Postcard from camp: Bills
SI.com has dispatched 10 writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. For the complete schedule of postcards, click here.
Setting The Scene
In 1948 a legendary priest of the Basilian Order, Father Hugh Haffey, saw his tireless efforts rewarded with the establishment of a Basilian institution, St. John Fisher College, in Pittsford, N.Y., a pretty little town in the Rochester suburbs. I know this because when I was at the Bills camp at St. John Fisher, I asked one of the students when the school was founded.
"I never knew it was lost," she said. When the hysterical laughter died down, she said, "Wait right here," and immediately came back with a 55-page historical memoir by Father Haffey, leading up to the laying of the first stone.
"Tomorrow you get graded on this," she said, which didn't worry me because I knew something extra about St. John Fisher, and I knew it because The Flaming Redhead and I have been slaves to the Henry VIII TV series The Tudors. John Fisher was the martyred cardinal (no, not Matt Leinart) who defied the king and got his head chopped.
And so in this idyllic spot close to Lake Ontario, the Bills have set up their training facilities, complete with fan delights such as interactive participation gimmicks and conference rooms and "enhanced sideline vantage points," which means that fans can wander right up to the edge of the stands, a whisper away from the field, without getting Securitied to death.
It's a nice, loose, happy atmosphere, and the guy who brought all this action to his school nine years ago is Russ Brandon, who now bears the title of CEO of the Bills, and you will hear a lot about him in paragraphs to come, yes indeed, quite a bit, so don't go away.
1. Things are on the upturn, the defense, the special teams, which are always great under Bobby April, but they'd better get their offensive left tackle, Jason Peters, in camp or the whole equation goes kaboom!
2. OK, veteran holdouts are standard procedure for training camp, especially during those hot two-a-days. Nothing really to get excited about, right? "The summer of discontent," Al Davis once called them. Sabres are rattled for a while, daily fines are levied, then the whole thing melts, and the guy comes in and it's all forgotten. Most of the time it's like that, but here and there are the more formidable problems. It's too early to tell what category Peters' holdout falls under, but it looks serious.
3. The third observation is a continuation of the second, which is a continuation of the first, because this basically sets the tone for this camp. Peters is on the third year of a five-year contract that he has clearly outperformed. He's one of, if not the best, left tackles in the league. His response has been a noise like an oyster. He was a no show during the spring workouts, and a no show in camp.
The Bills have a new offensive coordinator, Turk Schonert, with a new system, with different line calls and everything. Not easy to pick up. Peters' agent, Eugene Parker, is a hardball type of guy. I can't tell you about his second agent, Vincent Taylor. One tough one is enough. And in the blue corner, weighing in at 175 pounds, is, well, Russ Brandon. Remember him?
Formerly a business projects type of guy, his crowning achievement was bringing the Bills to St. John Fisher. It's his first year as CEO. He's a nice person, but he's never gone up against the Eugene Parkers of this world. To cave completely might give other agents ideas. But to play hardball with the Bills' best player isn't the greatest idea, either. "If they'll just get in touch ..." he says, which is logical but not everyone's negotiating strategy.
Note to Russ Brandon from Dr. Z, who has never risked a penny of his own and is very generous with Ralph Wilson's money -- pay the guy, but back load it. In other words, load it up with incentives that would create a bulky total number, without going absolutely insane on the up-front, guaranteed figure. Make sure the big number gets out so people will know there's a real attempt on the club's part, and thus the pressure will swing to the agents.
Final observation about the observations: Trent Edwards can be a good quarterback, but right now he's basically a safety-first guy -- take what's given and don't screw it up. The offense has a few firecrackers -- RB Marshawn Lynch, WR Lee Evans -- but not a lot of them. It needs the all-pro LT to protect Edwards ... the guys they've been working at the position are not the answer. The defense is of playoff caliber, the special teams are knock 'em dead. Pay Peters!
New Face, New Place
Kawika Mitchell didn't get a lot of mention in the Giants' march to the title last year, but insiders tell you that he was the emotional leader of a defense that rose up in a fury during the playoffs. He played middle linebacker with K.C. at one time and both outside linebacker positions with the Giants, and he'll probably line up on the weakside with Buffalo. He'll probably be a situational edge rusher as well. Best of all, he's a whipper who won't let anyone get complacent on that unit.
Looking at the Schedule
Not too tough. They open with Columbia, then face Lehigh on the road, and ... wait a minute ... wrong list. OK, here it is. It could turn around the bad trend of last year. In '07 they started slowly, came on strong in the middle of the season. "Look out for the Bills," was the word on Wall St. Then they futzed away their playoff hopes with three losses at the end. But if they start off in decent fashion this time, just look at how the year closes out. Five in a row with losers from 2007 -- K.C., San Francisco, Miami, Jets and Denver, and then the closer at home against a Patriots team that probably will have clinched and will be resting people.
Memorable Image From Camp
It's early in last Saturday's morning practice. Along the sidelines comes wafting the aroma of freshly charcoal-broiled hamburgers and hot dogs. Dave Hojnowski, the equipment manager, is close to fainting. "Every meal, they keep lecturing us about healthy foods. Fruit and grains and all that stuff. And then we come out here and have to smell that. Oh, man ... pure torture."
The Bills are a team you root for. People are friendly. You watch the practice from close up. They don't have a bunch of characters with Security on their arms chasing you. Players get along with the fans, even with the writers, imagine. Dick Jauron, the head coach, is a good guy. Just write a new contract for your left tackle, OK Bills?