he said. “I am so ready.’’
And autographs … two players were still signing 50 minutes after the session ended. As fans swooned.
Get the idea? The honeymoon idea? These people aren’t hungry. They’re famished. The Bills haven’t made the playoffs in this century. They’ve had nine straight losing seasons. Imagine not winning 10 games in the past 14 years. Fourteen!
I’ve been coming to Bills camp most summers since their decline began. This is a better team than most if not all of the teams the Bills have fielded since their last playoff season, 1999. It’s a group that can win now if the quarterback plays at a B-plus level. If Manuel’s a C player, Buffalo won’t win. It’s simple.
But there are other problems. Major ones, and they’re on defense. The defense is missing three of its top players from last year—safety Jairus Byrd (gone to New Orleans in free agency); linebacker Kiko Alonso, a revelation of a three-down player last year, who tore his ACL in an off-season workout and is gone for the season; and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, the talented but maddening player who might be too immature to ever be consistently great. In the last eight months, Dareus has been benched for a quarter in one game for violating team rules, a half in another game for violating team rules, been arrested in Alabama for speeding and possession of a controlled substance, been arrested again for drag-racing in the Buffalo area and leaving the scene of an accident when the racing resulted in a crash. And, on Saturday, he reported for the team’s conditioning run significantly out of shape, and failed it. The Bills placed him on the team’s Active/non-football injury list.
In other words, Dareus is a total mess.
Asked how troubling it is that Dareus didn’t report to camp in shape given how many strikes he already has against him, Marrone would say only: “He’ll be in shape, ready to play.”
Here’s the way I look at the Bills: Buffalo gave up 37 points to Cleveland last year, and 34 to infirm Atlanta. Their best linebacker and safety are gone. A star defensive tackle, potentially, cannot be relied upon. If this doesn’t put a mountain of pressure on the quarterback, I don’t know what would.
Manuel feels it. On the field after practice Sunday night, he said, “I understand. This is a quarterback-driven league. Even if we were an undefeated team last year, people would look at our team and think it comes down to the quarterback. I do embrace it, though. It doesn’t bother me. It’s just the job of a quarterback.
“At Florida State, we were so used to winning, it was customary. When I got here, you could just feel it, how much they want it. First day of camp, a Sunday night, you see the stands packed, you hear them for over two hours … People say Buffalo’s this, Buffalo’s that, Buffalo’s cold. To me, if you win, it’s the best place on earth. Like Tallahassee. It’s a college-town atmosphere here. All you have here is the Bills. Obviously the Sabres too. But if the Bills win, it’s a whole different city.’’
So we’ll see if Manuel and Watkins can hit the ground running together. The first team period was a start. Said Manuel: “I don’t know if you saw him out there, on a slant, stop on a dime—and he just turned the other way, on Gilmore, who I think could be an all-pro corner, and he made the play. The kid is special. I have thought that way since 2010. I was at Florida State, and he was a true freshman at Clemson, and we put our best corner on him, Mike Harris, plays in Jacksonville now. Sammy ran a stop-and-go, and he shakes loose and makes the play, and I said, ‘Who is this kid?’ So on draft day, I’m out at a restaurant with my father in south Florida, and when I saw on TV that we made that trade and drafted him, I jumped out of my chair. C.J. Spiller calls me right away and says, ‘We got our boy! We got our boy!’ Because we’d been talking about it since January. My phone went almost dead, because 18,000 people called me at one time. It’s going to be great to watch him grow.”
The hungry crowd thought so too, and told the man who reeled him in several times Sunday night. Early in practice, Whaley heard it.
“Doug Whaley we love you!” a fan yelled.
Standing in the end zone, Whaley smiled. “They love me now,” he said.
And tomorrow? They’ll still love him. It’s hope season for seven more weeks, for 31 other franchises. Just the way the NFL wants it.