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On Sports

Expectations are sky-high as the Bills open training camp

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Rochester Business Journal
July 31, 2015

As we’ve learned again this off-season, nobody sells hope like the Buffalo Bills. And nobody buys it like Buffalo Bills fans. Despite a 15-season playoff famine and a huge question mark at quarterback, the Bills have peddled a record number of season tickets. The expectations of Buffalo aficionados are higher than they’ve been since perhaps the summer of 1991, when, despite the lingering pain of Scott Norwood’s missed field goal in Super Bowl XXV, there was a feeling that a roster loaded with future Hall of Fame players in their prime would bring the Lombardi Trophy home the second time around.  

There are many reasons behind the recent spike in expectations, none bigger than the sense of security brought by new owners Terry and Kim Pegula. For as long as I’ve chronicled the Bills, there was always this sense of doom that one day the Bills would run a down-and-out-of-town. And those fears only grew in recent years as original owner Ralph Wilson’s health deteriorated. But early last season the cloud of uncertainty finally cleared as the Pegulas won the bid to buy the late Wilson’s team. They immediately assured fans that the Bills were going to be here forever. Much of Western New York breathed a collective sigh of relief.

So far, the Pegulas have put their billions where their mouths are, signing the bombastic, charismatic Rex Ryan to the most lucrative coaching contract in team history, then giving him and general manager Doug Whaley a blank check, which they’ve used to lure an array of talented players to Orchard Park. Love him or loathe him, Ryan’s arrival has made the Bills a nationally relevant team again. Buffalonians have embraced him, and he them. Whether it’s evoking the name of legendary Bills running back Cookie Gilchrist—“Lookie, lookie, here comes Cookie”—or skydiving or swilling beers at a local watering hole and sharing a Sports Illustrated cover with Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas, Ryan has endeared himself to a fan base that truly believes happy days are here again.

Despite the hype, the jury is still out on Ryan, who guided the Jets to consecutive AFC championship games, but also to four consecutive non-winning seasons. His ability to end t

he NFL’s longest active post-season drought will depend on how well he answers the following questions for a Bills team that’s beginning its 16th training camp at St. John Fisher College:

1. QB or not QB? That is the question. With apologies to William Shakespeare—the Bard, not the All-American end of the same name from Notre Dame—this is the most significant issue to be addressed. Third-year returnee EJ Manuel and veteran newcomers Matt Cassel and Tyrod Taylor have battled throughout the off-season, with no winner emerging. So, now the competition continues into camp, and perhaps even into the regular season. Buffalo really doesn’t need an elite performer here—just a competent field general who can get the ball into the hands of the team’s many playmakers while keeping turnovers to a minimum.

The best-case scenario would be for Manuel to live up to the first-round potential Whaley saw in him. But I’m doubtful that’s going to happen, given EJ’s inaccuracy and indecisiveness. Cassel did a yeoman’s job filling in for the injured Tom Brady, while guiding New England to 11 victories in 2008. But he’s 32 years old and coming off a season in which he played just three games because of a foot injury and the emergence of promising rookie Teddy Bridgewater.

The dark horse is Taylor, who spent the past four seasons backing up Baltimore Ravens franchise quarterback Joe Flacco. During a visit this spring to Rochester, Hall of Fame general manager turned ESPN analyst Bill Polian told me to keep an eye on Taylor. “I’m not saying he’s going to win the job, but there’s a lot of intrigue surrounding him because he has a strong arm and good mobility,” Polian said. “Plus, Rex has always liked his skill set, so he bears watching.”

2. What’s their line? This question might be even more important than the first, because the main reason the Bills didn’t make the playoffs last season was poor play by the offensive line. Buffalo ranked near the bottom of the league in rushing. That has to change significantly, because new offensive coordinator Greg Roman intends to employ a “ground-and-pound” attack with newly acquired running back LeSean McCoy as the focal point. To boost the Bills’ guard play, they signed controversial veteran Richie Incognito and drafted John Miller out of Louisville in the third round. Incognito was regarded as one of the better run blockers in football, but the 31-year-old has been out of football the past two years because of his involvement in the Miami Dolphins “Bullygate” scandal, in which he severely harassed a former teammate. Incognito and Miller enter camp as the starting guards. The other intriguing position battle will be right tackle, where second-year players Cyrus Kouandjio and Seantrel Henderson currently are one-two on the depth chart.

3. Is LeSean still the real McCoy? He’s only 27, but he’s already logged six NFL seasons, and there’s concern that the NFL-leading 706 touches he’s had the past two campaigns might take a physical toll. Two years ago, McCoy led the Eagles and league in rushing (1,607 yards) and added 539 receiving yards. In 2014, he remained highly productive, though he averaged nearly a yard less per carry and five yards less per reception. The Bills believe McCoy, who has touchdown-scoring ability any time he touches the ball, has plenty left in the tank. They plan to make him a workhorse again—in hopes he hits several home runs while alleviating pressure on his quarterback, whomever that may be, and along the line.

Sports columnist, author, radio talk show co-host and television correspondent Scott Pitoniak is in his 31st season of covering the Buffalo Bills.

7/31/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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