Peerless price runs a deep corner route toward the end zone. Two defenders have the coverage. Drew Bledsoe's throw is high and arcing, a 40-yard touch pass with little margin for error. Price leaps and pulls the ball in, and there's an eruption from the stands. The fans are slapping high fives, waving their fists and yelling, "Drew! Drewww!"
This is the pretty part of the operation, the thing that brings them out on a 90� afternoon in August. When Bledsoe, who was acquired from the Patriots in April for a 2003 first-round choice, made his first visit to Buffalo, a band played his Washington State fight song. A full-length picture of him adorns the cover of the media guide. Singer Tom Sartori, a Buffalo resident, even wrote a song about Bledsoe, to the tune of John Mellencamp's Jack and Diane.
"My friend was watching the draft when the trade was announced," says Eric Moulds, one of the league's premier long-ball wideouts. "I was getting food from the kitchen. All of a sudden he started yelling, 'We got Bledsoe! We got Bledsoe!' My heart jumped. A big, strong quarterback who likes to go downfield. Right then I knew that the sky's the limit. I can have the best year I've ever had."
The Bills have built an offense around Bledsoe. With the fourth pick in the draft they selected Mike Williams, a 6'6", 370-pound tackle from Texas with feet like a dancer's. In the second round they picked LSU's Josh Reed, a wideout who has been one of the stars of camp. Free agency brought them former Broncos tackle Trey Teague, who will switch to center. In fact, the line looks strong, featuring five-time Pro Bowler Ruben Brown at left guard.
On one side of the ball there are smiles all around as the Bills prepare to improve on a 3-13 season. But there's another side to the picture, and that could determine how much progress this team makes. In a far corner of the practice field, feisty 64-year-old John Levra, the defensive line coach, drills his gang of no-names. "I've been in football for 44 years, and this might be my biggest challenge," he says. "I'm tired of reading how this unit is the weak link of the club. It's time to do some-dung about it."
One name you might recognize is that of Pat Williams, the 315-pound sixth-year tackle. Two years ago he played so well that the team chose not to re-sign Ted Washington. Last year Williams had one stretch in which, as Levra says, "he was just killing people." But late in the season he suffered a broken left fibula that sidelined him for three games.
Going into camp, Williams was surrounded by rookies and young veterans. So in mid-August, Buffalo signed experienced ends Chidi Ahanotu and Shawn Price. "I know what's expected of me," Williams says. "Number 1, have a big year. Number 2, help the young guys."
The only other sure starter on the line is end Aaron Schobel, who led the team with 6� sacks last year. No one knows who will be the outside pass rushers when the Bills go into their nickel. Getting to the quarterback was a problem last year (Buffalo was 21st in the NFL, with 34 sacks), as was stopping the run (seven ballcarriers had 100-yard games). After five years among the league's top 10 defenses, the Bills sank to 21st. They addressed a need by bringing in two quality free-agent linebackers, London Fletcher from the Rams and Eddie Robinson from the Titans. "Sometimes we'll have to do it by scheme," Levra says, "sometimes by hard work and hustle and speed. At least all these guys can run."
Before the season starts, there could be more pickups along the D-line, but the Bills' biggest problem was cured when they got Bledsoe. "When I was in New England," he says, "a Patriots-Bills game was always a dogfight. Through the years I've had a tremendous amount of respect for this organization. Now I'm part of it. I have a chance to be a leader. I have a chance to leave a legacy with two teams."
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